A History of Bike Lanes in Toronto
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A History of Bike Lanes in Toronto

When it comes to safety, there's still a long way to go.

It’s been 18 years since the City of Toronto created the Shifting Gears plan for cycling policy.

While its vision—creating a cycling culture and building infrastructure to allow cyclists and drivers to share the same roads—may finally be coming to life, the challenge of maintaining safety is even greater today than it was back then.

“We’ve learnt a lot in those 18 years, but our roads are getting busier,” says Rod McPhail, former director of transportation planning with the City of Toronto. “One of the biggest challenges is that the driving community and the cycling community just have to learn how to live on the same facilities better than they do today.”

One suggested area of improvement is bike lanes that are separated from traffic by planters and a curb. McPhail says there’s a “real demand” for them.

“When we first started we thought we just needed to paint cycle lanes, we thought that would be enough,” he says.

In the 1890s, there was a cycling boom across Canada and the United States. Cyclists began to share the roads with pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, and electric streetcars.

Cars were something new at the time.

There were many bike paths on Toronto streets, and there was a growing debate among cyclists about whether they should fight for exclusive paths for themselves or safer roads for drivers and cyclists.

When automobiles began to dominate beginning in the 1920s, cycling was increasingly relegated to a recreational activity. However, deliveries by bike continued to be popular.

The number of cyclists per 1,000 people increased from 220 in 1950 to 350 in 1960 [PDF], and climbed to 480 by 1970.

Beginning in the late 1960s, there was a so-called “cycling revival,” in part because of concerns about fitness, energy use, and air pollution.

Toronto’s cycling committee was established at city hall in 1975 to promote safe cycling.

Four years later, the first bike lane in old Toronto was constructed on Poplar Plains Road.

The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, as it was known then, studied a cycling network despite being focused on recreational trails to keep cyclists out of the way of vehicle traffic.

Additional cycling studies done in 1977 and 1992 led to an increase in the cycling network.

In 1998, old Toronto amalgamated with the municipalities of York, East York, North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke. By 2001, the city had 35 kilometres of bike lanes.

That same year, council approved Shifting Gears, an aggressive bike plan [PDF].

Both city council and city staff wanted to expand cycling culture into more suburban areas, which lacked bike lanes. They wanted to decrease automobile dependence and increase use of public transit.

Shifting Gears set out to build 1,000 kilometres of new bike routes, with 495 kilometres dedicated to on-street routes, 249 kilometres of off-road paths, and 260 kilometres of signed routes, within 10 years.

But suburban residents weren’t as receptive to bike lanes on streets as people were in old Toronto, says McPhail.

“It was definitely as a challenge,” says McPhail, who worked for the City for 38 years. “The public wasn’t ready to share the roads with bikes.”

The concept of having bike lanes on major arterial roads out in Scarborough, North York, or Etobicoke wasn’t well-received because it was a new experience, he says.

“It was difficult to get cyclists to ride on those streets for one thing. But also for the drivers to welcome the bikes on the street, it was difficult.”

Shifting Gears’ 10-year timeline—2001-2011—was pushed back twice: once to 2012, and again to 2013, under then-mayor David Miller.

By mid-2014, the City had only created 571 kilometres of the planned 10,000, with 114 kilometres of the bike lanes on-road. Currently, there are a total of 579 kilometres of street bike lanes.

There have been other ups and downs over the years.

The City’s Cycling Ambassador program, launched in 1995, continues to run today.

When it began, 20 cycling students were located in each of the former civic centres (about four per building). They travelled across the city to schools and community events to deliver campaigns that would educate, encourage, and promote safe cycling. The idea was they would help a cycling culture begin to grow in these neighbourhoods.

In 2011, a bike sharing program called Bixi launched in the city. The program made 1,000 bicycles available at 80 downtown locations.

But a significant step back occurred in July of that year, during the Rob Ford regime, when council voted to remove bike lanes on Jarvis Street. That cost between $280,000 and $300,000.

Councillors’ support of bike lane removal was discouraging for people like McPhail, who were trying to encourage a cycling culture.

According a 2009 cycling survey [PDF] conducted in Toronto, the number of cyclists rose from 48 per cent to 54 per cent between 1999 and 2009.

Forty per cent of recreational cyclists say they would be motivated to cycle to work or school on a daily basis, however, half would to work or school if it were safer than it is currently.

“One of the challenges that comes through for a lot of cyclists is that (bike plans are) continuously changing,” says Jacqueline Snyder, who began cycling in Toronto when she moved to the city in 1978.

Snyder is a master instructor of CAN-BIKE, which trains people to become cycling instructors. She often takes the Martin Goodman Trail to work.

While at the Cycle Toronto Rides Bloor Danforth event last Saturday to promote the bikes lanes on Bloor Street, Snyder mentioned that there were some people who thought separated bike lanes were a great idea. She heard from others who said they’d be more inclined to get on their bikes if there was more separation between cyclists and vehicles.

Cyclists celebrate the new Bloor Street bike lanes with a victory lap in September. Photo by  Robert Zaichkowski from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Cyclists celebrate the new Bloor Street bike lanes with a victory lap in September. Photo by Robert Zaichkowski from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

“The physical barrier gives them a bigger sense of security than just a painted line,” she says. “Personally, the way that I see the painted line is it’s raising awareness of the driver that the cyclist is allowed to be there.”

The bike lanes on Bloor Street opened in August under a one-year pilot project. They cost around $500,000 to install. The bike path is separated, which creates some protection from automobiles.

“Until we got bikes lanes on Bloor Street, I didn’t think we would have passed this hurdle or got over this obstacle, which is that we need bike lanes where people are cycling,” says Albert Koehl.

Koehl is the co-founder of Bells on Bloor. He’s been a regular cyclist in Toronto since about 1985, when he was an articling student. He now frequently uses the Bloor bike lanes, St. George-Beverley, and occasionally Adelaide and Richmond.

“There is no balance in Toronto,” Koehl says. “Convenience to motorists has long meant making cycling a recreational activity—in other words, focusing on trails and parks, which is different from commuting.”

From June to September of this year, 542 pedestrians and 541 cyclists have been hit by cars, according to statistics released by Toronto police. There have been 22 pedestrian and cyclist deaths in Toronto in 2016.

Koehl says he’s never been hit by a car, but has had many close calls over the years, often from dooring.

“If you really want to make the roads safer as fast as possible, the key to me is reducing speed limits.”

We can’t wait five, 10 years, or 15 years for the separated bike lane infrastructure to be in place, he says.

CORRECTION: 2:27 PM This article originally stated that there were difficulties with passengers getting onto streetcars on Bloor Street. Of course, Bloor Street has not has streetcars since 1968. We regret the error.