advocacy

Who or What is "The Average Cyclist" and why are we designing only for them?

At the last public meeting for cycling, I asked Dan Egan, head of the City of Toronto's Cycling Department a rather purposeful question, specifically:

"Who is the intended design user of our cycling infrastructure?"

And his response was the rather bland:

"The average cyclist"

Well, that got me thinking, who (or what) is the "average" cyclist?

Is it me? Probably not. I'm a CAN-BIKE II graduate and a former certified CAN-BIKE instructor. CAN-BIKE II graduates are rare, and instructors are even more so.

Would my daughters qualify? Again, nope. They have taken the Kids CAN-BIKE course and also the CAN-BIKE Camp. To compare: they are the only ones at their school to have done either, let alone both.

My wife? She's never taken CAN-BIKE, rides much less frequently than either myself or our daughters. Her rides tend to be shorter in distance and duration than the rest of our family. She's never commuted by bike. She'll only ride when most of her trip can be done over cycling infrastructure and the rest of the route she feels comfortable on. So she's more likely to ride to downtown than within our community.

My neighbor who rides quite a bit? He rides quite a bit around the neighborhood both as part of his multi-modal commute (to the GO train station) and for other activities such as shopping. However, the routes he uses either don't have any bike infrastructure at all, or else have infrastructure only on tiny segments of his routes. Can't be him.

My other neighbor who rides a couple of times a week during the better weather for fitness? He rides on the Humber Bay Shores and Martin-Goodman trails, and sometimes on part of the Humber River trail. Could be him.

My other neighbors who ride just a few times a year? They also tend to use the Humber Bay Shores and less frequently the Martin-Goodman trails and part of the Humber River trail. I've also seen them pack their bikes up on their cars to drive them to other trails where they will ride. Could be them, too.

Does this mean that the many of us who ride bikes a lot are not the intended, or design, user of cycling infrastructure? Yet we are generally the advocates. Are we asking the city to build cycling infrastructure that we can't, don't, or won't use? In some cases, yes we are.

In my own neighborhood of Mimico, we've done a good job providing multi-use trails which people on bike can use, but we've also seen quite a lot of contention along those same trails between different user groups with most of the animosity being directed against "fast" cyclists; and it's been said that these trails were not designed nor intended for the faster commuter cyclists. Does this mean that commuter cyclists are not the average cyclist, and that we aren't designing for them?

Well, let's have a quick look at the vision from our bike plan's Executive Summary, and see what is says:

The vision for the Toronto Bike Plan is to create a safe, comfortable and bicycle friendly environment in Toronto, which encourages people of all ages to use bicycles for everyday transportation and enjoyment.

I would interpret "everyday transportation" as commuting and "enjoyment" as fitness and/or occasional "Sunday" rides. And "people of all ages" are not going to share the same average in either skill, ability, nor speed.

To me this means that city staff are making a big mistake in designing cycling infrastructure for the "average cyclist" and that this very idea of an "average cyclist" is contrary to the stated vision of the bike plan.

What do you think?

Should the city be designing our cycling infrastructure for some real or imagined "average cyclist?"

Or should be be following the vision of our older bike plan, and be designing our cycling infrastructure for people people of all ages, uses, and abilities?

A new traffic light for cyclists at Lakeshore and Strachan

It only took twenty years from when Nancy Smith Lea first asked then-councillor Joe Pantalone to make the Lakeshore/Strachan intersection safer for cyclists, but finally, thanks to the advocacy work of Cycle Toronto's Ward 19 group, we've got a traffic light for northbound cyclists; liberating cyclists from taking the crosswalks in two stages.

This blog post is more about the power of strategic advocacy than about just one traffic light, so I'll be digging into the history of the advocacy around this one, simple improvement to the Lakeshore/Strachan intersection.

Smith Lea, local citizen, director of Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, and fastidious recordkeeper, recounted to me how she had notes about "conversation I had with [Councillor Joe Pantalone] from 1996 where he told me that a new road (Remembrance Drive) had just been approved to provide direct access to Ontario Place and once that was finished they were going to "clean up" the Strachan/Martin Goodman intersection for peds/cyclists. "

Well, that never happened. So ten years later (!), in 2006, Smith Lea sent another email to Pantalone who replied:

Hi Nancy
Thank you for writing to me. I understand and sympathize with the frustration that you are feeling with regards to bike lanes on Strachan Avenue and in the City.

