politics

Reducing injuries is important but not at expense of public health: Provincial Coroner's helmet recommendation misguided

The Provincial Coroner came out with his long-anticipated recommendations for reducing cycling deaths today. Alongside recommendations asking for a provincial cycling plan, complete streets, education and sideguards for trucks, he also recommended mandatory helmets for all age groups. His mandatory helmet recommendation is outdated, misguided and overshadows is otherwise (though somewhat broad) set of recommendations. The media has latched onto the helmet recommendation like it is the magical talisman that will solve all that harms cyclists. Drivers won't have to change anything, it's all up to the cyclists! Almost every headline is: "Ontario Coroner calls for mandatory helmets for cyclists..."

The limitation of this coroner's review is that it only looked at a relatively narrow perspective, that of deaths and injuries while cycling. The Coroner never considered were the broader public health implications. Nor did he consider, it seems, whether other jurisdictions saw a reduction in injuries and deaths. Nor how it is that some jurisdictions such as the Netherlands as pictured above can be very safe while most cyclists young and old don't wear helmets. When it comes to mandatory helmet legislation, it is widely considered by experts now to have either no impact or a negative impact on public health. I spelled out the broad issue yesterday. It is one thing to promote helmet use while still leaving the option open for people, but it has been shown that once you try to enforce helmet use many people just decide not to bother. The experts have shown that the health benefit of cycling is much greater than the risk of injury or death.

Even the Toronto Coroner's report on cycling fatalities in 1999 recognized that mandatory helmet use could backfire:

...helmet use is not a panacea for drastically reducing cycling related fatalities or serious head injuries. Stricter bicycle helmet legislation and mass helmet usage in other countries (U.S.A., Australia, and New Zealand) have failed to produce any statistically significant reduction in the rates of fatalities and head injuries, despite optimistic projections. In addition, compulsory helmet use may result in reduced bicycle usage.

Did you get that? Mandatory helmet legislation showed NO statistical evidence that it reduced fatalities and head injuries!

One could ask too why there is so much of an emphasis on helmets for cyclists when drivers and pedestrians also suffer head injuries that could be prevented with helmets? I personally have suffered a head injury sustained in a car crash. But I'm sure requiring helmets for drivers and passengers would create a loud outcry.

It's not clear if the Coroner took any consideration of the impact of this on the public bikesharing initiatives such as BIXI Toronto or Capital Bikes in Ottawa. Bikesharing in Melbourne, Australia is struggling because of mandatory helmets and Vancouver is having trouble launching its own service because of mandatory helmets there.

A bicycle helmet law came into effect in Ontario in 1995. It was originally meant to be applied to all ages but was amended by regulation to exempt adults. Helmet usage among children increased after the legislation but eventually dropped off because of a lack of enforcement.

I wish the Coroner had considered the public health aspect of his review before making any recommendation, but instead he had decided to forge ahead with a misguided recommendation. If the Liberal government takes up this recommendation I believe that it will put a big dent in cycling promotion in this province and put us even further behind. If Australia is any indication then we could see reductions in cycling by 20 to 40%! That is a hugely negative impact on public health, especially considering how Toronto celebrates when the number of cyclists increased by 6% in the decade from 1999 to 2009. Maybe the reductions won't be as large here, but even a small drop would likely overshadow any positive impact.

Three streets, four legal challenges! City's outdated, cyclist unfriendly planning on John, Front and Jarvis

In an unprecedented challenge to the City, four legal challenges have been submitted to the City and the Minister of the Environment claiming there has been shoddy process on Front Street, John Street and Jarvis Street that have resulted in plans that exclude cyclists and make conditions unsafe. I haven't heard of any other North American city having so many legal challenges to its planning authority and process at once.

Cycle Toronto is challenging the decision to take out bike lanes on Jarvis Street, stating that making the street more difficult for cyclists is doing environmental damage, represented by law firm Iler Campbell (letter to city). Cycle Toronto is also challenging the EA for Front Street, stating that the remake of the connections to this major transportation hub is making conditions worse for cyclists and that the City didn't consider Metrolinx's concerns regarding cycling infrastructure, represented by Papazian, Heisey and Myer Barristers and Solicitors (CycleTO's initial submission, letter from Metrolinx to City, letter to City, response from City, Part II request to Province and response to the City). Then on John Street the bike shop Urbane Cyclist is challenging the John Street EA, arguing that the project will force cyclists from the best cycling connection in the area with no Plan B in place, represented by Ian Flett. And finally, Don Wesley, Ward 20 resident and Cycle Toronto volunteer is challenging John Street and represented by Fogler Rubinoff LLP (letter to City by CycleTO, letter to City by Wesley, Part II request to Province).

