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With mass transit posing health concerns for many during the pandemic, cycling – cyclists seen here in Toronto in 2017 – has emerged worldwide as the best candidate to prevent these people switching to a car.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As the New York Stock Exchange prepares to start reopening its trading floor on Tuesday, people working there have been told not to take public transit. Although the directive has transportation watchers concerned that other companies could follow suit during this pandemic and spark a glut of new car congestion, Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown little inclination to intervene.

His counterpart in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan, is taking a more much activist approach, announcing extensive new bicycle lanes and plans to close substantial parts of the central city to most auto traffic, so those unwilling or unable to ride transit have options beyond driving.

Canadian cities appear to be trying to walk the middle ground between these poles. Officials are saying that they want to ward off a possible rise in car commuting while shying away from radical changes, or arguing they still have time in which to craft the right interventions. The approach is sparking criticism, with some warning that a rare opportunity to influence commuting behaviour might slip away.

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With mass transit posing health concerns for many during the pandemic, cycling has emerged in cities as diverse as Berlin, Sydney and Bogota as a key way to prevent these people switching to a car. Supporters note that cycling is faster than walking and less crowded than transit, and argue that, while it will never be suitable for everyone, it has the potential to work for a meaningful number of people.

Pierfrancesco Maran, deputy mayor for urban planning in Milan, which unveiled in April a Strade Aperte (open roads) plan for more walking and cycling, said it’s understandable that people who are infirm, carrying large loads or going long distances will need a vehicle. But not everybody does.

“If you are young, if you have to move for just three-four kilometres, well, then you should find another way,“ he said. “Because you have to leave the space for the people that really need to use cars.”

Toronto environmental lawyer Albert Koehl said that “now is a great time to experiment” and do it cheaply. He is one organizer of a recent call challenging the city to install immediately 40 kilometres of temporary bicycle lanes along the city’s main subway lines, followed by another 60 kilometres mirroring its busiest surface transit routes.

“It’s a real defining moment for our city about how we want to move forward and what kind of city we’re going to be, among the laggards or the leaders,” he said.

Those cities that don’t move quickly to facilitate a shift to cycling may show the effects for years, says Yonah Freemark, creator of the popular blog The Transport Politic and a PhD candidate in urban studies at MIT. And he thinks the window of opportunity may be fleeting.


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“It’s possible to change the types of transportation options people are using,” he said. “But if we don’t take advantage of this moment where people are at rest, where they’re not moving around, then, you know, we’re creating new norms and those new norms mean more auto use.”

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In Canada’s biggest cities, though, politicians and officials are not yet unveiling permanent efforts to avoid a rise in car traffic.

In Vancouver, manager of transportation planning Dale Bracewell said the city is at a pivotal moment but that the pandemic’s ultimate effect on commuting remains to be seen, and will be influenced by more than just a possible aversion to transit. Other unknowns could be the extent to which companies stagger their work hours and whether an element of working from home remains part of some employees’ routines.

“There absolutely has to be an urgency about mobility-recovery planning, starting now. We only have a couple of months to really know how comprehensively each part of these mobility trends are going to fit together,” he said. “At the same time, everything is pointing towards some version of recovery into rebuilding that is beyond months, at least a year, maybe multiple years ahead.”

Mr. Bracewell said that the recovery plan will take some time to put together and will include a citywide approach to transportation. He said it would require an assessment of how work patterns match up with transit capacity and how space is allocated on the city’s roadways. This will be guided by overarching goals of sustainability, equity and the city’s pre-existing desire to encourage less driving.

The result is likely to reflect some of the current efforts aimed at providing more room for people to move about safely and line up without crowding during the pandemic, as well as providing loading spots.

“Some of these [short-term] initiatives are going to be the lessons learned,” he said. “Sometimes a community’s going to say, ‘I really value this, I think this was something that the city should be thinking of being permanent, can it be part of this kind of mobility recovery plan?’ ”

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In Toronto, where Mayor John Tory said at the start of May that “our streets are going to look different in many places, in the post-COVID world,” the message from staff is that change will be incremental rather than radical.

Transportation Services general manager Barbara Gray said that she prefers to play a gradualist long game when it comes to adapting the use of the roadway. She argued that making changes without full public consultation and buy-in could provoke backlash that could then force adaptation or removal.

A report coming to council this month is expected to include a staff recommendation to speed up implementation of the current three-year cycling plan, which calls for 120 kilometres of bicycle infrastructure.

“The more we can get in over the summer, the better off we’re going to be, the better off the city will be,” Ms. Gray said. “We have to do something to try to give people alternatives to transit [other] than just driving, so cycling is the thing that gives you the most reach.”

Mr. Koehl, the environmental lawyer, counters that sticking with the existing bicycle plan, which has seen modest progress since it was passed by council in 2019, would be far too timid.

“[They’re] not recognizing that we’re in a new world,” he said. “To simply do what we said we’d do, catching up on past promises and not recognizing that we live in a new world, that would be surprising if not shocking.”

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Among Canadian cities, Montreal has taken the boldest approach. Mayor Valérie Plante announced earlier this month that 112 kilometres of new space for walking and cycling would be implemented on the roads this summer, starting in June. This expansion, along with work planned by the boroughs and infrastructure that had previously been announced, would raise the city’s total amount of designated space to more than 1,200 kilometres.

The mayor stressed that this was a short-term expansion, though she suggested it could lead to lasting changes.

“The circuit will be temporary and is planned for the summer and part of the fall, and we will of course follow the situation as it goes,” Ms. Plante told a mid-May news conference.

“It will allow the population to rediscover all the natural beauty that Montreal has to offer and at the same time allow us to test our new developments and innovations, which will certainly serve us in the future.”

A spokeswoman for the city of Montreal declined to make anyone available to speak in greater detail about the municipality’s mobility recovery plan. But Suzanne Lareau, president of the advocacy group Vélo Québec, predicted that the new bicycle lanes will be very popular and that the city might find it impossible not to make some of them permanent.

“This crisis can help a lot to transform our mobility in town,” she said. “When you try something new, you just tend to realize, wow, it’s fantastic. We can’t go back after that.”

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Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there's also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe's Madeleine White.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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