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Cyclists on Simcoe St. head north while crossing King St. West on Jan 11 2016. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Cyclists on Simcoe St. head north while crossing King St. West on Jan 11 2016. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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Ambitious plans and political will: This is cycling’s pivotal moment in Toronto Add to ...

Hilary Holden was riding home when the car door flew open in front of her, sending her tumbling, her head bouncing off the road.

She was one more entry on the lengthening list of riders hurt on Toronto streets, a grim tally that nearly added John Tory to its count when he went out with a cycling advocate during the mayoral campaign and narrowly avoided getting doored.

Ms. Holden had been wearing a helmet, but fearing a concussion, she ended up at the hospital that night. Her bicycle – adorned with its “cyclists don’t have airbags” sign – stayed where she crashed, locked to a post. But she turned out not to be seriously injured, retrieved her bike later that weekend and was quickly encouraging people to “keep cycling.” And even within this ugly incident, there are signposts to a better future for cyclists.

Her role, as Toronto’s new director of transit and sustainable transportation, sends a message that the city is taking cycling more seriously.

Ms. Holden’s choice to ride on a cold January evening is emblematic of the way the bicycle has turned into year-round transportation option here. And the street where she was hit could have a bike lane by summer, under a proposal heading to council.

This is a pivotal time for cycling in Toronto, with a cautious optimism among advocates that real change is at hand. A 10-year bike plan will launch in 2016, requiring a substantial boost in funding but promising noticeably better bicycle infrastructure. Among the proposals is a pilot project putting bike lanes on Bloor West, something people have been urging for decades.

As cycling comes of age as just another transportation option – as worthy of investment and political support as any other – the city is scrambling to acknowledge the changing landscape.

“It’s the way of the future, let’s put it that way,” Mr. Tory said in an interview in his office. “If it’s increasing as a choice, then, just like everything else, if you don’t increase the capacity, if you don’t build it, then they can’t come. And then people will get frustrated and cycle in places where they’re not safe.”

The statement of support is welcomed by advocates, who warn that hard decisions are coming, choices that will test council’s support for cycling. But the closer one gets to city hall, the more optimistic people seem.

“The amount of support politically is huge right now,” said Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, the city’s manager of cycling infrastructure.

“I think we’re going to be able to start to see a network that’s more connected, because we recognize that there are so many gaps,” she added. “The top priority in the 10-year plan is connecting gaps and growing into areas of the city that we don’t currently reach.”

Somewhere along the way, cycling in Toronto stopped being a fringe activity.

Whereas once, just a few decades ago, people rarely rode their bikes on even the nicest winter days, an increasing group is now seen pedalling through the snowiest of storms. There’s money in the budget now for plowing bike lanes. The advocate group Cycle Toronto should pull a solid turnout Saturday, January 30 for its so-called “coldest day of the year ride.” In warmer weather, cyclists flock to new bike infrastructure downtown in a steady stream so heavy at times, it clogs the lanes. Some city streets have nearly as many people moving by bike as behind the wheel of a car.

Downtown Toronto, where residents are increasingly unlikely to drive, is also the fastest-growing part of the city. Companies who recognize their employees may not want to fight traffic in a car are more likely to locate in the core. And both factors are linked to a broader trend of millennials showing less interest in driving than had earlier generations.

So when it comes to cycling infrastructure, why is Toronto so far behind cities such Montreal, which is notably colder?

One historic factor was a fight within the cycling community. As Montreal was building separated bicycle lanes, activists in Toronto were more likely to call for sharing the road. The thinking of so-called vehicular cyclists – who believe that bicycles should take their place on the road amid other vehicles – was influential for a long time in much of North America. But the tide finally began turning in Toronto and in other cities.

“Recently, very recently, a lot of planners and advocates changed their mind and realized [separated lanes were] an option to look at seriously,” Jean-François Provonost, a vice-president with the advocacy group Vélo Québec, said in an interview last summer in Montreal, in a café beside one of the city’s successful bikes lanes. “If we want to have dedicated spaces for cyclists, this is probably the way to go.”

The research backs him up. Studies find that a minority of people will never ride a bicycle, no matter what facilities are built. A smaller group will ride in any conditions. But the majority of people remain in the middle. They are prospective riders – as long as they can feel safe.

“The pent-up demand is significant, the way to get that pent-up demand … is to build more infrastructure,” said Burlington MPP Eleanor McMahon, who launched the Share the Road Network to push for safer cycling after her husband, OPP Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was killed while riding.

“As I’m often fond of saying, we put men on the moon and we brought them back; surely to God, we can find a way for people to ride their bicycles safely.”

Mr. Tory got a first-hand experience of this reality while running for mayor. Never having cycled downtown, he went for a trial bike ride during the campaign to get a sense of what it was like. The candidate was nearly hit by a door on Adelaide, but what really struck him was how risky it felt mixing with traffic for a few minutes on Spadina.

“I’ll bet you I can describe feelings people have almost every day… in terms of how vulnerable you’d feel when you’re in that environment where you’re just riding along the road at the side,” he said. “You’re feeling quite exposed.”

Only in the past few years did dedicated space for cyclists start appearing on Toronto roads. It’s far from the “minimum grid” of 200 kilometres of bike-friendly routes sought by activists, but these lanes are attracting heavy use and showing how much demand there is for cycling infrastructure.

Mr. Tory is careful to qualify his support by saying he backs “sensible” bike lanes, and he is unwilling to be drawn into whether he would lead the charge for more funding. But he agrees that cyclists need safe space on the road. And he made clear that his approval for bike lanes doesn’t depend on them not slowing other vehicles.

“I think you do want to look at making sure that you try and keep as many people satisfied in terms of their ability to get around the city as possible, and keep … businesses and local residents satisfied too,” the mayor said.

“What is going to be the greatest good for the greatest number of people? And I don’t mean numerically; there is always going to be more car drivers, at least for the foreseeable future, than cyclists, but the greatest good in terms of that balanced transportation system.”

That sort of balancing act is now playing out at city hall, where staff are working on proposals for bicycle infrastructure at 17 spots across the city, totalling 36.3 kilometres. Under the still-evolving plan, there would also be upgrades to another 9.2 kilometres of current infrastructure, in four different areas. And studies are to be done on parts of Yonge Street and along Bloor and Dupont to see how they could become better for cyclists.

The pilot project for separated bicycle lanes along Bloor Street, from Avenue Road to Shaw, is the most keenly anticipated. But with the prospect of parking vanishing from one side of the street it is also potentially the most heated. Advocates are armed with data from cities showing cyclists spending more at local businesses than drivers. But the feedback from business groups has been mixed, at best. At one, the Korea Town BIA, a survey showed members overwhelmingly opposed.

If approved by council, the pilot project on Bloor could start as early as this summer. To advocates it would be a strong statement that Toronto’s roads shouldn’t be dedicated to the needs of drivers – but few believe this will be the last skirmish over public space.

“Whether or not we [can] continue to grow the network is going to be tested every single time that we have a new [council] vote to expand,” said Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto.

“We’ve got a growing number of voices on council that recognize that we can invest in cycling … which will yield big gains for our transportation network and our ability to move people in Toronto, but I think there’s still a lot of folks who are wary.”

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