Greetings from Vancouver, where I just had dinner with former City Councilman and urbanist guru Gordon Price, who writes the excellent Price Tags blog. He brought me up to date on a dramatic experiment now underway on one of the city's most crucial bridges.
Imagine your city has one major bridge connecting a third of the city to downtown. The bridge has three lanes each way, plus two narrow sidewalks where cyclists and pedestrians come into constant conflict. Cyclists have been campaigning to convert a traffic lane to bicycle lanes. As a transit expert, I'm nervous, because there are no transit lanes on the bridge; if traffic backs up, several major transit lines will back up too.
So you try it. And everything works fine. Congestion happens where it happened before, but even with a third of the vehicle capacity removed, the backups don't extend further than they usually do.
Might this catch on?
Last weekend, after years of debate, the City of Vancouver experimentally converted one of the outbound lanes of the Burrard Bridge to a bike lane, leaving two outbound traffic lanes where there had been three. This should have been a problem on the afternoon peak. The media were out in force, ready to interview angry motorists and stream live video of gridlock. And as Gordon documents on his blog, nothing much happened.
They're not over the hump yet. The experiment will run for at least three months. Schools come back in September. And it's easy to get people on their bicycles in Vancouver's bucolic summer, when it's light until 9:00 PM. What will the bridge look like as Vancouver heads into its famously gloomy winter, when windy rain lashes the bridge and the whole PM commute happens in the dark?
My guess is that many of the fair-weather cyclists, knowing there's not room for as many cars, will try to use transit. And it will all come down to a tipping point: do enough of them do this that the bridge still flows fairly well? Or do they generate just enough car traffic to strangle the transit, so that both motorists and transit riders lose?
Check back in three months. This will be interesting.