Image by Warren Wheeler.
Why can’t Toronto do bike lanes right?
There’s still time to put our bike plan on course
by Albert Koehl
Cyclists who believe City Hall can be trusted to implement the 2016 bike plan haven’t been paying attention to history. As with previous plans, the current plan is long on promises, but, so far, short on progress. There isn’t much cyclists can do about old plans that failed to deliver, but there is still time --- and many ways --- to help ensure the current plan yields on-road results.
The most recent ten-year bike plan, passed by council in June 2016, promises 335 km of new bike lanes and sidewalk-level bike paths. If we’re lucky we’ll get 27 km by the end of year three. The 2001 Bike Plan, promised 460 km of bike lanes and delivered 80. The 1978 Barton-Aschman report for the city studied the creation of bike lanes along east-west and north-south corridors, but delivered little more than a wide curb lane on part of Harbord St. The 1974 Strok report, passed by Metro Council, promised over 400 km of trails, but delivered around 80, then threw in the towel. After almost half a century of bike plans, Toronto still doesn’t have a cycling network.
The history of failures makes clear that cyclists can’t simply leave implementation of the current bike plan to City Hall. If we do, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves still riding in the gutter. We must demand accountability, apply pressure strategically, and treat the plan as a first step in a longer process. We certainly needn’t worry about ruffling feathers, even among our City Hall allies. Public pressure --- instead of hopeful silence --- supports civil servants and councillors who are trying to make the case among their colleagues for better cycling conditions.
Much of the success of the current bike plan now hinges on the completion of major corridor studies along important cycling routes. These studies involve in-depth assessments of the impacts of bike lanes on other road users i.e. motorists. The 2001 bike plan, on the other hand, simply avoided proposing bike lanes on controversial routes. The current plan makes corridor studies the prerequisites for bike lanes, although the studies don’t actually guarantee that bike lanes will ultimately be installed.
When City Council approved the new plan on June 7, 2016, it deferred indefinitely most of the corridor studies --- and along with them, the possibility of bike lanes on the associated routes --- except for Bloor-Dupont and Yonge. The two Yonge studies have progressed -- one to completion in connection with Yonge St. cycle tracks in North York. The cycle tracks, which are opposed by the mayor, must be approved by Council. One additional corridor study for the length of Danforth Ave. was approved but has not been initiated, although there is some nebulous connection with an ongoing ‘planning study’ for an eastern portion of Danforth. (At the time of publication, dandyhorse had not yet received any clarification from City staff about this study.)
City staff, in a recent meeting with Cycle Toronto's Ward 20 advocacy group, indicated that no progress has been made on the Bloor study, even though it was described as ‘currently underway’ when council approved the bike plan in 2016. Requests over the last two months for a meeting with Acting Cycling Manager Shawn Dillon or Transportation Services Manager Barbara Gray about the corridor studies have thus far been unsuccessful.
The stagnation of the corridor studies is troubling in the context of the lack of progress on other elements of the plan. The proposals for 2018 encompass only a small number of bike lanes, mostly on relatively quiet streets internal to York University and the Flemington and Thorncliffe Park neighbourhoods. And even if all staff recommendations for new cycling infrastructure for 2018 are approved by council, we’re not anywhere close (as previously documented) to a pace that would achieve the objectives of the plan within the ten-year framework.
Illustration above by Ness Lee from our June 2014 issue and the story Bike Lanes on the Back Burner Again? Please Note: the numbers in the illustration are no longer current. One thing is constant though: Bike lanes are always something we'll get "next year" (or the year after). That's the legacy of the bike plan.
A number of questions are prompted by the current mediocre pace and the choices for new cycling infrastructure.
- Why has there been no progress on the Bloor-Dupont or Danforth Ave. corridor studies, both of which were to be informed by the Bloor pilot completed last year? If the issue is staff resources, why has a consultant not been hired?
- Who at City Hall is accountable to the community for deciding which bike lanes will be proposed for implementation each year - the city’s cycling manager, the public works committee, local councillors, or some combination of the above?
- On what basis were the priorities determined for this year’s proposed new bikeways (i.e. cycle tracks, bike lanes, sharrows, and trails)? Are the proposed bike lanes for York University, for example, based on cycling surveys, local pressure, and safety concerns, or simply the result of staff taking the path of least resistance?
The objective isn’t to make the bike plan so rigid that it’s impossible to respond to new priorities. This flexibility, however, should be based on cyclists’ safety needs instead of some back-room deliberations that give us bike lanes only where they’re convenient to motorists.
Improving City Hall accountability on cycling infrastructure, should, for starters, include regular consultation with cyclists in setting the annual action plan. Mayor John Tory should also appoint an elected official to oversee bike plan implementation -- ideally in conjunction with implementation of the Vision Zero Road Safety Plan. Montreal, for example, has a councillor responsible for cycling issues - as do many cities around the world. As well, the current bike plan’s required progress report by staff, which is supposed to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2018, should be released for public review prior to the election. (The election is on October 22.)
The fact that 2018 is an election year is no reason to put off bike plan decision-making and action. Cyclists aren’t protected by some magic, election-year cloak from being hit by motorists.
The bike plan is our plan. It’s our business to make sure it’s implemented to make our roads a safe place to cycle and our city a better place to live.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founding member of Bells on Bloor.
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