This is Not a Story About a Bike Lane

Photos by Ian Flett

Story by Tammy Thorne

~ A shorter version of this story appears in NOW magazine. ~


This is really more of a story about what can go wrong when the City lets private entities manage public spaces.

Right now in Toronto we are, sadly, just starting to experiment with pedestrianized zones (or pedestrian malls) and car-free streets. We have Willcocks on U of T’s St. George campus and Gould on Ryerson’s campus. We’ll soon have Markham in the new Mirvish Village too.

The City’s talking about prioritizing transit on King Street, but we aren’t considering removing single occupancy vehicle access to do so.

Now, we have John Street. John will become a “cultural corridor.” What does this mean? Well, to some, it means the City is saying, “John Street is not for bikes.”

To others, like local councillor Joe Cressy it means the City is creating “places to go, not just places to go through.”

But what is a “cultural corridor” exactly? Cressy explains, “It’s designed as a cultural corridor and pedestrian corridor – you can call it whatever you want to call it, frankly, because it stitches together so many cultural institutions… the CN Tower and AGO, TIFF [Bell Lightbox], Mirvish theatres, CBC, Much Music.”

Perhaps more important than the title is it’s practical implications: Instead of closing down King Street, the busiest transit thoroughfare in the city, for TIFF for 4 days John can be closed down for 2 weeks. Instead of closing down Queen for the Much Music awards – again, a key transit corridor – for 4 or 5 days, you can close down John.”

And, here’s the rub: On the occasions when John Street is shut down to vehicular traffic for events the street could effectively also be shut down to bikes.

Cressy reassures me though that it’s important to him to keep bike lanes free of obstructions or closures – “it’s important that they are kept open all the time – and so, his logic goes, that is the reason we can't have bike lanes on John. Because when the street is closed for these types of events, bikes wont be able to use the street – a public street. Here is where I can’t accept that private companies can effectively dictate where I can go with my bike, again, on a public street... I'm just not down with that.

Of course, if there are too many pedestrians to ride through comfortably, I – and all other cyclists – will either dismount and walk or chose another route. Peter and Simcoe both have short bike lanes.

But only in Toronto would we create a pedestrianized zone that continues to allow cars, but doesn’t make any space for bikes.

This might seem like splitting hairs, but cyclists don’t get much more than a hair’s breadth on so many roads in this town that I take it seriously when the city designs streets where bikes don’t belong – because I strongly believe that bikes do belong on every street downtown.

I'm especially concerned because of the current situation at U of T and Ryerson University. Right now, on Gould Street in particular, there are unofficial (not City-made) signs that say “Cyclists Dismount” yet the area has skateboarders, bike racks galore and even a bike pump and DIY station at the student centre. It’s also a much safer and saner alternative to Dundas at Yonge. If my choice is 1) nice slow safe pedestrian zone or 2) Toronto’s busiest downtown intersection with zero curb space for cyclists, I’m choosing 1. And yes, I’ll dismount if there’s a farmer’s market or some other busy event on Gould – obviously!

To add to this pedestrian zone vs complete streets quandary, there’s this group of lawyers repping one of the long-standing business owners on Queen who insist there should be reconsideration of a design that makes room for cyclists. They want bike lanes. I can’t blame them: Look at all the cyclists out there any day. (The group hired its own traffic consultant and research conducted last September suggested cyclists represent 70-75 per cent of traffic on John during rush hour peaks.)

Personally I don't really need a bike lane on John. It's nice and slow already, and I feel totally comfortable taking the lane. But not everyone does and that's exactly why we need to have more protected bike lanes on fast streets and make our slower streets complete streets that are safe for all users.

So, for me personally a bike lane on John wouldn’t make a big difference.

John Street is a natural connector between bikes lanes. Indeed, I always take it when I’m going into the core or to the lake from the north as I usually come down St. George/Beverly and then hike over Stephanie (on the contraflow bike lane) then down John to take the first left after Richmond to hit Simcoe (and avoid the very dangerous Queen/Simcoe and Richmond/Simcoe intersections). It’s a quick and natural hitch.

So although my fight isn't for bike lanes per se, it’s for pedestrian zones that do not ban bikes, and for complete streets that do make room for bikes.

When I approached the bike-friendly councillor’s office about the Gould Street situation on Ryerson’s campus Eddie LaRusic, Advisor, Constituency and Planning, for Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) he told me that since bikes are considered vehicles in the Highway Traffic Act the city is compelled to ban them here.

But, I wondered, how can a private entity be allowed to decide who uses a public street? This bylaw dictates that the universities “manage” the space – but the bylaw could easily be amended to say that bikes are allowed. And it should be.

Currently the situation is thus, according to LaRusic: “To my knowledge, the city cannot make an exception to allow bicycles within a pedestrian only-zone. If we prohibit cars on a public street, we have to prohibit cycling too.” He continues, “So while I can't comment on the overzealous enforcement of the pedestrian-only zone by Ryerson staff (although would note that they are likely not peace officers and therefore cannot enforce the Highway Traffic Act), my understanding is that they are correct that you shouldn't be riding on a bicycle on the pedestrian-only zone. But it's because of the Act, not because they are unilaterally allowed to ban cyclists on Gould, nor is it their job to enforce it.”

In the meantime, as long as the city continues to let private entities 'manage' our pedestrian zones or cultural corridors or whatever you want to call them, then we will have overzealous private security folks thinking they can police cyclists. And I'm not having it.

This is not encouraging for cyclists.

We must acknowledge we do not yet have a proper grid of bike lanes which we need not only to accommodate existing cyclists but to encourage all levels of cyclists to ride to work or school. Less experienced and slower cyclists need to use slower streets.

Cyclists, like all other road users, should have the same opportunity to adjust to new infrastructure.

We need to ease congestion and having more people take short trips downtown by bike will help – it’s been proven to help in other cities around the world.

James Thoem, of Copehnhagenize said, “It is great to hear Councillor Cressy talk about the importance of moving people over cars, and always encouraging to see the City doing some more meaningful pedestrian improvements. Nevertheless, it does seem odd the City would forego dedicated bike infrastructure on John Street. Accommodating people travelling by bike in all new corridor projects is only a natural progression for a city like Toronto interested in moving people rather than cars."

He continued,  “John Street is well positioned as an A-to-B route connecting densely populated residential districts to cultural, retail, and commercial land uses. It’s well documented in Toronto bicycle riders make for valuable customers, and shop owners often underestimate the number of customers arriving by bike."

Thoem also noted that there are plenty of examples around the world of pedestrians and bicyclists sharing the same space.

When Cressy was asked if we would ever see a true car-free pedestrian street with John he said “one step at a time” and we can’t “let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

But who wants a cultural corridor that doesn’t include bikes? I mean, Bill Murray and Rachel McAdams like to ride bikes when they are in Toronto for TIFF.

A shorter version of this story appears in NOW magazine.

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