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The Globe and Mail

New Bloor bike lanes in Toronto must pass ‘rigorous’ tests

Cyclists using the new Bloor Street bike lane still manoeuvre through congested lanes of traffic in the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto on Thursday.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In an effort to defuse the "war on the car" rhetoric that surfaces in most city hall debates over cycling, the new Bloor Street West bike lanes will be subject to an unprecedented battery of tests to evaluate their impact both on traffic flow and local businesses.

The lanes, set to open Friday for a one-year pilot project, are among the most contentious ever installed in Toronto, coming after nearly 40 years of agitation by activists and debate by local politicians.

They will also be the city's most rigorously evaluated, Mayor John Tory says, as Toronto takes a leaf out of the book of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was famously obsessed with having data to measure the effect of city decisions.

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"I won't compare myself to him because he was obviously a tremendously successful entrepreneur, but we were both business people," Mr. Tory said of Mr. Bloomberg. "And what you try to do [in business] is make your decisions based on rational sets of facts – and that comes from measurement, in some form or another."

The details of plans to measure the effect of the bike lanes are to be unveiled on Friday. They involve studies of how the lanes affect car, bike and pedestrian traffic flow – not just on Bloor but on the nearby parallel routes of Dupont Street and Harbord Street, and side streets – as well as the lanes' economic impact on local businesses.

Specialized software provided at no cost by a tech company from Kitchener, Ont., called Miovision Technologies, will scan video footage of Bloor and allow a deeper analysis of the bike lanes' effects on safety, the company says. In addition to traffic counts, the software – used around the world but never before by the City of Toronto – can detect anomalies such as sudden decelerations, allowing city staff to analyze places where close calls between cars and cyclists occur, for example. The cameras were also deployed to take baseline measurements before the lanes went in.

Also already under way is an economic impact study, partially funded by the two local business improvement areas, to measure the effect of the lanes on stores along Bloor, some of which have been concerned about the loss of on-street parking spaces. More than 1,000 pedestrians and more than 300 business owners completed a survey about the situation before the lanes were installed. Two more surveys will be done on the impact before city council revisits the lanes next fall.

Councillor Joe Cressy, who has been campaigning vigorously for the bike lanes, said the increased data, which he pushed for at council, will provide reliable numbers to skeptics, instead of just rhetoric, before making a decision.

"For too long, the discussion of bike lanes on Bloor, or bike lanes on any major street like Bloor, was seen as a divisive subject – the old discourse of bikes versus cars," he said.

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Not everyone at city hall is convinced that the more rigorous study planned for the lanes is enough, even though the pilot project passed overwhelmingly on council.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong criticized the data-collection plan because it fails to include benchmarks to determine whether the lanes are a success. This, he said, could allow city staff or bike-lane advocates to call for the pilot project to be made permanent no matter what the numbers show.

"What's a win? When do you declare victory? What is acceptable in terms of increased congestion?" Mr. Minnan-Wong said. "We know in the school room what an A or a B is. … We don't let everybody write the test and then figure out what the marks should be."

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