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It just might be the start of a truce.
After years of polarizing debate and abandoned plans, at an open house on Thursday the city unveiled comprehensive designs for Toronto's first ever physically separated bike lanes. The wounds of the cycling wars are still raw, but if the lanes on Sherbourne St. succeed, it could be proof that those on four wheels and those on two can safely co-exist on Toronto's roads.
Construction on the Sherbourne lanes will begin as early as May and be completed by the fall. The 3-km lanes represent a coup for cycling advocates, who for years have been lobbying City Hall for the kind of bike infrastructure that's now common in places like New York and Montreal.
"Cities all across North America that are doing way more innovative things for cyclists have been building separated bike lanes for a long time," said Toronto Cyclists Union president Andrea Garcia Thursday. "It's great to finally see Toronto catch up."
What's being proposed for Sherbourne is a hybrid of two different concepts. From Bloor St. to Gerrard St., the lanes would be at street level and separated from car traffic by a curb. From Gerrard to Lakeshore Blvd., previously scheduled road resurfacing will allow for more substantial overhaul of the streetscape, and the lanes would be elevated to sidewalk level to create a raised cycle track.
According to a city presentation, the Sherbourne lanes "will not cause significant changes to current motor vehicle operations," the biggest change being a three-minute delay heading northbound during rush hour.
Initial reviews of the designs are good.
"I think it's great. It's an important improvement we need for our community," said Chris Drew, a 29-year-old cyclist and planning consultant who attended the open house. "I think drivers will see this and want it in more places so that they know where cyclists are, and cyclists know where drivers are."
Some drivers may not be thrilled by the impact on parking however. In a first for Toronto, all 129 parking spaces on Sherbourne would be removed to make way for cyclists, but staff are confident there are more than enough spaces on nearby side streets and paid lots to accommodate demand.
As well as catering to Sherbourne's roughly 1,500 daily riders, the design makes several concessions to cars. To allow for left-turn lanes, at the approach to most intersections the bike lanes would narrow, and at intersections north of Gerrard they would become non-separated as well. Instead they would be painted a solid colour.
The lanes' physical barriers will also be shallow enough to allow cars to access driveways, and to accommodate emergency vehicles and WheelTrans buses, meaning the bike lanes might periodically be blocked. To avoid conflicts between buses and bikes, at TTC stops north of Gerrard, the lanes will be raised, similar to the current streetcar stops on Roncesvalles Ave.
Public works chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong says he's satisfied the design accommodates all road users and hopes Sherbourne will be a model for future separated lanes in Toronto.
"I'm pretty excited about it," he said. "It's our first foray into separated bike lanes and I think it's important we get it right."
Minnan-Wong is backing a network of separated bike lanes in the downtown core. Work on lanes on Wellesley is scheduled to begin this year, followed by Richmond and/or Adelaide in 2013.
But for some bike activists, any success on Sherbourne will be tainted by the removal of bike lanes on nearby Jarvis Street, which both cyclists and city staff say have improved safety for riders without negatively impacting motorists.
Mayor Rob Ford made killing the Jarvis lanes a priority upon taking office, and Minnan-Wong supported a surprise vote to scrap them last year. The move enraged the cycling community, which staged large protests to keep the lanes. They will be removed as soon as Sherbourne is complete at an estimated cost of $272,000.
Minnan-Wong says cyclists need to move on from the Jarvis issue.
"There are some folks who, for them, this is a battle royale, and they're not prepared to give one inch, one foot of bike lane," he said. "I understand that but I'm trying balance out the needs of everybody."
The Cyclists Union's Garcia says riders shouldn't be forced to choose between lanes on Jarvis and Sherbourne.
"People live and work and go to school on both of these streets and they all need a safe way to get to these places," she said.
The transportation department is accepting public feedback on Sherbourne until February 17.