Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, road safety advocate, and founder of Bells on Bloor.
Most students eventually realize that for their studies to have value, they must be applied in practice. This reckoning has yet to occur at Toronto’s city hall when it comes to building a cycling network, including bike lanes along the vital Bloor-Danforth route. Instead, the city remains stuck in studies that waste public resources and bring us no closer to creating safe roads.
When city council’s infrastructure and environment committee receives an update later this week for Toronto’s 10-year bike plan, approved in June, 2016, and itself the product of intensive study – followed by embarrassingly few new bike lanes – it has the opportunity to change the current pattern of never-ending studies and longstanding inaction.
Bike lanes on Bloor Street have been comprehensively studied at least four times since the 1970s. The studies, conducted by city staff or consultants, almost uniformly concluded that Bloor is one of the city’s most popular bike routes with significant growth potential and a key link for a coherent bike network.
Only the 1978 report rejected bike lanes on Bloor – opting instead for a bikeway, consisting of a wider curb lane, on parallel Harbord Street, even though Bloor met all the criteria for a successful bike lane: a continuous route, the absence of surface transit and easy access to popular destinations. In choosing Harbord, which didn’t score as highly, the consultant rationalized that Bloor had to be maintained for motorists and curbside parking retained for the survival of local businesses (although no research was presented for this assumption).
Harbord got its bikeway in 1979, but by 1983, it was judged a failure because motorists used the wider lane to try to pass each other and cyclists still preferred Bloor. In fact, the number of cyclists on Bloor increased to 1,400 cyclists for the busiest eight hours of the day. Instead of recommending bike lanes on Bloor (and pushing the then Metro Toronto government to act), the city’s public works commissioner simply proposed returning Harbord to its original configuration of four motor lanes.
In 1992, another city consultant recommended a cross-town Bloor-Danforth bike lane to serve as a spine for the city’s bike network. The consultant said that the TTC subway, the direct route and the flat topography made Bloor-Danforth an excellent choice. The study didn’t produce any action on Bloor-Danforth (although some bike lanes were installed in the city core).
A 2009 Bloor-Danforth bikeway feasibility study, prompted by the city’s climate action plan, accepted as its starting point the importance of the route for a cycling network. Even before the study was to be released, council’s chair of the cycling committee announced that a cross-town bike lane could move forward, suggesting that a wide portion of Danforth could be outfitted with a bike lane almost immediately. Instead of installing a bike lane, council approved another study – a $450,000 environmental assessment (that never proceeded).
In 2014, the long-standing lack of progress spurred local residents’ associations to call for a pilot bike lane on Bloor. In the spring of 2016, city council approved and installed a 2.4-kilometre pilot Bloor bike lane in the Annex and Koreatown neighbourhoods with a plan to study every possible impact of the installation.
The one-year pilot showed that cycling numbers had surged, the road was safer and business revenues were up. The study also confirmed that only 10 per cent of local shoppers arrived by car (far short of the usual fanciful assumptions) while noting that many prime parking spots were actually occupied by merchants themselves. The city’s transportation manager described the pilot as one of the most comprehensively studied road projects in recent North American history.
With the rigour of the pilot study (for a particularly busy and narrow stretch of Bloor) piled onto the other studies, one might have expected city hall, after making the pilot permanent in 2017, to proceed gracefully to extend the bike lane west and east along Bloor-Danforth. Instead, more studies were proposed.
The bike plan update converts a promised Bloor bike lane “Major Corridor Study” – which was supposed to have been completed last year – into a “Major City-Wide Cycling Route” study for a segment of Bloor running west to High Park. The new study is to “launch” this fall with proposed installation in 2020 or 2021, but without articulated timelines or benchmarks of progress.
It’s unclear what the new study entails or what purpose it serves. We know that bike lanes would fit within the existing roadway; provoke grumbling from some motorists; and, if properly implemented, ensure the safety of people who want a clean, healthy, affordable travel option for themselves or their neighbours.
When studies become substitutes for action, the public is shortchanged not only by the squandering of resources but by excusing politicians from making decisions. If city hall is serious about building a bike-friendly city, it’s time to apply its studies to a design and implementation plan for Bloor (-Danforth) bike lanes, informed by community consultation on issues such as business loading zones and accessibility for persons with disabilities, and subject to short timelines that include a graduation date from paper to pavement.
City hall can’t be a student forever.