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Cycling should not be a contact sport. Toronto must do better for bikers’ safety

Alexandra Flynn is assistant professor in Human Geography and City Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

This past Tuesday was a radiant summer day in Toronto. It was a cyclist’s dream, especially travelling on one of the city’s few separated bike lanes at around noon, with little street traffic to worry about. Sadly, on this sunny Tuesday, a 58-year-old woman became the third cycling casualty in Toronto this year, colliding with a flatbed truck on Bloor Street near St. George Street in circumstances that have not yet been disclosed.

It is an altogether too-frequent occurrence in Toronto, which boasts one of the highest numbers of cycling and pedestrian fatalities in Canada. A few weeks ago, a man in his 50s died on another of Toronto’s cycling paths. Last year, a five-year-old boy veered off a waterfront cycling lane into speedy traffic. But the common refrain doesn’t make it any less devastating. Cycling should not be a contact sport, especially on a separated bike lane, at midday.

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Tuesday’s tragedy hit me hard. In early May, at almost the same spot where Tuesday’s accident took place, my 10-year old son, Simon, a savvy cyclist, hit a deep speed bump and his tire collided with the sidewalk. He fell off his bike only feet away from the fast-moving cars on Bloor Street. He hasn’t ridden his bike to school since, too frightened by the car wheel that was dangerously close to him as he hit the pavement.

Toronto’s cycling infrastructure needs fixing, fast. Most of the city’s too-few lanes are demarcated only by paint, with cars and trucks frequently forgetting that they are there. The few separated lanes, while an improvement, cover short distances and don’t always connect to other lanes. In all cases, there is insufficient space to accommodate the city’s many cyclists, meaning that riders must use other streets, too. In addition, many paths are on the busiest streets, meaning that cars and trucks are travelling fast right next to those on bikes. This is in stark contrast to Vancouver, for example, where the vast and seamless bike network is mainly on side streets.

Pundits have rightly remarked upon the failure of city policy to address this terrible problem. The Infrastructure and Public Works Committee is well known for contesting new lanes, such as on Yonge Street earlier this year. City Council is hesitant to introduce paths, with motion after motion failing when it gets to the city’s highest decision-making body. The Mayor’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, aimed at eliminating traffic deaths, has been a failure, with 93 pedestrians and cyclists dying on Toronto streets since it was introduced on June 13, 2016.

But these failures don’t consider the many city councillors who work tirelessly to introduce new paths. In Councillor Mike Layton’s ward, pilot projects have led to safe bike paths on Argyle and Shaw streets, away from busy traffic and wide enough to accommodate many riders. This past weekend, he and Councillor Joe Cressy rode their bikes through city streets to turn attention toward the need for cycling infrastructure. Councillor Paula Fletcher, a committed cyclist, has also advocated strenuously for new lanes.

These and other councillors are too few to have their voices heard in creating the full, comprehensive cycling network that Torontonians deserve and that many other big cities (including Montreal and Copenhagen) have introduced.

There is a solution. Most cycling – and corresponding fatalities – occur within the confines of the Toronto-East York Community Council. Toronto’s four community councils, whose boundaries roughly match the pre-amalgamated boundaries of the city, initially had responsibility for cycling lanes. Like speed bumps, lanes were understood as a “local” issue. This changed in 2007. City Council must now decide whether to introduce any new cycling infrastructure. Cycling is now seen as a city-wide issue, not a local one.

In a perfect world, Toronto would have a well-funded, comprehensive, city-wide cycling network. But the reality is that many councillors do not see the merit. On that same sparkling Tuesday, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti remarked at an Infrastructure and Public Works Committee meeting that he did not believe that there should be cyclists on any city street. People are dying due to scanty infrastructure, incomplete routes and political lack of interest.

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Toronto is currently reviewing community council boundaries following changes to the ward boundaries. This review offers an opportunity to rethink what these bodies do, including responsibility for safe cycling.

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