Photo by Martin Reis from a Bells on Bloor ride.
Bloor bike lane: catching up with the bicyclists of 1896
By Albert Koehl
How long did Toronto cyclists have to wait for bike lanes on Bloor?
On February 15, 1896, representatives of Toronto bicycle clubs met at the stylish downtown Athenaeum Club to craft a cycling plan for City Hall. Their proposal included Bloor St. along the top of a network to be created from a combination of asphalted roads and new bicycle paths. The cyclists had been inspired by Mayor R.J. Fleming, “the People’s Bob,” who earlier that year said Toronto streets “should be put in first-class shape for bicycle riders.” So attractive was the prospect of the cyclists’ proposed 16-kilometre circuit, along with other improvements, that The Globe beamed it “will make Toronto a veritable wheelman’s paradise, exceeding in that respect even Buffalo.”
Until the completion of the 2.4 km Bloor bike lane pilot last month, Bloor hasn’t included what cyclists have long demanded – a share of a road that is one of the city’s best cycling routes, but for the risk of collision and injury. The path to a Bloor bike lane has certainly included many disappointments, pitfalls and potholes along the way.
With the decline of cycling’s popularity by 1900, cyclists lost many of their powerful friends at City Hall as well as their own advocates. But since roads were being steadily improved and cars weren’t yet a factor, the picture for cyclists nonetheless remained fairly bright.
By the 1920s, however, private cars dominated, even while streetcars remained the most popular mode of transportation. Cycling endured given its obvious utility for commuting, business deliveries, and as a transport tool for children but it had become clear that cyclists would henceforth have to fend for themselves.
Not until the so-called cycling revival of the late 1960s, prompted in part by environmental concerns, did attention once again turn to biking safety. But the attention would take years to be converted into on-road action in Toronto – but not for want of studies, reports and politicians’ patronizing pats on the back.
In a 1977 city consultant’s report on cycling infrastructure, Bloor scored highly in all categories, including its lamentable cycling casualty toll.
A 1992 city report identified Bloor (along with Danforth Ave.) as an ideal cross-town cycling route while a 2007 study confirmed the feasibility of a Bloor-Danforth bikeway. Another study commenced in 2010 fell victim to the Ford Administration, although the study was later revived only to be ultimately abandoned.
Nonetheless, the network first proposed in 1896 actually started taking shape between 2010 and 2014. (In addition to Bloor at the top, the 1896 network included Richmond-Adelaide along the bottom with Bathurst and Jarvis streets as north-south connectors.)
Along the bottom of the new network, bike lanes were installed on parts of Richmond and Adelaide. A (contra-flow) bike lane was created on Shaw west of Bathurst to supplement existing north-south bike lanes on St. George. And bike lanes were added to Sherbourne St., although parallel north-south lanes on Jarvis (among others) were removed, despite their success.
When a new council under Mayor John Tory took office in late 2014, the only gap to complete a network similar to the 1896 proposal was a bike lane along Bloor. By this time, the cross-town Bloor-Danforth bike lane had been repackaged by advocates into a bite-sized proposal that even a bicycle-fearing city council might accept – a 2.4 kilometre pilot between Avenue Road and Shaw (that runs further west on Bloor than the 1896 proposal, but not as far east).
Local councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton championed the Bloor pilot at City Hall. Their leadership reflects a key change at City Hall – everyday cyclists are again in community positions of power, as in the 1890s.
With the Bloor bike lane now in place, even if only in pilot form, Toronto has not only answered a demand that cyclists first made in 1896 but also finally moved the City towards becoming a place that takes the bicycle seriously as part of a healthy transportation mix.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer and co-founder of Bells on Bloor. This year’s Bells on Bloor ride is on Sept. 25. bellsonbloor.org
A version of this story appeared in NOW magazine.
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