Victoria’s Cycling Revolution is Here

Bike economics are impacting how we live and do business.

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Bike lanes
Photo by Helen Cyr

To glimpse the new cycling economy in Victoria, take a stroll, or a pedal, down Harbour Road in Vic West, past the shipyard and condos, to the building that houses Caffé Fantastico and its neighbours, Fol Epi Bakery and Trek Bicycle Store.

“Probably at least 50 to 60 per cent of our business comes from cyclists,” says Harriet Carter, a keen cyclist and manager of the deli that Fantastico added to its café three years ago.

“The bridge and bike lanes had a big impact on our business. It’s probably increased about 15 per cent.”

The café and deli do a brisk business catering to cyclists. That might surprise cycling critics who blame bike lanes for downtown parking problems, the tighter squeeze for buses and emergency vehicles and the construction disruption. The cycling network has been one of Mayor Lisa Helps’ most controversial initiatives, and the ensuing pushback was one reason she was hounded off Facebook.

But do a little digging, and you’ll find plenty of supporters. Carter says Vic West now feels more connected to downtown: “It feels a little more of a community now because of the cycle lanes.”

Next door at Trek Bicycle Store, owner Troy Woodburn agrees. “It’s a great spot, right at the entrance to the Galloping Goose. Lots of traffic back and forth.”

Woodburn says new bike shops and rental outlets are popping up around the city. When he learned Fantastico wanted to add a bike store to its complex, he jumped at it. It will be his third summer in the new location, and it’s paying off.

“Definitely more people buying bikes or riding bikes to work now because of the bridge,” he says, noting his niche market in electric bikes. They’re popular, he says, among people “who used to be on bikes but got a little timid or scared or can’t ride them as well as they used to.”

Spokes of Expansion

Across the new Johnson Street Bridge, meanwhile, businesses on Pandora Avenue see hundreds of cyclists pass by on the new bike lanes. Veteran cycling activist and former city councillor John Luton looks on approvingly. The old bridge with its narrow, slippery-when-wet metal deck, was “an insurmountable barrier,” for many cyclists, Luton says. 

Claudio Costi, owner of La Tana Bakery, delivers by bike. Photo by Helen Cyr.

The new bridge, meanwhile, “is the single biggest investment in cycling infrastructure in the history of the city. Commuter cyclists have to get in and out of the city, so the bridge was the broken link.”

The bike shop at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) backs onto that busy stretch of Pandora a block from the bridge.

“We’ve had a ton of extra business over the past year, especially this spring,” says Zach Peters, a bike mechanic at MEC. “Business is booming …”

Down the block at La Tana, an Italian bakery, owner Claudio Costi couldn’t be happier; he makes his deliveries by bike. With the new bike lane,“it’s much easier. It’s faster.”

And he feels more comfortable biking downtown with his 14-year-old daughter. He can’t say how many of his customers arrive by bike, but business year-over-year has been increasing by 20 per cent.

Nearby, at Habit Coffee, owner Shane Devereaux is embracing the changes. “We’re growing up finally. With that, and the [housing] density, we’re seeing more and more people moving around downtown with means other than a car … We’ve seen nothing but positives.”

Luton says all those cyclists travelling downtown are bound to have an effect on restaurants and cafés, “because they’re hungry all the time. It’s like the 5,000-calorie-a-day tourist. Do the math.”

Oh, and those cyclists get thirsty too. There’s a Victoria Ale Trail that features craft breweries and pubs and encourages cyclists and walkers to drop in for a pint. Spinnakers, the oldest brew pub in Victoria, has long been a convenient stop near the harbour. Now the craft-brewing industry is blossoming — or rather foaming — and cycle tours are pulling in at places like the new Phillips’ tasting room on Government Street.

And it’s not just downtown that has benefited. Cafés catering to cyclists have sprung up in recent years along the major cycling routes. The Nest on the Galloping Goose Trail and Harvest Road beside Mitchell’s Farm Market on the Lochside Trail are two examples.

Tom Croft views the bike lanes through a business filter; he was a banker, then a realtor, as well as an Oak Bay councillor. The last two years he was working, he often did so by bicycle, even cycling to open houses and hauling his signs in a trailer. Now retired, Croft stays in touch with the industry. He says cycle-ability will increasingly figure in buyers’ choices.

