Toronto’s bicycle lanes remain the preserve of those using their own power after a city committee chose not to heed staff advice to open them up to electric bikes.
The vote came after a lengthy and contentious debate at the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee that touched on environmental and equality issues. But safety considerations were top of mind.
E-bike supporters want access to bike lanes because they say it is dangerous for them to mix with traffic. Traditional cyclists counter that many of the motorized e-bikes cannot be considered bicycles and pose a risk in bike lanes, prompting committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong to argue that cyclists should be willing to make room.
“What they say is, ‘Share the road.’ Well, they’re getting bicycle lanes, they should be able to share their space as well,” he said.
Other committee members were strongly opposed, and a majority supported a motion by Councillor Mike Layton to defer the issue. They are asking the province to define the differences between the types of two-wheelers.
The problem is that the increasingly popular e-bikes – which, much like traditional bicycles, require neither training nor licensing – vary widely in style.
At one end of the spectrum are the “pedelec” bikes, which require muscle power but offer riders a modest assist from a small motor. They generally resemble traditional bicycles. At the other end of the range is the “scooter-style,” which is faster, heavier and looks more like a Vespa than a bicycle. Capped at 32 kilometres per hour, they can be driven using the motor alone, and rarely is anyone seen pedalling one.
Even the staff report that urged council to allow both types of e-bike to use bike lanes stated that the scooter-style models “have nothing in common with bicycles.”
During the debate at city hall on Thursday, the idea of allowing pedelecs in bike lanes was uncontroversial. But the scooter-style raised more concerns.
“It isn’t a bike and it isn’t exactly a motor vehicle,” Councillor Janet Davis said. Councillor John Parker called the model “for all intents and purposes, a motorbike.”
A number of people worried about the vehicle – larger and heavier than a traditional bicycle, with a silent motor – mixing with cyclists riding in what they perceive as a protected part of the road. Supporters countered that they give people a sense of safety and allow mobility to those too infirm to ride bicycles.
Cycle Toronto executive director Jared Kolb said he would prefer that it be recognized that bicycles must be self-propelled. “I think it’s a fair [definition] to keep for a bicycle – is they’re a muscularly powered, human-powered, mode of transportation,” he said.