What is most galling (other than the Jarvis bike lane removal) is that what passes for a "comfortable cycling environment" is a wide curb lane with sharrows (quoting a condescending Stephen Schijns, Manager in Infrastructure Planning, in his response to Cycle Toronto). This during a time when American cities are undertaking quite progressive initiatives like the Green Lane Project which will support cities in developing dedicated, separated green bike lanes. Instead of providing world class bike lanes, cycling facilities in Toronto are way down on the list of importance. Instead of bike lanes we're given sharrows and a wide curb lane on a busy arterial road. I'm sorry but sharrows do little to encourage people to feel safe enough to take up cycling.

Front Street, according to Schijns, will include "a wide single lane in each direction marked by sharrows, and a pedestrian-oriented traffic-calmed environment which will have the effect of maintaining vehicular traffic speeds at comfortable levels. The 4.75 m wide lanes will be substantially wider than the vast majority of curb lanes on City streets and will provide a comfortable cycling environment." Schijns also wishes to inform cyclists - as if we didn't know already - that "the plan also recognizes that pedestrians and cyclists are not the only users of Front Street." And that the reason that a dedicated bicycle lane wasn't included was because of a "delicate balancing act" whereby City engineers had to figure out how best to convince the broad public that sharrows are actually "cycling infrastructure". Meanwhile the EA was approved while failing to address the concerns of Metrolinx that the cycling infrastructure was poor.

Let's hope that this wakes the City up that it can't continue to expect cyclists to just take the little scraps off the table. The Bike Plan has been dangled in front of cyclists for over a decade but we've met plenty of resistance and foot dragging from both politicians and even many Transportation Services staff. It didn't seem to matter much if there was a progressive mayor like David Miller in power or a regressive mayor like Mel Lastman or Rob Ford, there has been certain level of inaction and resistance in making the city safer for cyclists. What is needed is to make foot dragging harder to accomplish.

Legal objections to John Street EA: deficient in addressing cyclists issues

Don Wesley is the co-captain of the Ward 20 advocacy group of Cycle Toronto (formerly Toronto Cyclists Union). With support of his Ward group and solicitors, Fogler, Rubinoff LLP, he is taking legal steps to ensure that the John Street EA addresses the concerns of cyclists. Local John Street business, the Urbane Cyclist bike shop, is also bringing forward their legal concerns, represented by Ian Flett.

From Wesley's letter, the main objection to the EA:

... the EA proposes to narrow existing vehicular lanes along John Street without provision for bike traffic, thereby effectively eliminating John Street as a cycling route and instead turning the route into a “ride at your own risk” corridor in which cyclist safety will be endangered due to competition for space with automobiles.

Wesley's states that the John Street EA contained two legal deficiencies. One, the EA does not comply with the Municipal Class Environmental Assessment and, two, it is inconsistent with the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement and does not conform with the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Wesley and Urbane Cyclist are requesting a meeting with the Public Consultation Unit of the City of Toronto. In case their issues aren't resolved to their satisfaction, they will request the Minister of the Environment issue a Part II order pursuant to the Environmental Assessment Act. A Part II order allows an interested person to ask for a higher level of assessment for a class environmental assessment (Class EA) project if they feel there are significant outstanding issues that have not been adequately addressed.

Ward 20 cyclists believe that there are ways of achieving the goals of the City on John Street while accommodating cyclists and protecting their safety.

The John Street EA was approved by Council, but there were some flaws in the process that make this legal challenge important. Staff used incorrect numbers for estimating cycling traffic, which they later admitted their data was somewhat flawed after sustained effort by Dave Meslin and other activists in recording actual data with lots of media attention. Instead of the claimed percentage of 2% bike mode share during peak times, Meslin had measured closer to 30%. Though the admission was posted on the site, this information was not available for the public meetings.

Another flaw was in the process of pushing hard for a pedestrianization of John Street without a commitment to ensuring that cyclists would have the same level of access and connectivity on John or close by. Indeed, it now appears as if cyclists may not even get an adequate cycling route on Soho/Peter, and this was the route that was championed by Councillor Vaughan. The major concern was improving the connection across Queen Street since currently it includes an unsafe jog across streetcar tracks and a left turn - something very few cyclists feel comfortable in doing. A new building is being proposed for the corner that would eliminate a chance for a reconfigured intersection.

