After another year of paltry progress on expanding Toronto's bike lane network, it could be time to declare the city's official cycling plan officially dead.
According to advocacy group Cycle Toronto, last year the city added only 2.4 kilometres of new bike lanes to its streets. That addition, almost all of it on a single street-Shaw, in the downtown west end-brings us up to a grand total of 114 km of on-road bike paths, a long way off the 495-km target that council endorsed in the 2001 Toronto Bike Plan.
The original goal was to complete the entire 495-km network by 2011. But at the rate we're going it would take 158 years to finish, says Cycle Toronto's Jared Kolb. He believes the time has come to set a new target, one that's reachable in our lifetime.
"Now's probably a good time to get back into a discussion about revisiting those goals because none of us are going to be alive in 2171," he says. "But we do need an ambitious goal, one that we can shoot for, strive for, and achieve."
With the 2014 municipal campaign set to kick off in the new year, Kolb hopes cycling infrastructure will become a major election issue.
Kolb stresses that progress was made in 2013. Council rescued the popular but financially failing Bixi bikeshare program and voted to restart a study of bike lanes on Bloor. And after years of inaction due to uncertainty over their legal status, contra-flow lanes were finally installed on Shaw, setting a precedent that will likely help make riding through downtown's warren of one-way streets safer.
But Kolb argues there are steps City Hall could take to get bike projects built faster. Launching pilot projects instead of waiting to build permanent infrastructure, for example, and streamlining the public consultation process.
"There's certainly value to consulting with the public and building public support for projects, but with that said I think the value is tipped a little too far towards consultation," he says.
Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong says he shares Cycle Toronto's frustration. While he's eager to point out that work is continuing on separated bike lanes for Wellesley-Hoskin-Harbord and Richmond-Adelaide (likely to be completed by 2014 and 2015 respectively), he agrees that public consultations are slowing things down.
"You have to consult then do the design then take the design back out and do more consultation, then do a pilot project. As an advocate of some of these lanes it's generally frustrating that we can't move faster," he says. "In cities like New York they don't ask, they just put in. Same with Chicago. But we have a certain culture here."
Indeed, compared to Toronto other jurisdictions seem to move at lightning speed. A month after Rahm Emanuel was sworn in as mayor of Chicago in 2011 he showed up to dedicate a new protected bike lane on Kinzie Avenue, plans for which had only been announced four days before. By the end of 2013 the city hopes to have completed 104 km of new bike lanes since Emanuel took office.
But according to the Toronto's manager for cycling infrastructure, time-consuming consultations aren't the problem. Dan Egan says his department has only had to carry out extensive environmental assessments for a handful of projects that could require drastically altering the streetscape, like the proposed bike lanes on Bloor and the cycle track planned for Richmond-Adelaide. Simply painting new bike lanes on a street doesn't require much study.
Instead, Egan suggests progress has been slow because council hasn't aggressively pursued the original Bike Plan's ambitious goals with either resources or political clout.
The transportation department's 10-year capital plan has earmarked $88 million to bike infrastructure, but the money would be used to build 100 km of off-road trails, as opposed to only 80 km of on-street bike lanes "where the community supports them and where they do not impede traffic flow."
And at the start of this term councillors voted to focus efforts on building a 14-km downtown network of separated bike lanes, most of which will replace existing painted lanes. At the same vote, council decided to remove bike lanes on Jarvis, Birchmount, and Pharmacy. The 495-km goal wasn't on the agenda.
"We've been working with the direction we've been given from council," Egan says. "And council's direction clearly wasn't trying to achieve the full network that was outlined in the 2001 plan."
Egan believes it's time to scrap the original Bike Plan and create a new blueprint for on-street cycling infrastructure.
"The original target isn't realistic," he says. "We need to relook at the whole city because clearly what was done in 2001 hasn't been very successful, hasn't been very well supported either by the public or by council."
Some aren't ready to give up on the original Bike Plan, however. Councillor Mike Layton says progress can be made, but only if residents can be convinced that bike lanes are a benefit, not a nuisance.
"We need to get out there and prove that they work, and prove that a key part of a healthy city is a bike network," he says. "We need to start getting our minds around the fact that it's a complete street, it's not just for cars."