An accidental protected bike lane on John Street

Max snapped this photo one morning a few weeks ago at John and Queen, looking north. I was completely flabbergasted at first. As many of my readers might now, there was a long extended fight with Councillor Vaughan and a bunch of planners who were trying to plan cyclists out of the picture and create a pedestrian arcade (but with cars) out of John Street. This seemed like a complete 180 where cyclists were actually given their own space instead of treated like pariahs.

But, no, it was not to be. Instead this is a pilot project until October to carve out a much larger pedestrian zone with a row of planters. Instead of being a protected bike lane much like I've seen in Vancouver, it's a "pedestrian" zone that seems most of the time to have few pedestrians (perhaps a bit heavier next to the restaurants which had overtaken much of the public space for their patios).

Cyclists don't know what to do with the space. Some people are still using it as a bike lane while other cyclists choose to squeeze next to a multi-block long line of cars (photo by Michal). This is what I saw:

While the whole John Street Cultural Corridor project is currently unfunded, the EA was completed and left out cyclists. Or, to be more accurate, they assumed cyclists would just nicely mix in with car traffic like we're forced to everywhere else.

But compared to the EA, this row of planters is even worse for cyclists. At least in the EA the plan was to have a "flexible boulevard" and a "non-barrier" curb to blur the line between the pedestrian space and the road. People on bikes would have more options in going around traffic jams of cars. In the EA they said:

A continuous non-barrier curb on both sides of the street to enable a seamless transition into a pedestrian-only space for events; for vehicles to mount the flexible boulevard for deliveries or drop-offs; and, to accommodate additional vehicular and cycling maneuvering on either side of the road in emergencies.

Or like this real-world example at the Prince's Gate at the Ex:

But instead, this design seems to have imposed purgatory for anyone on a bike.

What are the lessons here?

One, we can't just expect bikes to disappear, no matter how much we're in love with "pedestrianizing" the John Street Corridor. Did you expect the cyclists to nicely wait behind the truck? Good luck with trying to re-engineer human nature.

Two, by doing things half-ass, by trying to increase the pedestrian space while letting cars still rule the streets, we are making the space worse. Planners should have made it much more inconvenient for drivers to choose John Street as a through-street. John could be made for local vehicles only, much like a bicycle boulevard, which would greatly reduce the traffic while still allowing cars to exist there.

Getting better data: trying out the new Toronto cycling trips app

I've been trying out the new Toronto cycling app that allows you to track your trips on your phone (if it's an iPhone or Android). While it has some nominally useful features of showing calories burned and CO2 averted (by comparing it to a car trip I imagine) the main purpose of the app (at least in this iteration) is to help the City gather data on how people cycle now, the characteristics of those people and of the trip, and how the trips change based on changes to the infrastructure.

I took it for a spin the other day on my trip to and from the dentist.

At the very least, the planners can see the kinds of routes cyclists stitch together to avoid riding on major arterials. On my trip back from the dentist I treated myself to a short section of single track (on my crappy one-speed mountain bike turned city bike) down a hill to a path alongside the Rosehill Reservoir. That got me to Mt. Pleasant (not bike-friendly) and then to Wellesley (quick stop to see the bollards); through King's College Circle; College, Shaw and some alleyways and side streets (contra-flow rulz!) to back home. A route that someone would take only with experience and practice.

You might be wondering why the City didn't just use Strava's datasets. Hamish aka "If-it-ain't-bloor-bike-lanes-it's-a-waste-of-money" Wilson, Toronto's resident "carmudgeon", asked this very question in an email rant. Good question. The short answer is that this app isn't geared towards just fredly-types on Cervelos but will also track characteristics of the type of ride (recreational, errand, commute) and of the cyclist (gender, income, comfort-level) while still keeping the data anonymous. But even aside from that, the City can't use or store data out of the country and has extra requirements with privacy laws on the security of the servers.

The Oregon Department of Transportation recently went the Strava route by purchasing a dataset that they're using in making design decisions. Their choice has been roundly criticized for using data that is not representative of most cyclists. This is perhaps where the Toronto Cycling app will do a better job of getting representative data. By having information about the people cycling they can weight the trip data based on other cycling survey.

A researcher noted in her blog, echo in the city (thanks Hamish for the link), that it's okay for ODOT to use nonrepresentative samples so long as there is transparency, "justify decisions and choices about sampling, and use the results responsibly." But, this researcher (I'll call her echo), points out that in the case of ODOT the problem is that the Strava dataset is not that it's a small sample (only 2.5% of all commuters) but that it's likely an "inappropriate sample to address the project goals". Even then, echo notes, the project can be saved. At $20,000 it's cheap so far surveys go, and could be a "great pilot to test how to go about studying cyclists’ behavior using GPS–both in terms of its strengths and limitations as an approach". It appears to me that the Toronto Cycling app will do a better job here.

But that's not to say there can't be improvements to the app or the data collection. One major one is to encourage more people to use it. I'm admittedly a bike nerd and went out of my way to install the app and remember to turn it on for every short/long trip. The City should consider offering a raffle to everyone who records X number of trips in a season, where X could be low enough to make it easy for casual cyclists to achieve. This would hopefully increase the types of cyclists that would use it. And the City should not see this as a substitute for surveys but rather a supplement.

I have high hopes that this project will prove to be useful. The developers, Brisk Synergies, are focused on technology for transportation (equitable transportation, in fact). Luis F. Miranda-Moreno, chief scientist for Brisk, has done a lot of work on cycling and pedestrian transportation, including a Montreal study with Anne Lusk on its cycle tracks: “Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street”.

I think the Toronto Cycling app—while needing some improvements—can be a useful tool for improving cycling infrastructure. While my argument is unlikely to convince Hamish, perhaps it's enough for you, my dear reader?

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