This makes fighting for a John Street that includes cyclists even that more important.

Cycle Toronto asks City to improve bicycle access in Union Station plan, else may take it to Province

The City had approved an EA report for a remake of Front Street in front of Union Station. It would improve pedestrian access, but in the end, provided nothing substantive for cycling access, and perhaps even made it worse in some respects. This for a major transportation hub in Canada. Cycle Toronto has expressed its concerns (pdf) about the project and has sent a letter to the City to see that its concerns are met. If not, Cycle Toronto may bring its concerns to the Province under the EA legislation. The approved EA, according to Cycle Toronto, is contrary to the City of Toronto Official Plan, Metrolinx's transportation policies, and fails to provide adequate lanes for bicycle transportation and fails to accommodate access by bicycle to Union Station, a concern that was also expressed by Metrolinx at an earlier date.

If Cycle Toronto's concerns can't be resolved with the City, they will "make an order under Part 11 of the Environmental Assessment Act that would require the Project to undergo an individual environmental assessment".

Previously Metrolinx had also expressed concerns that cyclists were being short-changed. Lesiië/ Woo, Vice President of Policy, Planning and Innovation at Metrolinx, said in February:

It is encouraging to see an emphasis in the EA on pedestrian priority and safety; however, I wouid encourage the City to consider this opportunity to concurrently improve access to Union Station for cyclists. In particular, the preferred concept identitìed through the EA provides minimal dedicated on-road space for cyclists. With the introduction of a greater number of taxi and loading zones, there may be a greater number of points of conflict between cyclists, pedestrians, and motorized vehicles. On Front Street, the consideration of on-street bike lanes or dedicated cycling facilities may help to reduce conflicts, especially in high activity areas, such as adjacent to taxi stands and loading zones.

The City's Public Works and Infrastructure Committee had previously asked City staff to consider changes to the plan, but staff came back with nothing, saying that they were unable to arrange a meeting with the appropriate people in time. So instead of delaying the approval until changes could be discussed, it was summarily accepted. Perhaps this time they'll find the time.

There will always be more to do, but that's not the same as saying that nothing has been done: prof opines on cycling in TO

Ron Buliung, a professor of transportation geography at the University of Toronto, elaborated on his interview for a Public Radio International's The World in an article War on the Streets of Toronto: Motorists vs. Cyclists. and the representation of the cycling in Toronto (thanks to TCAT for posting!). Buliung noted to the BBC that Toronto is "not seeing dramatic increases in fatalities or injuries of any kind, or much change in the frequency of injury on our major arterials". What is actually happening is that other North American cities are becoming safer and seeing fewer cyclist injuries and fatalities. Toronto has stalled at an average of about 1100 collisions per year over the last five years.

Perhaps ironically Buliung was involved in a sideswipe collision the day of his interview with the BBC. Thankfully he wasn't injured badly. In his musings below he tries to provide illumination on Toronto's "war on the ..." rhetoric and on the way we tend to fall into a binary discussion of good/bad aspects of transportation in this city. Things are improving in some ways - injuries are static as cycling rates increase, yet not so in other ways: we don't know if "near misses" and "unreported collisions" are rising or not.

“The war on the car”, “The war on public transit”, and now, care of the BBC, “The war on the bike”. This polarizing discourse about transportation in Toronto, launched by Mayor Ford, and sustained by a chorus of local and international media outlets, completely misses the mark. A more sensible conversation is one that acknowledges the multi-modal reality of passenger transport in our city and in cities across the globe. It’s much easier to play one mode against another than to do the tough work of figuring out how to make them work together.

In a busy city such as ours, irrespective of how you travel, the bad news stories are plenty. Congestion is getting worse, cars are crashing into each other, pedestrians, and cyclists. My personal story of cycling in the city includes the stories of friends and students being struck by cars; my partner was “doored” on College Street while pregnant and thrown over her handle bars into the street car tracks; and I was recently side-swiped while en route to a BBC interview to discuss cycling in Toronto (no injury occurred). This personal narrative influences how I think about the perceived and actual risk of cycling in the city.

