In the first of two open house meetings, a good showing of the public got an initial look at the proposal for separated bike lanes (also known as cycle tracks) on Wellesley and Hoskin, part of a larger project approved by City Council last year to create a network of separated bike lanes that improve safety and comfort for cyclists. Wellesley will eventually connect to Harbord to create a continuous cycle track from Ossington to Parliament.
I dropped by and took a look at the panels explaining the initial planning and provided my feedback. I also got a chance to speak with Councillor Wong-Tam, the only councillor attending. But it's not what you think; Councillor Wong-Tam didn't attend because she was so keen on the public consultation process and wanted to ensure that it went smoothly. Instead, most of her comments to me and other interested citizens were to criticize the consultation process and to point out her problems with separated bike lanes and the priority of the project. In fact, the councillor appears ready to call the public consultation process dead on arrival.
Attendees at the open house: Courtesy of Cycle Toronto
Why is Councillor Wong-Tam so eager to attend the public consultation so as to slam it? It's not entirely clear, but from her comments it appears as if she is more concerned for condo developers, businesses and drivers and how the bike lanes will impact them than she is interested in making some bold moves to improve conditions for cyclists on this major cycling route. She displayed a similar reticence over separated bike lanes on Sherbourne before she backed down and agreed it should go ahead.
In order to convert the regular bike lanes on Hoskin-Wellesley to separated bike lanes (also known as cycle tracks), staff determined that left turn lanes and on-street parking between Bay and Parliament would likely need to be removed. This can be controversial but so far there have only been a smattering of complaints to staff. This first open house was the first opportunity for citizens to provide feedback to inform the design process. The more detailed plans will then be presented at the second open house in September. During the consultation process businesses, resident groups, property owners / managers have the opportunity to have a site meeting with City staff, to discuss their concerns and possible solutions. Staff will also involve City agencies and divisions - TTC bus service, Wheel-Trans pick-up/drop-off, fire and emergency access, curb-side waste collection, and snow removal and street cleaning - in the design process.
Why improve these bike lanes? Separated bike lanes are popular (77% of all Torontonians); they increase safety by providing some separation between cars and bikes; and they encourage a lot more people who might otherwise not bike to try it out. Cycle Toronto has pushed for the separated bike lane network. Harbord/Hoskin and Wellesley streets in particular are prime candidates as they form a major cycling backbone in Toronto, a popular and rare east-west cycling route that doesn't have streetcar tracks and is fairly continuous. Adding separated bike lanes to this route will add some much needed safety to help reduce crashes and injuries and to increase ridership.
The City provided a good summary of how Toronto is playing catch-up to many cities in Europe and North America who have been bringing their cycling facilities up to a higher standard (most recently Chicago):
In Canada cycle track type bike lanes, separate from motor vehicle traffic, have been built in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Guelph. Cycle track bicycle lane designs which help to keep
cyclists and cars separate are also popular in hundreds of other cities around the world. Lessons learned from these leading cities can help Toronto enhance its own bike facilities. Better bike facilities can create an environment that is safer for Toronto's existing population of cyclists. Cycle Track type facilities can also create an environment that is more accessible for people who do not yet cycle, residents riding in their golden years, and children. The goal of improving cycling facilities is to make cycling in the City, where you are near to motor vehicles, less intimidating.
Read more on the new standard for separated bike lanes in the United States on the NACTO site (National Association of City Transportation Officials)
Here's where the network of separated bike lanes is planned for Toronto:
View Downtown Bikeway Upgrades in a larger map
In comments to me and to Novae Res Urbis, a Toronto development industry newsletter, Councillor Wong-Tam made a number of comments that seemed designed to undermine both the process and the reasons for installing separated bike lanes in general.
At least 12 new projects are in the pipeline along Wellesley,” Wong-Tam said. “If you don’t factor in where those new buildings will have their egress and access points then I fear that we’re going to spend all this money and then tear it up later on.”
Wong-Tam would also like to see better coordination with property owners along the street who may have servicing or loading concerns, adding that “removing the bulk of the on- street parking isn’t necessarily going to be great for our main streets.”
