Building the Best Small Biking City in the World

Victoria is a Canadian town with a bold mission: To become the best small biking city in the world. They're calling this initiative, #Biketoria. (Watch the video to the right to see and hear more about the #Biketoria project.)

I had the opportunity to interview Victoria's Mayor, Lisa Helps, in advance of Strong Towns' Bike Week to learn more about this initiative and how the city plans to accomplish its goal. Lisa Helps was elected mayor of Victoria in 2014 and served on the city council for four years prior to that. She is leading the charge to build a bike network in her town. Here's our conversation:

Rachel: Is bikeability something you’re personally passionate about or something that the citizens in your town have advocated for, or both?

Mayor Helps: It’s a combination of both. I’ve been riding a bike as my main mode of transportation since I [was kid]. I think our citizens have also pushed for better biking infrastructure. It was certainly a topic during the election. Then right after the last election, we did in-depth public engagement on the strategic plan. This was a big priority for them.

Rachel: After the public engagement process around the strategic plan showed there was enthusiasm for bike lanes, what happened next?

Mayor Helps: The next step was to do engagement on what should the network look like. We did public engagement seemingly only with people who were interested. Then people who weren’t as enthusiastic heard about what was happening and responded. There was a proposal to remove a center lane in a business district. Shop owners didn’t want parking taken away.

Very few people like change, particularly when they can’t envision what it looks like. We’ve been trying to talk about that this is not about bicycles and not just for people to ride bikes. It’s for people who would get on a bicycle if only they felt safe. It’s about community well-being and wellness.

Rachel: What are you doing to make Victoria more bikeable?

Mayor Helps: We’re creating 25 km of all ages cycleability. We call this a “minimum grid.” Like with electricity: You can have various electric wires in a city, but it doesn’t help anyone if they're not connected to people’s houses. [When the 25 km are finished], 75% of residents will live within 400 meters of an all ages and abilities cycle network. Whether they’re 8 years old and riding to school, or 80 years old and have given up their license and want to have tea with their friend, this network [will serve them]. 

Rachel: What are the goals of this project?

Mayor Helps: I am a very action-oriented person. A number of my councilors feel the same. It is a lot of new infrastructure. First is 5.4 km [of bike lanes] in the downtown core, where biking is most unsafe. The ultimate goal is ensuring that the entire 25 km is built.

While people on bikes can’t carry as much as people driving cars, they’re more likely to visit small businesses more often. We’re going to measure that impact as much as possible.

Rachel: Do you think this is a worthwhile investment in your city? What will the pay-off be like?

Mayor Helps: Absolutely, there are huge economic benefits. One of the biggest sectors in this town is tech. Most tech entrepreneurs are between 25-45 years old. They live downtown and don’t have cars. They want a city where they can get around [by bike] easily. We hope to attract more of them.

[There are also] benefits for our small businesses. There’s an advocacy group who published a report on this called "Bicycling Means Business." It showed that, while people on bikes can’t carry as much as people driving cars, they’re more likely to visit small businesses more often. We’re going to measure that impact as much as possible.

Rachel: Have you seen a trend in other cities building bike networks?

Mayor Helps: Calgary has a small grid downtown separated network. Winnipeg has separated bike lanes. Certainly it seems to be on the radar of many cities. Really it’s about returning cities and public places to “people places.” It’s not about bikes or peds, it’s about making cities and streets into places not just for moving people, but into places for people

Rachel: Will Victoria residents continue to be involved in the decision making process as the bike lanes are built?

Mayor Helps: Residents on the most affected streets are and will be involved in designing the treatments—deciding is it bollards or flower pots? Where does the bus stop go?

Rachel: Interesting. So the protected bike lanes might take different forms depending on where they are. How do you decide which areas need bike lanes?

Mayor Helps: We’ve just broken ground on the first leg, going past City Hall. The Fort Street merchants recently put up signs that said "Fort Hearts Bikes," so we decided, if they’re passionate and enthusiastic, we’ll go there next. 

Rachel: How much will this project cost?

Mayor Helps: Our residents say “Oh, you’re spending so much on bike lanes.” But, we actually spend more on paving streets and [road amenities].

The first 5.4 km is about $7.5 million. It’s more complicated and expensive to build in the downtown core because of timing of traffic lights; the signalization needs to change. As we get out in the neighborhoods, the rule is about $1 million per kilometer.

Try to talk about bikes as little as possible. [Instead,] talk about community, wellness, moving people, transportation options, and changing behavior.

Rachel: What advice would you give other leaders and citizens hoping to improve bikeability in their towns?

Mayor Helps: I think, start by asking people what they want and need. Try to talk about bikes as little as possible. [Instead,] talk about community, wellness, moving people, transportation options, and changing behavior. Otherwise, you get in a bikes vs. cars debate.

It’s very normal now to drive cars because that’s what we have. If these bike lanes are ready for the 5- and 6- and 9-years-olds today, then biking becomes normal for them [when they grow up.]

The other advice I’d give is, have the courage to just do it because it does take courage. [Many people] won’t understand the benefits of the bike network until the network is built.

Rachel: Has your town made any other efforts at improving bike-friendliness like installing bike racks or bike fixing stations around town?

Mayor Helps: We get a lot of demand for bike racks outside of businesses. We try to put in as many as we can. One of the things we like to see is end-of-trip amenities at offices like showers and bike storage facilities. We just partnered with the downtown business association to create a cedar-roofed store facility with a fixing station.

Rachel: Do you think the #Biketoria efforts will increase the amount of people biking in your city? How do you plan to measure that?

Mayor Helps: We will work with university and our staff to measure the mode shift. Our [citywide] community plan goes out to 2041. The goal is that by 2041, 75% of people will use transit, walking or cycling as their main mode of transportation.

I think it’s really doable. We have the bones of a really walkable, bikeable city: it’s small and designed around a streetcar network. It lends itself to a village-oriented city.

Rachel: I think a lot of people see bike lanes as something that’s only feasible or needed in big cities like Vancouver or New York City or Portland. But it seems like you’re saying that a small town could potentially be very well-suited to bikeability.

Mayor Helps: We have 80,000 people in 20 square kilometers. Our ambition is to be the best small biking city in the world. 


Thank you to Mayor Lisa Helps for taking the time to talk with Strong Towns, and best of luck on this goal of becoming the best small biking city!

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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