Bike lanes are built to make cycling safer on city streets, but according to one cyclist, the City of Vancouver’s new bike path on Smithe Street puts cyclists in peril, while confusing and frustrating drivers.

Paulo Oconnor has ridden downtown since he moved to Vancouver 14 years ago. He’s an avid commuter-cyclist and racer but also guides novice tourists on rides around the city.

“A few months ago, I saw the new lanes go in on Smithe Street,” said Oconnor. “My general impression was cyclists are now funneled into a danger zone.”

Many cyclists take the Cambie Street Bridge to get downtown, sending them riding up Smithe Street. The first block is a completely separate, raised lane, but then after Beatty Street, a new bike lane has been added for several blocks.

However, halfway up each block, the separated bike lane dumps directly into the lane assigned to drivers making right hand turns.

‘Confusing for everybody’

“Even taking a look at it, there’s right hand turn arrows and bicycles in the same painted lane, and I think that’s confusing for everybody, whether you’re a driver or a bicycle,” said Oconnor, who’s still recovering from a collision he had with a motorist in a different part of town.

Smithe Street bike lane

A critic of the new Smithe Street bike path says the combined bike symbols and right hand turn arrows could confuse both cyclists and motorists. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

“I’ve only ridden [the new lane] three or four times,” he said. “I completely avoid it, because to me it’s completely terrifying and every time there’s been an interaction with a car, where I’ve had to swing further out into traffic to avoid someone making a quick right hand turn.”

The new Smithe Street bike infrastructure is just one of four sections of pathway quickly installed, according to Paul Storer, manager of transportation design with the City of Vancouver.

Smithe Street bike lane

Paul Storer, manager of transportation design with the City of Vancouver, says the bike lane up Smithe is an improvement but could still be tweaked in the future. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Quick implementation

“With the launch of the Mobi system, the public bike share system, we wanted to come out and create a much more expanded system of cycling facilities in the downtown core,” said Storer.

“So through, kind of, a quick implementation method, we came out and installed new lanes — what we call protected bike lanes — on Beatty, Cambie, Smithe, and Nelson streets.”

Storer said the new paths were built using quick, cheap methods, like paint and planter boxes to separate traffic and extra new curbs installed, rather than pulling out old ones. In total, he said the four new lanes cost a little more than a million dollars.

Smithe Street bike lane

A driver attempting to turn right waits for cyclists on Smithe Street in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

“All of that is to provide places where more people will feel more comfortable cycling and be able to get to and from where they want to works, shop and play,” he said.

But Oconnor said he would never take his novice tours on the new Smithe Street path — and they’re just the type of rider Storer is trying to attract.

“They wouldn’t like it. I take them on the safest bike lanes we have in town, and they’re very impressed with what we have,” said Oconnor. “Hornby, the Seawall, you know, Richards Street and even Cambie and all of these streets here are very well done and separated and safe,” said Oconnor.

Smithe Street bike lane

Paulo Oconnor, a veteran cyclist who guides novice tourists on rides in Vancouver, says the new bike lane on Smithe Street isn’t suitable for cyclists of any skill level. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Now, when Oconnor rides up Smithe Street, he simply takes a driver’s lane, which is what Storer suggests for fast-moving riders who are comfortable in traffic, but it’s something that Oconnor worries might anger motorists who think cyclists belong in the new bike lane.

Storer said the city will continue to work on improving the pathway to make it comfortable for all levels of cyclists, but major work probably won’t happen on Smithe for at least a couple of years, when the street needs repaving.

“When you get to some of those shared spaces on Smithe Street, it probably isn’t that full range of abilities that we want to design for over the long term,” said Storer, who suggests better signage may help.

“But it is an improvement over what was there before.”

But for Oconnor, the best solution might be just to get rid of the new lane completely.

“Either return it to a lane of traffic, which is the cheapest option, or you have to go and take it away from cars altogether. A bicycle lane shared with cars is not a safe bicycle lane, in my opinion.”

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker