This story first appeared in Spring 2011. Get that issue here.
Illustration by Dave Murray
Does the mink mile measure up? Fur flies when Yorkville weasels out of a bike lane
Story by Albert Koehl
“Would it really have been so difficult to include a bike lane?” This question rolls over in my mind as I cycle in Yorkville along Bloor Street – now freshly paved and adorned by broad granite sidewalks and recently planted trees. Oddly, it’s not clear whether this question is best asked of the public officials we entrust with decisions about public roads and sidewalks or of the leaders of private businesses in the area.
Fortunately, there are still ways to convert this stretch of Bloor – the so-called Mink Mile, for its posh stores – into a 21st century urban thoroughfare that provides safe passage for cyclists and addresses the pressing problems of traffic congestion, air pollution and climate change.
The $25 million Bloor Street Transformation Project got Toronto city council’s go ahead in 2008. The local Business Improvment Area (BIA), a city-created organization that includes public officials, played a central role in planning. Although the City paid for upgrades to the roadway and water main, BIA businesses agreed to repay, at a future time, the City’s upfront loan of $20 million for other features of the work.
The goal of the project was to create a pedestrian-oriented shopping district (albeit with four-plus lanes for motor vehicles) and to beautify Bloor between Church Street and Avenue Road – but the beautification apparently doesn’t include the safety of cyclists. Why was no bike lane included in the transformation of Bloor Street in Yorkville? Most likely because local businesses simply didn’t want one and the public’s representatives were happy to sell out the thousands of cyclists who use Bloor every day as a vital link between east and west in the city.
The reminders of how this story played out sit at various points along the road. The Marriott Hotel was the location for a ‘public’ meeting held by the BIA shortly before the project got under way. In a later court case, the City pointed to the meeting as evidence of public consultation. The public nature of the meeting was rather obviously impaired by police at the door whose job included keeping cyclists out. After seeing the police, I cycled home quickly, changed into a clever disguise (a two-piece suit), returned and walked casually by them… only to be thwarted by BIA gatekeepers whose concept of ‘public’ was restricted to local businesses. Further down the road are two other reminders of the unsuccessful fight for bike lanes. At the corner of Bay and Bloor, Mayor David Miller and former councillor Kyle Rae announced the start of construction while a few protestors (under the watchful eye of photo-snapping police) peacefully questioned the merit of the celebration given the sell out of cyclists’ safety interests.
A few doors over is the high-end retailer William Ashley China, which sued the City over an alleged failure to comply with provincial environmental assessment (EA) laws for the project. I represented a group of cycling advocates who intervened in the case. The suit failed (and the black robe I wore this time didn’t help either.) An earlier formal petition to the Ministry of Environment (via the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario) brought by two other cycling groups, also failed. The gist of both cases, from the cyclists’ perspective, was the city’s failure to comply with EA laws. This failure deprived advocates of the opportunity to focus attention on Ontario planning laws that mandate consideration of cyclists’ safety.
The Ministry of Environment’s attitude summarized the uphill battle of cyclists to have a say in how public roads are shared. The Ministry initially concluded that the project did not need an EA because it was largely private in nature. This conclusion was partly based on an erroneous interpretation of the BIA as a private body, but also on a rather odd idea of who should have a say about the public roadway and sidewalk.
Traffic studies for the project suggested that far more shoppers in the area arrive by foot or transit compared to car or bicycle. This might explain why cyclists’ interests were ignored but not how motorists nonetheless ended up with generous amounts of pavement. Presumably the road was considered a transportation infrastructure issue that went beyond the strict interests of the merchants and the narrow geographic limits of the local councillor – but only insofar as cars and trucks were concerned. Whether cyclists would be given a safe share of the road was treated as a purely local decision that could apparently be left to private corporations.
As I look in vain for a place to park my bike in front of the Winners store, I conclude optimistically that there are still ways to improve the Mink Mile. The obvious problem with Bloor Street’s new sharrows in this area – beyond the cars illegally parked on them – is that sharing a lane with diesel-belching trucks and powerful cars traveling 50-60km/h (or more) hardly makes for a safe ride. In fact, a World Bank, World Health Organization report found that cars, bikes and pedestrians can only safely share roads at speeds under 30 km/h. It’s worth noting that a pedestrian hit by a car at 50km/h has only a 50-50 chance of survival; at 30km/h the survival rate is excellent. The solution is to reduce the speed limit to sub-lethal levels.
A 30km/h maximum wouldn’t just make the Mink Mile safer for pedestrians and cyclists – it would benefit merchants. Motorists and their passengers wouldn’t just zoom past swanky shops – they would notice them. Safer cycling conditions would also induce more shoppers to cycle, which would mean better toned bodies that would make Yorkville’s famous designer clothes look better still.
Reconfiguring the road markings could also provide space for a bike lane, even separated bike lanes like those being pushed by the bike union for downtown Toronto. This too would be win-win. Statistics from New York City, where separated bike lanes are in place, show that such lanes significantly improve the safety of pedestrians.
The Mink Mile might yet become a safe place for cyclists – but only if we start thinking of the public roadway and public sidewalk as the public domain where everyone has a right to be safe.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founding member of Bells on Bloor. He represented the Safe Cycling Coalition in its intervention in William Ashley China v. City of Toronto. He also represented Take the Tooker and Bikes on Bloor in a formal petition to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. Koehl is also currently preparing a new report on cycling and pedestrian safety.