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Cyclists negotiate a road crossing on a bike path in Toronto, on May 23, 2020. The plan is backed by Mayor John Tory, and a long list of councillors were quick to speak in favour of it

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Toronto is gearing up for a rapid expansion of its bicycle lanes as a way to offer options to people wary about using transit during the pandemic.

City staff released a plan Monday that calls for extending the existing Bloor Street bicycle lanes in both directions, which would create a 15-kilometre corridor across the city centre from west of High Park nearly to Scarborough in the east, as well as new lanes on University Avenue and a variety of other places.

The plan is backed by Mayor John Tory, and a long list of councillors were quick to speak in favour of it, making it nearly certain it will pass when debated by city council on Thursday.

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“We believe these represent good investments in the long-term infrastructure of the city, given changing transportation patterns, and given the need we have right now to make sure people can safely and in a good healthy manner get around the city with the physical-distancing requirements taken into account,” Mr. Tory said.

Under the plan, 25 kilometres of new bicycle lanes would be in place by summer, in addition to the 15 km that had been in the works already for this year. Staff are promising to install much of this by June and have the remainder substantially completed by July, far faster than the normal schedule for bicycle infrastructure.

“Let’s get it in, let’s refine, let’s adapt, let’s tweak in real time as we work toward permanent changes,” said Councillor Joe Cressy, the chair of the city’s board of health. “In the wake of COVID there is an imperative to move quickly in order to enable active transportation, otherwise our city and economy will grind to a halt.”

In cities around the world, cycling has emerged as a prime candidate to replace some of the trips formerly taken on transit. In most countries, transit use has plunged, in part because there are fewer places to go and in part because of concerns about safety.

As lockdowns ease, whether people are willing again to ride transit is a question being watched by municipal leaders worried about a possible spike in car travel. To ward off such a possible shift to auto use, cities as diverse as London, Bogota and Sydney, Australia, have rolled out plans for new cycling infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the United Nations set up a task force to look at how transportation might change as a result of the pandemic. “The current crisis gives us an opportunity to reconsider the functioning of the transport sector,” the UN said in a release. “In this context, a return to the mass use of cars will not be sustainable.”

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Canadian cities have been slow to make permanent additions to their cycling infrastructure during the pandemic. Much of Toronto’s plan is temporary, but it will be assessed in the final quarter of next year, suggesting that residents will have time to experience the lanes through multiple seasons and demonstrate whether they are needed.

“This announcement is an important first step to building an equitable cycling network across our city,” said Michael Longfield, interim executive director of the advocacy group Cycle Toronto, adding that the plan doesn’t touch parts of the city.

“There’s a lot of support for protected bike lanes in Toronto and I think this is going to be a good story and a good part of our summer, in what is otherwise a terrible situation with this pandemic.”

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