“People want to come here to live. And people actually want to take advantage of our climate, so cycling and walking and a healthy lifestyle is what they’re coming for.”

At Victoria City Hall, Sarah Webb, manager of sustainable transportation planning and development, bubbles with enthusiasm when she talks about the new bike lanes in Victoria.

“The numbers tell us that more people are riding more often,” she says during an open house at City Hall surrounded by schematics showing new infrastructure. “Some people are riding to work. Some people are out on the weekends. Some people are taking new trips shopping or going to school. For us, it’s encouraging.”

Indeed the City’s figures confirm there are more cyclists using the bike lanes: The numbers on Pandora Avenue nearly tripled from 570 average trips a day in June 2016 to 1,422 in July 2018 after completion of the bike lanes. On Fort Street, meanwhile, the number of cyclists rose from just 246 average trips a day in 2014 to 823 in July 2018. 

Meanwhile, an electronic bike counter on Harbour Road, at the start of the Galloping Goose Trail, registers about 2,500 hits a day in peak season, with a record of 3,800.

“Our target from our official community plan is to have 70 per cent of all trips to work by transit, walking and cycling by 2041,” says Webb. The latest figure, from the 2016 census, is 52 per cent.

Where’s the Money?

These are early days for the cycling network, and business leaders point out there are no figures yet for any net gains in economic activity due to the new infrastructure. But there’s plenty of research on the impact of bike lanes on other cities as diverse as Toronto, Los Angeles, London, Portland and Vancouver. There are some common themes: The proposals often encounter push back from downtown businesses worried about losing parking spaces and vehicular traffic.

But according to CityLab, a U.S. website that researches urban issues, the studies “all reach a similar conclusion. Replacing on-street parking with a bike lane has little to no impact on local business, and in some cases might even increase business. While cyclists tend to spend less per shopping trip than drivers, they also tend to make more trips, pumping more total money into the economy over time.”

One study in Toronto, which looked at the impact in 2017 after a bike lane was built along Bloor Street, found that cycling nearly tripled as a travel choice from seven per cent to 20 per cent. Visitors were 48 per cent more likely than before to spend $100 or more, and most merchants reported a higher number of customers than before the bike lane’s installation. It concluded: “These early indicators point to a positive, or at least neutral, impact of the bike lane.”

Fol Epi’s Dockside location is a popular destination for cyclists. Photo by Simon DesRochers.

In Vancouver, meanwhile, the construction of bike lanes also ran into stiff opposition. Some downtown merchants didn’t renew their leases, and a 2011 study found a moderate decline in business on Hornby Street. But now Charles Gauthier, the president of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, says his members have learned to embrace cycling as a mode of transportation and have even partnered with a cycling organization to improve bike facilities.

There have been no new studies to measure the economic impact, but in April the city did release a survey that shows a big increase in the number of people who walk, cycle or take transit; they now account for 52.8 per cent of all trips.

Gauthier, meanwhile, sees businesses moving in to serve cyclists. “We’ve seen that there are people of all ages using the separated bike lanes. They feel more comfortable and safe in them. And I would say that, eight years later, it’s a good thing, but it did take a while for us to adjust to that.” 

In Victoria, the construction of the bridge and bike lanes are part of a broader strategy meant to tap into demographic trends, as service industries expand, the population ages and more people downsize and move into condos. The goal is to encourage people to live and spend their money downtown, not just to see it as a place to work before driving back to the burbs. 

“It can’t just be a ramp to the freeway to get out of town,” says Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

Mobility at the Forefront

Victoria’s cycling network is also part of the City’s long-term mobility strategy, dubbed Go Victoria, launched in January. The goal, in the words of Mayor Lisa Helps, “[is] to help eliminate congestion, pollution and greenhouse gases, while still allowing people the freedom to move and access the things they love.”

One of the people overseeing Go Victoria is Jeffrey Tumlin, a transportation strategy director with the firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates of San Francisco. He performed a similar role in developing the cycling network in Vancouver.

There’s an urgent tone to Tumlin’s narrative: “Change is coming to you whether you want it or not,” he said during a panel discussion in Victoria in January. “We will not be asking your community what it wants. We are going to be asking your community what it needs and to help us make the difficult choices when you can do one thing or another but not both.”

