Despite mayor Rob Ford's history of anti-bike rhetoric, his administration is pursuing a plan to create a network of separated bike lanes in the downtown core - or so it appears.
Is City Hall spinning us on this one? This is the mayor, after all, whose past pronouncements on bikes included a not so veiled reference to bicyclists as hood ornaments.
Public Works Committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong has tabled a proposal that would create four bike lanes - two running east-west, one on Richmond between Bathurst and Parliament, the other on Harbord and Wellesley between Ossington and Sherbourne. One of the north-south lanes would run from the waterfront to Dupont along Simcoe, John, Beverley and St. George. The other would travel up Sherbourne from Queens Quay to Rosedale Valley Road.
The lanes would be physically separated from the rest of traffic by barricades and raised curbs, a first for Toronto but a common feature of cycling infrastructure in Montreal, Vancouver and New York, where cycling advocates say it makes urban biking much safer.
The plan, which Minnan-Wong says could break ground within a year, has won the ringing endorsement of the Toronto Cyclists Union.
"Many cities are implementing this type of separated infrastructure, and they're seeing really great result in terms of safety for all road users," says Andrea Garcia, director of advocacy and operations at TCU. "It creates these low-stress bikeways that encourage folks who are on the fence about cycling to pick up a bike and start using it. It's not the first time [separated bike lanes] have been proposed, but it's the first time they've really been championed in this way."
Notably absent from the plan is a lane on Bloor, long the aim of a campaign by cycling advocates who say it would have the domino effect of relieving the subway line and encouraging motorists to take the TTC. An EA on that plan no longer seems to be in the cards, though.
On that subject, Minnan-Wong says he's taking a non-confrontational approach that focuses on streets not already dominated by cars.
While the proposal for a continuous network of separated bike lanes has its fans in the cycling community, the new plan comes at a time when cycling advocates are in danger of losing their voice at City Hall.
Last month, council's Executive Committee controversially voted to scrap the Cycling Advisory Committee along with 20 other citizen panels. If council approves that move next week, it could mean that the most important piece of cycling infrastructure the city has ever seen will be planned without the direct input of citizen cycling experts, which may not bode well for design considerations.
Denzil Minnan-Wong (left) and Adam Vaughan
Minnan-Wong says the potential elimination of the advisory panel doesn't mean the cycling community will be shut out of the process, and that both experts and affected communities will be consulted. But only to a point.
"At the end of the day, we want to get things done," he says. "We want to have proper consultation, but the cycling community has been waiting a decade. The question is, how long are we going to wait? It's not unreasonable to think that there may be some who will want to use the consultation [process] to stop bike lanes in their entirety by dragging out their consideration."
In a bizarre reversal of the expected narrative at City Hall, Minnan-Wong's project has been slammed by Ward 20 councillor Adam Vaughan, a darling of Toronto's bike-loving progressives.
Vaughan says he spent four years consulting with local residents and businesses to draft a bike lane proposal that everyone could get behind, and that plan has been completely disregarded by Minnan-Wong.
"Denzil's shelved it," says Vaughan. "It was passed in the last term of council. We asked for a report back, but it's disappeared because they say they've got a better plan. My fear is that he's proposing a network that will be turned down by the community so the Ford administration will never have to go near the issue of bike lanes again."
The plan Vaughan supports called for studying a north-south lane on Blue Jays Way and Peter from Bremner to Queen West, an east-west lane along Bremner from Simcoe to Bathurst, and connecting Dan Leckie Way and Portland Street with a bridge to create a bike lane running from Queens Quay to Queen West. It's a less ambitious scheme than Minnan-Wong's, but Vaughan says it has the support of the community.
Vaughan's biggest beef with Minnan-Wong's proposal, however, is the effect it would have on plans to turn John Street into a pedestrian zone. (The new plan calls for a separated lane on a short stretch of the street from Stephanie to Richmond.) It's also unclear what would happen to the separated lane when John is closed for MuchMusic events.
"Imagine a cultural corridor on John from the waterfront to Queen. To throw away those plans for a 15-to-20-metre bike lane doesn't make sense, especially when it's going to be closed frequently anyway," Vaughan says. "I want permanent infrastructure, not lanes that open and close."
Vaughan suggests bike routes bypass John and run on Simcoe and Peter instead. He also fears parts of Harbord are too narrow to accommodate both separated bike lanes and TTC buses, and that the proposal's suggestion to consolidate St. George's existing bike lanes on the east side of the street are needlessly complicated. Some bike activists argue that the Harbord and St. George routes need repairs and linkages to the existing network more than physical separation.
While the prospect of Rob Ford's City Hall implementing biking infrastructure in Toronto is surprising, the reason for Vaughan and Minnan-Wong's squabble could turn out to be as old as politics itself: in a nutshell, Vaughan may think Minnan-Wong is on his turf, and he doesn't like it.
If Minnan-Wong follows through, the good news is T.O. could finally get a network of separated bike lanes. But how well-suited that netwrok will be to cyclists and affected communities will depend on how much input Minnan-Wong is willing to allow. A staff report on the proposal goes to council in June.