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marcus gee

It would be easy to dismiss Ontario's new cycling strategy with a cynical, "So, what?" This province and its capital, Toronto, are, well, streets behind other jurisdictions in promoting cycling. Just putting out a policy document will not make it catch up.

The strategy, cutely named #CycleON and announced by the Ministry of Transportation on Aug. 30, is full of gauzy rhetoric and capital letters. "At the heart of the Strategy are a bold Vision, ambitious Goals and a set of carefully targeted Strategic Directions," it pronounces.

Some of what it says seems either blindingly obvious ("Increasing cycling as a daily activity will require more bike paths") or patronizing ("Encouraging more people to ride their bikes means communicating the benefits of cycling.")

Other parts seem wildly unrealistic. One of #CycleON's five "aspirational goals" is to ensure that, by 2033, "Ontario is recognized as the best Canadian province for cycling and ranked among the top 10 jurisdictions worldwide for cycling" and that "at least one Ontario city is ranked among the 10 most bike-friendly cities in the world."

The ministry concedes that, today, not one Ontario city even ranks in the top 100 as assessed by the organization Copenhagenize. Montreal is the only city in Canada to make the grade. The ministry notes that various news organizations put out their own ratings of the most bike-friendly communities in North America. "Ontario," a ministry spokesman says, "is currently unranked."

The funny thing is that cycling advocates seem quite thrilled by #CycleON. Transportation Minister Glen Murray was smart enough to bring cycling groups into the process of drawing up the document, which cost $70,000 over five years. After first soliciting public comments – and getting more than 1,100 – the ministry held a big workshop on June 27 with 24 "stakeholder organizations."

Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, says "the vision is fantastic. I sense that Minister Murray is genuine on this and that he wants to see change." University of Toronto lecturer and cycling researcher Beth Savan calls #CycleON "a really great step in the right direction."

The challenge, quite obviously, is to put some rubber on the rims. Some of what the government is proposing, like lots of new bike paths and off-road trails, will take money. London, England, is spending $1.4-billion over 10 years to build bike paths, bike parking and other infrastructure, while Toronto has budgeted just $90-million. It took a big fight at city council just to save the $70,000 bike-parking station planned for below Nathan Phillips Square. Mayor Rob Ford thought it was a "ludicrous" waste of money.

Mr. Murray insists that the province is already spending "many, many millions of dollars" on cycling projects, but admits "there will be some additional money required" and promises he will try to get it – no small trick for a government with a $9-billion deficit.

He also wants to move ahead with changes to provincial laws and regulations to protect cyclists. One easy step would be to change the way authorities treat "dooring" – what happens when motorists swing open their car doors just as a bike comes along. Authorities stopped treating such incidents as collisions last year, deciding a collision must involve a motor vehicle in motion.

But to make #CycleON more than a vague wish list, Ontario needs much more. More bike parking around subway stops, GO stations and other transit hubs. More separated bike paths like the one that finally went in on Sherbourne Street this year. Harsher penalties for dooring and other infractions involving cyclists. More promotion and infrastructure for bike tourism, a growing money maker in many places. More support for bike-sharing programs such as Toronto's teetering Bixi program. Better design of roads and highways to accommodate cycling shoulders and other concessions to the bike.

#CycleON is eloquent about the benefits of cycling, both for individuals and the community. "Increasing the number of cyclists in Ontario holds the potential for tremendous, broad, long-term benefits," it says. Among them: less pollution and healthier bodies. It also notes that 129 cyclists were killed in road accidents between 2006 and 2010, underlining the need for action on bike safety.

The challenge is to translate the bromides in #CycleON into action. Mr. Murray says that the next step in the 20-year strategy is to break it down into five-year goals, then one-year action plans. "They will develop very specific things that have to happen."

If they do not, then cynicism will be in order. Until then, let's give the government a little credit and call #CycleON an encouraging start.