The City of Toronto’s 2001 Bike Plan included an ambitious Bikeway Network proposal which would create a system of cycling facilities across the city totaling over 1000km by the proposed deadline of 2012 and the promise that all residents be within a five minute bike ride to the Network. However, as with any good democratic process, bike lanes are negotiated on a block-by-block basis, requiring public consultation and approval by City Council. You can track the project status on the City of Toronto website.
The bike plans for 2010 were brought forward at the May 11-12 Toronto City Council meetings and included a pilot project to install new, separated bike lanes on University Ave. One of four lanes on either side of the median would become dedicated bike lanes, with solid posts and a one meter buffer to physically separate bikes from car traffic. The lane would extend from Richmond St. to Hoskin Ave., and would connect to three major east-west bike lanes. The pilot was scheduled to run throughout the summer of 2010, after which an evaluation would determine the feasibility of more permanent infrastructure. However, as a major arterial road in the downtown core, motorists and city councillors expressed concern over the possibility of increased congestion.
But when it came time to cast ballots, the vote was botched. The National Post reported that “Councillor Paula Fletcher (Toronto-Danforth) accidentally voted in support of an amendment to remove the University Avenue lanes” resulting in 15-13 in favour, as opposed the tie that would have killed the amendment and given the pilot project a green light. The source of the error (technical or human) is unclear, but irrespective of the cause, it cannot be undone. Embarrassing, yes, but it gets better. At least Councillor Fletcher was present at the time of voting. One third of the committee was not present for the vote for reasons ranging from returning phone calls to entertaining out of town guests. I, for one, was unaware that attendance was optional at said Council meetings. But what’s more is that even those that did manage to attend and were able to cast their vote without error and had supported the pilot project (as avid cyclists themselves) voted for the amendment! It appears that in order to avoid divisiveness and upset, councillors felt it best to make the big bike lane mess go away. Good policy dismissed by a lack of political courage.
However, this debacle is not the source of my perplexity. No. It is the fact that we are debating bike lanes at all. That, despite mounting pressure for urban centers to address environmental degradation, not to mention our country’s legal obligations to reduce carbon emissions, bike lanes are defeated by flimsy, short-sighted rationalizations. A mere clutching at straws. For example, motorists retort, “what about emergency vehicles!?” Perhaps they will navigate congestion just as they do on every other busy downtown street. Another response, “bike lanes will create more motorist congestion and therefore increase pollution!” True, congestion is a major problem, and an OECD study published last year indicated that it costs Toronto $3.3 bil in lost productivity annually. One solution to congestion would be to increase the accessibility of alternate modes of transport, such as cycling, by introducing separated bike lanes. Well that, or we could institute congestion charges, like those in London. Another favourite is that “bike lanes should be restricted to quieter, peripheral streets”. This leaves cyclists to navigate parked cars, recycling bins, traffic-calming speed bumps, not to mention other motorists. Without separated bike lanes, the safety and speed with which cyclists can travel is greatly reduced, thus reducing the feasibility and attractiveness of cycling and discouraging potential cyclists. A critical mass is necessary to move drivers out of their cars and onto bikes, but that moment will not be realized unless city planners and policy makers can create space for alternate modes of transport.
Cycling is an equitable, clean and sustainable mode of transport in urban areas that can provide fast, convenient and reliable mobility in the downtown core. Cycling can contribute to healthy lifestyles, increased productivity and greener cities. The proliferation of cycling in Toronto has been constrained by lacking infrastructure and inadequate policy, both of which favour the car in matters of mobility. The proposed pilot project was innovative, ambitious and an opportunity to test the waters of shared road space, and yet it failed before it even began. If those so opposed to bike lanes were truly convinced of the negative consequences of bike lanes on University Ave., why not allow the pilot project to prove them right?