bike infrastructure

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.

Queens Quay's a work in progress but cycling will get better (except for the detours)

Detour on west end of Queens Quay

Queens Quay is undergoing a lot of street construction but the result should be beautiful. Even with the upheaval, construction, noise, and traffic people are still coming to enjoy themselves. As did I this last weekend when I joined in on a Jane's Walk hosted by some staff from Waterfront Toronto. On their Queens Quay walk they explained the undergoing work on the street and how it will be transformed into a much nicer boulevard, closer to Barcelona's waterfront promenade than it's current car-choked frustration.

For people on bikes, the Martin Goodman Trail (MGT) will be much improved with a fully separated bike path and a walking path to take over the southern two lanes of car traffic. That cyclists are treated so well may be due in no small part to the fact that the firm that won the design bid, West 8, is based in the Netherlands.

I was disappointed, however, to find out that the eastern end of Queens Quay - east of Jarvis - will have to wait until the government commits to funding a streetcar extension to Parliament and eventually the Portlands. Christopher Glaisek, VP Planning and Design of Waterfront Toronto, and one of the speakers on the walk explained that they are avoiding having to do the work twice. The streetcar extension price has climbed up to $370 million (something about maintaining access to the Hyatt so the streetcar has to be underground for a longer stretch).

In the meantime Waterfront Toronto got a bit of extra funding to extend the sidewalk and create interim cycle tracks from Yonge to Jarvis which should be open by June. I think this might be the second official cycle track built in Toronto!

East of Jarvis the cycle tracks end and eastbound cyclists are directed back onto the roadway. They travel in some freshly paved bike lanes until they merge again with the Martin Goodman Trail at Parliament. Going westbound by bike is a bit trickier. At Parliament they will be asking cyclists to cross at the lights and then take the bike lane along the road until they get to the Jarvis crosswalk where they will then again merge into the cycle tracks. Currently there is no indication that cyclists should do this so most people are choosing the obvious direct route, an asphalt "sidewalk" that replaced the MGT that was previously longer.

They kindly put some "No bicycles. Pedestrians only" stencils but from what I saw many people either ignored or didn't notice them. Another problem with this sidewalk, as Jelle Therry, Design Manager for Queens Quay, West 8+DTAH, pointed out to me, is that the sidewalk speaks a double language: the sign may say no bicycles but the asphalt says "Bike here!"

So why did they stop the cycle tracks at Jarvis?

According to Chris, they stopped at Jarvis because it would have required lights at the intersections, which would have required re-installation when the street is rebuilt for the streetcars. At least that's what I think he said. It doesn't make any sense to me. They didn't install lights for the cycle track from Yonge to Jarvis. And didn't the old Martin Goodman Trail that this sidewalk replaced take the exact same route? All the intersections are glorified driveways so I can't imagine that temporary cycle tracks couldn't have been worked out.

While the stretch of Queens Quay from Lower Spadina to Jarvis is going to be awesome, the rest of QQ leaves me frustrated. Why didn't they just leave the MGT where it was and connect it to the new cycle tracks at Jarvis? And why are they leaving the section from Spadina to Bathurst as is where cyclists will be forced to cross the street yet again?

Bypassing the Construction

Making things nicer unfortunately means some necessary headache but they City has been trying to ease things for everyone. There's a marked bypass route for cyclists so that they can avoid the construction mess. Interestingly the detour follows a forgotten section of the MGT - you can still see the distinctive blue/green markings. I believe that it fell into disuse when condos encroached on it years ago. It may also have been too far out of the way, when most people would have preferred Queens Quay's much nicer scenery.

Detour signage is an issue. I had a hard time finding the signage for the detour when I was travelling back from the Jane's Walk. It was only by testing a couple side streets that I found the detour and I was actively looking for it. Most people won't even know it exists. I backtracked and saw a small detour sign that was easily missed. The signage on the west side of the construction wasn't much more visible and I saw a number of people just biking onto the sidewalk since it was the obvious choice.

Most people seemed to be more than happy to bike at a walking pace down the sidewalk.

The new Queens Quay will be a big improvement for cycling but there are still some glaring issues. Putting in better signage for the detour seems to be an easy fix, though making the east end work better for cycling will take more work and perhaps a different mindset by Transportation Services that seems to ignore human behaviour by trying to get people to cross a wide road twice over a short distance. And I didn't hear anybody talk about any plans for west of Lower Spadina. It's going to be good but could have been done better.

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