But Tumlin told Douglas it’s up to the City to make the decisions. “Basically, the City has a call to action to address its role in climate leadership, its role in making the city safe for everyone and its role in attracting and retaining young talent.”

Tumlin says Victoria already has an advantage over many other cities. “It has a compact size and a highly functional downtown, as well as functional commercial districts that were all laid out on the streetcar lines from the early 20th century. So that network is really perfect to support high levels of biking, if the right facilities are provided. And those are facilities that attract families with children, older adults, women with groceries — not just facilities that are aimed at 28-year-old men in Lycra.”

Still, it’s the sort of talk that may rile commuters who fear change is being forced.

“Cycling advocates have traditionally been a very vocal group in Victoria,” says Catherine Holt, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. “I think this rubbed some people the wrong way, especially if this is not a realistic way for them to get in and out of downtown.”

Yet Holt, a cyclist herself, welcomes the increased activity downtown and the low commercial vacancy rate.

“We have the potential for Victoria to become one of the great cycling cities of the world — like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.”

Overcoming Criticism

Talk to any cycling advocate in Victoria these days, and at some point the enthusiasm about the new bridge and bike lanes may be tempered with a defensive tone.

Oh, they’ve heard all the arguments all right, that the bike lanes are a “costly folly,” as one critic fumed in an op ed in the Times-Colonist

On social media, meanwhile, the debate has often been venomous. “I’ll continue to drive as close as possible to douchebag cyclists who are occupying my lane of the road when it suits me,” says one motorist in a Reddit forum. “And when they get hit, with dashcam footage of a clear and safe bike lane right next to them and a good lawyer, I’m sure that the law will interpret it my way, and I’ll collect damages.”

The bike lanes are often portrayed as a sop to spandex-wearing zealots, to car haters and tree huggers, encouraged by a handful of flaky politicians hungry for votes from an entitled minority. And there’s always someone keen to post a photo of an empty bike lane.

“Modern politics is about turning people into tribes,” laments cycling activist and transportation consultant Todd Litman. “It’s a reflection of the nastiness of current politics where we as bicyclists are supposed to be, you know, an arrogant, pushy subgroup.”

Supporters like Litman and Luton all say the cycling network isn’t meant to pressure anyone into cycling. It’s simply there to provide an inexpensive, safe, eco-friendly and healthy transportation option for those who were reluctant to cycle downtown in the past.

Litman has a master’s degree in environmental studies and now heads an organization called the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. He can cite studies showing that cycling and walking are far healthier than driving, that bike infrastructure costs a fraction of that of highways and parking spots, and that there are big savings, not just for taxpayers, but also for individual cyclists. Those savings can go back into the economy, whether it’s for essentials like housing or a night on the town.

“You don’t have to be an environmentalist,” Litman says. “You can be a selfish tightwad and choose to bicycle.”

He and his wife helped finance their children’s education with their savings from not owning a car. It is, he argues, a rational decision to choose the transportation mode that favours your economic interests.

Cycling activists bristle at the idea they’re asking commuters to subsidize their travel choices. They argue they’re the ones subsidizing car travel, since City bylaws require developers to provide parking spaces, even when they’re building condos or apartments for residents who may not own cars. That policy “drives up costs enormously,” says Edward Pullman, president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition. Building cycling infrastructure, on the other hand, “gives you much more spending power.”

Caught in the middle are those in the business community, particularly the business leaders who have to keep all sides happy. One prominent businessman politely asked me to turn off my recorder before confessing he thought it was unfortunate the debate has become so negative. He actually likes some of the initiatives coming from the much-maligned city council.

It also poses a big challenge for the tourist industry.

“Our job is to look forward,” says Paul Nursey, the CEO of Destination Greater Victoria. “There is absolutely no doubt that the construction in and around downtown is having a negative short-term impact. Visits to our Visitors’ Centre right in the heart of all the construction downtown are down 25 per cent year over year. I know a lot of the businesses around that area are seeing significant decreases. That being said, I think we definitely view cycling as being one of many experiences that are beneficial to us in the medium to long term.” 

It’s all about offering visitors a diversity of choices, says Nursey. “The most successful destinations have lots of things for visitors to see and do, and cycling is part of that mix. The destinations that rely on just one thing are the ones that are least resilient and aren’t able to bounce back from any kind of change in consumer tastes.”