Firstly, as part of the Princes' Gates area revitalization, which I led, the area to the east of the Gates was transformed from a "no go" area for pedestrians and bicyclists to an attractive place for both. Furthermore, again as part of this approval, a detailed plan to have dedicated bike lanes all the way to King St West (from Lakeshore) was also approved and I am told by Dan Egan that it will be in place before the end of 2006.

Despite, the above mentioned improvements, the Lakeshore/Strachan Ave/Marting Goodman Trail intersections were not part of this plan and need addressing. The good news is that the Toronto Waterfront Corporation (TWRC) has just completed the rejuvenation of the Trail from Marylin Bell Park going west AND the next section to be done is the section between Ontario Place and Exhibition Place. I am hopeful that TWRC will address the Strachan/Lakeshore intersection so that it will work better for cyclists and pedestrians (by copy of this e mail I am making aware the TWRC'S K Jenkins and Dan Egan, of the points you raise and with which I agree).

For such a low-risk project—one that we can safely assume would elicit zero public outcry and burn zero political capital but at the same time is such a key improvement—it's amazing that nobody at the City made it a priority in twenty years! It would have been such an easy win.

In the end what it took was an advocacy group, Cycle Toronto's Ward 19 advocacy group, and a bike-friendly councillor, Mike Layton to shepherd the proposal through the public works committee and City Council. Only then was it made a priority for transportation planners and made reality.

Three years ago, the Ward 19 group (at the time, I was the ward captain of this great bunch of volunteers) wrote a succinct report on Strachan, detailing six items that we thought should be fixed immediately. Of those six, two have now been addressed—a new traffic light at Strachan and East Liberty and the northbound light at Lakeshore—and one will be addressed when the Railpath phase two is installed: a four-way stop at Douro/Wellington. (The other three involve a southbound light at Queen, and improvements to the bike lanes on Strachan).

The lesson for all of us, I believe, is that the ingredients for getting small improvements to cycling will often require:

  1. A politician willing to propose and shepherd the project.
  2. A succinct and understandable proposal that the politician can easily craft into a motion.
  3. Local support from neighbourhood groups who aren't necessarily cyclists.
  4. An advocacy group that is willing to doggedly keep at.
  5. And an increase in population and cyclists putting pressure on the existing substandard infrastructure.

Nancy Smith Lea was definitely determined and, even had the friendly ears of the councillor, but the project failed to have any traction—in my opinion—because neither the councillor nor transportation planners made it a priority. Councillor Pantalone had "hope" that it would be addressed but ultimately didn't shepherd it and left it up to staff to make it a priority (or not). Thus resulting in nothing happening for years and years.

A toast to the determination of Nancy and the other cycling advocates over the years. Cycle Toronto and its ward groups have now picked up the torch and has become better at rallying and organizing for cycling improvements small and large.

Protected intersections: guerilla street safety in Hamilton

Toronto would benefit from some Hamilton-style activism. Hamilton activists, frustrated with inaction from the bureaucracy, took it upon themselves last year by installing a bump-out/neckdown with just some cheap traffic cones and screws. Tactical urbanism, it's called: quick and effective urban interventions to make the city more livable and equitable.

Image: Raise the Hammer

Where before there was an intersection at which children felt unsafe when crossing to school, now they have a shorter distance to cross. Cars are forced to turn more slowly, which increases the chance of these children surviving if hit and gives the drivers more time to stop. The local crossing guard loved it. Win-win I would say.

But the result upset Hamilton's grinch, Public Works General Manager Gerry Davis, who circulated a memo calling the actions "illegal, potentially unsafe and adding to the City's costs of maintenance and repair." Right, if Mr. Davis really cared about safety before why has his city always prioritized car throughput over safety? Luckily other forces in the city among the councillors and staff thought this was a worthy effort and managed to make it an official pilot project. Hamilton has since made the bump outs more permanent and installed cross-walks on a number of similar intersections.

Image: Raise the Hammer

I think they could have gone further. It would be awesome if someone built protected Intersections for cyclists and pedestrians.

The bump-outs are islands at the corners which allow for more protection for cyclists when crossing the street while also putting cars further away from pedestrians at the corners. It's a long-shot to make it official policy here; the owner of the website above is trying to get the protected intersection recognized in the US. It'll not happen anytime soon here. But one can hope and perhaps some guerrilla protected intersections would encourage city officials to be braver.

