Vancouver pilot project on transportation not a smooth ride for skateboarders

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Reported by Melanie GreenSean Hitrec, and Kristyn Anthony 

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A Vancouver skateboarder beside a bike lane. Photo: Sean Hitrec.

It was a split second decision that saved Melisa Dogan from suffering a more serious injury.

A regular commuter on her longboard, Dogan was headed to work one morning using a protected bike lane.

A Vancouver pilot project currently underway allows for skateboards to use lanes previously only for cyclists, but nowhere in the fine print does it say convertibles can too.

Dogan knew she’d have to remain one step ahead of the man driving in the one part of the road deemed safe from vehicles. She braked and almost instantaneously, the vehicle slammed its brakes too. She used her shoulder to brace for the inevitable impact, crashing into the back of the car tearing her bicep in the process.

“He swore at me and drove off,” Dogan said.

City of Vancouver pilot project had it’s own share of troubles

Avoiding collisions and conflicts between transportation user groups motivated the city vote to amend a by-law allowing skateboards into bike lanes as a pilot project for one year, to be re-evaluated in 2017.

Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr voted in favour.

She said 50 per cent of West Enders don’t have cars, so the pedestrian-friendly community got very upset over skateboarders on sidewalks.

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Skateboarders Calvin Dignard (left) and Skye Clow (right) standing underneath a sign that points to a lane for cyclists and skaters to share. Photo: Sean Hitrec

“I’ve also seen skateboarders on the street. I’ve seen them down Cambie near city hall. They’re going down hills, they’re riding in traffic lanes and I tell you my heart is in my mouth in terms of fear that something’s going to happen.”

The transition has not been without its share of bumps along the way.

A Voice investigation has shown that city officials have not kept track of injuries, accidents, clashes in the first 10 months of the pilot. Weekly statistics are kept for cyclists using bike lanes.

A Freedom of Information request for data compiled about the bike lane came up empty.

“The city does not independently collect information of the type requested. This information is collected and compiled by ICBC and the Vancouver Police Department,” said Barbara Van Fraassen, Vancouver’s director of access to information, in a response to The Voice’s FOI request.

But both the VPD and ICBC told The Voice that they did not have data on accidents or altercations between user groups within the bike lanes either.

The amendment comes as the city attempts a greener transportation initiative for 2040. Allowing all wheeled transport into the bike lanes serves the long-term strategic vision that includes public investment and a healthy, prosperous and liveable future for Vancouver, according to the city’s website.

User groups have their own views on the value of the pilot project.

Residents and advocacy group voice their concerns

Jeff Leigh, of the cycling advocacy group HUB, said the group was consulted regarding the amendment. Their mission statement ties nicely in with the city’s active transportation mandate, he said, but there is some confusion around those skateboarders that aren’t just commuting.

Two skateboarders practice their tricks at a new building underneath the Cambie Street Bridge. Photo: Melanie Green.
Two skateboarders practice their tricks at a new building underneath the Cambie Street Bridge. Photo: Melanie Green.

“We said we really don’t have an opinion on skateboarders using the bike lane, but we do have an opinion on people not having lights at night, on weaving back and forth and are doing tricks. Why won’t you take this opportunity to remind them that this is transportation and not a skateboard park?” Leigh said.

Though he had not heard of major injuries or clashes, Leigh did say people complained of minor collisions, often when safety regulations aren’t met.

Congested bike lanes are a concern for 21-year veteran bike courier Mike Brown.

“I love skateboarding […] but I don’t like the skateboards in the lanes.”

Downtown, Brown has watched the transformation over two decades as bike lanes were built, torn down and re-routed. In particular, he said separated bike paths — lanes for cyclists and other wheeled devices — on one-way streets are problematic because “the confusion at intersections is amazing”.

There’s not enough room to pass, Brown explained, and he often finds himself trapped in the lane. Hornby and Dunsmuir is particularly tricky where two separated bike lanes meet along with pedestrians and vehicle traffic. In fact, that corner is the only bike path The Voice found with a skateboarder logo on the city sign.

“If I want to turn left at the next light, I can’t really do anything until I get to the intersection,” he said. “Then you’re doing footsie around and saying sorry to people while they’re trying to turn…Eventually, someone’s going to get hurt there.”

With the amendment came regulations for skateboarders to wear protective pads, helmets and lights and to have use of something the city calls a “foot brake.”

“Skateboarders are always gonna take the path of least resistance,” said Jeff Cole, president of the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition and co-manager of Skull Skates.

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Jeff Cole, president of the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition and co-manager of Skull Skates. Cole chose not to comment on the project because he find’s city policy doesn’t reflect skateboard culture. Photo: Kristyn Anthony.

The skateboard community was consulted on the pilot project, but Cole felt there was little purpose in commenting since city policy hasn’t always reflected the culture.

“We stay silent because we didn’t want to poke any bears,” Cole said, “And we don’t want to go back in time to where people are getting ticketed.” The amendment regulations seem counter-productive, he added. “A foot brake is my foot.”

Skateboarding a growing sport

Twenty years ago, when the coalition was formed, its goal was legitimization. To those outside the community, skateboarding was a counterculture, something for kids and teenagers who were criminalized for participating.

The city of Vancouver started relaxing enforcement in terms of tickets in 2001, then passed a motion to legalize skateboarding on certain streets in 2003, according to council minutes.

In Tokyo in 2020, skateboarding will make its Olympic debut and in Vancouver, the coalition has grown. Monthly meetings are regularly attended by representatives from Vancouver City Council and the park board.

Cole had not heard of any injuries in the bike lanes, though he admits most wouldn’t really talk about collisions unless major. He encouraged safe riding, recognizing skateboarders will use both streets and bike lanes to get around.

Policy is needed, but it’s not easy

John Whistler, the former chair of a city-appointed committee focused on expanding bike lanes to skateboarders and others, believes “skateboarders get a bad rap.”

An avid inline skater and cyclist, Whistler was instrumental in the amendment process, pushing for it three years ago. Yet he only learned about the pilot project from The Voice.

“The reality is you don’t want skateboards on the sidewalk,” said Whistler, now a transportation activist.

But he said implementing policy change is a challenge.

“It is an example of the bureaucratic process at city hall where wheels turn very slowly, but they do turn.”

When asked about the lack of data on injuries, clashes or frequency of use, NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova was unsettled.

“I am concerned for potential future conflicts and injuries to either skateboarders or cyclists,” De Genova said. “I think that the city should be keeping data on that.”

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