British Columbia·Analysis

Bike lane barometer: judging Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's legacy

Gregor Robertson has had many accomplishments as Vancouver mayor. But at the end of the day the way the average Vancouverite feels about his decade-long tenure most likely comes down to the way they feel about the bike lanes so enthusiastically expanded by Robertson's Vision council.

After 10 years in office, mayor's many accomplishments likely eclipsed by expansion of bike routes

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson listed off a raft of his accomplishments during nearly a decade in office. But to many Vancouverites, he's the guy who expanded the bike lanes. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

We don't get to choose our legacies.

Scan Gregor Robertson's Facebook post on his decision not to run for a fourth term as Vancouver mayor, and you'll see a long list of accomplishments. He might rightly be proud of many: fighting climate change; opening homeless shelters; speaking out against discrimination and trying to lead the world's greenest city.

But two words are nowhere to be found: "bike lane."

Simplistic it may be, but for many Vancouverites, the way you feel about Gregor Robertson is likely the way you feel about the web of cycling infrastructure that has exploded under his tenure.

Think it's a politically correct war on cars and sanity? You're not going to be sad to see him go.

And if you bike to work — or anywhere else through traffic for that matter — you probably feel he's saved your life any number of times.

'I don't think it all lands on him'

If anyone has a right to be critical, you'd think it's Peter Ladner, the former Non-Partisan Association councillor who Robertson defeated to win his first term as mayor in 2008.

But he says he happens to like both the bike lanes and Vision's green agenda.

"The biggest anger, I think comes from those two things," Ladner says.

"So I'm not down on Gregor the way many, many people I know are."

Mayor Gregor Robertson, a cyclist himself, has been an outspoken champion of bike lane expansion. But not all citizens are fans of his policies. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

In assessing Robertson's performance, Ladner has to put aside his own memories of the campaign he fought against the then-former provincial NDP MLA and entrepreneur.

Robertson made ending homelessness by 2015 a linchpin of his pitch to voters in 2008. Ten years later, homelessness numbers are higher than ever, driven by the housing affordability crisis that has haunted Robertson's time in power.

Ladner credits Robertson for trying to tackle both issues, even without necessarily having the tools to do so.

"He has, I think, done an amazing amount of work to try to deal with those things, but they're problems beyond his control," he says.

"So, I think he will suffer for people saying, 'well look, we've still got all this homelessness, we've got this high housing, how can that be good in any way?' But I don't think it all lands on him."

Mayor Moonbeam and the backyard chickens

To the anti-bike lane crowd, Robertson is Mayor Moonbeam, parodied in a YouTube video which appeared two weeks before the 2011 election for promoting backyard chickens and front yard wheat fields.

A guy who started a juice company called "Happy Planet" arguably makes a soft target for the Moonbeam accusers. But Robertson has had the last laugh: he made his business a success, and developers loved him, not just chicken farmers.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, seen here testing an augmented reality headset, was derided by critics as 'Mayor Moonbeam.' (Cliff Shim/CBC)

If anything, it's Robertson's chumminess with the development community that angers critics in a city that has seen thousands priced out of the real estate market during his time in office.

Still, many taxpaying homeowners have become paper millionaires during that time. Another divide which may well decide how you view the mayor.

His Vision council has been accused of trying to socially engineer a greener, denser, global city, turning a deaf ear to anyone old fashioned enough to object about being flattened by the steamroller of progress.

In response, Robertson made an awkward, unprecedented apology to citizens ahead of his last election.

Presumably, that's something you can't do twice; which might have made it tough for Robertson to overcome his much maligned holiday disappearance during last January's "snowpocalypse."

Democratizing city hall?

University of B.C. political scientist Max Cameron believes Robertson's legacy will be a positive one. He also thinks that new rules banning corporate and union donations in municipal elections might have put the developer-tied mayor in a bind ahead of another election.

"Him leaving and the new rules coming in, I think does create a new landscape, and the issues that have not been adequately addressed, particularly homelessness and the crisis around addiction, they're going to have to be addressed," Cameron says.

Mayor Gregor Robertson championed backyard chickens, but they have even lower voting turnout than human Vancouverites. (Chanelle Davidson)

"And I think if there is one area where Gregor Robertson could have done a whole lot more than he has done it is in democratizing city hall."

Senator Larry Campbell has a unique perspective on Robertson's time in office. He served as Vancouver mayor from 2002 until 2005, and he co-founded the Vision Vancouver party that Robertson led to continuous victories.

He thinks Robertson will be remembered as one of Vancouver's "truly great" mayors.

"He certainly has helped to make Vancouver a place on the map, from the point of view of the environment and the point of view of the city," he says.

"The difficulties are really beyond his control, mainly things like housing and the drug epidemic."

Better to be polarizing than bland

Campbell served one term. That was enough for him. You have no privacy. Everybody holds you responsible for everything. And at the end of the day, you lack the power of the province or Ottawa, though both levels of government are happy to see the blame land on your shoulders.

He says he'd rather be polarizing than bland.

"If I was mayor and the biggest concern was bike lanes and chickens, I'd think I'd done a pretty good job," he says.

He may not say it in so many words, but apparently Gregor Robertson feels the same way.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?