On Friday November 30th, Bob Chiarelli, The Minster of Transportation, released a Cycling Strategy. You’d be well excused for not hearing about it because other news has rightfully captured the headlines. As an announcement, this strategy document was only newsworthy for being drivel.
If someone were to ask me how I would describe Ontario’s new Cycling Strategy in a word I would have to choose one of these: “vague,” “wishy-washy,” or “same-old, same-old” depending on who asked.
We are all free to share what we think of this Strategy directly with the Ministry. I encourage you to do so.
For a Strategy that is to cover a province as large and as diverse as Ontario, or even an activity as diverse as cycling, this document is really slim. Once the introductions, the cover page, the table of contents, the glossary, and the appendixes are removed, the actual strategy is a mere four pages. That does not provide any space for detail, so absolutely none are given.
For me, just the fact that this criticism to the proposed strategy is longer than the strategy itself is proof enough that this strategy is nowhere near comprehensive or detailed enough.
The introduction does mention some of the benefits of cycling, such as better health, reducing emissions, reducing urban traffic congestion, and providing economic development opportunities. But not once does this plan mention any targets for Ontario in reaching towards these benefits.
What the introduction also outlines is how little Ontario has been doing for, and how slowly and diluted it’s been dishing out any benefits to, those of us who ride bikes in Ontario. The rest of the strategy is not so much “new” as more of the same. Without clear goals, without areas of priority, without clear funding commitments, this plan is just more of the same-old, same-old.
Let’s step back for a moment, and, — even before we decide that we need a bike plan or strategy — let’s get a vision of what we’d like for a future Ontario to look like. Only then we can better understand how cycling fits in to that future. Only then we can create a plan and a set of strategies that will get us there. And, then we can have a plan that outlines the path that will get us to achieve this vision. However, there is no vision driving this plan, nor does the plan itself provide one. Nor can one even get a vision of what the province will be like from reading this document, nor what will change in the lives of those of who ride our bicycles anywhere in the province. That is because a plan which is this slim simply cannot provide any of this.
One thing that the plan does mention is the desire to fund cycling projects which will “connect communities,” but only those cycling projects which would fulfill these criteria:
- Could form part of a province wide cycling network.
- Have no viable alternate route.
- Would connect with other existing or planned cycling routes.
- Are consistent with local tourism goals.
- Connect population centres and/or places of interest.
- Allow access to services and accommodation.
- Have demonstrated demand for cycling.
- Are or can reasonably be made safe.
- Have strong local support.
- Are cost effective.
Really? This list reads to me more like a list of excuses to EXCLUDE funding for projects, rather than as reasons to fund cycling projects.
- What is that “province wide cycling network” which is being referred to in the list? Earlier, the plan states that “The Ministry will identify a province-wide cycling route network to connect cycling destinations to create recreational and tourism opportunities.” However, the plan does not identify that route.
- What would make an alternative route “viable”? No details are to be found in the plan.
- What would make a place or population centre worthy of “interest”? This plan does not does provide such detail.
- What is meant by “demonstrated demand for cycling,” and how would that criteria apply on routes that have been difficult or impossible by bike before? No details.
- What does “reasonably safe” look and feel like? No detail.
- What constitutes “strong local support”? No detail.
- What are the measures being used for deciding if a project is “cost effective”? No detail.
The plan goes on to state that the Ministry will support municipalities in the development of local cycling networks. However, it already does this, even if not with that direct intent. Traffic engineers, the people directly responsible for the design and the implementation of our cycling infrastructure, already create and update designs of cycling infrastructure and their associated signage. This is done nationally, and becomes a national standard that traffic engineers use. Provinces then “cherry pick” which of these it wishes to include as part of its provincial standard. Ontario has always been included in this process, and Ontario’s Municipalities have always been a part of adding to, as well as choosing, these standards. Traditionally, the Ministry of Transportation has only ever blocked the inclusion of integrated cycling infrastructure, so perhaps the big change here is not so much the leadership role that the province isn't taking, but the fact that it will “get out of the way” and stop blocking cycling projects. That’s really the big change here.
