The history and circumstances of bike facilities in Toronto and Montreal: TCAT video

From TCAT, a video that explores the history and circumstances of bike facilities in Toronto and Montreal. Also available in French and Spanish. As a bike advocacy nerd, I think it's a bit short but it's probably just right for the wider public to get a decent understanding.

It's interesting to see how things develop differently in Canadian cities, having just come back from Vancouver and tried out their extensive bike network of cycle tracks and bike boulevards.

Harbord cycle tracks will not be for the hardcore but for the rest of us

Weak cycling infrastructure on Harbord

The Harbord and Hoskin bike route as it currently exists is not good enough to convince a large percentage of people to bike. For that to happen, as many other cities have found out, physically separated bike facilities make cycling much more popular as well as safer.

Even though Harbord and Hoskin is a popular bike route (partly by funneling people from other streets), its painted bike lanes and sharrows only attract a small portion of Torontonians. Being just paint makes it easy for motorists to park in, and sharrows do nothing to prevent cyclists from having to struggle and squeeze between car doors and fast moving traffic.

We've now got an opportunity to showcase a new, better way of building bike infrastructure. Harbord to Wellesley, if all goes well, from Ossington to Parliament will have protected bike lanes along its entire length by the end of 2014.

Toronto is hardly being radical by building protected bike lanes. Heck, even Lincoln Nebraska is building a bidirectional cycle track!

Lincoln, Nebraska gets its own cycle tracks

Attracting the "interested but concerned"

The Portland Bureau of Transportation in a survey found a "interested but concerned" group of potential cyclists that made up 60% of the population. This is a group that is willing to bike (unlike the 30% who would never consider cycling) but have been turned down by the poor state of infrastructure. Compare that 60% to the 1% of the strong and fearless and the 7% of the enthused and confident and it makes me think how vocal cyclists now often fail to think of how different things would be if even half the potential cyclists could be converted.

For the interested but concerned person, this is what is needed to convince them to hop on a bike on busy urban roads - separation from motor vehicles. These are people - young, old and unsure - who are uncomfortable riding in busy traffic and will only consider cycling as a regular activity if they get more infrastructure.

This group of potential cyclists rank separation from traffic higher than existing cyclists. The preference study at UBC's Cycling in Cities showed that for potential cyclists, having separated bike lanes or quiet bike boulevards was important and were unwilling to ride on major streets with parked cars and just painted bike lanes. It's interesting to note that even regular cyclists ranked cycle tracks highly but were much more comfortable riding on major streets with painted bike lanes.

Where hardcore cyclists are comfortable riding in mixed traffic next to large trucks and car doors (though even this changes as we get older), the potential cyclists are most comfortable on recreational bike paths and with clear separation from motorized traffic. While hardcore cyclists tend to be dominated by men, potential cyclists represent the larger population in gender, age and ability.

The City still tends to listen primarily to the 2% hardcore cyclists when building new bike facilities. The idea for protected bike lanes on Harbord (and Sherbourne and Richmond/Adelaide), however, came from outside the hardcore group. It was borne of people who had seen cities like Amsterdam or New York and saw the potential in Toronto. It was a major push to get City cycling staff and cycling advocates to think beyond painted bike lanes that provide next to no comfort or protection and focus more on the concerns the 60% and come up with strategies for building what is needed.

Protected bike lanes on Harbord and Hoskin will help provide a mind-shift among Torontonians, improving infrastructure for the majority.

Harbord/Hoskins needs more than just paint

Some preliminary drawing and figures were presented at the recent open house.

From Queens Park to St. George

From St. George to Ossington

Harbord and Hoskins cycle tracks will be a great improvement for those streets where speeding along stretches is still common, drivers routinely park in the bike lanes, and where a large stretch doesn't even have bike lanes.

Protected bike lanes are safer

But it's not just that people prefer more separation on streets like Harbord, it has also been shown to be safer than just painted bike lanes. After NYCDOT build cycle tracks on Prospect Park in Brooklyn they found a number of benefits, more so than what a painted bike lane would provide:

  • Speeding is down
  • Sidewalk cycling is down
  • Crashes are down
  • More cyclists of all ages are using it

The protected bike lanes will also provide specific benefits of vastly improving the intersection at Queens Park and Hoskin. What is currently an uncomfortable and unsafe intersection where cyclists and pedestrians have to deal with high speed traffic will be redesigned so cyclists can avoid having to try to cross multiple lanes of fast traffic.

