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A cyclist waits for a traffic light while using the bike lane on Wellsley Street at Sherbourne, in Toronto, February 19, 2013.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Toronto needs to move toward a safer bicycle network, ideally using lanes separated from motorized vehicles, says the city's chief planner, who believes drivers will discover they are better off with a smaller part of the road.

City figures show that nearly a third of travel in downtown Toronto is now by bicycle or on foot. On even the worst winter days, cyclists are spotted on streets in the city core.

Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat is concerned, though, that many people in that growing constituency are pedalling in close proximity to motorists, a situation she said leaves everyone in a bad position.

"What we need to move towards is a framework where we see cycling as a legitimate form of transportation, and we are ensuring that drivers have the space they need and we're ensuring that cyclists have the space that they need," she said in a recent interview.

Some changes are happening already. Separated lanes for bicycles are set to appear on Wellesley this year, between Parliament and Yonge streets. Environmental assessments are under way for separated lanes on Richmond and Adelaide streets. The installation of "sharrows" that would allow two-way bicycle use on Shaw Avenue is being discussed. More broadly, the city is currently looking to revamp its decade-old official bicycle plan.

"It's not a zero-sum game," Ms. Keesmaat said. "When you take someone out of a car and onto a bike, you've actually just freed up a tremendous amount of space in that street infrastructure. It's important to recognize that there is that direct relationship."

But lurking in the background is a history of acrimony over cycling in Toronto, where reasonable debate has often got lost among polarized viewpoints.

Two Toronto councillors sparked a flurry of backlash when they proposed last month to eliminate a bylaw on cyclists riding side by side, a rule made redundant by the Highway Traffic Act. Their motion, which was referred to committee, prompted outbursts typified by the on-line commentator who wrote that "bicycles should always be treated as toys and kept off all major streets."

On the other extreme of the debate are the anti-vehicle zealots, some of whom seem to see bicycle riding as a form of saintliness that excuses law-breaking.

While Toronto remains mired in finger-pointing, other cities have made huge strides in developing cycling infrastructure.

In spite of its cold and rain, Copenhagen is often held up as a cycling mecca, where a "bicycle first" approach has resulted in more commuting being done by bicycle than by either transit or private vehicle. Mikael Colville-Andersen, the CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co and blogger behind Copenhagen Cycle Chic, said that  the infrastructure groundwork is so extensive that the city is full of people who ride simply because it is more convenient.

"It's not fitness, it's just people riding home from the supermarket, picking up kids or going to work," the Danish-Canadian, who grew up in Calgary, said from Copenhagen. "I say it's like vacuum cleaners. Everyone has one, but they don't fetishize it or wave to other vacuum cleaners on the street."

In Vancouver, where there is the goal of having at least half of commuting trips by bicycle or transit by 2040, planners have gone to great lengths to involve as many stakeholders as possible.

"Creating an effective strategy to increase cycling is not all about the infrastructure on the ground," Helen Cook, planning manager with the regional transportation agency TransLink, said from Vancouver. "It's also a lot of other agencies who can help convince people to ride their bicycles."

And it's not just Old World cities and those in warmer climes. New York has built hundreds of kilometres of bikes lanes since 2006, with another 25 kilometres planned for this year. Backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff in President Barack Obama's White House, Chicago last year opened more than 60 kilometres of bicycle lanes separated from traffic, part of a longer-term plan to put 1,000 kilometres of cycling routes in the city by 2020.

In Toronto, meanwhile, the debate around commuting has more often been dominated by how the region can pay for massive transit plans that will cost tens of billions and take decades to finish.

But Ms. Keesmaat noted at one of the city's recent series of congestion meetings that cycling infrastructure can be put in place relatively quickly and cheaply but still have a "transformative" effect.

The planner believes that there are three groups in the cycling debate: those who will never ride no matter the inducements; those who don't need any encouraging to ride; and a middle group ready to be swayed. Persuading even some of the latter group can have a big impact, she argued.

"It's a much more cost-effective way to move," Ms. Keesmaat said in the subsequent interview. "Does it mean every trip will be on bike? Absolutely not. But some trips will, and that wouldn't be a bad thing, if more trips were."


Bike lanes (on roadways, including but not exclusively, separated):

Toronto: 122 kilometres

Amsterdam: 400 km

Chicago: 272 km

Copenhagen: 373 km

Metro Vancouver: 410 km (2009 figures)

New York: more than 500 km

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