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Darnel Harris, Executive Director of Our Greenway, is photographed with a Yuba Mundo cargo bike (left) and a Centaur Trike XL, on July 14 2020. Our Greenway plans to make cargo bikes accessible to people in the Jane and Finch area.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Two of the busiest bus routes in Toronto meet at the corner of Jane and Finch. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 35 Jane and the 36 Finch West are crowded with people heading to and from work. But what if they could cycle instead?

This is the vision that planner Darnel Harris is pursuing for the northwest part of the city. He leads Our Greenway, a non-profit group that aims to create a 21-kilometre network of off-street cycle paths that connect Jane-Finch west to Rexdale, and to get businesses cargo cycles in the northwest and elsewhere.

“After COVID, there’s been a lot of talk about how we’re all in in together,” Mr. Harris said this week, “of building back better and dealing with the social determinants of health. This is what that looks like.”

The organization is pursuing two linked messages: that cycling can work meaningfully outside of downtown, and that cycles – either three-wheeled or four-wheeled, with electric motors – can be useful tools for moving freight across a neighbourhood.

In Mr. Harris’s view, giving people better mobility choices across this wide geographic area would also have considerable economic and health benefits. Those would be welcome here, in the area of the city that has been hardest hit by COVID-19, and where many low-income residents live in highrise apartments with very little retail in walking distance.

Mr. Harris has been trying to nudge city staff into taking on the trail project. He has support from councillors James Pasternak and Anthony Perruzza, and last week council’s infrastructure and environment committee sent the proposal to city staff for consideration. It is not yet funded. In a city that burns money on roads but never cycle infrastructure, this will take some politicking.

Mr. Harris has worked to link the project to the Finch West LRT, which is now being constructed and which may substantially reshape the area. This has been a challenge. Infrastructure Ontario’s procurement process makes it difficult and expensive to change a project after it’s begun. As Mr. Perruzza said at a recent committee meeting, once such a contract is signed, “You can’t add a blade of grass to it without facing massive costs from the consortium.”

Our Greenway’s board includes Sam Starr, a Vancouver-based supply-chain logistics expert. He said the market for freight cycles is strong in Western Europe, where DHL and other major freight companies employ three- and four-wheel devices. The largest can hold up to 350 kilograms, he said, similar in capacity to a small cargo van.

“They’re versatile, easy to maintain and considerably more affordable than a van,” Mr. Starr said. “We want to get bikes into the hands of small businesses and demonstrate the potential of sustainable delivery.” The organization is working to create a lending service, through which small businesses can lease a cycle and try it out.

The organization’s proposal is unorthodox. Indeed, Mr. Harris said his focus on suburban cycling and on cargo has surprised the city’s transportation planners.

But the Finch West corridor is snarled with car and truck traffic. The buses are crowded. And there is a great deal of publicly owned space to work with in creating a cycle trail network. So, there are many bureaucratic reasons why this vision will be complex to implement.

Still, cycling can be – and is in many places – a practical technology for moving people and things cheaply and quickly. Even in winter. Why not give it a reasonable chance of success?

“We need to create a place where people feel comfortable cycling, and we can unlock real economic potential,” Mr. Harris said. That will mean doing things differently. It’s time.

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