Contraflow plans crossing Dufferin are dangerous, argue West end ward groups

The City had planned the Florence/Argyle and Lindsey/Dewson contraflow plans as a "quick win" back in 2008 as part of a west end bikeways plan. That was before everything got shelved due to (self-imposed) "contraflow legal purgatory". Now City staff are working hard to get the backlog of routes approved and painted, but local cycling groups are arguing that in the hurry they're leaving out the safe crossing bit.

Original 2008 West End Bikeways plan

The west end ward groups of Cycle Toronto—18, 19 and 14—have identified two bike routes where they cross Dufferin at Florence/Argyle and Lindsey/Dewson routes, in particular, as dangerous. In each case they were told that the crossings were too close to other traffic lights, so the staff won't put in additional lights. (Though it boggles my mind that it's perfectly acceptable for Loblaws to get a traffic light merely one block away from Church just for their parking garage, but it's unacceptable for safer bike routes. Clearly Loblaws has a lot of pull with the City. The City has lost the moral high ground on that point.)

Enough of my babbling, the ward groups say it better:

Specifically, we have serious concerns about the proposal to install these bike routes without providing for safe bike crossings at Dufferin Street in either case. While we understand that there is pressure to “get the lanes painted” as soon as possible, we believe that it is irresponsible to proceed with installation without addressing the route deficiencies at Dufferin. We have waited five years for these routes to be installed and, after all this time, it seems reasonable to expect that the designs incorporate safe, signalized crossings for cyclists travelling in both directions at Dufferin. Indeed, this issue was highlighted when City staff engaged in a walking tour of the Argyle contra-flow route with Ward 19 and 18 cyclists in March 2013.

Allow us to put these two routes in the context of what cyclists have actually sought by way of safe cycling routes in Toronto’s west end. Recall that these side-street routes were approved as “quick wins” to be installed after a 2008 public consultation that clearly demonstrated a preference for bike infrastructure on uninterrupted streets with signalized intersections, such as Dundas and Queen.

Florence to Argyle

Always looks easy when looking from above. Lindsey to Dewson

Where Florence meets Dufferin there is a pedestrian-activated crosswalk and a school on the east side with a path going through the school grounds. At Lindsey there is nothing. I expect that many people crossing at Florence will bike through the crosswalk—after activating the light—and then either bike down the sidewalk or through the school grounds. While not ideal, it's workable and we can fully blame the City for forcing this situation. And by City I don't mean to pick just on cycling planners, but the forces that be in Transportation Services that hold back more appropriate cycling infrastructure in favour of their golden calf, automobile throughput.

All hail the Holy Car.

Council votes to allow e-bikes in Toronto bike lanes

In a controversial decision City Council has voted to allow e-bikes--both the regular-bike-looking and the e-scooter with vestigial pedals--in the bike lanes of Toronto. Council overturned the decision by PWIC which declined to allow the electric scooters in the bike lane. E-bikes are still banned from using trails and protected bike lanes. (Photo by Martin Reis)

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong's surprise motion barely passed with 21-18 votes. A few councillors were absent but it wasn't clear which way they would vote. Cycle Toronto, which had taken a strong stance on the e-bikes by stating that only "pedelec" should be allowed in the bike lanes, was caught off-guard by the motion.

A pedelec is similar to bikes in terms of speed and bulk, whereas an e-scooter is similar to a moped.

E-bikes is a controversial topic with people falling on either side of Cycle Toronto's stance, saying it was either too harsh or not strong enough. I trust my readers will not disappoint by being just as diverse. This is what Cycle Toronto said:

  • We’re supportive of e-bikes as an alternative to larger, less environmentally friendly motor vehicles, especially for people with impaired mobility.
  • We welcome Recommendation 1 to allow power-assisted bicycles which weigh less than 40kg and require pedaling for propulsion (“pedelecs”) in multi-use trails, cycle tracks and bicycle lanes.
  • But we’re concerned about Recommendation 2, which would allow electric scooters in all painted bicycle lanes across the City.
  • We support the MTO and Transport Canada addressing Recommendation 4, to split the existing power-assisted bicycles vehicle category into e-scooter and pedelec type vehicles, before the City considers the recommendation to allow them to drive in bicycle lanes.

Even though there is no crash data on e-bike/bike collisions, it's a valid concern. On the bright side, e-bikers, though still few in number, are potential allies in a fight for better cycling infrastructure. I'm not sure if that will make this decision palatable for most bicyclists.

