Bicycle Advocacy with Dan Pollock

What Victoria's forthcoming E & N Trial network will likely look like.

I was watching part of my favorite movie yesterday, Field of Dreams (1988) staring Kevin Costner and Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. The movie requires a suspension of belief when the ghost of a famous dead baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson [played by a much younger Ray Liotta] convinces  the protagonist Ray [Kevin Costner] to plow under a large portion of the family business [his corn field] in order to build a baseball field.  Shoeless Joe famously suggests to Ray, in a dream sequence that if: “you build it they will come”,  and so they do. Before long a host of dead American folk heroes are practicing and playing baseball in the field that Ray has constructed for them. This quasi-spiritual movie that embraces themes of what Gaberial Garcia Marquez calls ‘magical realism’ may be Hollywood fiction but its core message of building something that will bring people together [dead or living] is a practical lesson for city engineers and planners to embrace.

The key to designing and maintaining a: livable, walkable & bicycle accessible city centre and surrounding region is through the development of a comprehensive master planning document. This document acts as a foundational tool, similar to a Google doc in the 21st century digital age. When used properly a master plan will better increase the resiliency and adaptability of a growing region to the demands of climate changes and a future where fossil fuels will be far less accessible than they are presently. Victoria and its neighbouring municipalities within the Capital Region District [CRD] are doing just with the envisioning and eventual implementation of the recommendations enclosed within the forthcoming:Regional Pedestrian & Cycling Master Plan (PCMP)

Logo for the City of Victoria

If Victoria and the 12 other municipalities that make-up the CRD have it their way, they will soon be giving Metro Vancouver a run for their money, and title as the ‘greenest region’ in the province. This information is provided to me, in a candid interview with Dan Pollock. Dan is many things to many people, but for the context of our interview he is first and foremost a champion of eco-density and smart growth design and development principles, when it comes to city planning for pedestrians and cyclists.

A mathematician by trade, he is a true renaissance man. He splits his time between the completion of his thesis and the instruction of a university level calculus class over the summer. In addition to this, he is a director on many non-profit boards such as the: Capital Bike and Walk Society , the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition and the University of Victoria Campus Planning Committee. So how does he make time for all of his extracurricular civic engagement? Well, according to Dan on very little sleep.

His vigour and vision for TDM [transportation demand management] solutions was influenced by his time on the University of Victoria Graduate Student Society and his subsequent appointment to the aforementioned campus planning committee as the graduate student representative. This according to Dan was a pivotal experience: ” I realized that an individual with a few good ideas can actually make an impact.” With this epiphany in mind, he soon became a fixture within the local environmental community; over the past few years if there was any green issue of importance, it was a distinct possibility that Dan, either sat on the campaign advisory board or acted in some manner as a consultant.

He is most optimistic when we broach the topic of the Regional Pedestrian & Cycling Master Plan. The project started in earnest in the fall of last year with a series of envisioning exercises with community planners, engineers and members of the public at open houses coordinated in part by the consultants hired by the CRD to draft the master plan, Alta Planning and Design. Based out of Portland, Oregon this company specializes in drafting solutions for municipal issues such as the creation of: Bicycle, Pedestrian, Greenway and Trail Projects.

After compiling and correlating the data [some of which was important GIS information]  from the multiple consultation sessions held in the fall, the first draft document was released for public comment in early March, at an open house.  About 79 individuals showed up for this event, the bulk of whom where from the more populous areas of Saanich and Victoria, but their was also a sizable representation from the outlying communities as well. Among the various, recommendations enclosed in the draft report [which won’t be realized until late June] advocate for the construction of new trail network to connect into existing infrastructure; this will provide service to areas where it is presently intermittent at best. This is where the E & N railway corridor comes into the picture.

Originally just an idea, as part of another Capital Region District [CRD] Master plan for regional parks in 2000, it has become so much more than just ‘another park’. The E & N trail, will become a means to connect: “Victoria, Esquimalt, View Royal and Langford” when the first phase of the trail construction begins in the fall [CRD Parks- E & N Rail Trail Project]. This means that instead of sitting in the daily traffic jam, referred to by locals as the ‘Colwood Crawl’, commuters will have another option to bypass this headache altogether on bicycle instead of sitting in traffic. As a bicycle commuter myself, it is often faster to travel downtown by bicycle than by bus.

Feeding into the notion of an interconnected and complimentary regional plan, the E & N trail when completed will harmonize different signage, which can often be confusing for even the most experienced cyclist. According to Dan, for the average commuter in the CRD  who peddles into the downtown core of Victoria, it is a regular occurence to pass through three to four different municipalities. Each of these municipalities, has their own different signage. With the implementation of the recommendations from the forthcoming master plan document, this will become a thing of the past as the various spot gaps between regional trails will be filled in.

