The city moved closer to taking action on one of Toronto's most common cycling hazards on Wednesday.
At a meeting of the public works committee, councillors voted to ask staff for a report on ways to make streetcar tracks safer for bikers. The move will come as welcome news to Toronto riders, many of whom have first hand experience with wipeouts on the city's ubiquitous tram tracks, and the injuries to prove it.
The decision, which sailed through committee without debate, follows the death of a cyclist on Wychwood Ave on August 6. Joseph Mavec was killed when he got his wheel stuck in the gap of a decommissioned streetcar track and was thrown from his bike, hitting his head on the pavement. He wasn't wearing a helmet at the time.
In response to Mavec's fatal accident, last month Councillors Mike Layton and Joe Mihevc petitioned the committee to seek ways to prevent similar deaths.
"I don't know what the right answer would be, but I know that we need to start coming up with solutions," Layton told Wednesday's meeting. "We don't want to continue to face... the tragedies that could occur - the parents, the children, the spouses, and the friends that are lost, unfortunately, with accidents of this kind."
However, the man in charge of coming up with solutions warns that options are limited. Dan Egan, city manager for cycling infrastructure, says that at a cost of $1.5 million per km, simply tearing up disused streetcar tracks like those on Wychwood is impractical unless done in conjunction with previously scheduled road resurfacing.
Paving over decommissioned tracks would be less costly - around $500,000 per km - but would be a strictly short term solution.
"It's not that expensive but it only lasts a few years and we have to go back and redo it... It'll pop out," Egan says.
"If you have to go in and do that every four or five years [it may not be worth it]."
As for active TTC tracks, Egan says he's unaware of any material that could be used to fill the gap between the rails and the pavement where riders often get wheels stuck. He believes that some solutions used in other cities, such as directing bikers onto streets that don't have rail lines, are impractical in Toronto because of the sheer volume of track here.
There are roughly 304 km of active streetcar tracks in the city, and 3.5 km of decommissioned rails that remain embedded in the road.
Transportation staff are expected to report back to the committee by the end of 2012, and despite Egan's words of caution, Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto is hoping that staff return with workable solutions.
Kolb favours warning signs, pavement markings that show safe angles at which to cross rails, and bike-only left-turn signal phases at particularly dangerous intersections as possible fixes.
"I'm still hopeful that they'll be some good that comes of this, but we'll have to wait and see," Kolb said.
Public works chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong supported the streetcar track report on Wednesday despite taking heat last month over his suggestion that the city could ban cycling on streets that have decommissioned tracks. He says his comments, which were panned by the biking community, were taken out of context by the media.
"I wasn't advocating for [for a cycling ban on some streets]. I was saying let's put everything out on the table and see what works," he says.
Minnan-Wong believes tearing up unused tracks would be "a waste of money" but supports the idea of using pavement markings at "spaghetti intersections" where many tracks intersect at confusing angles. He also suggests removing on-street parking on downtown streets like King St. could make riders safer by giving them more space between the curb and the tracks.
"I'm looking for practical, reasonable solutions," he said.
Streetcar tracks wasn't the only cycling issue that was dealt with at public works on Wednesday. The committee also voted to:
- Install a traffic light and other safety features at the intersection of Dundas and Sterling where Jenna Morrison was killed last November. The issue will go to city council next month for final approval.
- Start public consultations on reconfiguring the Dupont bike lanes, which have led to significant car congestion since being installed in 2008. Options include removing the lanes, but Egan has stressed that is not the preferred solution
- Investigate constructing a bike trail to connect the East Don Roadway to the Lower Don Recreation Trail and bike paths in the Port Lands