This summer, as Toronto rolled out a series of new bike lanes and road closures around town, city councillor Stephen Holyday roused himself to protest. “I think a number of advocates for these types of changes used the COVID situation to their advantage to advance something at a far quicker speed than we’re used to in Toronto,” said Mr. Holyday, who represents the suburban ward of Etobicoke Centre.
To which a sensible Torontonian can only respond: Well, praise the Lord. The speed we are used to in Toronto is the speed of a snail crawling across a skating rink. The city has been painfully, glacially slow at building a decent bicycling network.
Montreal has had a great system of separated bike lanes for years, despite its brutal winters. Mayor (now prime minister) Boris Johnson of London championed a 10-year plan to build a whole new web of bike paths, bike parking lots and bike-friendly intersections, all designed to make commuting on two wheels easier. His French counterpart, Anne Hidalgo, pushed to double the Paris network to 1,400 kilometres and add a bike highway. Even car-crazy New York put in miles and miles of new bike lanes.
Meanwhile, Toronto dithered. Mayors baulked at annoying the seething army of frustrated car commuters. The city studied and debated for years before finally putting a lane – now safe and popular – in the most obvious place: Bloor Street, a corridor that cuts across the centre of the city. A recent study from Ryerson University found that the lanes there should slash the number of road injuries over the next decade.
One mayor, Rob Ford, even ripped out an existing bike lane, part of his push to end the “war on the car.” His brother, councillor (now premier) Doug Ford ridiculed a plan to build a bicycle garage under Nathan Phillips Square, the broad plaza in front of City Hall. The project went ahead, but took six years to complete, longer than the original New York subway system.
The current crisis is an opportunity – not an “excuse” – to get a move on. Bicycle sales have been booming. Many city dwellers are avoiding public transit and mounting their bikes instead. It is a great way to get out and get about. They want to be able to ride without fear.
For once, the city is actually doing something. Under the ActiveTO program, it has been opening new bike lanes and closing roads to traffic so cyclists and pedestrians can use them. The Bloor lanes have been extended. A new lane has opened in another obvious place: University Avenue, the broad north-south avenue lined with big hospitals. Now the city is talking about opening new lanes next summer on a six-kilometre stretch of Yonge Street between Bloor and Lawrence Avenue.
Of course, Mr. Holyday is against that, too. Fortunately, city council is ignoring him. This week it voted 19-3 to study the idea. If city transportation experts find the lanes make sense there, that project will go ahead, too. Good.
This is not some sneaky plot from the people Don Cherry once called “the pinkos out there that ride bicycles.” Council is simply responding to demand. That it is responding with unusual dispatch is something to applaud, not deplore.
Even more encouraging, it is thinking ahead. The pandemic is making cities around the world take a fresh look at the way they do all sorts of things. A whole movement has sprung up to make the cities of the future greener and more livable. Here is a chance to make decent, affordable housing available to ordinary people. Here is a chance to grapple with the rise of urban homelessness. Here is a chance to improve public parks and expand public transit.
Making it easier and safer to ride a bike around town is just one part of the growing campaign to have cities serve people instead of automobiles, breaking the tyranny of the car. Cities all over are seizing the chance. The list of Canadian cities that are beefing up their cycling networks ranges from Victoria to Winnipeg to Moncton.
Toronto has lagged behind others for far too long. Time to catch up, even if it takes a pandemic.