bike infrastructure

Strange bedfellows and petitions galore!

anti-bike lane petition

In a funny twist, a handful of Harbord businesses have become bedfellows with a couple of activists, including one who previously fought for Harbord bike lanes, and are now trying to stop separated bidirectional bike lanes on Harbord. Meanwhile activist group Cycle Toronto has launched their own petition buttressing support for the lanes.

We the undersigned

On the anti petition side we've got a guy named Marko and a self-described "carmudgenly" cycling activist, Hamish Wilson. Their petition asks Councillors Layton and Vaughan to halt the plan for bidirectional separated bike lanes on Harbord, calling them "dangerous", citing Transport Canada (1). A reader sent me the photo above of the petition displayed prominently at Harbord Bakery and said they saw about 100 signatures (and there might be another hundred or so signatures captured elsewhere).

Meanwhile Cycle Toronto's petition in support of the separated bike lanes has over 220 signatures (here and in paper versions going around).

But even this isn't the only petition. In 2010, a petition for the separated bike lane network was sent to the public works committee and included the call to "complete and separate the Wellesley/Harbord bicycle lanes system and end the gaps in the system at Queens Park and on Harbord." It has about 150 signatures on it. A number of organizations and groups also sent letters of support at that time which if we counted all the people involved in those groups would add up to thousands of people (2).

Both councillors for Ward 19 and 20, Councillor Mike Layton and Councillor Adam Vaughan, have stated publicly that they support the separated bike lanes on Harbord. We'll see what these petitions mean for their continued support.

The centre of the battle

This is what it looks like near the Harbord Bakery currently: squeezing between moving and parked cars, and token sharrows. And where there are bike lanes they are typically treated by motorists as free parking.

I'm not alone in that estimation. People who signed the Cycle Toronto petition had similar comments. From Bradley:

I frequently bike on Harbord, and although it is a very good street for cycling, I don't believe Sharrows do anything to help cyclists, and separated lanes are the way to go to improve cycling in Toronto today and in the future. Bidirectional lanes are my preferred option for both safety and ease of movement, allowing easier passing and a mix of cyclists of different skill and comfort levels.

And from Jennifer:

I live in the West end and commute by bicycle daily along Harbord to the downtown core. Harbord/Hoskins is a well used biking route. While the current painted lines offer cyclists some amount of protection, the fact that cyclists must ride in between parked cars (which are often pulling out into traffic) and the busy roadway, and the busyness of the bike lanes, makes this route a perfect option for separated bidirectional lanes. I also use the Sherbourne Street bike route on occasion and the painted separated route makes cycling much more visible and predictable for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians.

These responses are typical of people who are not "hardcore" cyclists used to mixing it up with the elephant herd. Most people, studies have shown, prefer separation.

Running with the elephants by bikeyface.com

I don't think the anti group has clarified that they are fighting for a street that is already frustrating, unsafe and not even connected. Is that the kind of street they think most cyclists prefer? If so they're deluded.

Strange bedfellows

The businesses opposed to this plan seem to be led by the owners of the Harbord Bakery and Neil Wright, Chair of the Harbord BIA. They've been vocally opposed to bike lanes for decades. In the 1990s they fought off bike lanes in their domain and managed to do it again a few years ago.

I had thought that this opposition had softened when I attended a public meeting last fall organized by Councillor Vaughan, writing in my blog post that it was a mostly positive, albeit lukewarm, response from business. In fact, the owner of the Harbord Bakery even stood up to announce they have always been pro-bike, they had been one of first to install a bike rack! Alas, it was not to be. Instead a strange alliance formed to oppose the proposal.

Hamish Wilson was a key person in fighting for a complete Harbord bike lane in the 1990s. Wilson and a number of other activists worked doggedly for the bike lane. They measured out the street width to ensure that bike lanes could fit, talked to merchants, worked with City staff. But in the end City staff caved in to business concerns about losing some curbside parking and left two disjointed bike lanes to the east and west. And now the activist is fighting against bike lanes.

Why the opposition?

The BIA Chair and the Harbord Bakery seem to be dead set against bike lanes in any form, perhaps thinking that the bike lanes will hurt their businesses. But with New York City and elsewhere experiencing booming business revenues where bike lanes were built (revenues up 49% compared to 3% elsewhere), this has become more of an outdated notion. We now know that cyclists have more disposable income and shop more often).

It's easy to imagine why the Harbord businesses are opposed even though misguided, but I can't really understand the passion with which Marko and Hamish are fighting against this proposal. Perhaps it's fear of the unknown. In cities where bidirectional has been built I have found no such outcry.