And let's not forget that we finally have the political will to fill in the missing bike lane along Harbord, where cyclists have nothing but a narrow space between the doors and moving traffic. This requires politicians willing to risk the wrath of merchants.

Both Councillors Layton and Vaughan have come out supporting the Harbord separated bike lanes. Along with public works Chair Minnan-Wong, the support for Harbord is across the political spectrum. This is pretty rare in cycling advocacy. Even Mayor Miller missed his chance to build major bike lanes. Politics is the art of the possible and if this opportunity is not taken, it will be much harder to build another chance.

With such broad support the chance of getting protected bike lanes along the longest bike route through central Toronto just might be possible.

Toilets for BIXI

A plan for saving BIXI Toronto seems to be shaping up. Councillor Minnan-Wong may be on to something with an idea to scrap the expensive self-cleaning toilet contract with Astral Media in exchange for Astral Media paying down BIXI Toronto's outstanding loan. Even Councillor Vaughan thinks it's a good idea. The self-cleaning toilets seemed to be a great idea during Miller's term but it turns out that they aren't nearly as popular as BIXI.

Astral Media made a deal with the City a few years ago, promising to pay for street furniture in exchange for plastering its ads around Toronto. There was a marginal but expensive self-cleaning toilet project that has been having trouble finding locations. Turns out toilets are not as popular as BIXI bikes.

From the Toronto Star

The 20-year Astral contract allows the city to “cash out” of the toilets after 10 years — that is, force Astral to pay the city a certain amount of money in exchange for the right to not build the majestic thrones. Minnan-Wong’s proposal: persuade the company to allow the city to cash out now, four years early, and funnel the proceeds to the Bixi debt.

“It’s an initiative that the details have to be worked out on. But there is a synergy and an interest on everybody’s part,” said Minnan-Wong, a North York conservative. “The public wants to save Bixi. The city wants to save Bixi. The city is not so interested in the toilets. And Astral is willing to help out.”

It seems that the City also got some interest from companies in purchasing or just operating BIXI. The most promising is Alta Bikeshare, which is already operating a number of BIXI Toronto's sister systems, including in New York and Chicago. They are willing to assume the debt servicing but only if they can reduce costs and increase revenues slightly (read increase prices). It's unclear if the City will be pursuing private operators in addition to paying off the debt by scrapping toilets. It might be a good way to clean the slate and let an operator and the City invest in a much needed expansion. We'll find out more today as BIXI goes back to Exec Committee.

Update: The Exec Committee item provides some more details but no mention of the toilet deal.

None of the six respondents to the RFI were of the view that the BIXI Toronto operation could be assumed by a private operator/owner without some level of City subsidy; however there appears that there could be some potential to reduce the City's financial risk, to some extent, through a new arrangement with a private sector firm.

The six respondents:

  • Alta Bicycle Share (operates other large BIXI systems and likely has the best chance of running BIXI Toronto in my estimation)
  • B-cycle (operates its own bikesharing system in smaller American markets. Would it want to replace BIXI bikes with its own clunky model?)
  • CycleHop (site offline but claims to be involved in bikesharing management. small potatoes)
  • Four Square Integrated Transportation Planning (has done some bikesharing planning for Capital Bikeshare)
  • StartUpNorth (if it's this site, it seems to have no experience with managing such systems)
  • Toole Design Group (transportation planning)

The respondents were able to provide some useful comments (p.4):

There was a general consensus among the RFI respondents that bike share programs cannot fund the start-up capital equipment costs through membership and usage fees and sponsorship contributions. Bike share programs generally require some form of funding for the initial capital investment, either through municipal funding, government grants or a large title (i.e. naming rights) sponsorship.

