All over the world, smart cities are reallocating space in streets and budgets in city halls to finally build new biking infrastructure, in many cases dozens or even hundreds of miles at a time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trumpeting the length of that new infrastructure, with not enough attention to quality. After all, we have so much we need to build to get to where we need to be.
But smart cities also know that quality of bike lanes is just as important as quantity, especially if what’s being built (or let’s be honest–what’s being painted) isn’t really safe, or comfortable. One city that’s showing how both quality and quantity can be tackled in a coordinated way is Vancouver, a city that’s (arguably) become North America’s leading urban biking city.
After declaring a “climate emergency” in February of this year, Vancouver has moved quickly to change the deadline for its most important mobility target: achieving two-thirds of all trips in the city by walking, biking, and public transit by 2030 instead of 2040. I suspect we’ll actually still meet that revised target years early.
This followed the announcement that the city had already hit its 2020 goal, getting to half of all trips by walking, biking, and transit, two years early in 2018. Bike trips to work nearly doubled in just five years, from 6.6% to 11.9%, giving the city the highest rate in North America. And at the regional level, transit ridership shattered previous records with the largest annual ridership increase in history, a 7.1% increase in boardings from 2017 to 2018.
But here’s another important stat you might not have heard before–an estimated 25% of Vancouver’s bike infrastructure is considered “Triple A.” And Vancouver wants that number to get to 100% as quickly as we can.
What is AAA or “Triple A” bike infrastructure? In Vancouver’s design language, it stands for bike infrastructure that’s not just safe, but comfortable, for “all ages and abilities” (hence the three A’s). And as Vancouver’s manager of transportation planning, Dale Bracewell, notes, it’s more than a mantra or brand for our transportation “plangineers,” it’s city policy, a mandate, and a profound accountability.
It’s an approach to infrastructure design that particularly emphasizes bike riding comfort. Obviously actual physical safety is critical, but AAA recognizes that even infrastructure that is technically safe from a statistical perspective can feel unsafe, or at least uncomfortable. Other cities have called similar approaches “low stress” infrastructure, and many are inspired by the “8-80 Cities” approach–a city that’s easy to navigate for both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds–championed by Gil Penalosa and others.
Vancouver’s approach seeks to achieve built designs that are not only comfortable to use for all ages and abilities, but also for new or occasional riders who may not feel completely comfortable on a bike in the first place, because they don’t do it very often (for example, many of the city’s bike-share users). That’s a very high design bar, but one that Bracewell notes parallels the “Vision Zero” movement influencing safe people-oriented design in recent years.
So what does an AAA street or path look like? Designing with the Triple A lens has definitely changed what is considered acceptable in the city, Bracewell notes. A key example is that most of the original network of “greenway” shared local streets that were lauded by previous generations as the initial backbone of the bikable city, wouldn’t meet the new expectations (too many cars each day, although they have all been made 30 kilometers/per hour–about 20 mph–maximum streets). Another example is how the growth in cargo bikes and wider bike carriages for kids has lead to a big rethink of what a comfortable bike lane width should be. Resulting redesigns are wider and better protected, with fewer cars and fewer interactions with car movements. They are both safer statistically, and they feel more comfortable for all. They look different, they feel different, and they work different.
In 2012, only 15% of Vancouver’s fast-growing bike infrastructure met the AAA standard. Bracewell estimates that the number today is be about 25%, and will rise to approximately 30% after the city’s currently funded capital works are finished in 2022. The city hasn’t set targets beyond that. Planners just know that they want to get to 100% as quickly as they can–and every future capital budget and design process will be geared to achieving that. There’s actually less urgency around the number, and more about the filling of the key gaps in completing a AAA citywide network or “minimum grid.” Again Bracewell emphasizes the sense of urgency that comes along with that word “accountability”–staff feel accountable for the consequences of the infrastructure not being safe and comfortable for all ages and abilities. Those consequences can come in the form of lower ridership numbers because of perception, but they can also be life and death.
One challenge with Vancouver’s approach is that it doesn’t seek to specifically grade or classify every bit of bikeway. As their illustrations show, they know what’s NOT comfortable (biking alongside traffic on a high-speed, high-car-volume street). But rather than showing what IS comfortable in all contexts, they illustrate designs that are “more” or “less” comfortable.
The disadvantage of such an approach is that it invites debate. When I have tweeted about the approach and graphics, Twitter replies have been quick to argue whether a particular design image referred to as “more comfortable” actually is comfortable, to women, seniors, or young kids.
On the other hand, Bracewell points out that how comfortable a particular design approach is depends a lot on context. For example, a painted bike lane approach on a lower-speed and lower-volume street might be quite comfortable, but on a busier and faster street, a fully protected design would be needed for even a minimum comfort level to result.
In another example, a “sharrow” and shared traffic approach can be comfortable on a very low-car volume and low-speed local street (no higher than 500 cars per day, with an absolute max of 1,000 cars per day, and no higher than 30 km/hour speed). Local streets like that in Vancouver often have many more bikes than cars each day, but they are currently rare, likely less than 5% of all local streets in the city (although they are growing). But to be clear, a sharrow approach on a busier and faster street would be bad design. So contextual flexibility is key.
Bracewell notes, “I see so many hours of debate among professionals about classification systems, who are really just trying to quickly deliver better outcomes. In our system, the mandate is clear, the approach is simple, and we can learn as we go.”
As Vancouver moves to make more of its bike infrastructure Triple A year by year, leaders are also motivated to help other cities follow, or even exceed the city’s achievements. Vancouver made the decision to publish all its experience in 2017 in an online set of AAA design guidelines, and leaders routinely contribute to city-to-city conversations. Other cities in the region and across the country are already adopting the AAA language and approach. “I like the idea that the many ambitious biking cities out there are inspiring each other, especially if a city that once followed us ends up leapfrogging us,” says Bracewell. “That just inspires us to go further and faster.”
It can be scary for any city to set high standards for itself around better, smarter city-building. But if our cities are serious about achieving the many big goals we’ve written into our local visions and plans, let alone addressing the shared crisis we face with the climate emergency and other big challenges, that kind of leadership is badly needed. Vancouver may lead North America in many key metrics around smarter mobility, but that’s hardly comforting when we’re compared with the many global leaders in more sustainable, healthy, equitable, and cost-effective transportation.
So the question for your city leaders is this: What’s keeping your city from copying Vancouver’s Triple A approach to comfortable bike infrastructure–and then going even further and faster than Vancouver has?
Brent Toderian is a global thought leader on cities; an acclaimed city planner and urbanist with Toderian UrbanWorks, advising cities and progressive developers all over the world; and the former chief planner for Vancouver, BC. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian.