It’s hardly a newsflash to report that Toronto’s bike lanes consistently need a lot of work. Putting aside the City’s abysmal recent history implementing the official Bike Plan and ignoring the imbecilic comments from Councillors Ford and Ootes, bicycle lanes are often more dangerous than they should be, and much of the fault lies with how these dedicated lanes are maintained.
Bicycle lanes require particular care because of where they’re designated. The curbside location brings hazards like sewer grates, tipped newspaper boxes, delivery trucks, accumulated detritus and crumbling potholes. Heavy trucks weaken the asphalt, creating dips and cracks, especially around utility holes and grates. Contractors laying fibre cable or watermain pipes scar the pavement with hastily-patched strips, and bike lanes won’t be properly repaired if further road construction is slated. Unlike sealing and patching the blacktop to prevent axle damage or merely a bumpy car ride, bike lanes pose very specific challenges that the City must strictly enforce, yet too often doesn’t.
For as long as soft humans share the road with fast metal beasts, safety will always be the primary concern. Bicycles belong on the road and are not something to be merely tolerated by drivers. It is absolutely illegal for courier trucks, taxis, delivery vans or anyone else to stop or park in a bike lane, but any avid cyclist can tell you how selectively this law is enforced, and how useless reporting it is. Has anyone ever witnessed a FedEx truck being ticketed for parking in a bicycle lane? Why aren’t bicycle lanes tow-away zones? The problem, aside from accelerating the decay of the pavement, is that it forces bicycles back into traffic, which is also unfair to drivers who aren’t likely expecting a bicycle to leave its dedicated lane. Right-turning cars are also prohibited from entering the bike lane except in the final, short dashed section, yet cars “riding the lane” in anticipation of a turn are also common complaints among cyclists.
The City is also responsible for enforcing proper road repair by its contractors. Most filling of existing roadway is done with a dry, ready-to-use form of asphalt called Cold Patch, which is actually harder than the surrounding road top and compacts almost immediately when applied correctly. The weak points are at the seams, where the Cold Patch must be applied flush to the existing pavement. Road crews don’t necessarily seem to consider the additional importance this carries when repairing a bike lane. What may be a little dip for a car might mean serious injury or death for a cyclist. Toronto is supposed to repair significant and dangerous damage within two days, but treats bike lane repair like regular road repair, which it shouldn’t.
Probably the most staggeringly stupid allowance is how contractors tearing-up the road surface aren’t required to return it to its original state, but only to an alleged “good condition”—read: for cars. This is presumably on account of the significant cost—to resurface a road costs about $1 million per kilometer ($3 million per kilometer for total reconstruction)—but as a result, we are left with ugly, bumpy, zig-zagging scars because Bell needed to lay some new cable or City contractors needed to make a utility cut. This is unacceptable when it occurs on a bicycle route. If trench cutting or digging has to happen in a bike lane, the City should demand that the lane surface be completely restored and lane markings immediately reapplied. If an entire blacktop is scheduled for resurfacing, the temporary Cold Patch still needs to be meticulously-laid if bikes are to ride on it.
This is not to say that the City isn’t working to keep the roads in some semblance of good repair, albeit slowly. Last year, 53,000 potholes were filled, but there is a thousand-street backlog for repairs with only a pittance allocated in the budget. General road repairs, like the implementation of new bike lanes, are hopelessly behind schedule—underfunded, understaffed, and underprioritized. Toronto is mostly concerned with quickly sealing holes and cracks in consideration for cars and trucks rather than ensuring a smooth, safe surface in our bike lanes.
The 2001 City of Toronto Bike Plan was an exciting step, but how seriously is Council taking it? While the mayor and councillors like Glenn De Baeremaeker and Paula Fletcher seem to understand the importance of pedal transportation, there are those like the excruciatingly ignorant Rob Ford claiming that cyclists are at fault for accidents that befall them because they choose to ride on the same surface as cars. Community councils finally now have the power to approve bike lanes, but City Hall still has to implement and maintain them. Provisions for bicycle-friendly road repairs and the ticketing of vehicles are already in place but barely enforced. What cyclists have been promised hasn’t entirely materialized and the Bike Plan is woefully behind schedule.
There does seem to be some positive change in yesterday’s 2007 Proposed Operating Budget announcement, which suggests accelerating implementation of the Bike Plan with four permanent staff instead of the single temporary position held today, with an enhanced service cost of $286,000. Of course, the Bike Plan is not only about bike lanes; it includes education and safety programs for both drivers and cyclists, but part of encouraging citizens to use bicycles includes ensuring that they feel as safe as possible riding in dedicated lanes.
As for Toronto’s cycling community, there is both a responsibility to pedal lawfully and courteously, but also to keep on top of the City to enforce its own policies. We suggest that even casual cyclists program 416-599-9090 (Transportation Services) into their mobile phones for immediately reporting potholes, uneven pavement or damage in bike lanes. Call 416-808-6600 (Toronto Police Parking Enforcement) to report illegal parking or unloading. Contact your councillor and demand that they aggressively support a safe, convenient progressive cycling infrastructure, even if you aren’t a cyclist yourself.
Photos and illustration by Marc Lostracco. Top: Gerrard and Jarvis; middle: Yonge and Bloor.
UPDATE: We created this PDF for cyclists to print and store in their bike bags for benevolently placing under offenders’ windshield wipers, but we remind riders not to be dicks about it. Cyclists can feel free to email it to others or post it to their own sites: [PDF]
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