Dan is also a strong advocate for the municipal approach to planning and infrastructure upgrades; whereas he does not look favourably upon the small but militant bicycle community that paint sharrows. These are signs, that are often located on major thoroughfares that communicate to both drivers and cyclists, that this is a bicycle lane in addition to a driving lane. This being said, while the motives may be well-intentioned for this small group of activists, they are often foolhardy according to Pollock. They are often oblivious to planned civic infrastructure upgrades or nearby dedicated and established cycling routes which are under utilized. He advocates for the creation of an open dialogue between bureaucrats and activists, to affectively build sound bicycle amenities so members of the community will use it.  He points to the implementation of the new downtown bicycle parking stalls as a sign of this successful relationship that can emerge between activist passion and civic ordinances.

The two ‘Bike Corrals’  are a pilot project which makes room for up to 20 bicycles on Fort Street and Johnson Street. This project is a joint effort between the Downtown Victoria Business Association [DVBA], Capital Bike and Walk Society, Mountain Equipment Co-op [MEC], the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition [GVCC] in collaboration with the City of Victoria. According to Pollock the so-called ‘bike corrals’ make sound business sense as well, as there is a correlation between improved bicycle parking amenities and increased business. He states that after Shane Deveraux, owner of Habit Coffee on Pandora Street, installed increased bicycle parking stalls outside of his coffee shop he witnessed as spike in business profits as did the Mountain Equipment Co-op on Government Street.

Part of the problem with maintaining the enthusiasm around regularly bicycling to work, is that there are a lack of post-cycling facilities for employees to use, such as secure bicycle lockers as well as showers and change rooms. But if Dan has his way, this will be rectified with a private member’s bill that he is a co-author on with Sarah Webb, who is the CRD Climate Action Coordinator. The ‘Commuter Choices Bill’ introduced by MP Denise Savoie, is currently undergoing first reading in the House of Commons  and if passed will offer tax breaks and other incentives to business owners, if they subsidize green transit incentives for their employees.

In Montreal you can walk just a few minutes and stumble into one of these 300 bicycle rental stations so you can complete your errands during lunch hour (Photo from CBC.ca)

Velib is another bicycle rental/share program based out of Paris, France. It seems like the French are really onto something with sharing bicycles.

Lastly, I had one more burning question for Dan Pollock:

“I read in the Province Newspaper about a month ago, about a plan to create a bicycle sharing program between the City of Vancouver and the City of Richmond. This program would be similar to the Bixi Program in Montreal or the Velib Program in Paris. Could policymakers in the Lower Mainland make a program like this happen or is it a logistical nightmare?”

To which Dan responded with enthusiasm, that while this program would be very cumbersome to enact in the past [Victoria had its own bicycle share program named Blue Bikes, which unfortunately was cancelled due to theft among other issues].  Presently according to Dan, the credit card and tracking technology exists to make a bicycle rental system practical in 2010.

A bicycle share program isn’t tailored to tourists but rather to employees of businesses in the downtown core, so they can save time and complete more errands during lunch hour because of the greater flexibility that a bicycle provides over a car.  But as a warning, any bicycle share program must have dozens of rental stations located within close proximity to one another. This must be done, so that it isn’t inconvenient to borrow a bicycle over the lunch hour. As a rule of thumb Dan recommends ensuring that there is a bicycle rental station positioned within 400 metres of the next one. This is because studies have shown that people feel comfortable, only walking short distances to get the amenities that they are seeking. In the City of Victoria though, 400 metres covers a huge radius so it might make sense, according to Dan to position rental stations centrally in key pedestrian traffic corridors such as Fernwood Plaza.

After, meeting to discuss transit initiatives it was clear to me that Dan Pollock is the go to person in the city of Victoria, to speak to about these issues. But after working on so many TDM [transportation demand management]  projects you would think, that there would be little left that this fellow would like to accomplish. Well you would be wrong; as Dan’s most ambitious and likely life long goal is to make cycling ubiquitous, especially for children who are presently shuttled everywhere by their parents these days in the family minivan.

By this I mean that, Dan envisions a day when the citizens of Victoria and the Capital Region District no longer describe themselves as cyclists, because it will have become an integral part of everyday life. When we reach this point, in the near future we won’t need cycling advocates any more, because we will have “built it and they will have come”, to borrow a phrase from the movie which I started talking about at the beginning of this post. In this reality, Victoria will truly be able to live up to its moto, as the cycling capital of Canada.

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