Toronto's Bloor bike lanes heralded but city lags behind other Canadian centres

TORONTO - When a stretch of separated bicycle lanes along a major thoroughfare in Toronto was recently made permanent, cyclists rejoiced and local politicians heralded the move as a major step forward for Canada's most populous city.

But for all the attention garnered by the lanes on a 2.4 kilometre stretch of buzzing Bloor Street West, urban planners and advocates say Toronto still has a piecemeal approach to bike infrastructure that has left it lagging behind urban centres like Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

Bike lanes, they note, while pitting motorists against cyclists in some quarters, are expanding as the cities they're built in cater to what appears to be a rising number of residents who want to travel on two wheels.

"What we're seeing is a revolution, a transformation, in thinking around urban biking," said Brent Toderian, a former chief planner for Vancouver and the president of the Council of Canadian Urbanism.

"This is about cities being better for everyone: healthier, more sustainable, much more cost effective, and just able to move more people in less space ... Urban biking, like transit, is critically important for cities to work better for everyone, including drivers."

In Toronto, after the advantages and disadvantages of the Bloor project were studied at length, city council voted 36-6 to keep the separated lanes that had been installed under a pilot project last summer.

The city now has approximately 590 kilometres of on-road bike lanes, about 37 kilometres of which are protected from car traffic.

But, despite a decade-long plan approved last year to create a bike-lane network, the majority of lanes are currently disconnected from other stretches, leaving cyclists and motorists contending for space on busy roads.

"Toronto has struggled to put in place, and then keep, individual bike lanes," Toderian said, describing the city's pattern on bike lanes as taking two steps forward and one step back. "It can be draining when the battle to get individual bike lanes in is so huge, and we know what we need is a complete network."

Meanwhile, Montreal -- internationally recognized as one of the most cycle-friendly cities in North America -- has about 570 kilometres of on-road or roadside bike lanes, of which nearly 90 kilometres are protected or separated from car lanes.

And newly elected Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante has pledged to build a new 140 kilometre "Bicycle Express Network" of protected lanes along seven major streets in the next four years.

Toronto needs to work harder on its protected lanes, said Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle T.O., which advocated for the Bloor bike lanes. But political divisions in a city that has a dense urban core as well as car-heavy outlying areas have hampered progress on the matter, he contended.

"There's no question that our political system has held us back from being able to build the kind of network of protected bike lanes that I think people who live downtown GǪ recognize as a priority," he said.

One city councillor who opposed the Bloor bike lanes said he did so because they took up space on the road, caused delays of two to four minutes per car journey and did not result in as many new cyclists hitting the road as he would have hoped.

"Cycling is a great way to get around the city ... It's just not for everyone all the time," said Coun. Stephen Holyday, who represents the ward of Etobicoke Centre, just west of the city core. "We have to think about the needs of everybody and how we divide up the road in a fair manner."

Adding bike lanes to a major street decreases drivers' options for getting in and out of the city, he said.

"If there are ever incidents on roads, like a closure or an accident, it becomes critical that there are (route) choices, and as we take those away it makes the city less livable for the people I represent."

Having long stretches of protected bike lanes, however, is important to encourage more cyclists to get on the road and bike more frequently, one advocate said.

"If you can only get halfway there on what you consider to be adequate, convenient, safe infrastructure, you're not going to take your bike," said Judi Varga-Toth, executive director of the cyclist advocacy group Canada Bikes, who said it's essential bike lanes be protected from traffic.

"Painting a line on the road is not equivalent to infrastructure," she said. "People can drive over that line, they can weave into that (lane), they can park on it ... If there is no physical separation you're still not ensuring a safe ride for people."

A number of cities do appear to be taking note -- Calgary and Edmonton have in the past two years built grids of mostly protected bike lanes in their downtowns.

Calgary built a 6.5 kilometre network of bike lanes along downtown roads as part of a 2015 pilot project and made them permanent last December. Inspired by Calgary's pilot, Edmonton began installing its own 7.8 kilometre network of protected bike lanes this summer.

"We felt GǪ we'd see maximum benefit by doing a network so people could get in and around downtown (by bike)," said Daniel Vriend, general supervisor of systems planning for the City of Edmonton. "We focused on movable infrastructure, recognizing that ... we probably wouldn't get everything right, but we were going to put it in and tweak it as we go."