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Public Works: Bike Lane Dreaming

While Toronto debates the wheres and hows of a few kilometres of bike lanes, other cities make cycling the obvious choice.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/thru_the_night/6535183147/"}Kiril Strax{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

This week saw the reappearance of the reversible signal lights that mark the Jarvis Street head-on collision lane, the first step in the $300,000 dismantling of the bike lanes installed on Jarvis only two years ago.

The Jarvis debacle symbolizes Toronto’s ambivalent relationship with cycling infrastructure. We like the concept well enough, but we often come up short on execution. After all, we—no, not you specifically, but a bunch of us—voted for a mayor who fantasizes about a War on the Car (defined as allowing anything other than private internal combustion to use public roads), and takes the car’s side.

The City’s 2001 bike plan called for an ambitious 1,000 kilometres of bike paths to be created. While off-road trails are on schedule, more useful on-street bike lanes are proceeding at the pace of the 401 at rush hour.

In addition to the flip-flop on Jarvis, in 2011 council voted to remove bike lanes from Birchmount Road and Pharmacy Avenue in Scarborough and simultaneously quashed a proposed environmental assessment of a bike lane on the Bloor-Danforth corridor.

With the exception of a handful of activists, we have tacitly accepted that roads are for cars and that parks and sidewalks for cyclists (and dodging and hiding are for squirrels and pedestrians).

But consider cities where mayors view bicycles as more than speed bumps for road-raged motorists. How much better could Toronto have it if we got serious about this stuff? And how do we get there?

The Netherlands is famously bicycle friendly, and not just because wooden shoes are hell to jog in. Amsterdam, which is roughly a third the size of Toronto, has over 400 kilometres of practical bike lanes. Toronto has 113 kilometres.

Beyond making biking a priority form of transportation, the Dutch are always looking for ways to make it more practical and less seasonal. Last month, several Dutch cities announced they’re assessing technology that would use geothermal energy to heat bike paths in the winter, keeping them free of ice and making them safer and more attractive to riders. At an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 euros per kilometre of path, it’s not a cheap solution. But advocates point out that it would reduce accidents and eliminate the need for salting or plowing.

Heated bike paths remain futuristic, but other northern nations have found ways of keeping bikes on streets year-round. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bike lanes take priority for snow clearing, which isn’t surprising considering that almost twice as many residents choose bikes over cars for their daily commutes.

Why do people choose bikes there and not here? There are a variety of reasons, including the fact that Toronto is much more spread out than most European cities. Urban sprawl doesn’t lend itself to a two-wheeled commute. But the heart of the thing isn’t that complicated: if you make biking safe and convenient, people will do it.

Obviously it’s not all about clearing snow. Places where bikes are ubiquitous got that way through policies that favour bicycles over other forms of transport. Tools include not just dedicated lanes, but careful design of traffic flow, strict enforcement of traffic laws (for all road users, including cyclists), and other measures that allow riders to be confident they’ll get where they’re going without being flattened by some cellphone yakking yahoo in an Escalade.

While an Amsterdam-esque future might seem unlikely in Toronto given our spotty progress on cycling, note that the Netherlands wasn’t always a two-wheeler’s paradise. Change came about through an action campaign in the ’70s by members of the public who were sick of the noise, pollution, and carnage that emerged with the mass mechanization of Dutch roads in the post-war period. (Check out this mini-doc for more info, it’s well worth six minutes of your time.)

There’s no reason Torontonians shouldn’t be capable of a similar effort. We can start by rewarding politicians who understand that cycling is good for a city: good for reducing traffic congestion and pollution, good for retail businesses on bike routes, good for improving personal interaction and the sheer vibrancy of urban life. We’ve never had a war on the car; maybe we need one.

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