It's time to address the misconception that bike lanes are useless during the winter.
Toronto City Hall doesn’t rank very high when it comes to installing bike lanes, but you can’t help but be impressed by the ingenuity of excuses for inaction. Instead of bike lanes we often get statements such as “roads were built for cars” (false), “motorists are key to the success of local merchants” (false), or, more recently, “bike lanes cause climate change” (funny). One of the more difficult arguments for cyclists to counter is the necessity of bike lanes given the drop in cycling numbers during the winter. Now, even this excuse is being challenged by routine observation and data—especially where bike lanes have been installed. Based on our counts over the last two weeks (January 16–27, 2017), the Bloor bike lane was used for an average of 1,700 bike trips per day, rivalling even the summertime ridership for some bike lanes in the city.
The gist of the no-one-cycles-in-the-winter argument is that bike lanes are an inefficient use of public space. Since the argument is typically made by the auto lobby, the rationale should be dismissed with a hearty chuckle. After all, the car is a space monster virtually without equal, gobbling up massive amounts of land even when it sits idle. There are, for example, at least four parking spaces (measuring up to 330 square feet or 12.1 square metres) for every car—three of the spots are obviously empty at any given time. But as every cyclist knows, the prerequisites for auto infrastructure are far less stringent than those for cycling, which is why we were motivated to do our wintertime bike count. Our counts took place during rush hour (8–9 a.m.) on the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each of the past two weeks. As with our count this past summer, even we were impressed by the results.
We counted, from the vantage point of a coffee shop at the corner of Bloor and Spadina, between 167 and 207 cyclists travelling east or west on the bike lane during the morning rush hour (see Figure 1).
To arrive at our average of 1,700 cyclists per day in the period of January 16–27, we used the hourly breakdown of riders from our all-day summertime count to extrapolate the wintertime daily average for this period. The September 12, 2016 count had shown that the morning 8–9 a.m. rush hour accounted for about 11 per cent of the 6,100 riders in the bike lane recorded over a consecutive 24-hour period. We also did one evening count on January 25 from 5–6 p.m. to verify that the breakdowns per hour hold approximately true for the winter—there were 205 cyclists in the evening rush hour compared to 207 in the morning.
On two of the days (January 18 and 25) we also counted all east and westbound motor vehicles on Bloor at the same location and time. These totals (872 on January 18 and 870 on January 25) allowed us to conclude that bicycles comprised 16 per cent of all vehicles on January 18 and 19 per cent on January 25—far less than the summertime ratio of 38 per cent, but still significant.
Assuming that each motor vehicle contains an average of 1.11 persons, the modal share on Bloor for bicycles was 15 per cent on January 18 and 18 per cent on January 25. A City of Toronto study [PDF] from August 2015, before the bike lanes were installed, shows approximately 15 per cent of all vehicles are bicycles or a mode share for bicycles of slightly more than 13 per cent, again assuming automobile occupancy of 1.1 persons. The hourly numbers are not available for a more accurate comparison; nonetheless, the fact that the winter modal share is on par with the summertime pre-bike lane numbers shows the success of the Bloor bike lane. We have not assessed any reduction of motor traffic subsequent to bike lane installation, although such a reduction would be consistent with city objectives going back many years.
The temperature during our count ranged from 0–3 C with consistently overcast skies. Indeed, the Toronto Star noted that January was a particularly gloomy month with minimal sunshine: the average daytime high in Toronto for January is -1 C. The bike lane was clear of snow or ice on every day of our counts.
Opponents of bike lanes, including one local politician who memorably described Toronto as a “snowbound” city, often fail to recognize that climate change is making our winters milder. In any case, Montreal’s far colder and snowier winter hasn’t deterred that city from building bike lanes.
The absence of snow or ice in the bike lane over the last two weeks may well have been more important to cyclists than the temperature, especially in light of improvements in winter cycling gear. Clearing bike lanes of snow and ice may, therefore, keep more residents on their bikes throughout the year. It would be worthwhile to study the impact of snow and ice in bike lanes on cycling numbers compared to temperature levels. Of course, motorists too would be deterred—if not stuck in their tracks with spinning tires—by snow and ice if cities didn’t spend massive amounts of money salting roads and plowing snow (often into areas used by cyclists or pedestrians).
High ridership numbers on Bloor Street are nothing new, largely because Bloor has always been a convenient east–west route leading to a variety of downtown destinations, dotted along the way with important shopping, entertainment, institutional, and educational venues.
As long ago as 1896, the national cycling group Canadian Wheelman’s Association proposed a bike network for Toronto that included Bloor Street. Soon after the so-called “bicycle boom” or “revival” in 1971, city consultant Barton-Aschman identified Bloor as one of the most popular routes for cyclists—and, lamentably, one of the routes with the highest collision rates.
City bike counts showed that the number of cyclists on Bloor (between Spadina and Church Street) had increased from 768 in August 1978 to 1,437 in September 1983, based on the “maximum eight-hour bicycle volume.” Cycling numbers also increased on Harbord-Hoskin-Wellesley, an official bicycle route, but at 986 bicycles for the same hours, this route still fell far short of the numbers on Bloor, a street that made no provision for cyclists.
On October 11, 1983, Works Commissioner Ray Bremner, in a letter to the City Services Committee, wrote, “The most recent bicycle surveys indicate…that Bloor Street is still the preferred route for the majority of east-west bicyclists travelling in the central area of the City.” Sadly, Bremner’s conclusion didn’t motivate him to push for a bike lane on Bloor, but only to recommend (unsuccessfully) removal of the slap-dash bike route—including signs, pavement markings, and a wider curb lane—from Harbord-Hoskin-Wellesley. Bloor, as a so-called “arterial” road, remained the sacred ground of motorists with no regard for the safety of cyclists.
The high cycling numbers on Bloor have remained impressive despite the often miserable cycling conditions and common hazards like “dooring.”
The August 2015 city bike count (referenced above) conducted on three weekdays, prior to the installation of the bike lane, recorded an average of 3,409 bike trips per day on Bloor at Spadina. Our count this month, therefore, shows cycling levels at half the summertime levels recorded in 2015. Counts by Wards 19 and 20 of Cycle Toronto in 2013 and 2016 also confirm the dramatic increase in summertime bicycle trips on Bloor.
While it’s likely that temperatures lower than those of the past month, or more snow and ice, would draw fewer cyclists, it’s no longer the case (if it ever was) that no one cycles in the winter. And when people do cycle in the winter, the benefits go beyond a bit of fresh air and include better physical fitness, less car congestion, less pollution, and savings of up to $6.50 per day for a two-way trip on the TTC.
The wintertime cycling numbers added to those of the summer—along with the many other benefits of cycling—means it’s finally time for the City to put aside old excuses and dedicate itself to expanding Bloor bike lanes east and west. The bike lane would make a long-overdue spine for Toronto’s incomplete cycling network.
Chris Caputo and Albert Koehl are members of Bells on Bloor. Chris holds a PhD in Chemistry. Albert is an environmental lawyer.