Happy Birthday! Toronto’s first bike lane turns 40

Happy Birthday!

Toronto’s first bike lane turns 40

by Albert Koehl

Toronto’s first bike lane is now 40 years old! When it was installed in the late summer of 1979 the bike lane on Poplar Plains Rd. might have signalled—despite its modest half-kilometre length—a readiness by City Hall to accommodate bicycles on its streets, but instead it simply presaged the long struggle that followed against motorists’ insatiable appetite for space.

The Poplar Plains bike lane, through a leafy South Hill neighbourhood, required the elimination of one motor lane – a noteworthy achievement in the post-WWII era when planners and politicians obsessed about widening roads. The number of cyclists using the bike lane was initially small, which was no surprise given that the lane didn’t even reach St. Clair Ave., and only ran one-way northbound – all of it on an uphill so steep (it is after all, the shoreline of the ancient Lake Iroquois) that many cyclists continue(d) to walk their bikes.

The bike lane did, however, give cyclists some protection along a roadway that many motorists treated as a “racetrack” to Forest Hill, recalls Michael Schabas, a member at the time of the city cycling committee (a volunteer advisory body), which had called for the lane. Indeed, at the top of the hill two police officers guided northbound motorists first right then left across St. Clair into Forest Hill, hence the moniker “Forest Hill Expressway,” as some people called it.

Once installed, one might have expected motorists, who could still legally use the bike lane for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs, to accept the trifling loss of road space as a token acknowledgement of pressing problems of air pollution and  dependence on foreign oil, as well as the surge in cyclists after the ‘bicycle revival’ of the early 1970s. Instead many motorists were traumatized by the intrusion – quickly finding an ally in the news media.

Mere weeks after the installation, on October 14, 1979, the Toronto Star wrote an anxious editorial entitled, “There’s a limit to bicycle lanes in Toronto.” The city was “suffering yet another devastating attack of the anti-car blues,” according to the Star, which called the bike lane “an ill-conceived notion that will only exacerbate already intolerable traffic conditions and pose a serious safety hazard.” (The suggestion was that frustrated motorists would dart into the bike lane and endanger cyclists.)

Many local residents, although originally skeptical about the bike lane, nonetheless came to appreciate its traffic-calming benefits. In fact, at the behest of local residents, the lane was later extended toward St. Clair as a safety measure for school children at a local elementary school.

The Star also fretted about the impact on motorists of bike lanes proposed for Harbord and Wellesley Streets, suggesting that cyclists should be content with recreational trails and sign-posted ‘bike routes’ along quieter streets. But motorists needn’t have worried. It took another decade for the next bike lanes to appear, including one along Russell Hill Rd. -- the southbound corollary to Poplar Plains.

The bike lane on Poplar Plains was a remnant of a more ambitious initiative approved by council in 1976 that include bike lanes on Poplar Plains, Russell Hill, Simcoe, McCaul, and Bedford, among other roads. These lanes were intended to improve on a portion of an existing, ‘discretionary’ north-south bike route (designated by signposts) running from the lake to the city’s northern boundary, then near Lawrence Ave.

The approved bike lanes were slated for installation in 1977 but were instead subsumed in a comprehensive study (by city consultant Barton-Ashman) that held great promise for a bikeway network but delivered, at great expense, virtually nothing except a few wider curb lanes of dubious value. It was perhaps then that City Hall discovered a formula that it still exploits today to the detriment of cyclists – bike lane studies that masquerade for action.

Some motorists today continue to howl with indignation at any perceived intrusion on the public road by bike lanes - even as climate change has gone from scientific prediction to everyday reality. In fact, 40 years after Toronto’s first bike lane, the city still doesn’t have a cycling network. But last week, as if to celebrate the Poplar Plains milestone, the city finished installing a new bike crossing of the raised concrete median for the St. Clair LRT tracks that had become a barrier for northbound cyclists.

But all of this is really just to say to the Poplar Plains bike lane, “Happy Birthday!”

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founder of Bells on Bloor.

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