Friday, October 15, 2010

Hornby for Structural Weaknesses

Before I moved out west I'd thought that things were different in Vancouver, that cycling was an appreciated and well-respected part of the urban fabric. What I'm learning now is that, like so many things viewed from a distance, the truth ain't necessarily so. The Vision Vancouver-dominated city government, fresh from the installation of separated bike lanes on Dunsmuir Street through downtown, recently started work on similar lanes along Hornby Street, a north-south, one-way road, on a six-month trial basis; nevertheless, the fact that city crews were at work almost immediately after the vote suggests that there wasn't really much of a chance that it wouldn't go ahead, regardless of what arguments rose up against the project.

It seems that in certain circles, no time has been wasted in firing fusilades at City Hall over this. A narrative's already begun to take shape in the media, and one of the things I see again and again takes me back to Toronto and the flap surrounding the glacial construction of the 510 St. Clair streetcar's right of way - the damage to local businesses. Yesterday, The Province reported on city councillor Suzanne Anton's opposition to the "Bike lanes make me Hornby" T-shirts being produced by Vision Vancouver to mark the start of construction, repeating concerns "that construction of the bike lane and permanent loss of parking will impact them."

Hornby at Dunsmuir, June 2010

According to what I've seen, the installation of this lane requires the removal of parking on one side of the street - that's reducing parking by half, for all you math majors out there. Local merchants do have a right to be concerned about how this construction will affect them; business is uncertain enough day to day without urban renewal programs thrown into the mix.

What no one seems to be talking about, though, is what these concerns expose, and it's equally valid in Vancouver, Toronto, and any other major city - an economic dependence on automotive traffic. The assumption I'm seeing again and again is that no matter where you seem to be, people brought in by foot or bicycle or public transit just aren't enough to sustain businesses, that cars are absolutely necessary for an area's well-being.

I'll admit that the way North American cities have been built over the last seventy years certainly encourage that sort of dependence - but, with the problems of an unstable twenty-first century staring right at us, what are we doing about it? We should be taking these issues as canaries in the coal mine of new urban problems. What if future oil shocks make private automobile ownership a prospect too expensive for the average person - would this result in unprepared businesses folding in droves, sparking an economic catastrophe even worse than what we just went through?

Perhaps - perhaps the situation will have changed by then. But we can't just lean back and ignore the problems until they're at our doorstep - at that point we won't have the luxury of time to even begin solving them.

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