Bike Lanes
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Everything you need to know about Greater Victoria’s cycling network

What exists, what’s being built, and what gaps remain—from Sooke to Sidney and in between

By Martin Bauman
July 28, 2022
Bike Lanes
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Everything you need to know about Greater Victoria’s cycling network

What exists, what’s being built, and what gaps remain—from Sooke to Sidney and in between

By Martin Bauman
Jul 28, 2022
Cyclist on Pandora Avenue near Centennial Square. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Cyclist on Pandora Avenue near Centennial Square. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Bike Lanes
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Everything you need to know about Greater Victoria’s cycling network

What exists, what’s being built, and what gaps remain—from Sooke to Sidney and in between

By Martin Bauman
July 28, 2022
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Everything you need to know about Greater Victoria’s cycling network
Cyclist on Pandora Avenue near Centennial Square. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

You’ll see traces of it if you head to Vancouver Street, between Caledonia and Johnson: a dark patch of asphalt that zigs and zags without apparent reason, and then disappears like a stray thought. At Pandora Avenue, it ends abruptly at the base of a tree.

The sidewalk to nowhere is a relic of the region’s first attempt at a protected bikeway linking downtown to the University of Victoria. That project, launched in 1976, never quite saw completion. (There are remnants of it, too, on Camosun College’s campus.) But the vision then isn’t all that different from the vision shared within the Capital Region now: to link Greater Victoria’s municipalities by bicycle. And the obstacles to seeing it through? They aren’t all that different either.

Remnants of a 1970s-era pilot bikeway linking the View Street Parkade with the University of Victoria. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better mid-sized region for cycling in Canada than Greater Victoria—but it’s not quite the two-wheeled utopia the region aspires to. Despite the Capital Region boasting the highest number of bicycle commuters per capita in Canada, cars and cyclists still share the roads in places where current research dictates they shouldn’t. And intersections remain especially dangerous for cyclists—even with the protection of priority crossings. In early July, one bike-rider ended up in hospital after hitting the broadside of a cargo truck that appeared to have run a red light at Store Street and Pandora. 

Statistics from ICBC show there were 161 crashes in Greater Victoria involving cyclists just last year. (The crowdsourced BikeMaps goes even further, showing collisions and near-misses dating back to 2012.)

The issue isn’t disappearing anytime soon—nor is it off councils’ radars. Victoria is a year away from completing its minimum All Ages and Abilities (AAA) cycling network. Esquimalt approved its first-ever active transportation plan in February. View Royal and Sidney are midway through developing their own. But still, cycling in Greater Victoria can feel like navigating a patchwork at times, particularly between municipalities.

We spoke to those in the know about what’s missing, what’s on the horizon, and what other models the region should look at.

What is All Ages and Abilities, anyway?

Hop on your bike from downtown and head to UVic today, and you’ll encounter a mixed bag of cycling infrastructure—from the wide, paved and protected lanes along Fort and Pandora; to the skinny strip of painted lane that abruptly crosses three lanes of traffic, as if changing its mind, as Fort climbs the hill past Cook Street. If you dare it, maybe you brave the long, gruelling hill up Foul Bay Road, where cars are clocked driving upwards of 90 km/h; or maybe you detour along Trent Street and Dean Avenue, where the roads are quiet, and the trails have been widened for bikes and pedestrians. 

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Each avenue attracts a different type of cyclist—from the Lycra-clad crew that ride in pelotons, as if auditioning for the Tour de France, to the middle-schooler getting to class, to the moms and dads with cargo bikes on the daycare drop-off route. The CRD wants each of these riders—and even more—to feel comfortable on its network of cycling routes. But calculating just how much of that network is accessible to cyclists of all abilities is a much thornier matter.

And not all municipalities share the same vision of what qualifies as “accessible.”

“Some guides claim [painted bike lanes] as All Ages and Abilities,” says Corey Burger, the policy and infrastructure chair for Capital Bike, a Victoria-based cycling advocacy non-profit. That shouldn’t be the case, he says.

“If the road is busy enough to need some level of separation, it needs physical separation via a protected bike lane.”

The gold standard for AAA cycling infrastructure has its roots in Vancouver. Back in 2012, City Council put forth its Transportation 2040 “strategic vision,” which outlined a plan for reaching two-thirds of all trips within the city made by foot, bike, or transit. To get there, the plan lays out clear design recommendations to meet AAA standards: lanes should be physically separated on busy streets, intersections should be designed with turn restrictions and priority crossings, and traffic should be diverted from quieter neighbourhood streets that serve as shared bikeways.

All of the active transportation plans in Greater Victoria make reference to these standards, in some form or another. But even the most stringent guidelines aren’t immune from interpretation—and that middle ground is where much of the disagreement lies between city councils and those who rally for safe infrastructure.