BIXI saved and City finally willing to see it as public transit

In the midst of the craziness caused by our crack-smoking, bike-hating mayor, City Council overwhelmingly voted to save BIXI Toronto. The details are still confidential but it's understood that the deal likely involved purchasing the debt of BIXI and the unlocking of expansion funding that was waiting for this deal to be settled. (Photo: Martin Reis)

Toilets for bikes swap

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong can be thanked for coming up with a unique funding plan. It involves a deal with Astral Media who was contractually obliged to build some automated self-cleaning toilets, which turned out to be quite difficult to place. Instead of building the toilets Astral will now pay the City a fixed amount of money which will be used to pay the outstanding debt of BIXI Toronto and purchase it from the Montreal head company PBSC. As a result of this BIXI Toronto will no longer have to finance the debt. I was told by BIXI's manager that they were quite capable of operating efficiently if it weren't for the approximately $3.5 million in debt that had to be financed.

If it were just up to the mayor, BIXI would have been already scrapped as a "failure". Instead it looks like the opposite is happening.

Expansion

Additionally, the deal means that BIXI will now have access to money allocated by Metrolinx for improving transportation for the Pan-Am Games and also about a million dollars in development funds that were acquired in deals that Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mike Layton made with condo developers in their wards. In the deals the developers were allowed to reduce the number of required parking spots in exchange for funds to purchase BIXI stations.

It's definitely a good start to an expansion plan with approximately one million dollars. But in order to build up the system to even the original plan of 3000 bikes would require more dedicated capital funding. Part of that may come from formalizing funding through new developments - the City is revising the parking standards.

BIXI Toronto will be run under the Toronto Parking Authority, much like Montreal's BIXI is owned by their parking authority. I believe that the third-party operator they are considering is probably Alta Bikeshare, which is already operating New York's Citibike, Chicago's Divvy and many others.

Advocacy was key

Cycle Toronto once again was key to a successful campaign. Its campaign got us BIXI three years ago when it almost died under Mayor Miller. And it now channelled the existing support of individuals and businesses into success. A lot of businesses sent letters of support via Cycle Toronto. And Cycle Toronto's Jared Kolb negotiated with a few politicians to get this deal signed and delivered.

A lot of people were sentimental about BIXI but without a firm strategy it would probably all come to naught.

Bikesharing as public transit

Minnan-Wong told the Atlantic Cities that bikesharing has to be recognized as a form of public transit that will require a subsidy to operate, just like any other public transit system.

Still, Minnan-Wong said that the program has proven popular both with the public and many Toronto lawmakers. “There’s a real appetite on our council to keep Bixi,” he says. But the business model, he says, is broken. “It has to be recognized as a form of transit,” he says. “And as we know, no form of transit breaks even. It requires a subsidy.”

That is quite a positive statement coming from a right-wing politician who was formerly quite skeptical of supporting BIXI financially. This bodes well. Even with a subsidy bikesharing doesn't get much cheaper as far as transportation goes.

BIXI will now not only survive our crack-smoking mayor but thrive.

We got a study of Bloor bike lanes, but was it set up to fail?

So we got the Bloor Environmental Assessment restarted, thanks to the efforts of Albert Koehl, founder of Bells on Bloor, and Cycle Toronto's ward groups along Bloor. There are a couple reasons, however, that make activists believe that the politicians are committed more to the appearance of being progressive rather than actually building bike lanes on Bloor. They can claim a victory that they've restarted a study on the idea of Bloor bike lanes while avoiding the possible repercussions from merchants.

The first reason is that their request for a pilot project was ignored. The lack of a firm commitment to a pilot project has made Koehl cynical about the outcome. Koehl noted to me that some kind of pilot was being discussed behind the scenes but nothing concrete came before the Public Works committee. So we don't have much reason to believe a pilot will happen (though I'll post the info if I find out more).

Running pilot projects has worked wonders for New York where DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan revolutionized bike lane building by quickly building bike lanes that can easily be tweaked (or even removed) later on. A pilot project would provide instant feedback both to planners and to the community. In Toronto, however, councillors were unwilling to take such an important step.

The second reason is that the EA has been crafted so that it will study just the feasibility of bike lanes on Bloor rather than the best way to implement bike lanes. In a normal situation, the workflow would be like this: let's say a nuclear power plant is proposed to be built by the government. An environmental assessment kicks in by law to help guide the process of how it will be built, understand the negative effects and how to mitigate them. But the Bloor EA is being done ahead of any commitment to Bloor bike lanes. Councillors have not committed to building a bike lane on Bloor, just the feasibility.

And even more annoying is that the EA is not required by law for a bike lane. Recall that the City has happily built all of our other bike lanes without an EA (except for Richmond and Adelaide). An EA makes bike lanes look expensive.

