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Bike-riding 'pinkos,' this could be your summer Add to ...

This week, Gil Penalosa dodged streetcar tracks and swinging car doors while cycling to his downtown Toronto office, but all he could see were smooth roads ahead.

Above him, blue skies promised ice-free streets were on the way. To his left and right, gas stations advertising soaring fuel prices provided greater incentive for drivers to trade four wheels for two.

But Mr. Penalosa - a consultant who has travelled the world observing bike-friendly initiatives in ground-breaking cities such as Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York and Montreal - says there's another reason Toronto's embattled cyclists might be in for a good ride this summer: Rob Ford's in the mayor's chair.

His optimism springs from the Ford administration's pair of proposals that would enhance the city's natural bike pathways and build protected bike lanes in the downtown core.

"I think those two things would be major contributions - much more than what has been done in the last ten years to promote cycling in Toronto," said Mr. Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that promotes walking and cycling initiatives around the world.

Considering Mr. Ford was famously sworn into office by hockey commentator Don Cherry deriding cyclists as "pinkos," this statement might take a few people aback. And some veteran cyclists say they aren't holding their breath.

"I'm not feeling the love," said Michelle Perrier-Martinen, who helps run West Side Cycle on Roncesvalles Avenue. She said her winter commute on the West Toronto Railpath has routinely been interrupted because of spotty snow removal by city workers. She also fears that curbed-in bike lanes will create new problems as cyclists are herded into confined routes.

But other key players in Toronto's cycling community feel that after a stagnant period under David Miller, Mr. Ford is the best chance they've had in years to bring Toronto up to speed with other world-class cities.

"I think that one of the very encouraging things about the new administration is with councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong coming out and supporting this plan for separated bike lanes," Andrea Garcia, spokeswoman for the Toronto Cyclists Union, said of the plan to create a grid of barrier-protected bike lanes in the core.

On a map, Mr. Minnan-Wong's proposed network looks roughly like a square, with curbs built to protect the existing bike lanes on Wellesley Street to the north, St. George and Beverley Streets on the west, and Sherbourne Street to the east. The only new bike lane would be a two-way protected bike lane on Richmond Street, which would require removing one of four lanes of traffic.

"It's been a really long time since a councillor has come out like that so publicly," Ms. Garcia said.

Of Mr. Ford's campaign promise to build 100 kilometres of off-road bike paths, mostly in the city's ravines, she added, "The trail system gets a lot of flack for not getting you around the downtown core … but there are plenty of places where those trails can get you to where you need to go. If Mayor Ford wants to focus on trails the next four years, then we see that as a completely legitimate focus area."

Whether those promises will be fulfilled has yet to be determined, of course. And Mr. Ford appears to be in no rush to get going.

"Right now the mayor's very focused on making sure that we get subways built in Toronto," his press secretary, Adrienne Batra, said this week. She added that the mayor had not discussed the grid system with councillor Minnan-Wong, who first publicly endorsed the idea in January.

But, she added, "he's very much committed to the transportation plan that he put forward during the campaign." (The plan includes cycling trails.)

If not Mr. Ford, cyclists could have a key ally in Mr. Minnan-Wong, largely because of his current post as chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees a massive portfolio that includes bike-lane projects.

He said city hall is slowly becoming a more bike-friendly place. "I think councillors are becoming a lot more open-minded. I think they have a lot more cyclists in their communities," he said.

"My bike plan is a recognition of [the fact that]bikes exist. They're here to stay. There have been too many accidents and we need to do something about that. I don't believe that bike lanes should go on every single street. But I do believe they deserve a reasonable option."

Mr. Minnan-Wong said his proposal could come before the committee some time in the next six months. And it's possible that world events, including the current unrest in the Middle East, could help push the issue to the forefront.

"There's a long-range trend in which petroleum is just going to get more and more expensive. And then there's political upheaval which causes these spikes, which are a dramatic reminder of our vulnerability," said Ken Greenberg, a prominent Toronto-based urban planner.

"As people understand the vulnerability, it also begins to sink in more that they need to find ways to make their own lives more sustainable, in the sense of affordable.

"I think in terms of people actually cycling, the momentum is very strong and it's growing stronger every year."

Indeed, Mr. Penalosa said. As Toronto's cycling community continues to grow, all they'll need is a "doer" in city hall to make things happen.

"This would be a wonderful opportunity for [Ford]to show that he's not just thinking of the car owners, but he's thinking of everybody," Mr. Penalosa said. "Let's hope."

 

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