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Toronto's first separated bike lanes are complete, but the jury is out on whether they will keep cars safely out of the paths of riders.
On Tuesday, the city issued a press release declaring the Sherbourne cycle tracks officially open from Bloor to King. A second phase of the project, from King to Queens Quay, will be completed in 2014, part of a planned 14-kilometre network of separated bikeways downtown.
At a cost of $2.4 million, the Sherbourne lanes are worth every penny according to some Toronto cycling advocates.
"I'd say it's a good day for cycling in the city of Toronto," said Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto, who took a test ride on the track on Tuesday. "It's the first time that there will be an increased separation for cyclists between motor vehicles and the rest of the roadway."
But while the lanes are supposed to keep bikers divided from car traffic, cyclists are reporting that parked cars frequently block the tracks. Transportation staff say the problem is especially pronounced south of Gerrard, where the lane's design is a raised pathway easily mounted by cars. North of Gerrard, the lane is bordered by a rounded curb that appears more effective at keeping drivers out.
Ari Simon, a rider who was stopped at a light at Sherbourne and Gerrard on Tuesday afternoon, said he'd already encountered several cars blocking the lane. He complained that the vehicles forced him into the road and made the cycle tracks ineffective.
"If that happens, you need to kind of hop down" out of the lane, he said. A separated lane is "a nice idea, but it's just bad in practice."
Obstructive drivers on Sherbourne aren't hard to find. On an informal count Tuesday afternoon between 12:30 and 2:30 pm, NOW spotted twelve vehicles stopped in the separated lanes. One of them was an off-duty police car, which was parked outside a pizza parlour just south of Wellesley, behind a Coca-Cola delivery truck that was also blocking the lane. The officer inside the pizza joint said he was on a food run.
Five of the twelve vehicles appeared to be either on-duty emergency or utility vehicles however, which along with Wheel Trans buses are permitted to block the bikeway if they're on official business.
Dan Egan, the manager for cycling infrastructure at City Hall, assures cyclists that the cops are working with his department to keep the lanes clear.
"They're giving more emphasis on this one than they have on any other bike lane in the past," says Egan of the police. "They're very committed to working with us to make this thing work."
But a police spokesperson says parking officers are doing "nothing specific" to target drivers on Sherbourne.
"They're on general patrol and they're not always at that position to issue a ticket," says George Johnstone, a parking enforcement supervisor. "It's very difficult for us to staff enough people to be on those bike lanes all the time."
Johnstone said that the force could institute a special attention detail, or ticketing blitz, if one was requested by the local police division or the transportation department. So far neither have asked, but Egan plans to meet with the police in January to review how Sherbourne is working.
Meanwhile, stricter penalties for blocking the cycle tracks have yet to come into effect. In October city council approved a $150 fine for drivers who park in any bike lane, but it hasn't been applied because the fine amount still has to be approved by a provincial judge.
The approval process, which is normal for new traffic fines, could take until spring of 2013 to complete. In the interim, scofflaws on Sherbourne face only a $60 fine for impeding the lane. If they leave their vehicle, they can also be towed.
Some bikers argue that enforcement isn't the problem. Instead, they point to the design of the lanes, which makes them easy to drive onto.
But according to Egan the cycle track had to be mountable by car to give emergency vehicles access to buildings on the street.
Egan says transportation services will continue to monitor the lanes, and if tickets and towing prove ineffective deterrents the city may consider erecting bollards at hot spots south of Gerrard to keep drivers off the track.
He also hopes that motorists learn to use the six new parking "lay-bys" that were installed along with the bike lanes. They were designed to provide space for short-term stopping and commercial deliveries, but many drivers ignore them.
"My only message to cyclists is, bear with us as we work through this," Egan says. "I don't think we have all the answers yet... It's still kind of growing pains."