Is Wong-Tam suggesting that this project be stopped until all 12 new projects are finalized? And what if yet more condo projects are proposed? Shall cyclists wait until those are done too?
Given that the City has explicitly noted how this process includes the opportunity for site meetings for stakeholders, it's unclear how Wong-Tam's criticism here has any traction. It appears as if her prime concern is with property owners and condo developers. Is this public consultation process not enough or would like them to have special access to the planning process?
“It’s a very expensive exercise to get wrong,” Wong-Tam said. “We can rush to a conclusion, build it out and [have it] not functioning the way we need to have it function then have residents upset that separated bike lanes don’t work. And then you will have a really hard time, if you mess up Wellesley and you mess up Sherbourne, of ever getting a complete network of cycling infrastructure. Which is why I’m advocating for a complete streets strategy, better coordinating with planning [and] a template that will ensure that the programming works for everyone.”
It's hard to understand her concern when City staff have already said that this is not a major project: they are not ripping up the street or changing the road width. They are proposing rolled curbs, bolted to the pavement such as they are doing north of Gerrard on Sherbourne, and changing the painted lines. City staff are “looking for some kind of temporary design that will be less costly but also something that we can remove when the street does get reconstructed and replaced with something permanent.” (Novae Res Urbis, June 29).
Councillor Wong-Tam is presenting her "complete streets" process as alternative to this process but it seems to be more of a case of doing nothing. A "complete streets" approach is sufficiently vague to mean anything in this context. If Wong-Tam wants better lighting on the street (which she mentioned to me) then bike lanes aren't holding that up. That can happen at any time and won't be covered under the cycling budget at any rate. If she is advocating for major road changes such as wider sidewalks (which she hasn't explicitly said) then it would likely involve a whole environmental assessment process and would actually be more disruptive for existing businesses. This just isn't going to happen any time soon.
Councillor Wong-Tam is throwing terminology around like complete streets to suggest she has an alternative that is equally satisfactory to cyclists, when, at best, it seems to be an empty term used to stall this process, and, at worst, is being used to keep the status quo of on-street parking for businesses and left turns for motorists.
Do left lanes and on-street parking convenience trump cyclist safety? Wong-Tam didn't make it clear that she would stand up for cycle tracks and take heat if there was opposition. But it's not even clear if there would be much opposition. Staff mentioned to me that they didn't think that removing parking would be that contentious since there isn't much currently and alternative locations exist. Removing left turn lanes will be a bigger issue, but even here I can't imagine a concerted effort to oppose it. I didn't see or hear any substantial opposition at this public open house and there are already many intersections downtown where left turns are prohibited.
Wong-Tam complained to me about the short notice for the meeting and how she didn't know what was being proposed until she arrived that night. I do not believe she is being genuine. Councillor McConnell had requested separate public meetings for each ward, which was likely to help Wong-Tam as well. This demand which was met, but ultimately the meetings were combined. Councillors were fully aware of the timing. Citizens first found about it three weeks ago from a Cycle Toronto notice on June 8. Information about the project was available on the City's website around June 8. The Ward 20 Cycle Toronto group on June 5th had emailed City staff and councillors Vaughan, Wong-Tam, McConnell and Minnan-Wong requesting that a date be set in a timely manner. There was ample opportunity to be abreast of the matter in her own ward.
Councillor Wong-Tam, however, told me that she hadn't publicized the open house in her ward. No newsletter went out explaining to interested citizens and stakeholders about the project and how they could provide comments. The same isn't true for a recent town hall Wong-Tam hosted on Jarvis Street as a Cultural Corridor. The councillor mentioned to me that she had made sure that all her constituents, particularly those in the northern part of her ward such as Rosedale, knew about it.
Wong-Tam could have put in the same effort for the Wellesley separated bike lane open house. If she felt certain groups were underrepresented they could have been invited. She could have used her office's resources which are larger than Cycle Toronto's. Was Councillor Wong-Tam hoping to discredit the public consultation by not publicizing it?
