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Is bike-friendly Vancouver ignoring the growing fact of mobility scooters?

September 23, 2013

Last Wednesday, September 18, delegates to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, held here in Vancouver, voted down a much talked-about resolution put forward by  Sidney, B.C. to regulate motorized wheelchairs, and electric mobility scooters, in the interests of public safety. This Times-Colonist post on the UBCM meeting, says the rejection came despite an impassioned speech in support of the resolution by by Sidney Mayor Larry Cross. Sidney’s final resolution was, in fact, a major climb-down from their original call to license motorized wheelchairs, and electric mobility scooters across the province. Mayor Cross compared his community, with its high proportion of seniors, to a canary in a coal mine, signalling the kinds of problems other municipalities can expect.

wheelie-resize-02“We’ve had a fatality in our community. We’ve had, in the last eight months, two serious rollovers — one of which resulted in a gentleman spending the summer in the hospital with a broken hip. Those accidents could have been avoided.”

The original proposal to license mobility scooters was met with charges of discrimination, and agism, but I think it was motivated by public safety concerns, and desire to get ahead of the curve,and begin laying the groundwork for regulating a future full of such mobility vehicles, exactly as happened with automobiles early in the 20th Century.

From one extreme to the other

The City of Vancouver does not seem concerned about mobility scooters, now, or in the future, but I think they probably should be. “Bicycles versus cars” have monopolized the transportation “discussion” in Vancouver for so many years now, that everyone seems to have missed the growing fact of mobility scooters and motorized wheelchairs. Using a bicycle is fundamentally a choice people make for themselves. People do not chose to grow old, get sick,become disabled — people use a mobility scooter or motorized wheelchair because they have no choice. The little army of electric scooters and motorized wheelchairs we see today, should be seen as the first trickle of the coming flood of unstoppable demographic change.

According to this Web page, the median age in Vancouver is 40.2-years old. 84.7% of Vancouverites are aged 15 or older. This Vancouver Sun article from last year used the latest census numbers to show British Columbia was aging faster than the rest of Canada, though It said that centre of the City of Vancouver, such as the downtown, Mount Pleasant and Fairview, for instance, had low proportions of both children and seniors,That seems to go against what I  see in Fairview — dozens of people using mobility scooters, or the larger motorized wheelchairs. Their numbers are nothing compared to cyclists, but the scooters and the wheelchairs are all on the sidewalks, they go into the stores, they go onto the buses. Every time I’m at the McDonald’s at Broadway and Granville, I’m holding the door for one or more persons using a mobility scooter — and not just the McDonalds. Whatever the stats say, the South Granville area at the heart of Fairview has a large population of seniors, and the numbers grow day by day. Yet there are still many South Granville businesses, like the McDonald’s, which do not have power doors.

For some reason, it seems that Vancouver’s planners, and businesses are not taking the issues around senior’s mobility, and access that seriously. Quite possibly, the seniors themselves are inclined to be too accepting of the status quo. Cyclist have been screaming about their needs for years, forming pressure groups, doing traffic-disrupting Critical Mass rides, and it’s paid off for them, big time.

Vancouver is caught up in Mayor Gregor Roberton’s ongoing push for bicycle lanes — not exactly popular with drivers and businesses. There are already several very nice didicated bike lanes downtown, and city crews have just embarked on  the Burrard Street Bridge south end improvements, work on which will continue into Summer 2014, and give cyclists a dedicated lane from the South end of the Burrard Street Bridge, West through the preppy neighbourhood of Point Grey, all the way to popular Jericho Beach. There is also the Vancouver Bike Share system coming  2014, a private program, but kickstarted with $6 million CDN of city money.

Blue citibikes used by New York City’s bikeshare program. Vancouver’s getting theirs soon.

I like better bicycle infrastructure, I’m a cyclist. But I have roads. I can fend for myself with the cars. Even with no improvements I have endless choices. When I look with the eyes of someone who has to use a mobility scooter, I see too many unnecessary obstacles, which I would prefer the city dealt with before they built me even one more bike lane.

Countless sidewalk corners in Fairview, and across Vancouver still do not have the sloping cut-outs for  wheelchair, stroller, mobility scooter access. South Burrard Street is a good example of a major street which has intersections where only one of the four corners is wheelchair accessible. What’s the point of that? I also believe Vancouver should amend it’s disability access rules, to require businesses to have a power door.  Many businesses have them — many don’t. I don’t see why any customer should have to rely on strangers opening the door for them. Sidewalk cut-outs and power-doors also accommodate people pushing baby strollers.

Now, if the city turned around and said all bike lanes were going to be designed to accommodate bikes, mobility scooters, and motorized wheelchairs, that’s probably something everyone could get behind,

“Here comes Lightning”


Karen is a woman I see in McDonald’s, most every morning. She’s one of a handful of morning regulars who use a mobility scooter or a motorized wheelchair — we all take turns jumping up to hold the door open for them, because McDonald’s still doesn’t have a power door. Karen uses a scooter, because twenty years ago she had a very serious stroke which fully paralyzed her. She describes her recovery since then as amazing; even so, she’s still paralyzed on her right side. Thanks to the scooter, Karen goes everywhere in Fairview, and beyond — I’ve seen her zipping around up near Main Street — three or four kilometres from South Granville, where she, and her scooter are a familiar sight. She once told me how, as she entered one South Granville shop, another customer cheerfully exclaimed, “here comes lightning!” However, while Karen can go pretty much anywhere she wants East to West, up and down the Broadway corridor, she finds it very difficult to visit her sister, who lives just a short distance away, on the other side of the Granville Street Bridge. Karen says she has to go a kilometre or so, either East or West, and use either the Burrard Street Bridge, or the Cambie Street Bridge.

Granville Street and a bridge too far

No barrier between cars and pedestrians.

Karen was only eight-years-old when the Granville Street Bridge was opened in 1954. The massively dour monster of a bridge is a hard reminder of a time when city planners only planned for four kinds of transportation: Cars, more cars, trucks, and buses — but not necessarily in that order. With it’s six lanes, and clover leaf exchanges, it’s more suited to be part of a highway than a gateway to downtown Vancouver. In fact, it’s officially part of Highway 99.

Take these steps to the 1950s.

The Granville Street Bridge makes obligatory concessions to foot traffic. Walkways are narrow, and curbs are high — being the only barrier between pedestrians and vehicles. A person walking across the bridge from either North or South Granville Street has to cross the roadway of an on- or off-ramp, which means using steps. Wheel chairs, and scooters aren’t getting across this way! The city talks about handicap accessibility, but has done nothing to upgrade it’s premier span over False Creek. Admittedly, they’ve only had 60 years, hardly enough time to discuss all the options.

It’s possible Karen could get across the Granville Street Bridge using her scooter if she used one of the walkways along the outside edge, meaning entering the bridge using, say, the East side Hemlock Street on-ramp, and exiting using the Seymour Street off-ramp. This would keep her from having to cross any of the ramp roadways, but, though it looks like clear sailing in Google Maps, I’m not 100 per cent positive the walkway continues all the way along the Seymour off-ramp; it should, but you know those crazy 1950s planners. The last time I took that exit on my bike — on the roadway, of course, it was winter, and my attention was focused on the sheet of black ice I found my self sliding down. Click some images to enlarge them, others not so much.

Instant update — I wasn’t the only one telling Karen she might be able to cross the bridge from Hemlock to Seymour — she tried it today, and tells me she had no trouble at all, and she plans to do it again tomorrow, weather permitting.

This convoluted route might get Karen’s scooter over the bridge, but I, for one haven’t tried it.

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