Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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Nearly complete Columbia Street bike lanes still point of contention

By , Columbian staff writer
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A truck drives through the intersection of Columbia and 33rd Street, which has been transformed with green-painted bike boxes showing safe areas for cyclists as part of the city's Westside Bike Mobility Project.
A truck drives through the intersection of Columbia and 33rd Street, which has been transformed with green-painted bike boxes showing safe areas for cyclists as part of the city's Westside Bike Mobility Project. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Most of the hotly debated Westside Bike Mobility Project is complete, and community members are offering mixed reviews on the impact it has made on commuting and living in the area.

The project, which extends along Columbia Street from downtown to Uptown Vancouver, was initiated by the city to make Vancouver safer for people who traveled through the streets without a vehicle. It replaced approximately 400 street parking spots along Columbia Street with bike lanes.

Two bike lanes, one on each side of the traffic lanes, now provide a north-south passage through the city. Green blocks and white slashes indicates the recommended protected areas for people on bicycles.

Cyclists had spoken about the need for safer bicycle infrastructure while business owners and residents of the Hough, Carter Park and Lincoln neighborhoods were more skeptical of the plan. Many spoke for and against the mobility project since its proposal in February 2019.

Those tensions remain now that the long-planned project is nearly finished and people in Vancouver are starting to become familiarized with the newly bike-friendly Columbia Street.

A tense reality

Commercial business owners and residents along the street are still not pleased with the renovation, not just because of the loss of on-street parking but also because of their past contact with the city.

Glen Yung, a Columbia Street resident and neighborhood association chair, said it’s not the cyclists’ fault that there is tension around the bike lanes. He said the lack of communication and the dismissal of information between the neighborhood and city during the project’s initiation created confusion, especially when it concerned finding alternate routes for the bike lanes.

For some in the neighborhood, this was their first time talking to elected officials. Yung said many committee members felt unheard during this process, and it created a wound that might go unhealed.

The installation of the bike lanes caused some residents to sell their property, Yung said, and he said those who couldn’t sell are still adapting to the lack of parking. Some questioned whether the bike lanes were necessary to promote safety.

“Did we really create safety or just the perception of safety?” Yung said. “There were other creative ways we could have done this.”

The Clark County Veterans Assistance Center is one of many groups that didn’t support the project. Judy Russel, president of the center, said the absence of parking has been a “nightmare” and is creating an impossible situation for veterans who visit the building.

“I can’t in my good conscience see a disabled veteran park two blocks away and walk in with his cane, wheelchair or walker,” she said.

When the project was initially approved, the center began looking for a new building, Russel said. Most of the center’s nearby parking was replaced with bike lanes, though a space was reserved by the building to function as a loading zone for those accessing the center.

Due to the pandemic and scarce volunteers, the center is still conducting most of its veteran support over the phone. However, Russel said, there will be a greater influx of veterans who need to enter the building once the organization reopens its doors.

“It’s quite honestly going to get worse before it gets better,” Russel said. “The parking situation will be impossible.”

Transportation made safer and more inclusive

Peter Van Tilburg, executive director of Bike Clark County and an avid cycler, said the bike lanes on Columbia Street have made him feel safer as a driver and cyclist. He said the additions have also made commuters, both automotive and otherwise, friendlier on the streets.

“If you see a cyclist on the street, I think that means there’s one less driver in front of you,” Van Tilburg said.

The area is less congested, and cyclists are comforted by knowing that they are safer and more visible, said Jan Verrinder, board member of the Vancouver Bicycle Club.

Before the bike lanes were included, Van Tilburg, Verrinder and other cyclists would ride in the street to avoid being hit by people in parked cars opening their doors. They said it feels safer and quicker to navigate the city within the space of the new lanes.

Verrinder added that the mobility project also made transportation more inclusive for people who don’t normally use a car — either by choice or because they can’t afford it.

“What can look like a leisurely activity to some is the only way some of us get around,” she said.

Columbia Street was always part of the Vancouver Bicycle Club’s weekly route, but now it is much safer for those who are beginners, she said. There’s a variety of people in the club whose ages range from 8 to 85 years old — some members have never taken their feet off the ground before riding with the group. Verrinder said the new bike lanes empowered people to get outside of their comfort zone.

“I think (the city has) equalized the transportation on Columbia so we’re all safer,” Verrinder said. “It is a project (they) should be really, really proud of.”

Next steps

The city is currently finalizing paperwork for a $987,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation Pedestrian and Bicycle Program for the project. They are also preparing to contract bids to establish the remaining features on Columbia Street, which would begin in early 2022.

New installments along the road include light-reflecting separators, bike boxes at signal intersections, street lighting, new crosswalk and pavement markings, and pedestrian counters.

The city is also designing educational pamphlets that describe how to traverse the new pavement markings and lanes. In the meantime, drivers and cyclists should know that the green paint on the pavement indicates an area where it’s safe for people to ride. These green areas should be clear of vehicles.

Progress on the mobility project and other construction on Columbia Street can be found at cityofvancouver.us/columbiastreet.

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