Cycling advocates are on the verge of getting something they have dreamed about for years: bike lanes on Bloor. The pilot project on Bloor Street West between Avenue Road and Shaw Street would put protected lanes on a major east-west street in the heart of the city. That would help bring a lagging Toronto into step with cities like New York and London that have discovered what cycling lanes can do not just for urban mobility but for the feel and function of city streets monopolized by the automobile.
There is one major barrier: our lingering attachment to easy street parking. Some merchants on Bloor are already complaining about how their business will suffer when the city takes out a lane of parking to make way for the cyclists. This sort of backlash can be expected whenever the city proposes to remove street-parking spots for any reason.
Some motorists seem to consider it their Charter right to pull up right in front of their neighbourhood hardware store to buy a box of screws. Some shop owners consider it a threat to their very existence if customers can't park more than a few steps away. It's a reasonable attitude if you live in Cornwall or Gravenhurst. In the increasingly dense and busy centre of Canada's biggest city, it's absurd to expect such a Corner Gas way of life.
Yet many of us do. Merchants howled when transit authorities took out a few parking spots on Dundas Street West a few years ago to help the streetcars flow more smoothly. They howled when city hall proposed to put in a bike lane on Annette Street, too.
As a result, most of the city's downtown main streets look much as they did in the 1960s: One lane of parking on either side, removed during rush hours; cars, bikes and often streetcars all competing for the the remaining two lanes. It is an old-fashioned and often dangerous arrangement. Cyclists are often sent sprawling when the occupant of a stopped car "doors" them – opens the door without looking to see if a bike is coming. Streetcars with 100 or more people on board have to grind to a halt because one driver decides to parallel park right in front of them. Impatient drivers floor it recklessly to pass a streetcar before they get blocked by parked cars on the curb lane ahead. All of this so that a few drivers (say, seven or eight in a city block) can enjoy the privilege of parking at the curb.
Most of Toronto's main downtown streets – like Queen, Dundas or Bay – are just four lanes wide. Unlike most cities of comparable size, Toronto doesn't have many broad boulevards in its core. With space so limited, filling the curb lanes with a line of parked cars through much of the day is hard to justify. Why not charge a lot more for street parking, discouraging drivers from cruising endlessly in a search for that ideal spot on the street, slowing traffic as they look? Why not build a few more parking lots just off the main streets? Or why not simply restrict the supply of parking and encourage people to get around in other ways?
Surveys on Bloor have found that the vast majority of shoppers already arrive by transit, on foot or by bike anyway. So taking out a few dozen parking spaces shouldn't cripple commerce there. Merchants are beginning to understand that, which may explain why the resistance to the new bike lanes has been muted so far. Studies on some New York streets showed that stores actually got more visitors after the city put in bike lanes.
Parking in downtown Toronto is too cheap and too plentiful, both on street and off. Absurdly, in a city that aims to encourage transit use, city hall requires developers to provide a certain number of parking spaces in new buildings. At a time when the city is trying to fight pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage walking and cycling, making parking scarcer and pricier is just good sense.
The curb lane is a good place to start. Let's grow up, stop acting like a small town and admit that, in the central city, pulling up outside the hardware store on four wheels is a thing of the past.