In the BBC article, my comments regarding a retrospective analysis of reported injuries and fatalities were used as a counterpoint to the reporter’s suggestion that, “Toronto’s streets have turned into some kind of a roller derby”. Here we have, again, a complex process reduced to a simple binary description, i.e., it’s really bad out there/no it’s not. In the days since the BBC interview, I have spent a few hours observing the activity at one of our busiest intersections (in terms of bicycle traffic), College and Bathurst (also the site of the interview). During that time, I observed a young girl, escorted by an adult, trying to cross the street on her bike. She fell off her bike, lost a shoe in the streetcar tracks, and had to be picked up and carried the rest of the way; we are a long way from 8-80 indeed.

When I add my personal observations from around the city, to my cycling experience (about 11 years here), I can tell you that my perception of risk has increased over time. I can’t recall the last time I rode my bike in mixed traffic without incident, usually a near miss here or there. One could conclude that as I’ve aged I’ve also become more risk averse. Most of my experience bicycle commuting has occurred during the peak periods (rush hours) in the a.m. and p.m., at a time of day when the streets are awash with every kind of vehicle imaginable. The data tell us that most car-bike collisions are occurring at those times, particularly during the afternoon rush (City of Toronto, 2003). It may indeed be a bit of a “roller derby” during the peak hours. In other words, in my view, the roller derby exists, but not everywhere – and not all the time.

So, what of the good news? Data from the 2001 and 2006 census suggest that bike commuting to work is on the rise. While the city-wide bike to work mode share rests at 1.7%, we have neighbourhoods where the mode share is as high as 17%. Reported injuries and fatalities were lower in 2006 (during the peak) than in 2001. More recent data suggests little change in injury or fatality between 2006 and 2011 (City of Toronto, 2011). In other words, if we assume that the number of cycle commuters continues to increase, while frequency of injury remains relatively stable, then one could conclude that something is going right. One problem with this type of analysis is that the near misses, and unreported collisions are excluded. My near misses and unreported collision not only affect my perception of risk, they also fit into the broader story about the objective risk of injury associated with cycling in the city.

I would like to think that things are getting better, but I’m not completely sure yet. We are talking about preventable injury and death. It is not a good thing that, on average, close to 1000 cyclists are injured annually. Afterall each event carries with it several direct and indirect, and at times, enormous social and economic costs. These costs trickle across scales, from the individual to the employer and to the broader community.

The profile of cycling in Toronto has clearly increased through time; we have very passionate public advocacy groups (Toronto Cyclists Union, TCAT), and let’s not forget about our city hall staffers who are working to see the bike plan implemented. Although it might appear as though things have stalled (another claim from the BBC piece), there is more cycling infrastructure in the city today than there was in 2001. As of March 20, 2012 roughly 76% of the planned off-road capacity had been built, along with 56% of the planned signed routes, and 22% of the planned bike lanes (although these are the toughest sell of all) (City of Toronto, 2012). There will always be more to do, but that’s not the same as saying that nothing has been done! The best way to get people to consider switching to cycling is by building these supportive infrastructures, and – one of the best ways to reduce injury risk is to get more people cycling (i.e., safety in numbers).

While the currently available infrastructures might not all represent the grade and/or barrier separated ideal, they are a critical piece of the civic discourse on the role of the bicycle in the city – the painted line, the sharrow, the signed route, represent – if you will, a re-branding of our streets, a clear label telling all road users that the bicycle has a place in our city.

The relationship between the bicycle and Toronto is almost as old as the city itself. In the City of Toronto Archives I found a photograph of a bicycle storage facility located at the Toronto Lithograph Company, dated 1898 (that’s right, the idea of bike storage at work is more than a century old!). In addition, the conversation about bike lanes in the city has been dated to around 1896 (City of Toronto, 2001). The bicycle has been part of Toronto’s transport system for more than a century, it has survived the modernist auto-centric experiments with transport and city form of the past, and it will survive Mayor Ford."

Ron Buliung
Associate Professor, University of Toronto
Research Associate, University of Toronto Cities Centre

References:
BBC News (2012) Cyclists accuse Toronto mayor Ford of ‘war on bikes’. Available from: http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17914504 [Accessed May 7 2012]
City of Toronto (2001) City of Toronto Bike Plan: Shifting Gears. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/bikeplan/index.htm [Accessed May 7 2012]
City of Toronto (2003) Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision Study. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/transportation/publications/bicycle_...... [Accessed May 7 2012]
City of Toronto (2011) 2011 Cyclist Collision Summary Leaflet. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/transportation/index.htm#data [Accessed May 7 2012]
City of Toronto (2012) Bikeway Network Project Status. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/network/network-project-stat... [Accessed May 7 2012].