Risky game

What the petition writers gloss over is that risk is always relative risk. We can't just label something "dangerous" and something else "safe". Is climbing a ladder "dangerous" or "safe"? It doesn't make sense to ask it that way. Instead we should be comparing the risk to something else. For instance, is climbing a ladder more or less risky than taking a shower? Likewise is a bidirectional separated bike lane riskier than riding next to the threat of car doors opening? To answer that question we need real data, not just opinion.

The UBC Cycling in Cities studies, for instance, are helpful in that they have shown that separated bike lanes are significantly safer than bike lanes next to parked cars. And Dr. Lusk's studies of separated bike lanes in Montreal showed that not only is cycling on bidirectional separated bike lanes more popular, they are** safer** than streets without any bicycle provisions (3). And this is despite the fact that Montreal's bike lanes lack many of the measures now used to make them even safer: green markings through intersections, set back car parking and so on.

The petition writers are just bullshitting if they claim they know a bidirectional bike lane is more dangerous than what we have currently on Harbord. They don't have the evidence to make such a claim. Transport Canada references a Danish study but no link to the study. We don't know the context, when it is relevant, how to compare it to other dangers, or how various cities have made modifications to make them better.

Furthermore, their claim of "danger lanes" begs the question, if they're so dangerous why do numerous cities still have bidirectional bike lanes and continue to build them? Montreal, New York, Vancouver, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and other cities all have bidirectional with no evidence of cyclists dropping like flies so far as I tell.

Bidirectional versus unidirectional - either is fine so long as we get them

Funnily, the anti petition could perhaps hurt the anti cause. The petition says they are "in favour of keeping Harbord's current unidirectional bike lane setup".

The bidirectional bike lanes remove fewer parking spots than a unidirectional bike lane. That's one main reason why City staff are proposing bidirectional: to save some parking. If some people are against the bidirectional, perhaps we should all push for unidirectional. If it means taking out all the parking between Bathurst and Spadina so be it. Isn't that a small price to pay for increased safety?

I wonder what would happen to the unholy alliance in that case?

The world has moved on

Meanwhile, we could have had this already (photo by Paul Krueger):

While we're still fighting old fights in Toronto the world has moved on. In the last few years we've seen North American cities move far beyond painted bike lanes by installing separated bike lanes all over their downtowns. New York, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Chicago and other cities are all building separated bike lanes. City officials have official guides. Studies show that separation is both safer and more popular. Dutch and Danish cities have had them for decades.

It seems to me that by teaming up with anti-bike lane businesses the petition writers are playing a dangerous game (or should I say risky?) that is going to make it harder to build bike lanes of any kind anywhere in this city whether it stops the bidirectional lanes or not.

Footnotes:
1. The petition claims "According to research conducted by Transport Canada, experts conclude that bidirectional bike lanes are more dangerous than unidirectional bike lanes." I didn't receive any additional information, though I believe it's this link, which includes a reference to a Danish report that recommended unidirectional over bidirectional separated bike lanes saying bidirectional could create more conflicts at intersections. What the reference does not say is if the Danish compared bidirectional to painted or even no bike lanes at all.
2. Letters of support from: Cycle Toronto, the York Quay Neighbourhood Association, The U of T Graduate Student’s Union, University of Toronto Faculty Association, the Toronto Island Community Association, the St Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, the ABC (Yorkville) Residents Association, the Palmerston Residents Association, the Bay Cloverhill Residents Association, the Parkdale Resident Association, South Rosedale Residents Association, the Moore Park Residents Association, the Oak Street Housing Coop Inc., and Mountain Equipment Co-op.
*3. The study states: "our results suggest that two-way cycle tracks on one side of the road have either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions. This lowered risk is also in spite of the less-than-ideal design of the Montreal cycle tracks, such as lacking parking setbacks at intersections, a recommended practice."

Ontario's new bicycle facilities manual: a little bit closer but still far to go

The Ontario Traffic Council has produced a new Bicycle Facilities guide. It was produced with help from Vélo Québec, which has the experience of Québec's extensive cycling facilities, and Alta Planning and Design which has been at the forefront of a new generation of protected bicycle facilities in North America. It is a promising document, but it still falls short of high water mark that is Dutch bicycle facilities standards. This much we learn from David Hembrow of A view from the cycle path, who explained how even this updated Ontario standard falls short of Dutch expectations for their own facilities. It reveals that even though the concept of providing protected facilities that appeal to all ages and abilities is now here, it has yet to fully permeate planning.

The language of the document is slippery. Some of it sounds quite reasonable on an initial reading, but when you look closely it becomes obvious that the authors have rather low aspirations for cycling. There is an expectation that cyclists can share the roadway when both speeds and traffic volumes are at higher levels than we would experience. The authors think that it is only necessary to "consider" building an on-road cycle lane even speeds of up to 100 km/h. The language of the document betrays the lack of ambition for cycling.

