March 02, 2023

What a Difference Ten Years Makes

With my Two Wheeled Politics blog marking ten years next month, a reflection is warranted. Many of us Toronto road safety advocates like to claim our city is not doing enough for cycling – which underscores the need for us to vote in the June 26 mayoral by-election – but we have come a long way over the past decade. Let’s take a walk down memory lane to understand what has changed.

Front view of 2012 Toronto Cycling Map

The Past

Back in 2013, Toronto’s cycling community was still reeling from the removal of bike lanes on Birchmount, Pharmacy, and Jarvis early in then Mayor Rob Ford’s tenure. The first protected bike lane was recently installed on Sherbourne, while the popular Shaw contraflow route would be installed that year. The only stretch of bike lane that existed on Bloor-Danforth was from Sherbourne to Broadview (1.6 kilometres) dating back to 1991 with some parts being so narrow the bicycle symbol didn’t fit in the lane. On Yonge Street, only a 600-metre stretch from Queens Quay to Front had bike lanes which were placed in the door zone; a practice which thankfully has largely been set aside in favour of protected bike lanes. The Waterfront Trail lacked cycling infrastructure between Spadina Avenue and Yonge and had a couple of other gaps along the way. Remember how treacherous it was to get from Norris to First along Lake Shore?

2014 Google Street View of Lake Shore West - Four years before the cycle tracks were installed

At the time, the on-street bikeway network was about 110 kilometres which took 35 years to build from the first bike lanes on Poplar Plains Road in 1979 and was largely disconnected. Winter bike lane clearing didn’t exist yet, while Bike Share Toronto (formerly BIXI) only had 1000 bikes at 80 stations within the downtown core. Accountability was non-existent with no annual Cycling Year in Review reports (here's the 2022 edition), no tracking of annual bike lane installations, and the cycling budget was ignored which – even at a meagre $8 million annually – wasn’t being fully spent. If you wanted to take your bike on a GO train for a weekend ride, your options were limited to the Lakeshore line, as well as a summer excursion train to Niagara Falls.

Back view of 2012 Toronto Cycling Map with the 80 BIXI stations in the Downtown insert

The Present

The past decade has seen organizing efforts ramp up by groups such as Cycle Toronto, Bells on Bloor, Bells on Danforth, and Community Bikeways (TCBC). This included outreach with businesses and community groups to build that big tent of support, showing up at public consultations and committee meetings to depute, and organizing during elections (including Cycle Toronto’s candidate surveys and TCBC’s endorsements). Accountability has been improved through increased involvement with the City’s budget process, as well as tracking bike lanes which Albert Koehl had encouraged me to do over the past few years. All of this contributed to big wins such as bikeways along Bloor, Danforth, and Yonge, as well as an increased cycling budget to the current $20 million annually.

The 2013 Bells on Bloor ride at Indian Road - Seven years before the bike lanes were put in here

The bikeway designs presented during public consultations have gotten better with protected bike lanes being the new standard, along with increased use of protected intersections. Speaking of which, the first one was installed last year near York University with lots more on the way (including at Bloor and St. George). An update to the Vision Zero Road Safety Plan required road reconstructions to take a complete streets approach – including considering bike lanes – though this part could use improved communication. Weekend road closures such as OpenStreetsTO and ActiveTO have been introduced but have unfortunately been neglected with the latter on Lake Shore West being scrapped last June. GO Transit has introduced weekend GO service to Barrie and is expected to add two-way all-day service on two additional lines in the near future. Bike Share Toronto has expanded to over 7,000 bikes and 630 stations covering Toronto-East York with some additional stations within Scarborough and along the Finch Hydro Corridor.

A public meeting for the Danforth Study in January 2020

Ongoing Challenges

While it has taken ten years to double that 110-kilometre on-street bikeway network from 2013 to 2022 (as opposed to 35 years), the annual installation pace of 11 kilometres is still not great and most of the installations have been concentrated in Toronto-East York. Scarborough’s most recent installations can be found along Eglinton, Huntingwood, and Steeles under the Stouffville GO line. North York has gotten new bikeways along Wilmington, Willowdale, and near York University; while Etobicoke-York’s highlights include Scarlett, the Lake Shore cycle track from Norris to First, and the Six Points intersection. This pace of installation needs to be ramped up with increased focus in the suburbs if we are to meet TransformTO’s climate goals, as well as eliminate vulnerable road user deaths.

2022 Toronto Cycling Map - The most recent available

There are some corridors where getting a few kilometres of bike lanes still feels like a struggle requiring lots of community outreach, collecting petition signatures, and speaking out at committee. The boneheaded arguments against cycling continue to mystify advocates such as increased GHG emissions from idling vehicles, landlocked streets (as with the Midtown Yonge bikeway), and even claiming that bike lanes violate charter rights (as a resident association in Mississauga claimed).

The Future

Despite the challenges that lay ahead, there is reason to be optimistic about the future. Bike Share Toronto is on track to expanding their network to 10,000 bikes at 1000 stations in all 25 wards by 2025. Toronto is expected to have not one, but two 30-kilometre east-west bikeways along Eglinton and Bloor-Danforth-Kingston by 2024, while the Finch West LRT (with cycle tracks) will give a significant boost to Northwest Toronto residents and Humber College students. YongeTOmorrow and REimagining Yonge will start construction over the next few years while advocates continue to call for extending the Midtown Yonge bikeway north to Eglinton. Now if only we can complete that gap under Highway 401 …

Toronto’s cycling scene has indeed come a long way over the last decade and I thank everyone who has contributed to these efforts. As long as we stay focused, we can expect to see progress continue to accelerate over the next ten years. 😊 

I will close off the post with a photo from the recent "Coldest Day of the Year" Ride which was the first to be done exclusively on protected bike lanes.

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