Vancouver will move forward with a plan to install protected bike lanes along Columbia Street and remove nearly 400 parking spaces, following a near-consensus from the city council that pedestrian and cyclist safety was more important than maintaining convenient parking along the corridor.
The decision followed a lengthy discussion Monday evening, in which five of the seven councilors expressed support for the option with the biggest footprint: protected bike lanes along both directions of Columbia Street from Eighth Street to 13th Street and Mill Plain Boulevard to 45th Street, with a protected northbound bike lane and a marked shared southbound lane along the section from 13th Street to Mill Plain.
“This, to me, comes down to a choice between safety and parking. When it comes to that, safety is always going to win for me,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen, one of the voices in support of the plan.
Councilor Ty Stober, who patched into the conversation remotely, said there were no easy compromises. As is, Vancouver has the worst car vs. cyclist and car vs. pedestrian accident rate in the state of Washington, he added.
“Ultimately, sacrifice is required,” Stober said. “Very tangible losses for few in exchange for very disbursed gains for many. It’s a very hard pill to swallow.”
It was déjà vu at City Hall, where the governing body had a near-identical discussion about the Westside Bike Mobility Project a year ago.
The project is part of the city’s broader Westside Mobility Strategy, an initiative aimed at accommodating more means of transportation in the city than just motorized vehicles. The protected bike lanes, in theory, won’t just be used for bikes — they’re designed for all forms of “micro-mobility.” That could include modes of transportation already gaining popularity, like electric scooters, as well as those that haven’t been invented yet.
“By the year 2035, one in four people will be age 65 and older. We need to have different mobility options for everyone,” said Councilor Laurie Lebowsky.
In February 2019, the proposal to build protected bike lanes along three north-south routes on Vancouver’s west side drew loud condemnation from many residents and businesses along the corridors.
Columbia Street was by far the most controversial. Columbia cuts through the historic Hough, Carter Park and Lincoln neighborhoods, with tightly packed homes leaving little room for garages and long driveways. It also borders the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, where many disabled veterans count on close street parking in order to make it to the door. Residents turned up to council meetings en masse, voicing concerns about what the proposal would do to livability in their neighborhoods.
Based on the feedback in 2019, the city council decided to postpone the bike lane installation by a year to consider alternatives. A scheduled paving of Columbia Street, meant to coincide with the installation to make the project more efficient, was also postponed.
City staff then embarked on a more robust public outreach process, including open houses, online surveys and meetings with affected neighborhood associations.
That process and transparency were important, Paulsen said. But the idea that city leaders could resolve the issue with more conversations, he said, was “naive optimism.”
“I’ve learned that no amount of process will resolve fundamental disagreements on divisive issues, and that’s where leadership comes in,” Paulsen said.
No formal vote
There was no formal vote on the proposal, but two councilmembers didn’t give it their endorsement.
Councilor Sarah Fox, the most recent addition behind the dais, said she felt too new to the council to solidly support the most comprehensive bike lane plan or a more moderate “hybrid” option. Bart Hansen was the only councilor in strong opposition to either plan, delivering a speech that criticized the city for a weak, “checking-a-box” approach to citizen outreach the first time around.
“We have completely destroyed transparency in this process,” Hansen said, drawing some applause from residents who attended Monday’s meeting. “I’m proposing alternative No. 3, which is that we repave Columbia.”
None of the councilors supported the alternative hybrid option that would have seen the removal of just 223 parking spaces by replacing some of the proposed protected bike lanes with sharrows, of shared car and bicycle lanes. The councilors’ preferred option, which a few called the “gold standard” in multimodal transportation, will require removing 393 spaces.
Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle concluded the discussion with a pointed reminder about public rights of way.
“I don’t own the street in front of my house. That is a city street,” she said, adding that she, too, supported the more comprehensive version of the protected bike lane plan.
“With that, city manager, you have a consensus from the city council to move forward.”