The city of Toronto is ramping up snow clearing in downtown bicycle lanes, trying to make it easier to ride through the winter.
From a militant handful of winter riders a generation ago, cycling all year round has become increasingly mainstream. A steady flow of cyclists is seen on some routes in all but the very worst weather. But the infrastructure and maintenance has not kept up, forcing riders to dodge snow and ice in many places.
The city is vowing to change that, starting with a pilot project this year salting or ploughing new dedicated bike lanes on streets such as Adelaide, Richmond and Simcoe. A storm in December had crews tackling the bicycle lanes, said manager of city road operations Hector Moreno, the start of what he characterized as a process of learning how best to keep them clear.
"We've built the infrastructure and … to get the best value for money it makes sense to try to make them, move towards making them, usable year round," said Councillor Jaye Robinson, the new chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. "And I think any possible measure that we can put in place, or any tool we have, that we can use to ease congestion in this city, we should be pursuing."
Efforts will expand next winter to more lanes, with bicycle routes measured as carrying at least 2,000 riders per day identified as a priority for clearing. Among them will be those on Harbord, College, Shaw and St. George.
The cost of the pilot project on the dedicated bicycle lanes was pegged at between $250,000 and $300,000 for this winter. The clearing starting next winter, which will include more roads and signs to tell people these are part of a priority network, will cost $650,000 annually. The priority network was included in a seven-year snow-clearing contract signed earlier this year.
Mr. Moreno said that lanes are to be cleared to the same standard as the roads to which they are adjacent.
"Our goal will remain the same, in trying to reach bare pavement 24 hours after the end of any storm," he said.
The dream of some cycling advocates that the city would clear bicycle lanes first will not happen, though. Mr. Moreno noted that doing so would mean that a plough coming along the road subsequently would push new snow into the lane.
The beefed-up approach to clearing the lanes is being welcomed as a good start by the group Cycle Toronto.
"Quite frankly, it should've happened when bike lanes were originally built in this city, great winter maintenance should've been a part of that," said the group's executive director, Jared Kolb. "But I think we're continuing to evolve our understanding."
He noted that, starting next year, cycling infrastructure would be getting less than 1 per cent of the city's $85-million snow-clearing budget. Meanwhile, on the average day, about 7 per cent of Toronto residents ride. Spending a proportional amount on clearing snow for cyclists would add up to around $6-million annually.
"Ten per cent of cyclists continue to ride through the winter," Mr. Kolb said. "One of the top things that we can do is to better maintain cycling infrastructure, to keep people and encourage people to keep riding."
Research done for the city in 2009 showed that better-maintained infrastructure could convince more people to ride bicycles. Newer research, in a report from Portland State University publicized this summer, shows that 10 per cent of cyclists using new dedicated lanes in U.S. cities would have used another form of transportation were that infrastructure not available.
An uptick in cycling volumes will be needed to justify continuing to spend money on clearing the lanes, Ms. Robinson warned.
"If the numbers don't come up, if the cyclists don't use the lanes, then of course it wasn't worthy," she said. "But I think we'll find that if we can commit to making sure the lanes are safe and clear, then we'll see an increase in bicycle traffic."