More than a decade after it rolled out its vaunted bike plan - and was named the best city to bike in North America - Toronto has a two-wheeled revolt on its hands.
We're 10 years behind schedule on our bike master plan, and the lack of bike lanes on busy roadways is causing many cyclists to take to the sidewalks in their search for safe travel. It's a development that risks pitting pedestrians against cyclists. But it also supports a common misperception: for cyclists, the sidewalks are not as safe as they seem.
Pedestrians and cycling advocates agree that, in many circumstances, our walkways are the only place some cyclists feel safe. Pedestrians are now learning to step aside when they hear a cyclist's bell, and police often look the other way.
But others intimidated by the car traffic think the rules should be bent even further to allow cyclists on sidewalks on major north-south routes during rush hour - west side in the morning, east side in the afternoon.
"I'm nervous," says Esther Collier, who bikes from her home in Richmond Hill to her school at Bayview and Steeles and wrote the city's cycling committee with her proposal last month. "When I'm on the road with all these vehicles, I'm afraid I'm going to get hurt."
Under the current bylaw, cyclists can only ride on the sidewalks if their wheels are less than 24 inches in diameter. Others face fines ranging from $10 to $109. Collier's proposal is a frightening indication of the sad state of biking in Toronto.
Our bike plan, which was released in 2001 and which calls for the creation of a 1,000-kilometre bikeway network, will now take not 10 years to complete, as originally proposed, but more than 20 because of chronic underfunding. A scant $1 million is spent on new bike lanes per year. And despite the bike plan's objectives, if a councillor doesn't support new lanes in a ward, it's almost impossible to get one through.
Recent events have left cyclists with more reasons to fear for their safety. On October 28, a 69-year-old woman cyclist was struck twice at the intersection of the Queensway and Southport and pronounced dead on the scene. Since 1996, all but one of the 27 cycling fatalities in Toronto have occurred on arterial roads.
Sadly, the argument over who belongs on the sidewalks diverts attention away from a much more serious issue - the fact that streets are designed for cars, with little regard for cyclists or pedestrians. Separated or protected bike lanes like those in Europe were given little consideration during the city's bike plan deliberations.
Pedestrians and cyclists sharing sidewalks - in Europe, a painted line separates the two - was only slightly more seriously explored and then ditched, even though at least a half-dozen north-south routes could make very good bike corridors downtown, among them, Mount Pleasant south of Davisville, University south of College, Spadina south of College, Bay south of Bloor and Bayview south of Moore.
Even cycling advocates argue, however, that space for bikes should be taken away from cars, not pedestrians.
Rhona Swarbrick, co-founder of the Pedestrian Planning Network and former chair of the city's pedestrian committee, says better police enforcement of speed limits is what's needed to cut into cyclists' fear factor. Eighty-one per cent of all traffic violations are for speeding, Swarbrick points out.
It's a point Swarbrick brought up when Councillor Bas Balkissoon (Scarborough-Rouge River) addressed the cycling committee on complaints he's received about cyclists on sidewalks.
Says Nancy Smith Lea, co-founder of Advocacy for Respect For Cyclists, "The biggest fear cyclists have is the number of cars and the speed of cars."
The biggest problem is that biking on sidewalks is not as safe as it seems. Almost 30 per cent of cyclists involved in collisions were riding on the sidewalk prior to their accident, according to the 2003 Toronto Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Collision Study. Sidewalk cyclists are invisible to drivers, who don't expect them to be there when they enter an intersection.
"Most cyclists don't realize that (riding on the sidewalk is) actually very dangerous for them," says cycling committee chair Adam Giambrone. "Outside of the downtown, where getting doored is the biggest danger, sidewalk riding is the top source of collisions. Cars turning are unaware of or unable to see a bike coming off the sidewalk into the intersection."
Daniel Egan, the city's manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, says, "The real answer needs to be to roll out the bike plan, which we're a long way from completing." A modest 7 kilometres of bike lanes were constructed this year, making that 22 kilometres since the plan was first presented in 2001.
The more cyclists on the roads, the safer they are, but instead of coughing up the dough for much-needed infrastructure, those in power have toyed with police ticketing campaigns, further deterring cyclists from riding.
Though it's easy to sympathize with cyclists who want to ride on sidewalks, it's unlikely any such proposal will be accepted. It's not going to solve the problem we really need to address, which is to make our roads more bike- friendly.