May 09, 2024

April 25 Cycling Research Meetup

On Thursday, April 25, University of Manchester PhD candidate Thomas Van Laake hosted a cycling research meetup at the University of Toronto to showcase not only his findings while studying cycling in Manchester, Toronto, and Mexico City, but also presentations from three other researchers. These were done by Sarah Giacomantonio, Alec Khacatryan, and Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher. Let’s dive into this research and see how the findings are relevant to Toronto’s cycling community.

Before the presentations started which saw about 30 people attend, I noticed Jun N’s portrait in the room. (bottom right)

Here are presenters Sarah, Madeleine, and Alec.

Sarah Giacomantonio’s presentation was called “Addressing barriers to Cycling for Women: Why is it really there? Why do we need to really care?” Her research used qualitative and feminist geography lenses, as well as noted how there were as many as two to three men per woman who bike. Some of the barriers highlighted include harassment, bullying, employment, and the need to trip chain with a focus on those who are 30 to 44 years old.

While her research showed women were more likely to bike with dedicated cycling facilities – especially protected bike lanes – she also noted intersectionality where oppression can be influenced by other factors such as motherhood or race, while there is a need for contextual supports such as tailored programming, policy inclusion, and bikeway design.

You can read Giacomantonio's paper on this topic here.

Alec Khacatryan is a PhD candidate in planning at the University of Toronto and a Cycle Toronto volunteer. His presentation was called “Citizens’ Initiatives in Cycling Policy and Practice in Ontario”. His presentation asked questions about how cycling initiatives frame the issues, how they interact with policy makers, and what impacts they have on the broader community.

Of the roughly 200 such initiatives he identified in Ontario, most were cycling clubs focused on sports and/or recreation, while very few dealt with utilitarian cycling. He noted the vulnerability of not-for-profits regarding funding or people leaving organizations. Socializing and group rides were the most popular primary activities while some groups offered training and/or bike repair; including programs catering to underrepresented groups such as women. Khacatryan plans to do future studies on organizations that do more than one activity.

Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher’s presentation asked the question “who benefits from cycling infrastructure?” and is based on a research paper she released earlier this year on the efficiency vs equity trade-off. She started her presentation with a remark on how dangerous roads feel a lot safer in a group but can be unpleaseant when riding solo. Her research used the Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) score from 1 to 4 where 1 is safe for children with protected bike lanes or trails while 4 involves multiple traffic lanes with no cycling infrastructure.

Madeleine’s research showed building infrastructure to maximize accessibility to jobs led to routes closer to downtown being prioritized, while prioritizing regional accessibility can lead to some projects being outside of the region. Her final message was “we must look beyond proximity to consider routes and accessibility to destinations to understand who benefits from cycling infrastructure.”

Thomas Van Laake’s research was based on 30 interviews done in Toronto, documents from the 1970’s onwards (with most since the 2001 Bike Plan), and firsthand experience riding most of the bikeway network. His recalled the heterogeneous infrastructure in which protected bike lanes are used downtown while some suburbs opted for multi-use trails. He noted some projects involve complex re-organizations such as Esplanade-Mill, while there was also the need to look beyond the network including bike share, bike shops, bike parking, and social infrastructure such as Scarborough Cycles’ community bike hubs.

His presentation also looked at equity – including some references to Bonsma-Fisher’s presentation – and how the 2001 Bike Plan called for a city-wide grid. However, the highest cycling volumes remained within downtown, and a former manager of the Cycling Unit expressed a desire to build out the downtown network first. However, the equity lens is used today which was evident with Bike Share Toronto’s four-year growth plan with a focus on Scarborough and Northwest Toronto. You can read more about his equity writings in this Mobilizing Justice article.

He acknowledged some of the pilot projects such as Bloor and those done under ActiveTO during the COVID-19 pandemic, the well received Shaw Street contraflow route, and how the King Street transit priority corridor calmed traffic to a point where bike lanes were not needed. However, he noted bus-bike lanes – which Toronto adopted along the Eglinton East and former Scarborough RT routes – were controversial in Mexico City due to some high-profile deaths. Towards the end of the presentation, he encouraged Toronto advocates to think beyond the city limits and called out the multiple different systems in Toronto whereas Mexico City has one.

After Thomas’ presentation, Lea Ravensbergen, Nancy Smith Lea, and Adam Hasham briefly provided some commentary about it before opening the floor to questions. Lea questioned the phrase “build it and they will come” as it depends on quality, while Nancy expressed caution over bus-bike lanes and Adam didn’t believe long distance arterial cycling was realistic. While there was a social planned afterwards, I opted not to go as the presentations ended considerably later than expected.

When I asked Thomas after the meetup via e-mail about how each of the three cities excelled, he mentioned Toronto’s strongest points were the comprehensive planning which will allow every arterial to eventually get a bike lane, as well as the division between quick-build projects and co-ordination with road reconstruction projects. Manchester focused on high-quality designs and required all new cycling routes to have protected intersections, while Mexico City’s strength is integrating cycling with its broader transportation policy including using the same card for bike share and transit. Would be great if Metrolinx would allow PRESTO card integration with Bike Share Toronto, while Toronto’s just getting started on the protection file with the first one being completed back in 2022.

Thanks to Sarah, Alec, Madeleine, and Thomas for their excellent presentations, while I look forward to seeing where cycling research progresses next.

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