From the graph streets like Richmond and Adelaide would "qualify" for protected bicycle facilities, but just barely because the traffic is quite high. This graph might exclude a lot of streets that in Europe they would consider excellent candidates for separated facilities. These decisions are mostly arbitrary so perhaps the traffic planners could err on the side of making streets more comfortable.

The manual is not particularly innovative but reflects the state of the art in North America, not surprising given the consultants come from across the continent. For those of us doing cycling advocacy in North America it's good to have an outside critique to help us keep an eye on a distant goal. We are mindful that we want to celebrate our wins, big and small, lest we come off as ungrateful, something with which Hembrow doesn't have to concern himself. By being the first Ontario document to explicitly allow for protected bicycle lanes this is a real step forward. But Hembrow's excellently placed skewer of North American traffic planners blind spots shows just how far we still have to go.

Motorist impunity and the fear of cycling

Memorial banner

As the Toronto Star reports, Initial reports of the crash that killed Tom Samson indicated that he had run a red light. The police and prosecutors have now stated they do not believe Samson ran a red light; instead, they believe he had stopped, properly, to make a left turn when a van hit him from behind. The Star reports, quote, "It’s unclear what prompted the change."

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.

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.

Why unidirectional cycle tracks will likely work better on Richmond and Adelaide

Richmond and Adelaide unidirectional bike lanes

If all goes well Richmond and Adelaide will have protected cycle tracks by the end of next year. We don't get many chances like this in Toronto where we missed our Bike Plan's targets by a wide margin. Bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide are in the Bike Plan, which means it's been over twelve years!

There is some risk that we won't get them. Councillor Vaughan, for instance, still won't commit to supporting the bike lanes (I'll delve more into what Vaughan thinks in my next post) and who knows what will happen after the 2014 municipal election if the lanes are delayed. So I think it's imperative to build them efficiently, while still getting a result that is safer and cost-effective. As I'll argue below, I think it's justified for us to get nit-picky and traffic-planning geeky here. I think you should support unidirectional protected bike lanes as the best kind of protected bike lanes for this project.

First, let's get the definitions right. A unidirectional cycle track has one way bike traffic. Cycle tracks in New York are mostly unidirectional (the photo above shows a unidirectional cycle track as imagined on Richmond by Dave Meslin). Good examples of bidirectional bike traffic can be seen on the Martin Goodman Trail, or the cycle tracks in Montreal. On bidirectional cycle tracks or bike paths bike traffic goes in both directions.

One of the main things going for a bidirectional cycle track is that it doesn't require as much width and typically allows for more on-street parking to remain. Such might be the compromise on Harbord/Hoskin where the Cycling Unit staff prefer a bidirectional cycle track. Hoskin and Harbord are considered good candidates for bidirectional because there are few major intersections -- only Bathurst and Spadina -- unlike Richmond and Adelaide.

However, there are more reasons to consider unidirectional cycle tracks for Richmond and Adelaide as the preferred option:

  1. Makes it easier to extend the bike facilities west of Bathurst to Strachan and perhaps connecting to the West Toronto Railpath extension through the CAMH grounds to Sudbury.
  2. Is less expensive because it doesn't require new traffic lights. Thus less likely to be shelved because of cost.
  3. Results in less waiting at intersections for all traffic because there would be fewer light phases.
  4. Is generally the preferred, safer option where it is possible to install unidirectional (according to traffic experts in Denmark and Netherlands).
  5. Makes it more likely that the bike lanes are installed before the election. We don't know if a new Council will still have the willpower to install them.
  6. Allows for more predictable traffic movements at major intersections, of which Richmond and Adelaide have a few (Bathurst, Spadina, University, Bay, Yonge, Church and Jarvis).

Danish researchers Ekman and Kronborg found that unidirectional tracks were typically safer than bidirectional because they allow for merging of traffic at intersections:

Ekman and Kronborg (1995) conducted an extensive literature review and interviewed bicycle safety and traffic-engineering experts across Scandinavia and in the Netherlands to compare the merits of unidirectional versus bidirectional bicycle tracks. They found that bidirectional tracks on one side of the road are cheaper to build than two unidirectional paths on opposite sides of the road but that the former are less safe. Bidirectional paths are less safe, they argued, because they do not allow cyclists to merge with traffic lanes when near intersections. Merging with traffic lanes reduces the risk of being struck by turning vehicles. [Ekman, L. & Kronborg, P. (1995). Traffic safety for pedestrians and cyclists at signal-controlled intersections. Report 1995: 4E. TFK. Lund.]

Note that they say that bidirectional is cheaper than unidirectional but they are assuming both options are on the same street. We have a unique opportunity to build on separate streets with unidirectional which would likely preclude installing whole new traffic signals. Thus believe unidirectional would be cheaper for Richmond and Adelaide. I'm interested to see if the EA will confirm that.