What’s in place across the region

Depending who you ask, Victoria’s council is either doing the work of angels or rendering the city into an unnavigable traffic gridlock of empty bike lanes that nobody rides. That’s because they’ve been the most bullish within the Capital Region on building protected lanes and multi-use pathways: the two preferred options among cyclists. 

Since 2017, the city has installed 10.3 kms of such lanes on Pandora Avenue, the Johnson Street Bridge, Fort Street, Wharf Street, Humboldt Street, Harbour Road, Dallas Road, Government Street, and Vancouver Street. Those form part of a 32 km “minimum network” of AAA routes, including shared-use roadways on quieter streets. James Bay’s Montreal Street is set to become one such street later this year.

Cyclists at Pandora Avenue and Store Street, approaching Wharf Street. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

By 2023, the city’s intention is for 95% of Victorians to live within 500 m of a AAA cycling route—roughly the distance between Broughton Street and Pandora Avenue.

Not that Victoria’s minimum grid is the end goal, says Sarah Webb, the city’s manager of sustainable transportation planning and development. There’s still work to do in filling the gaps in between—whether linking Fort Street with Oak Bay, Vic West with Esquimalt, or creating more north-south options beyond the Galloping Goose. 

“When we see the kinds of trips that people make every day, we want them to not just be able to make the trip to school or to the library, but also to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the dry cleaners, wherever it might be,” Webb told Capital Daily.

Esquimalt and Saanich, like Victoria, have been building their AAA networks. Over the next five years, Esquimalt plans to develop a 5.3-kilometre “quick-build” cycling network that will link Tillicum Road, Esquimalt Road, and Lampson and Head streets by protected bike lanes, with an end goal of joining its network to Saanich via the Gorge Bridge and Victoria via the E&N Rail Trail and eventual Kimta Road connector.

Smaller dashed lines represent the proposed quick-build network. Blue lines are existing bike lanes. The E&N Trail is purple. Photo from Esquimalt Active Transportation Network Plan.

Saanich, for its part, has a goal of expanding its cycling network to 195 km of lanes, shared streets, and trails by 2023. (The district is currently at 172 km, says Coun. Rebecca Mersereau, and is “admittedly behind schedule.”) 

While Saanich’s long-term plan involves forming a AAA “spine network” between Interurban Road, McKenzie Avenue, Quadra Street, and Shelbourne Street, the district has its sights on eight “quick-build” projects that could be completed in months, rather than years. All were approved by council in this year’s budget—and Mersereau says most will be implemented this year. 

“It's a bit of a shift in how we do things,” she told Capital Daily. “We're trying to build out a long-term network that's coherent and considers how we're planning and where we're putting new housing, but also ensuring that we have some capacity to build projects [in the short-term] that will make a difference.”

One near-term project involves adding protected lanes on both sides of Tillicum between Burnside Road and the Gorge Bridge, to calm traffic in what Mersereau describes as a road that feels like “a highway,” dividing one section of the neighbourhood from the other.

Gaps in the system

For all of Greater Victoria’s AAA-aimed infrastructure improvements, there remains one district-sized gap in completing a cycling network that truly connects the region: Oak Bay. The municipality has built roughly 500 m of bike lanes—roughly, the distance between the library and the marina—in the 11 years since passing its active transportation strategy. (At the time, the transportation strategy found, somewhat generously, that Oak Bay’s cycling facilities “generally lack connectivity and do not form a community-wide network.”) None of the district’s current cycling network includes protected lanes or paved multi-use trails.

“We talk about the 'tweed curtain,' but it's really a traffic curtain that divides Oak Bay from Victoria,” says cyclist and UVic professor David Leach. A four-season bicycle commuter living in Oak Bay, he says there are “pinch points” where bicycle paths from Victoria either disappear or become more dangerous for cyclists, as with Foul Bay Road and Cadboro Bay Road.

Oak Bay’s council has also, at times, run afoul of Greater Victoria’s cycling advocates for putting the brakes on plans to expand its network—or wading into neighbouring municipalities’ plans, as when Mayor Kevin Murdoch voiced his concerns with Victoria’s plans to convert Richardson Street into a bike corridor. 

Council also voted to support bike lanes on Fort Street (again, in Victoria), rather than a route that would see protected bike lanes extend from Pandora to the shops and restaurants on Oak Bay Avenue, as Burger and other cyclists have advocated for years.

Capital Bike has advocated for protected bike lanes on Oak Bay Avenue, but Oak Bay council has remained mum on any plans for redesigning the pedestrian hub. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

These sorts of inefficiencies and cross-border irregularities are the very reason that some propose rolling all of Greater Victoria’s municipalities into one. (If, the logic goes, a bike network falls apart at its borders with other municipalities, then dissolving those borders should solve the problem.) 

