How much does it cost to improve Toronto’s cycling infrastructure and where will the network reach?
On Monday, Oct. 26, pumpkins and potted plants appeared along Harbord Street to prevent cars from parking in bike lanes. This creative approach to protecting cyclists’ routes to work is just the latest reminder of the ongoing debate on how to improve cycling infrastructure in the city.
Is cycling a technical issue that can be encouraged by constructing a certain length of bike lanes in precise locations? Or is embracing biking a matter of attitude adjustment that requires strong leadership from elected officials or community groups?
Minimum Grid is an initiative led by Cycle Toronto that brings all of these perspectives together under a single slogan and uses local activism to build political support for technical solutions to cycling infrastructure in Toronto. The campaign emerged during last year’s municipal elections, as Cycle Toronto asked candidates whether they would support the construction of 200 kilometres of bike lanes over the course of their four-year term.
Minimum Grid calls for 100 km of bike boulevards on residential streets and 100 km of protected lanes on main roads. The combination of coverage in both residential neighbourhoods and high-traffic areas is intended to improve the crucial last kilometre of any journey: it is at this point that cyclists typically make the transition from well-used bike routes to uncertain on-street conditions to reach their final destinations.
The term “minimum grid” was coined by Gil Penalosa, international active transportation advocate and Toronto resident, and the campaign has found support among 25 of 44 city councillors. However, one year into council’s mandate and with a new budget just around the corner, now is the time to assess the current state of the city’s bike lanes.
For context, Toronto already has 842 km of bike routes, of which 558 km are on-street. The remaining routes are multi-use trails that provide access to green space, such as rail lines and hydro corridors. The City of Toronto is also in the process of developing a new Ten Year Cycling Network Plan.
The 2016 implementation of the plan calls for calls for more than 40 km of new on-street cycling routes. The total cost of improvements is approximately $13.5 million, which is $4 million more than the forecast in the 2015 Capital Budget. In order for implementation to move ahead, the remaining cost will have to be absorbed in the upcoming 2016 Capital Budget.
The prospect of new bike lanes being accounted for in the budget and implemented over the coming year is thrilling for anyone who has ever tried to share the road, but looking ahead there are also several equity issues to keep in mind as Toronto expands its cycling network.
First, Toronto has a history of uneven investment in cycling infrastructure. In its mission statement, the Cycling Network Plan acknowledges that although most of the goals of the Bike Plan from 2001 have been met for downtown areas, less progress has been made in Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough.
Recent successes are also concentrated in the downtown core and detract attention from hostile conditions for active transportation in the inner suburbs, which often lack sidewalks, to say nothing of bike lanes. Bike ridership along Richmond and Adelaide has tripled following the installation of protected bike lanes but plans to extend the system further east are still a long way from creating connectivity with the suburbs.
Second, increased winter maintenance complements the growing network of bike lanes, but snow removal is another issue that exposes unequal access to active transportation. Last winter, the city piloted snow clearing in the bike lanes on Adelaide, Richmond, and Simcoe, and this year, service is set to expand to other bike lanes with high ridership, like those on Harbord and Shaw.
For comparison, the city also provides mechanical snow removal on sidewalks in areas where it is feasible. However, many of the downtown neighbourhoods that will be eligible for snow removal in bike lanes are the same ones where the city is unable to offer mechanical sidewalk clearance. Instead, in the core, local residents and business owners are expected to clear their own sidewalks.
Although many people shovel their snow, few realize that if you walk with a cane, use a wheelchair, or push a stroller, even a few centimetres of snow can complicate an otherwise ordinary trip. Municipal snow removal is great news for cyclists, but clearing bike lanes is only one part of promoting active transportation for a range of users in all seasons.
Investment in bike lanes contributes to a virtuous cycle, but as we look ahead to the next budget and build on the successes of cycling activism, let’s remember to extend the grid beyond the downtown core and bring other forms of active transportation into the conversation this winter and all year long.