British Columbia

How close is Metro Vancouver to having 'cycle highways'?

HUB, a cycling advocacy group, is pushing the idea of 'cycle highways' to connect bike networks in the region, seizing on the rising popularity of electric bikes and building on the existing bicycle routes.

New Westminster mayor says 'motivations are there' to achieve cycle highways in region

A man in a green high-visibility jacket rides a bicycle down a bike path.
A cyclist rides on a designated bike path in Vancouver. The city has more than 600 kilometres of bike routes, but none that HUB, a Vancouver cycling advocacy group, would call a 'cycle highway.' (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The idea of "cycle highways" isn't exactly new — they exist in parts of Europe and elsewhere — but according to HUB, a bicycle advocacy group, you can't call what Metro Vancouver currently has cycle highways.

"Cycle highways are the highest quality bicycle facilities that are long distance," said Evan Hammer, cycle highway project manager with HUB.

They're basically like motor vehicle highways, says Hammer — except they're much less expensive, well branded, paved, well lit, easy to follow, don't require stops and possible to use year-round.

He says routes need to be longer than five kilometres and connect different municipalities as well as places lots of people work, live, shop, attend universities and access transit hubs.

This week, the group released a report featuring proposed next steps for implementing cycle highways in the region. 

Metro Vancouver already has extensive bicycle routes. A 2020 study by HUB and TransLink found that in 2019, there were 4,595 kilometres of designated bicycle paths in the region.

According to Hammer, the routes do a reasonable job of connecting the region, but there are significant gaps — and more importantly, many of the routes aren't considered comfortable to use by most cyclists, generally meaning cyclists are not protected from motor vehicles.

In fact, just 46 per cent of the designated routes were considered comfortable to most cyclists at the time of the study.

Metro Vancouver has thousands of kilometres of designated bike routes, but they vary in quality and safety across the region, and in some areas the networks are fragmented, says Evan Hammer of HUB. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

However, turning some of the existing infrastructure into cycle highways isn't necessarily a major job.

"Like, you might take an existing piece of infrastructure like the B.C. Parkway — which goes from Surrey, through New Westminster, Burnaby and into Vancouver — and upgrade that to a cycle highway," he said. 

"So people could cycle all the way from Surrey to Vancouver, or just a portion of it."

Other routes that could similarly be upgraded into cycle highways, according to HUB's report, include the Adanac and Francis Union Bikeway, the Central Valley Greenway and the Tri-Cities to North Shore Corridor.

A bike path filled with cyclists during rush hour in downtown Vancouver in 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Jonathan Cote, mayor of New Westminster and chair of the mayors' council on regional transportation, agrees that getting to the level of cycling highways is within reach.

"There already is a bit of a backbone and some infrastructure in place, so we're not starting from scratch with this idea," said Cote.

"I don't think it's any one barrier, but it's probably a lot of different little gaps and challenging projects that do require some creative thinking and are going to require some investment to really create what I would say is a cohesive and highly effective cycling highway in the region."

Hammer wouldn't venture an estimate of what it would cost to properly connect the region's cycling network. But he and Cote both said funding for such a project would have to come from several sources, ranging from municipalities, the provincial and federal governments, and even TransLink.

Compared to massive infrastructure projects like motor vehicle highway expansions, bridges and rapid transit lines, Cote said quality bike routes are relatively inexpensive.

"It's been known for quite some time that investment in cycling infrastructure can be some of the most cost-effective ways of delivering transportation options in the region," he said.

As for how quickly the plan could come together, Cote said there seems to be broad agreement among mayors that it's a a good idea, and he's hoping to see that formalized when the Mayors' Council adopts its 10-year priority list later this month.

"The time is right and I think the motivations are there," he said.