How BIXI Toronto compares to other systems - performing well in some areas, poor in others:

  • Has reasonable operating costs;
  • Has a low number of members per bicycle compared to other systems;
  • Is generating a large number of trips per bicycle;
  • Has a cost-recovery, through membership and usage fees, that is generally in line with other comparable systems;
  • Appears to have a lower than expected level of sponsorship revenue on a per bike basis; and
  • Could increase membership, stimulate usage and generate sponsorship opportunities by expanding the system.

Have your say on Richmond and Adelaide today and on Harbord tomorrow

The first open house for Richmond and Adelaide cycle tracks is happening today (hurry!) at City Hall until 9pm and for Harbord (the Wellesley/Hoskin section was already approved) tomorrow at Kensington Gardens, Multi-Purpose Room 25 Brunswick Avenue from 4 to 8pm.

There's a booklet to explain all the details for Richmond and Adelaide. I first saw this informative document at the stakeholders meeting two weeks ago.

Speaking of which, the meeting was quite interesting. There were a lot of people there who were excited in some kind of separated bike lane. Even the head of the taxi union/federation had previously lived in the Netherlands and "got it" when it came to safe cycling infrastructure.

I was approached by Councillor Adam Vaughan afterwards. That's a whole blog post in itself. He was quite concerned that I had painted him in a negative light (as being indifferent, or at worst, against the separated bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide). So he wanted to set the record straight. I can't say I came away from the chat thinking that he'd drastically changed his mind, though he seems less likely to block the bike lanes in favour of his configuration. On Harbord, Councillor Vaughan was much more clear: he supports separated bike lanes there because it's got community support. Let's hope Vaughan can be convinced too that the prime concern of many is that there is a safe, protected bike route on Richmond, Adelaide, Peter and Simcoe. We want more bicycle highways.

American bicycle culture and infra from the perspective of a Dutchman

A Dutch "anthropological" look at American bicycle culture by Mark Wagenbuur of BicycleDutch. Much the same for Canada. Glimmers of change, but we're still so much in a car-fetishizing culture with space dominated by cars.

Infographic: how cyclists will go out of their way to travel on comfortable bike lanes

Thanks to Iain Campbell for this great infographic "Two Wheeled Traffic, or why bike lanes work"! It shows the bike traffic volume relative to the size of the road. Thus a street like St. George has only two car lanes but carries many more cyclists than nearby Queen's Park/University with its 8 lanes. Iain's data came from the City's 2010 Bike Cordon Count, which counted bike traffic into and out of downtown over 24 hours.

Iain's infographic provides a strong visual of how bike lanes are a much stronger magnet for cyclists than the importance of a road for car traffic. It strongly suggests that people will go out of their way to travel on a more comfortable, less stressful street with bike lanes. This is why I believe that separated bike lanes on Richmond and/or Adelaide will be a big draw for people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

There's more than one way to stop a bike lane

Bike Lane Closed by Tino

Councillor Vaughan said that he has never voted against a bike lane. Though that might be true, there are many ways to stop a bike lane. (Photo credit: Tino)

The obvious way to stop a bike lane is to vote against it. An example is University when the opposition to Mayor Miller passed an amendment to remove University from the bike lane plan that year.

The most egregious way to stop a bike lane, for which Toronto has become world famous, is to rip out existing ones. Thanks to spiteful Mayor Ford, Councillor Minnan-Wong and Councillor Berardinetti we are now three bike lanes fewer.

Those are the methods that get the most public attention. But even before a bike lane reaches a vote or is built, a bike lane can be stopped. John Street is a favoured north-south route for cyclists. Councillor Vaughan led a drive to turn it into a "pedestrian priority zone" (as well as a patio zone from what I can tell of the plans). The environmental assessment, which ended last year, resulted in a solution with no bike lanes. It didn't help to build trust in the process when the consultants largely ignored cyclists in the official count. Dave Meslin revealed the fudge of their recorded flatlined 2% bike mode share by conducting his own count (along with some help from yours truly and other volunteers) showing a much higher number during peak hours.

According to the EA, however, the bike mode share didn't matter since they were directed to create a pedestrian priority zone (which also happened to include motor vehicles, large and small). As a palliative, Vaughan had pointed out that Peter would become the alternative route, though we've yet to see much movement among staff or councillor to create that solution. Thus I'll hazard to say that the entire process was configured so that bike lanes would be excluded and never come to a vote.

