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Cycling in Toronto Still an Uphill Climb


It’s one of those childhood rites of passage. The day when we ditch the training wheels, and the guiding parental hand leaves our backsides as we pedal ahead, wobbly, then steady, then cheering, then colliding with the nearest bush.
But somehow between those heady freeing childhood moments and when we become adults, the bike becomes a different, politicized symbol. Somehow, cyclists morph into road warriors, battling in the war on the car, and that blissful childhood memory disappears in a cacophony of shouting matches and thrusted middle fingers.
Even those who rant on about the war on the car probably teach their children how to ride a bike—and likely own a bike themselves. According to the 2009 Toronto Cycling Survey [PDF], 66 per cent of households owned bikes, with an average number of two bikes per household. In the cycling survey done ten years earlier [PDF], the number of people who identified as non-cyclists in Toronto was 52 per cent of the population. In 2009, that number was down to 46 per cent. In other words, more than half of all Torontonians say they are cyclists, whether that is recreationally or for utilitarian purposes like travelling to work or school. (We’ll have more on the 2010 cycling survey later today.)
With the old bike plan expiring and a new one coming up, a potential reopening of the Jarvis debate looming on the horizon, Bike Month kicking off the summer riding season in June, and the three-year-old Toronto Cyclists Union just having held their annual general meeting, this is the perfect time to talk bike.
Talking bike is never easy, but it seems crazy that even with so many bike-riding pinkos out there the issue has become such a polarizing, invective-filled one. Safe streets should be a no-brainer. Yes, building a strong cycling network takes work, but Torontonians who ride their bikes (more than 54 per cent of the population) deserve it.
And yet here we are anyway, in a situation where painting a line on a road to demarcate space between a person shielded in an exoskeleton of glass and steel, and one protected by just their skin and wits, is more about socialism and ideology and righteousness than about keeping people safe.


This leads to situations like the rhetorically heightened one around the Jarvis bike lane, which, according to a recent City report [PDF], has minimally affected traffic flow, and yet was the hot topic of debate last summer, a debate that has resurfaced again under the rumour that Ford has his eye on removing it. Andrea Garcia, director of advocacy for the Toronto Cyclists Union issued a statement saying, “It’s like removing a sidewalk. It doesn’t make any sense.”
With new bike lanes so few and far between, can we really afford to backpedal on those already installed? If it’s not about money and it’s not really about traffic congestion, then all that’s left is ideological gesturing, whereby Ford gets to stand tall and slay the bike lane beast. This kind of symbolism can’t be allowed to trump safety.
Beyond the simple bike lanes we already have, separating cars from bikes makes people feel safer. In fact, riding in separated lanes was listed in the 2009 cycling survey as the top choice for cyclists, mirroring many other cycling studies. And no wonder. Riding your bike cheek-to-jowl with cars can be a harrowing experience. But what’s interesting is that even those that identified as non-cyclists in the surveys rated separated bike lanes as the best way to improve cycling in Toronto. In other words, this should be an issue we can all come together on.
This is why, when councillor and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) started discussing a new proposal for separated bike lanes just after the 2010 municipal election, it was met with elation from the cycling community. He’s been discussing it again lately, rebranding it as Mayor Ford’s bike plan; details will be released in June.
The success of the plan will hinge not necessarily on the separated lanes themselves, but on their connection to each other. One of the greatest deficiencies of the present bicycle network in Toronto is that, well, it’s not a very good network. (Thus the Star‘s Christopher Hume called cycling in Toronto a joke.) It’s disconcerting to be riding in a bike lane that disappears suddenly, only to sometimes reappear a few blocks later, as if cyclists are somehow expected to teleport from section to section.
With such a large number of cyclists you’d expect a similarly large number of bike lanes. However, ten years after the 2001 Toronto Bike Plan, we’ve built only 430.1 kilometres of lanes, shared roadways, and off-street paths of the planned 1,004-kilometre target. Out of the 495-kilometre target for bike lanes, we built only 81.8 kilometres. Including the number to the right of the decimal in our built numbers is akin to a child proclaiming he is, in fact, six and three quarters, just so he can seem that much older.
The news isn’t all bad, though. We’ve added a few bike boxes, resurfaced 8.3 kilometres of bike lanes in 2010 (cyclists’ bums everywhere say thanks), and widened the bike lane on the Prince Edward Viaduct. Most recent was the launch of Bixi, which, as Ivor Tossell noted in the Toronto Standard, could help reshape the cycling landscape in Toronto by allowing people who don’t own bikes to ride. Our guess is that in the next cycling survey the percentage of non-cyclists will have shrunk even further. And guess what that means? We need more bike infrastructure.
Many of these positive developments were spearheaded or championed by the Toronto Cyclists Union, which had its annual general meeting late last week, packing the fourth floor of the Centre for Social Innovation. In the three years the bike union has been around, they’ve seen their membership climb past 1,000, and hope to more than double that in the next year. The freshly re-launched Ward Advocacy Program is a good way to band local residents together and encourage them to work with their councillor and other residents to find solutions for cycling in their wards. What will be important though, is making sure these weave into the larger fabric of the city.
At the start of the meeting, bike union board member Simon Strauss asked everyone to stomp their feet if they lived in a ward that was part of Ford Nation. Only Councillor Minnan-Wong stomped his, sparking laughter. But it highlighted an important point: in order to make headway at City Hall, cyclists from all over the city, and not just the downtown wards, need to be included. There are bikers in the suburbs, too.
Cycling is only becoming more popular in Toronto, and these growing numbers will need to be accommodated on the streets. Ford promised $50 million for a bicycle trail system, which is nothing to sniff at, but on-street infrastructure—both on arterials and low-traffic residential roads—is needed if we are going to generate enough connectivity to call our network a true network. And a true network is not just what Toronto’s cyclists need, but what they deserve.
Most importantly, we need to change the increasingly vicious dialogue around cycling issues in Toronto. As Andrea Garcia told us, “Cycling is not a left- or a right-wing issue.” Maybe we all need to go to a park on a summer weekend and watch kids learn to ride bikes, so we can remember how this all starts.

CORRECTION: May 25, 2011, 2:40 PM This article originally stated that 116.8 kilometres of bikes lanes were built during the bike plan; however, this number includes bike lanes that had already been constructed. A 2007 update from the City [PDF] states that 35 kilometres of bike lanes existed at the start of the Toronto Bike Plan. Thus, the real number of bike lanes built during the Toronto Bike Plan is 81.8 kilometres. We regret the error.

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