I’ll hold off thanking the city for its bike lane expansion

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Last week, city council approved 40 kilometres of bike lanes as part of its pandemic “restart and recovery” plan. Most of the approved temporary and permanent bikeways are good choices, including sections of Bloor-Danforth.

But does Mayor John Tory deserve a “thank you” from cycling advocates or will he interpret gratitude as his cue to return the cycling file to the bottom of the pile while the job of installing the bikeways as an alternative to the TTC (and to complete the cycling network) is barely underway?

City Hall’s media release (accurately) touts the approved bikeways, including 15 kilometres previously planned for this year, as “the largest expansion of Toronto’s on-street bike network ever in one year.” But context is important.

It’s only the largest expansion ever because of the city’s past indifference to cycling safety. It’s a little like an employer withholding wages for months, then heralding a payment including back wages as the largest ever.

More importantly, catching up on past bike plans doesn’t address the urgent new transportation needs created by the pandemic, especially among many transit-reliant residents reluctant to use the TTC for fear of exposure to the coronavirus.

There is, of course, much excitement about approved bikeways along Bloor-Danforth, a vital east-west link across the city that has been the subject of years of community advocacy. But this summer, cyclists will be able to ride 15 kilometres on an uninterrupted bikeway from Dawes to Runnymede. That’s a big deal.

University Avenue will also get a temporary bike lane, albeit 10 years after council virtually approved a permanent bike lane on the street, but for a miscast vote. There are other significant bike lanes scheduled for quick installation, including the extension of various downtown bike lanes and a bikeway on Brimley in Scarborough.

The approved bikeways, however, simply dress up a business-as-usual approach to cycling as part of a pandemic recovery plan. Indeed, there is no suggestion of a phase two for bikeways in the works.

The proposed bikeways are supposed to “mirror,” in the words of City Hall, transit lines but ignore Yonge, whose subway line carries 750,000 patrons daily, as well as a number of busiest bus routes. Have the essential workers that were being celebrated by the city only weeks ago been so quickly forgotten?

The current plan also falls far short of catching the city up on its Bike Plan approved in June 2016, which envisions building 34 kilometres of new cycle tracks, bike lanes and sidewalk-level paths annually over a 10-year period. Only 6 kilometres have been installed per year, despite $16 million in the city’s annual cycling capital budget and millions of dollars more available from the federal and provincial governments. 

Last year, the city installed a pitiful two kilometres of bike lanes, despite City Council’s declaration of a climate emergency. Indeed, 2019 was so bad that the (pre-pandemic) project to extend the Bloor bike lane had to succeed if the city was to maintain any credibility on its road safety policies.

What might a pandemic recovery plan for transportation actually look like?

Montreal, which had twice as many bike lanes as Toronto before the pandemic, has begun installing 60 kilometres of new bikeways, with more being planned. In fact, a coalition of 110 Toronto community groups says that what’s needed is 100 kilometres of new bikeways. (I’m one of the organizers.)

The potential of bike lanes is huge given that the majority of daily trips in the city are under seven kilometres – an easy cycling distance. When safe bikeways can be used for shorter trips, space is freed up on TTC vehicles for patrons on longer commutes from the suburbs.

Toronto has little time to waste. Low motor traffic levels offer a vital opportunity to install, test, and adjust bikeways for transportation purposes – not to mention, pre-empt an increase in motor traffic accompanied by unwanted adverse impacts on public health and safety and the climate.

It’s no surprise that many Toronto residents, long starved of a safe sliver of the road, suggest that we should gratefully take what we can get as if the mayor and council are capricious feudal lords. “Take this scrap of land or starve.”

But our roads are owned by the public. Today, we need more bikeways.

I’ll hold off thanking the mayor until city residents have what they need, instead of what the mayor and council deem acceptable.

For now, my gratitude is reserved for the many volunteers, community activists, residents’ associations and local business leaders who stepped forward over many years to demand that City Hall create safe roads for people on bikes. 

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and road safety advocate. He is co-founder of Bells on Bloor, which has been advocating for Bloor bike lanes since 2007.

@nowtoronto