by Andrew Reeves, photos courtesy of Share the Road
2012 may be remembered as a game-changing year for cycling in Ontario. The summer coroner’s report from Dr. Andrew McCallum reminded the public of the human toll in failing to properly balance competing street uses, while the provincial government awoke to the fact that there had been no substantive changes to Ontario’s Bicycle Policy since introduced in 1992. Steps were being taken to improve cycling infrastructure and public awareness to boost cyclist safety, and Eleanor McMahon from Share the Road has been at the centre of it all.
“The stars are aligning for cycling in our province [but] we have a long way to go,” she believes. McMahon sees Ontario as an island in a sea of progress when the cycling gains made in Quebec, British Columbia and the United States are taken into consideration. But what Ontario is witnessing today is a watershed moment in how policy makers think about - and plan for - cycling to come out of the margins and into the mainstream of transportation planning.
“I think we’re seeing politicians and policy makers awakening to the reality that cycling is important because it’s really no longer just a recreational activity - it’s transit,” McMahon said. McMahon is CEO of Share the Road, a cycling coalition she founded in 2009 after her husband, OPP Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was killed during an off-duty bike ride near Milton. Since then, McMahon has been one of Ontario’s leading advocates for improving cycling safety by telling political leaders what they already know: that cycling is not an “alternative transportation” to driving a car, but a year-round, everyday mode of transportation for 600,000 Ontarians.
Polling of cyclist’s riding habits done by Share the Road found 5 per cent of Ontarians ride their bikes every day but 60 per cent are too afraid because of safety concerns, a figure McMahon said is “shriekingly high.” That’s why 2012’s coroner’s report, investigating 129 cycling deaths in the province between 2006 and 2010 and the subsequent public consultation on the cycling strategy in November, were welcome additions to the conversation about how to improve the relationship between drivers and cyclists to make streets safer for everyone, while curtailing public perceptions that cycling in Ontario is dangerous.
The answer? Without overlooking the importance of cycling infrastructure improvements, “education is critical to helping us unlock pent up demand to cycle,” McMahon said. In a perverse way, a report on cycling deaths may go some distance to improve safety on Ontario roads by providing recommendations that McMahon claims are “destined to shape the public policy framework for years to come. Taken together, first the coroners report and the cycling strategy are two powerful bookends in terms of moving the conversation forward.” That change in conversation got a boost from cycling enthusiast Glen Murray’s appointment as Transportation Minister in February 2013, a man who is no stranger to long-distance rides on regional roads and his urban morning commute on Toronto’s crowded streets.
The challenge is changing people’s perceptions, Murray said. He and McMahon agree the province must do more to educate people in school about the rules of the road, assisted by changes to the driver’s manual reflecting the reality of bikes on our urban and rural streets. “Often when I’m in a cab I hear drivers yelling because a cyclist is signalling a left turn in the lane in front of them but that’s where the cyclist should be properly in the turning lane. People just don’t understand that,” he said.
It’s fitting the government’s response to the coroner’s report will surface in June 2013 within weeks of the completed cyclist strategy that made use of over 900 public comments on ways to improve safety measures. The two documents are closely linked: while policy slowly crystallizes, advocacy is also maturing. Share the Road appeared before the Finance committee at Queen’s Park for pre-budget consultations this year asking for $25 million - one per cent of the Transportation Ministry’s budget - to be dedicated solely to cycling projects, something Murray called a “very reasonable proposal.”
In this light, the updated cycling strategy is just the beginning, which is music to McMahon’s ears. “Last year was a big year in Ontario for cycling, for the cycling movement, and it has galvanized our efforts with municipal and other partners across Ontario to make changes,” she said. The coroner’s report stressed the urgency and importance of wrapping our heads around a problem that has clear remedies if governments, cyclists and drivers work together. “The coroner’s clear message for communities was acting on this is no longer a nice-to-do, it’s a must-do.”
Share the Road will be present at the opening reception of the 2013 Ontario Bike Summit on May 28th, taking place at the Hyatt Regency Toronto. Chicago's Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein and Translink BC Chair Nancy Olewiler will also be in attendance as keynote speakers, for this evening of conversation regarding the changes needed to make Ontario more bicycle friendly. Individual tickets for the reception on the 27th with Gabe Klein and SteamWhistle Party on the 28th are available through the Share the Road website.
The 2013 Ontario Bike Summit runs from May 28th-29th at the Hyatt Regency Toronto.
Andrew Reeves is a political reporter with Queen's Park Briefing in Toronto and freelance environmental writer. His work has appeared in Spacing, Ontario Nature, This Magazine and The Grid. You can usually find him riding his bike around Toronto thinking about what to write next.
dandyhorse will be providing coverage of the 2013 Ontario Bike Summit as well as the Complete Streets forum here on the dandyBLOG.
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