Jeff Bray of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) sums it up. “We had members who were vehemently opposed to the bike lanes, and I heard from them. And I had members strongly supportive of the bike lanes, and I heard from them.”

Bray has had to strike a balance — not unlike someone riding a bike in traffic. His organization didn’t take any position, pro or con. But it does advocate for better consultation and engagement. He thinks it’s paying off, and City Hall is doing a better job of seeking input as it proceeds with building bike lanes on Wharf Street and planning for those on Vancouver Street.

As Bray notes, downtown Victoria wasn’t a healthy place just 10 years ago. “It was quiet because there just wasn’t anything happening. And it as very hard for local businesses to make a living …. You’d be dodging tumbleweeds coming down the street at your back.”

Now it’s a very different scene. While some may decry downtown’s crowds and the construction, the panhandlers and the parking problems, the business vacancy rate has dropped from 13 per cent to 4.1 per cent in six years. And the city’s unemployment rate of 3 per cent in March was second only to Guelph, Ontario as Canada’s lowest.

“Change is never easy,” says Bray, citing the old nostrum.

Building With a New Vision

Several others interviewed for this story quote another familiar line: “If you build it, they will come.”

Put developer Robert Jawl firmly in that camp. His family firm has just moved into new quarters with a commanding view of Douglas Street and City Hall. The choice reflects both the company’s faith in the downtown economy and its belief that residents welcome new transportation choices.

“We’ve made a strategic judgment that we want to invest heavily in the downtown core, and we believe that in the South Island this is the focal point for economic dynamism, retail activity, cultural and social amenities,” Jawl says.

The Jawls’ new complex at 1515 Douglas Street includes two storage rooms with space for up to 210 bikes for those who work there. There is also a bike share program.

Not only that, on the main floor there’s fashionable dobosala cantina, which opened last year, offering Indo-Pacific cuisine and a “ride thru” for cyclists on the go.

Owner and chef Kunal Ghose says when he heard about the cycle lane being built on Pandora, “I figured, why not? Why not make it easier for people on their bikes to pick up dinner on the way home?”

As business leaders and cycling advocates alike point out, the main beneficiaries of the cycling infrastructure may be cost-conscious workers in the service industries, not the hard core cyclists with the expensive clothing and bikes.

Suzanne Bradbury is co-owner of Fort Properties, which owns the block at Fort and Blanshard that includes a variety of businesses, such as the city’s oldest Starbucks as well as fishhook restaurant. The stores and restaurants in the neighbourhood sometimes have a tough time attracting and holding staff, as young people are often put off by the cost of housing and of owning a car. Bradbury heard all the complaints about the bike lanes — the finger wagging, she calls it. But she says the overall impact on her properties has been a good one, and the street feels safer.

“We have no vacancies,” she says, something that wasn’t the case a few years ago as antique stores closed and their businesses moved online. 

Today, she adds, “We have really strong tenancies there. I would say the street feels more like an urban downtown; it’s not just a traffic sewer sucking traffic up Fort Street, three lanes of cars going one direction. It’s a lot more cross-the-block traffic with people on foot. I like the change in the feeling of the block.”

A Life Changer

Back at Caffé Fantastico in Vic West, three cyclists — Norah Macey, Brenda Boyd and Andy Millard — suit up for an overnight jaunt to Sooke.  They’re all retirees, and all are licensed and insured drivers as well as cyclists.  All have e-bikes, those electrically-assisted bikes favoured by seniors.

“I’ve got 16,500 kilometres on it, which astounds me,” says Macey, a retired accountant. “It doesn’t feel like that much. I just ride it and go everywhere on it, and I don’t use my car at all unless I absolutely have to. The e-bike has changed my life.”

Boyd agrees. “I can ride my bike downtown and go to a store quicker than I can drive my car downtown and park it and go to the store. I can put two panniers (saddle bags) on it and a front basket, and I can put, oh, probably 40 pounds of stuff in it.”

Millard, meanwhile, says when he was driving his car the day before, he got caught in a traffic jam on the Pat Bay Highway: “I kept thinking the whole way in, ‘I wish I had my bicycle.’”

This article is from the June/July 2019 issue of Douglas.