Both Education and Legislation becomes the next key item in this plan. That it should have been two items is a fact we’ll overlook for right now.
Canada has a national standard for educating cyclists with on-road cycling skills; it’s called CAN-BIKE, and it is a program which is 27 years old. Being a national standard means that it is recognized by both our Federal Government as well as by industry. Toronto created, and has previously handed off to the Ministry of Transportation, a CAN-BIKE component for inclusion with driver education. But there’s no mention of that. Instead we get the usual banter of on-going consultations with whomever, and that that the driver handbook has been getting better and will continue to get better. Uh-huh.
There is no mention of getting more people taking CAN-BIKE courses, nor of making any cycling programs available for those who ride, or would like to. Cyclists’ education will be taken care of by having a sheet of paper with the URL so that one can find the on-line copy of the “Cycling Skills” handbook; this slip of paper (with the URL) will be attached to every bicycle sold in Ontario. This idea was buried in the appendix. So instead of placing a full copy of the Cycling Skills booklet into a bag along with other useful information which would be attached to the bike being sold, one will get a URL with the bike. Really. You can read it for yourself; I don’t make this stuff up.
The key legislative changes proposed are the one-metre passing law, and, potentially, mandatory helmets — pending study, of course. But these are only mentioned as part of the review from Ontario’s Chief Coroner, again in the appendix. The strategy, proper, only promises vague on-going reviews of the current legislation.
The final page of the Strategy covers Co-ordination as well as Monitoring and Research. However, without clear goals or outcomes, one has to wonder what will be researched or monitored. And the section on co-ordination reads like the kind of incomprehensible jargon we usually try to avoid if we mean to be understood. However, the Co-ordination section does mention an “Active Transportation Working Group” but it fails to identify who is (or would be) working in such a group, nor what it’s aims are. It reads as if such a group already exists, but there’s no description of what this group has done so far, if anything.
My wife, whom I usually find quite reasonable, and who keeps me grounded, said that this plan sounded like something a high school student whipped together the night before in order to have something to hand in. I think my wife is being a little bit harsh.
Toronto’s 2001 Bike Plan is 137 pages long, and is not short on detail. Toronto’s Bike Plan only two had clear goals: 1) to double ridership and 2) to build the proposed network by 2011. But it also did outline a large number of policies and ideas to help those of us who already ride bikes, and ideas and policies which would both enable and encourage more people to ride bikes.
In 2008, the group “Ontario Cycling Alliance” (OCA) released a 42 page Bike Plan for Ontario which was far more comprehensive than the Cycling Strategy released by Chiarelli. It articulated a vision of Cycling in Ontario as well as specific plans and programs to achieve this vision. OCA’s Bike Plan included also proposed routes to connect communities with Ontario, and it identified those whom it would encourage to ride, and what kinds of trips they would be making by bicycle. What OCA’s Bike Plan lacked was timelines and costs.
In 2010, Share The Road Coalition released a 49 page Green Paper describing what they would like to see by way of Cycling Policy. The ideas presented in it are, by far, better than what the Ministry of Transport is currently proposing.
The people of Ontario deserve a proper, and comprehensive, Bike Plan that covers the whole province , one which outlines the timelines, the costs, and the benefits of investing in cycling infrastructure and programs across the province. Ontario deserves a Bike Plan with clear aims and Goals, better identification of who would be cycling as well as where and when we'll be cycling. And the Bike Plan should identify the means of achieving these objectives. And it's not like our province doesn't have any other options; two groups in Ontario have worked on, and produced, full Bike Plans that Ontario could easily adopt as its own.
What we, in Ontario, don’t deserve is a slim document merely designed to answer a report from the Coroner being passed off as plan (or even a strategy) to fit all of cycling in all of Ontario.