A ride out to Burnaby made me grateful for Vancouver's real respect for cyclists
I probably know the geography of Burnaby as well as the City of Vancouver, spending a lot of the years of my youth out there, as well as summer jobs during university. I was surprised by the Maclean's survey that placed Burnaby in top spot as the most well-run city. I reviewed the survey methodology for a bit, then got impatient trying to read the numbers.
One place Burnaby can't boast about much yet, however, is their bicycle infrastructure. Certainly the city is trying to catch up with neighbouring Vancouver with its "urban trails" initiative, but if a trek I took with my wife across the city last week is an indication, Burnaby has a long way to go.
We left East Vancouver and rode a well-marked route along the Ridgeway bike route, then turned north along Earles (no crosswalk button at Kingsway yet) to 29th Avenue out to Boundary Road. According to the map supplied by Translink (which was the top result for a "vancouver bike routes" Google search), we could just hop on Fir Street. No such luck – as it turns out the route is on neighbouring Moscrop Street, connecting to Vancouver's 29th Avenue bike route.
Bike routes running through west Burnaby: confusing or non-existent
We experienced a little bit more than some crossed wires between Burnaby and Translink. We finally finally found Fir Street behind some bushes and an unmarked sidewalk, and proceeded east to the Deer Lake area.
Burnaby's suburban neighbourhoods developed in an hodge-podge manner over the last forty years. The further east you go the more cul de sacs you encounter. Huge lot sizes and massive houses to match. Community after community almost completely dependent upon cars. Sidewalks seem to be set out for walking the dog and not much more.
Building walkable communities in Burnaby is made challenging by the terrain. There is lots of water, both lakes and streams, and greenways that cut through its middle. In Burnaby's west is BCIT campus, quite possibly the most frustrating mess of academic buildings and parking lots in Metro Vancouver. I think it should be bulldozed if possible and a real plan for an institution with housing, student residences and shopping should be built up in its place.
It appears dependence on the car has put huge pressure on certain routes across the city like Willingdon and Canada Way. Speed bumps are the city's most often used traffic calming device. Cars trying to avoid congestion on major Burnaby thoroughfares like to duck down side streets. Speed bumps are almost as annoying to cycle over as drive.
Finding signage, crosswalk controls and properly marked bike routes through Burnaby was a hit and miss affair where we rode. In some cases roadway confusion about bike routes was potentially dangerous. For example, moving east along Moscrop Street past Wayburne Drive it's not clear that you have to cross over to the north side of the street to the urban trail, making you vulnerable to oncoming traffic.
Later in our ride we took a route marked on both Burnaby's and Translink's bike map, Elwell Street. When we encountered the six-lane arterial Canada Way we were by this time not entirely surprised that there was no bike crossing here. No crosswalk or controlled intersection. We just had to wait for the traffic to clear, pray and RUN! to get to the other side.
Southeast Burnaby: risky connections across town
Burnaby's "Highgate" neighbourhood (formerly Middlegate until it was rebranded by developers) is caught in a transition. Made up mainly of fifty-year old three-story walk up apartments, it's the one of Burnaby's low income communities. At its edge new buildings and a master plan are creeping their way in. Unlike so much of what we've ridden through, there is local shopping, dining and lots of transportation options.
For cyclists, it continues to be a challenge. Twice now I've tried to figure out how the bike route marked on Walker Street is supposed to connect with the BC Parkway on the south side of Kingsway at Edmonds Street. Again there are no signs, no marked bike lanes and no crossing in place here.
The BC Parkway is one of the real nice features of south Burnaby, but it's suffering from years of neglect. In places it's a pleasant ride, in other spots it's frightening. Graffiti and decay cover buildings near the Royal Oak and Metrotown Skytrain hubs. So much of the route is vulnerable due to lack of attention to CPTED principles. Thugs roam the Skytrain station perimeters, presumably dealing drugs. Blind corners invite threats to personal safety.
We can't blame the City of Burnaby for all the problems the BC Parkway faces, it was built by the Province during Expo after all. But today the Burnaby portion of the route is co-managed by that city and Translink, and there is a plan in place for modern improvements. It would be nice if there was a clear mark on which side pedestrians should walk, and where cyclists should ride. We nearly ran into people on the Parkway despite attempts to share the route safely.
After a breath of fresh air in the stunning forest of Central Park we continued back home through Vancouver along well-marked routes. We followed East 45th avenue, and both felt a sense of relief to be back on the Vancouver street grid. Turning north along Nanaimo, the bike route is adorned with beautiful landscaping and public art. We can thank Vancouver's senior planner and greenways goddess Sandy James for these immaculate touches all around the city.
We continued back on the Ridgeway where more public art hangs from telephone poles. For a brief slideshow of images taken along the route, follow this link and click the image for the notes to appear.
Sometimes you have to get out of your element to see how good you've got it. Burnaby may be #1 in Canada according to Maclean's mag, but when it comes to cycling infrastructure Vancouver is showing Canadians how to get it done.