(The Jarvis town hall, by the way, had no explicit mention about the Jarvis bike lanes, but rather heritage and culture of Jarvis Street. Cycle Toronto did a call-out for cyclists to mention the bike lanes as important to the street. Councillor Wong-Tam mentioned to me after the open house how she was pleased with the resulting 'alliance' between heritage proponents and bike lane advocates. Was she crafting this outcome or did it appear as a sideshow? It's not clear how central Wong-Tam was to that relationship.)
Even though Wellesley runs through Wards 20, 27 and 28, only Wong-Tam appears to be against the process and project. This is quite surprising given her caché in the cycling community about being a pro-cycling councillor. I even saw her bike off down Wellesley after the meeting. Don't get me wrong, I think it's awesome that she bikes but it doesn't make a difference if a politician isn't supportive of what most cycling activists are fighting for. Councillors McConnell and Vaughan weren't present at the open house, yet it's clearer that they are supportive. McConnell has made it clear to constituents that she is supportive of the cycle tracks and Vaughan had even emailed me to express that he "totally support[s] seperated bike lanes to St George along Hoskin west of Queen's Park. No more consultation is needed."
Councillor Wong-Tam also brought up the Bike Plan as if this project could easily morph into installing some other bike lane somewhere else in the City.
“I’m disappointed that we’re actually not installing new bike lanes, more bike lanes, as in there’s not a single metre of new bike lanes being put into this entire project,” Wong-Tam said. “So that’s rather disappointing considering all the time and effort and resources being tossed into this.”
If Wong-Tam is not pleased about separated bike lanes on Wellesley she didn't offer any alternative bike plan for her ward. Instead she talked about completing the bike plan, how suburban cyclists need bike lanes too. Bringing up the Bike Plan is a red herring. It's not as if, for instance, the Pharmacy bike lanes will be brought back from the dead if the Wellesley separated bike lane project is stopped. The wheels of City Hall do not turn quickly and if this project is stopped here it won't be revived any time soon nor will it quickly result in bike lanes elsewhere. Besides, since the Bike Plan was drafted in 2001, cities the world over have advanced their understanding of bike lanes and cycle tracks. We should hold our bike lanes to higher standards, particularly are best used ones.
Councillor Wong-Tam even seemed to agree with a suggestion made by someone at the open house that there are machinations at City Hall that are setting up this project for failure. Supposedly so that bike lanes in general can be discredited. In this theory, the right wing with Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Councillor Minnan-Wong at the helm want this to fail and so are forging ahead in such a way as to ensure that end. We know that Minnan-Wong is against bike lanes on Jarvis, but it is an entirely different matter to think that the right wing also wants the separated bike lane network to die. I'm not sure how it serves Minnan-Wong to be the main Council backer of a failed project.
Another idea floated by Councillor Wong-Tam at the open house was to suggest that this is a plan to get cyclists off the roads. I'm sure that this is front and center in the minds of some suburban politicians. A proposal to get cyclists off Toronto streets was last seriously proposed in the 1970s and it failed then. Today is a much different environment with many more people cycling and the urgent need to reduce traffic congestion. It is even less likely to pass.
Can we also accuse councillors Perks and Layton, who voted for Wellesley and Sherbourne at PWIC, of being part of the conspiracy? And councillors Vaughan and McConnell, who are supportive of the project in their wards? And why does the largest cycling advocacy organization in Toronto, Cycle Toronto, continue to push for separated bike lanes? Is Wong-Tam suggesting they are dupes to some nefarious plan?
I still hold out hope that Councillor Wong-Tam can be convinced of the need for this project and to get it installed in a timely fashion. Despite cycling herself Councillor Wong-Tam doesn't seem to be aware of where North American cities are headed and how she seems to be actively preventing Toronto from joining this modern world of being safer and more comfortable for all age groups and abilities. Cycle tracks aren't just a benefit for people cycling but for all road users. I encourage Councillor Wong-Tam to support cycle tracks on Wellesley.