But Burger isn’t sold on amalgamation as the answer to a more expansive bike network; in fact, he sees opportunities within its decentralized makeup. One of the key benefits of Greater Victoria’s 13 municipal governments, he says, is there isn’t a single point of failure—“one council, or one chief engineer, can’t hold up progress for the whole region,” he says. 

Plus, there are bottom-line reasons for staying separate: the province grants its active transportation funding per municipality. So, instead of a $1-million grant for the whole region (the maximum allowable limit per government for two projects, if both are funding-eligible), the region’s municipalities could get 13 times that much. Plus, the CRD—as a separate government district—could apply for its own $1-million in active transportation funding.

Protected bike lane on Harbour Road. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

That funding alone could make a significant difference in smaller districts like Highlands, Metchosin, or Central Saanich, where a centralized approach to spending—and bike network-building—would almost assuredly leave them short-changed.

Solving the intersection problem

Chris Schwede knows the danger of Victoria’s intersections better than most. He was hit by a car while on his bike, crossing at Douglas and Fisgard earlier in July. He’d done everything right: the light was green, he was in a bike lane, and he wasn’t cutting across any traffic.

“I’m slamming on my brakes, and [the driver] wasn’t slowing down,” he told Capital Daily. “I couldn’t get out of the way.”

Schwede’s ribs bore the brunt of the collision—he’d managed to jump as the Kia approached and landed on the car’s hood. (“I cracked the windshield pretty good,” he says.) But his bike is totalled—“the pedal’s almost bent right off.”

Schwede isn’t alone in his plight; intersections are proven to be the most dangerous place for a cyclist. Four out of five crashes involving bikes in BC happen at crossroads, according to ICBC.

Even the best-protected bike lanes with priority signals leave cyclists exposed when crossing other streets. A week before Schwede was hit on Douglas, another cyclist ended up in hospital after getting hit in front of the Johnson Street Bridge. The driver whose truck hit them had turned right on an apparent red in an intersection where those turns are illegal.

The intersection at Pandora and Store streets has no-right-on-red signage. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily

All of the other best design practices were in place: separated bike lanes, priority crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, and distinct traffic signage.

“Cars are big, heavy bullets, you know?” Schwede says. “People shouldn’t have to die because somebody’s impatient [at a traffic light].”

The Netherlands and Denmark, often heralded as two of the world’s most bike-friendly countries, have tried to design against these collisions by turning intersections into roundabouts and putting cyclists in separated lanes on the outer rim. The intention is to make them—and other pedestrians—more visible. Victoria has no such intersections. Nor does much of North America.

Kitchener, Ont. became the first Canadian city to pilot Dutch-inspired roundabouts in 2020 when it redesigned the intersection at Huron and Strasburg roads to accommodate separated cycling lanes, which city crews painted green. Transportation services director Barry Cronkite, who led the project, told Capital Daily they haven’t seen any recorded cycling collisions since the changes were installed. 

Design rendering of Dutch-inspired roundabout in Kitchener. Image: City of Kitchener

But introducing the same roundabouts isn’t necessarily practical in parts of Greater Victoria where space is hard to come by, Webb cautions. She calls the roundabouts a “really interesting concept,” but notes the designs are complicated when considering large trees, or wide sidewalks, or space for vehicles to safely maneuver.

Plus, more recent research suggests that roundabouts have become more dangerous—due, in part, to the rise of e-bikes, which travel faster than typical bicycles and can be harder to spot in intersections.

What challenges remain

The most abundant (and least agreed-upon) form of AAA cycling infrastructure throughout Greater Victoria encompasses a bucket of roads and boulevards broadly defined as “shared streets”: those on which cyclists and drivers are expected to share the roadway rather than having designated lanes for each. 

Vancouver’s AAA guidelines define shared streets as those with 500 cars or fewer per day, driving at speeds of 30 km/h or slower. But as Burger notes, “there's a whole bunch of definitions” about how quiet a street should be, or how to design that neighbourhood street. 

Victoria’s “shared streets” follow the same 30 km/h limit as Vancouver’s, but with up to 1,000 cars a day. Esquimalt’s Lampson Street is marked as shared-use, but has a posted speed limit of 50 km/h, and sees over 11,000 vehicles daily. And parts of West Saanich Road, Millstream Road, and Mt. Newton Cross Road are deemed “shared street” environments, despite each seeing higher speeds due to their function as rural arterials.

Defining—and designing—these shared streets is what Burger sees as “the next evolution” of Greater Victoria’s cycling network, along with bracing for even more riders as infrastructure improves.

“The Dutch and the Danes aren't done building their bikeway network. They're constantly out there changing stuff, because the use changes,” he says.

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Martin Bauman
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