We've waited long enough
I think there's a recognition by many people that we've been waiting too long for good cycling infrastructure. As of this writing the groups who've officially supported the protected bike lanes, with many also specifying unidirectional, include Hot Docs, MEC, Annex Residents Association, Moore Park Residents Association, Liberty Village Residents Association, and West Queen West BIA. See the letters of support on Cycle Toronto's site.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein of Chicago, noted at a recent talk in Toronto, that Toronto has gotten a lot of things right - streetcars, sidewalks, condos sprouting up all over. But the one glaring hole is a lack of cycling infrastructure. Toronto is exceptional among North American cities in that it has a significant cycling population but it has fallen way behind in providing protected bike lanes. While Chicago zooms ahead in installing hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes, cycling activists in Toronto are struggling to get just one cycle track that was promised years ago. So it's no wonder people are getting impatient.

Let's break out of suburban islands by connecting our culs-de-sac with cycling/walking routes

Davis, California

Toronto, like many North American cities, will need to tackle the suburban challenge when trying to make cycling more accessible to the average person. One way would be to make more efficient use of our major arterial roads such as Kingston Road. Kingston Road has a wide pointless median that could be removed to make room for cycle tracks on the edges without sacrificing precious road space for cars. That, however isn't going to happen in the short-term. And we'll still be left with many suburban neighbourhoods that are difficult to navigate by bike because they were purposefully built to make for difficult driving. Unfortunately this also makes it very difficult to walk or bike directly.

In a previous iteration of my life I commuted to York University and I found out quickly how taking side streets was a frustrating exercise. It required stopping to look at a map to find out how I could navigate the culs-de-sac and t-intersections of North York when trying to avoid having to ride on Keele Street where bikes are neither welcome nor expected.

Toronto could be exploring easy wins for the suburbs. One idea is to connect our culs-de-sac so we can remove barriers to accessible, healthy transportation. If we're starting with a blank slate there are ways to encourage these connections:

...zoning codes and ordinances should encourage connecting culs-de-sac with other transportation and neighborhood destinations. In some cases utility easements or alleys abutting culs-de-sac can be designed for double duty as multi-use paths, creating cross-town connections.

One community that was designed around connected culs-de-sac with great success is Davis, California (as seen in the image above). Most neighbourhoods, remarkably, have culs-de-sac which are connected to "linear parks" so that non-car trips have quick, direct access even while car trips require a more circuitous route. Yet, Toronto proper, has been mostly built-out and other than some limited quick wins it is much more difficult to do this with existing neighbourhoods.

An existing suburb of Portland, Oregon, Tigard, undertook crowdsourcing the mapping of quick wins. They asked the public to submit their "desire paths" through their town to find existing informal paths with no formal public access that can be improved and formalized. They then plan to build 42 miles of these connection among the neighbourhoods. "The city and its contractor, Kittelson & Associates, established a wiki-based web site where residents could indicate on a map where such informal walkways were." It's not clear how successful they were but it provided an interesting example of how other cities could improve their networks.

By the way, if you're not sure what a desire path is, it doesn't take much to find examples of them around you. A desire path, as defined by Nancy Friedman, is a "term in landscape architecture used to describe a path that isn't designed but rather is worn casually away by people finding the shortest distance between two points." Any trodden path will fit the criteria. Transportation planners should pay close attention: desire paths often point to problems with the officially sanctioned routes or lack thereof.

"A close look at any city park or green will typically reveal footprints that break away from paved walks, trails that countless pedestrians have worn into the grass. Such a trail is a desire path: the route people have chosen to take across an open place, making a human pattern upon the landscape." (Citing Lan Samantha Chang , in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.)

In my previous commutes to North York and to Mississauga I had to work hard (with mixed results) to find these desire paths which would reduce my time on the main streets with speeding, polluting vehicles. If you use Google's bike directions you will discover a wealth of short established connections (such as here or here). But they are scattered, only locals are likely to know about them, and there is no guarantee that you can string enough together to complete your route. Instead Toronto would need to take stronger actions:

In this scenario, bicycle/pedestrian connections must be carved out of private properties, streets, and rights-of-way. Municipalities have had success purchasing one or more affected properties, constructing a sidewalk or multi-use path between two culs-de-sac, and then re-selling the property. The City of Phoenix, Arizona, purchased and demolished a derelict property and constructed a multi-use path connection into an adjacent neighborhood.

What a different city it would be if Toronto had a well-marked network of short paths and residential streets that connect to cycle tracks on main arterial roads. People, young and old, could easily bike or walk across neighbourhoods to school, work, shopping, the playground.

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