Let's see the stats on improved travel times at Jarvis/Gerrard advanced left turn phase

The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC) voted to reinstall the fifth lane of Jarvis and remove the Jarvis bike lanes after the installation of the Sherbourne Street separated bike lanes at its meeting on June 23, 2011. Cyclists, the Toronto Cyclists Union in particular, supported the Sherbourne separated bike lanes but were against creating a trade-off with the Jarvis bike lanes. The number one argument used to push for removing the Jarvis bike lanes was that it slowed down traffic (by about 2 to 5 minutes). In the report Transportation Services staff had noted that travel times could be improved by installing an advanced left turn signal at Jarvis and Gerrard streets. The staff have installed the advanced left and have studied the results. It's time that PWIC released the results so the public knows if it has helped resolve travel time issues.

At PWIC’s June 23. 2011 meeting, PWIC had before it a June 9 , 2011 City staff report, Bikeway Network 2011 Update. City staff advised in the report, referring to Jarvis Street, that:

Travel times increased by approximately two minutes in both directions following the installation of the bike lanes in the a.m. peak hour and by three to five minutes in both directions in the p.m. peak hour.

  • Much of the increased travel time could be attributed to the delays and queues experienced at the Jarvis Street/Gerrard Street East intersection, particularly in the northbound direction during the p.m. peak period.
  • The introduction of an advanced left turn phase in the northbound direction at this intersection, scheduled this summer, will reduce the delays at this intersection and the overall travel times between Queen Street East and Charles Street East.

An advanced left turn phase in the northbound direction of Jarvis Street at the intersection of Jarvis Street and Gerrard Street East was introduced in the summer/fall of 2011. New stats for the intersection of Gerrard and Jarvis have been internally generated by the City and a travel time analysis may be available that would help the public and the Committee in understanding if there has been a change in the delay experienced by motorists on Jarvis Street during rush hour after the change in signal timing.

PWIC should release the new travel time statistics now so that the community can be able to assess the real impact, if any, of the removal of the 5th lane of Jarvis and the installation of the Jarvis Street bike lanes.

Poll down since provided misleading sense of accuracy and website security issues hopefully solved

I Bike TO update: I've resolved some security issues that appeared on Monday. The website should be running smoothly and securely again.

I had published a poll on the proposed Toronto Cyclists Union name change. I decided to take it down since it was not going to provide an accurate sample of the bike union membership. It would do the opposite of just muddying the discussion. Website polls are blunt tools that can only tell us who is most eager to vote and not a representative sample of the population. The resulting numbers may look accurate enough but they won't mean much.

In this case the population is the bike union membership, so to know what they are thinking we would have to conduct a survey of a random sample of the membership. To be precise about 325 people would have to be surveyed. I used this handy sample size calculator based on a membership of 2100, confidence level of 95% and margin of error of +/- 5. For those interested in this survey methodology stuff, wikipedia does a good job of giving an overview. For everyone else, let's just keep conversing.

Removing Jarvis bike lanes requires environmental assessment states legal opinion commissioned by Bike Union

The Toronto Cyclists Union yesterday threw down a legal opinion (drafted by Iler Campbell LLP) at the City, making the claim that City Council's vote to remove the Jarvis bike lanes and install a 5th lane requires a full Schedule C Environmental Assessment. If the City doesn't respond within 10 days they will approach the provincial Ministry of Environment.

The Torontoist:

Commissioned by the Cyclists Union, Iler Campbell LLP’s opinion contends that bike lane decommissioning and a reversible centre-lane addition on Jarvis Street is subject to a minimum of a Schedule B project screening—that is, screening for projects that “have the potential for some adverse environmental effects.” However, the firm recommends that a more intensive Schedule C assessment (for projects that “may have significant environmental effects”) be undertaken.

Installing the 5th reversible lane (as it was before the original environmental assessment was done) would go against the Official Plan and provincial guidelines that recommend improving streets for active transportation. It would inhibit active transportation and encourage more air pollution and worse health. It is hoped that the City and/or the province will agree it requires a Schedule C Environmental Assessment because of these potential adverse effects so the public can be properly consulted.

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