Toronto’s cycling plan: One pedal forward, one back
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Less than 10 kilometres.
That’s the total length of new bike lanes that were planned to be painted in 2014. But with an election less than five months away and the year half over, they have yet to be approved.
Part of that plan is adding lanes to Harbord St. and Hoskin Ave. and approving a pilot project for Richmond and Adelaide Sts. Together those new lanes, totaling nearly seven kilometres, are the most action downtown lanes have seen in the past four years. The proposal is set to go before council June 10.
If you’re a cyclist, there is not much to cheer about.
Step back to 2001, when the Toronto Bike Plan was endorsed by council and released to much fanfare. It promised to make the city a bicycle-friendly haven. Though ambitious, the feeling at the time was it could be done.
The plan set out to build by 2011 a 1,000-kilometre network, of which 495 kilometres would be on-road bike lanes.
Thirteen years on and well past the plan’s 10-year objective, 1,000 kilometres remains the city’s target — but only on paper. Today the network spans 571 kilometres but includes just 114 kilometres of on-road bike lanes. Since 2010, when Mayor Rob Ford took power, the city has actually lost three kilometres of bike lanes.
And under Ford, there has been a shift in focus from on-road bike lanes to off-road trails — a change cycling enthusiasts say is great for recreation riders but does little for commuters.
“Where it really took political will, which is the on-street stuff, we kind of fell flat on our face,” said Cycle Toronto’s executive director, Jared Kolb, about the past eight years.
What advocates are really after, separated bike lanes — the kind that divide car and cycling traffic with some kind of added barrier, like a planter box, poles or curbs — have seen little real consideration in Toronto.
The city’s first separated lanes, on Sherbourne St., opened after the existing track was updated in 2013.
In 2014, the public works committee approved additional lanes on Harbord and Hoskins and the first lanes on Richmond and Adelaide. Both must first be approved by council on June 10 before they are installed.
After the vehicle-friendly Rob Ford was elected, he killed the approved light rail transit plan and declared “the war on the car is over.” His mayoralty politicized any proposal for transit, particularly streetcars, and cyclists, who he argued impede traffic.
Still, Ford promised to build cycling infrastructure, using $50 million, but he wanted bikes off the roads. He proposed building 100 kilometres of cycling trails, something the city was already doing.
The following year, council would approve 77 kilometres of trails, to bring the total over 100 kilometres. Those projects are still underway.
In 2009, the number of Torontonians who biked to work or school was closing in on 400,000, according to a city study. Since then, there have been very small successes when it comes to on-road lanes. Some grew from their proposed lengths, like an extra half kilometre on Wellesley St., while other plans disappeared altogether.
While bike lanes have seen a reverse under Ford, his predecessor David Miller did not do much better — despite a bigger push to create grand plans for a downtown network.
Although there were budget increases year-to-year for infrastructure, the pace of actual planning was slow. Under Miller the 2001 bike plan deadline was moved twice, to 2012 and then again to 2013.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who chairs the public works committee that approved the Richmond-Adelaide project, said he’s proud of the progress gained in the past four years.
“Anyone can draw lines on a page, but it is about getting it done,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy.”
He claimed the previous administration should be blamed for the removal of lanes like those on Jarvis St. — even though Miller put them in and Ford took them out — since Miller, in his view, didn’t do sufficient consultation first. But he also said the environmental assessment process outlined by the province needs to be streamlined. Council approved the lane removals on Jarvis in 2012.
Daniel Egan, manager for cycling infrastructure and programs, said the Richmond-Adelaide project was one of the “most complex” the city has ever pursued.
“If it was a simple thing, we would have done it years ago,” he said of criticism that project was conceived more than 10 years ago. “I think it’s always been more complicated here.”
In cities such as Chicago, bike lanes can be established by planning staff after evaluation and implemented.
In Toronto, the process is closely scrutinized from beginning to end with mandatory assessments, pilot projects and other checks-and-balances that can slow implementation down.
Looking to other major cities for comparison on our progress, the differences can be staggering.
In Chicago, actual on-road bikeways outstrip Toronto’s nearly threefold, with 320 kilometres.
Montreal — consistently named to the Copenhagenize Index of bicycle-friendly cities — has a 650-kilometre cycling network and plans to exceed 800 kilometres by 2017.
By Toronto standards, which tallies lane lengths on both sides of the street, Montreal has nearly 800 kilometres already, said Montreal’s Aref Salem, who is in charge of transportation on the executive committee.
Meanwhile, in cycling super-cities like Copenhagen, there are now “bicycle highways” stretching from the core to the suburbs more than 20 kilometres away. The city itself has a 443-kilometre network in a city one-eighth the size of Toronto.
More cycling-friendly cities may be getting a bigger economic boost.
A 2012 study out of bike haven Portland, Ore., revealed that convenience store, bar and restaurant patrons who arrived at these establishments on bikes spent more there on average per month than patrons who drove, and returned more often.
Kolb said he hopes that experimenting with the Richmond-Adelaide lanes will shift perception about cars and bicycles co-existing safely and seamlessly downtown.
“I don’t think mayor Miller achieved a lot for cycling; I don’t think Mayor Ford has achieved a lot for (on-street) cycling,” Kolb said. “We’ve got to get back to work at building out the on-street grid.”
A city-by-city comparison of on-street bike lanes vs. city size
Toronto: 114 kilometres (630 sq. kilometres)
Chicago: 320 kilometres (606 sq. kilometres)
Copenhagen: 443 kilometres (86 sq. kilometres)
Montreal: 730 kilometres (365 sq. kilometres)
(Data from City of Toronto, Chicago, Copenhagen and Montreal)