Another way to stop a bike lane is to build local opposition. The current Vaughan says he supports separated bike lanes, but the older Vaughan actually blasted them as "barricaded". That doesn't sound like someone who supported separated bike lanes, but instead like someone who's trying to build local opposition to them.

Yet another way to stop a bike lane is to call for more community consultation or to make it a pilot project. Councillor Wong-Tam took these tactics with the Sherbourne protected bike lanes. The City's Cycling Unit staff went door to door along Sherbourne, consulted with businesses and residents groups, and held public consultation meetings for Sherbourne (where the majority of attendees supported the lanes). I was told by a staffperson at the time that Councillor Wong-Tam provided next to no help in making her constituents aware of the project. It all suggested an attempt at stopping the bike lanes by studying it to death.

It's easy to point out the idiocy of politicians who rip out bike lanes, but it's good to keep in mind that there are more subtle ways out there to kill a bike lane while trying to keep the "progressive" label.

Cycling Gotham

Humber Woods Park

[I'd like to introduce a new blogger to I Bike TO, Ian Slater. Ian is a father, husband and professor at York University. And as a guy on a bike, he'll be providing us with an interesting perspective of the long-distance commuter. Welcome Ian! -- Herb]

I was driving my son home from class one night on a poorly lit side street in Toronto when a cyclist, with no helmet, no lights, no reflectors and in dark clothing flew off the sidewalk and cut me off. I saw him at the last second and braked. He then pulled over to the side up ahead, adjusting something on his belt. I drove by, rolled down my window and told him, “I can’t see you brother, you’re completely invisible in the dark, I almost hit you.”, to which he replied:

“I can see you”, and rode off into the night.

My son asked me, “what did he mean by that?”

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the answer to that question. What did he mean by that? Surely this guy is smart enough to realize that he is hard to see in the dark without any sort of lights and wearing light non-reflective clothing. And no helmet too, what does this tell me? Well, maybe he’s overconfident, that would explain his comment. Or perhaps he thinks that you are just as likely to run him over if he’s visible as when he’s not, so why bother?

The longer I listen to the public dialogue around cars and bikes in Toronto the more I favour the latter explanation. I think many cyclists are both overconfident and convinced that motorists would just as soon run them over as pass them by. I have seen many, many verbal fights break out between cyclists and motorists as I commute. They are rarely pretty. It’s all “war on the bike” and “war on the car”, I want a better model, war is ugly and, to be frank, if we’re at war the bikes are going to lose.

The level of mutual animosity in all this finally pushed me to start blogging. I think it’s time to dive in to the public dialogue.

Toronto occupies a very interesting position, a large metropolitan center with an international population, a strained transit system and an increasing number of cyclists. Or so it seems from what I see on the roads. Toronto has been cited as having the worst commute times from a sample of international cities, 80 min a day (that includes to and from work).

The TTC is strained and expanding, the city is growing. Air quality is impacted by an increased number of cars, I breathe the difference every time I ride. I see the wistful look on motorist’s faces when I wheel by them in a traffic jam.
We are ripe for a cycling revolution, but the mutual animosity makes this difficult.

I’ll be posting here regularly, giving my thoughts on current issues around cycling in TO, and hopefully pointing out some useful information for those who are thinking of long distance urban cycle commuting. What works for the short hop rider doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

I hope I can bring a fresh perspective on things, and possibly get a few people who have been thinking about cycling to give it a go. The weather right now is fantastic for riding, cool and sunny, and everything is in full bloom, giving almost every street in the city a roiling green canopy, there’s never been a better time to be on something moving at a speed that allows you to see what’s all around you. The fresh air on your face, the ability to pass bumper to bumper traffic.

You know you want it.

I have also been taking pictures of Toronto cycling routes for 5 years or so, all on my phone camera and while moving. I’ll post a pic here regularly too, maybe it will inspire you to try out a new trail, with all the focus on bike lanes, we forget that Toronto has a wealth of urban cycling trails.

The pic at the top is from Humber Woods Park in North West Toronto.

Cheers,

Ian

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