Compare this to the Richmond-Adelaide EA. Here City Council had already voted to build bike lanes and the EA exists to help build it.

We can blame former Mayor Miller for starting this EA treadmill. The Bloor EA provided some cover to show that he was doing something for cyclists rather than show results. It wasn't a commitment to build anything then it was cancelled by Mayor Ford.

It would be easy to just give up at this point, but I suggest that we hold the feet of our politicians to the fire, whether they be progressive or not. Let's build what is possible now (Harbord, Wellesley, Richmond, Adelaide) and push the Bloor councillors to make an actual commitment to a pilot on Bloor.

After Cycle Toronto's Bagels for Bikes, is the Harbord BIA wavering in their opposition to the bike lanes?

Rain fell all day, but inside fresh baked goods greeted people at the Harbord Bakery for the Bagels for Bikes "buy-in" last Saturday. People arrived by bike hoping to persuade the Harbord Bakery to drop their opposition to the bidirectional bike lanes which would potentially remove about 20 parking spaces out of about 150 spaces on Harbord1. (Photo: Cycle Toronto)

Cycle Toronto members purchased bagels and other baked goods at the Harbord Bakery and chatted with the local merchants who had also provided some free pastries as a sort of olive branch to the wet cyclists who arrived to show their support for the City's separated bike lane plan.

It might bode well for the bike lanes that public works chair Denzil Minnan-Wong showed up to talk with cyclists and the merchants. Councillor Adam Vaughan, the councillor for that section of Harbord, was not there. It's unclear why.

The Harbord BIA's opposition may have wavered a little bit since the Star reported that the Bakery owner Susan Wisniewski figured the bidirectional bike lane was going to be a "horror story" that would lead to collisions. A bit of "father knows best" and the apocalypse rolled into one.

Neil Wright, Harbord BIA Chair, said that it was the BIA and not the Harbord Bakery which was pushing the anti-bike lane petition. It was unfair, he claimed, of the Toronto Star to put the Harbord Bakery as the leader in the fight against the Harbord bike lane. And even if the BIA was hosting the petition, Wright clarified that the Harbord BIA has yet to take an official stand on the proposed two-way cycle track. They will wait until the official proposal comes out in the next month or so. Is the BIA backtracking a bit or were they misquoted in the media?

We'll give you some love if you do the same

The Harbord BIA would do well to embrace cyclists as customers. Harbord is already the second busiest bike route in Toronto (after College), with cyclists representing 40 per cent of traffic during rush hour, according to a city report released in June. On any day, the Harbord Bakery and other businesses along the street likely see more dollars coming in from people who walked, biked or took TTC in then who drove. The evidence shows us that while drivers may spend more for each trip they make, cyclists return much more frequently and end up spending more.

With limited car parking and no more room for cars on the roadway, businesses need to look beyond cars for ways to attract customers. Green Apple Books in San Francisco realized this as well: "We're in a pretty congested neighborhood; parking is tough. There's no alleys, so delivery trucks have to do their business up front. On top of it, sidewalks are pretty narrow." Sounds like many downtown Toronto businesses.

Rather than killing business, the bidirectional bike lanes would make it easier for customers to arrive with a minimal loss of car parking (only 20 car parking spaces on all of Harbord). Between Queen's Park Circle and Ossington only 115 out of 195 (59%) of the parking spaces are occupied on average. Even after the loss of some spaces, the BIA will still have enough spaces nearby to meet all the peak demand. (The peak demand, by the way, is actually on weekday evenings which suggests that a lot of it is occupied by local residents and not even customers necessarily.)

Leave the predictions to the experts
Instead of predicting a coming apocalypse, businesses should be working with the City and with cyclists to better understand the risks of the various options and create a good plan with which we can all be happy. The best available evidence we have at this time suggest that bidirectional cycle tracks would be safer than the current door-zone cycling on Harbord. A study (Lusk et al.) of the bidirectional cycle tracks in Montreal and found them to be safer than the adjacent streets without any protection: “Compared with bicycling on a reference street…these cycle tracks had a 28% lower injury rate.”

No horror stories in Montreal: cycle tracks have made Montreal cyclists happier and safer. We can do the same here.

1. Yes, I'm talking again about Harbord Street. Not only is it a regular route for me (and many others), it is a bit of a bellweather of how political will in the face of merchant opposition for cycling infrastructure. If we can't bloody well finish the Harbord bike lane after a couple decades, then what hope do we have for Bloor or other downtown streets?

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