Since the start of this council term, no one at City Hall has worked harder to advance the cause of cyclists than first-term Councillor Mike Layton. When Rob Ford’s administration scrapped the citizens’ cycling advisory committee in early 2011, Layton created his own. He’s been meeting with cycling advocates in his office about once a month ever since, trying to craft better policies for a city that never seems to get biking right.
Some people see you as the unofficial bike czar at City Hall. Are you?
That’s flattering, and I’m pleased to act in that role. When we figured out the cycling committee wouldn’t be re-established, I called my dad and asked, “What are they doing?” He said, “Don’t worry. Just run it yourself.”
We’ve made a good go of it, without any formal infrastructure, to ensure that the cycling community has been able to comment on policy as it’s come forward.
How would you rate this administration’s performance on bike issues?
Is there something worse than “terrible?” We removed bike lanes under this government’s watch. We took out not just Jarvis but [also] Birchmount and Pharmacy, which were key pieces of an expanding bike route.
But this admin has put in our first separated bike lanes. Isn’t that a historic accomplishment?
The separated lane on Sherbourne has been an interesting experiment. I’ve ridden it. I don’t feel particularly safer on it. There are some sections that I think work better, but if that was a trade-off for losing Jarvis, it was a big mistake.
If removing bike lanes was the low point, what has been the biggest cycling accomplishment this term?
Saving Bixi was a big deal. To [Public Works chair Denzil Minnan-Wong’s] credit, he helped make sure it didn’t fall by the wayside. I think that took some courage some of that was taking on the mayor.
Another big accomplishment was getting the Bloor Street [bike lane study] back on the agenda. We were also able to put in the city’s first legal contraflow lanes.
Council first endorsed a target of 495 kilometres of bike lanes as part of the 2001 official Bike Plan. To date we have 114 kilometres. Even before this term, no administration has been able to make much progress. Why not?
One thing is that cycling is not yet universally accepted as a form of transportation. We have to keep working on that.
But the roads in Toronto were built really for cars and to a lesser extent pedestrians. There’s not a ton of real estate. When you look at some of the roads that were built for streetcars, these aren’t conducive to bike lanes.
So we’re screwed?
We could be focusing on contraflow lanes [which go on minor roads and take up less space]. Should we be looking at making all residential roads contraflow? We could reduce the speed limit and give bikes the right of way on side streets.
Jurisdictions like Chicago have been very aggressive about putting bike lanes on major streets, with little consultation. Is that not the way to go?
If Birchmount and Pharmacy showed us anything, it’s that [a lack of consultation] can [be counterproductive]. I took [those lanes’ removal] as a lesson in how you’ve got to go out and change people’s minds before you put this infrastructure in.
Take the contraflow lane on Shaw. Some parking was eliminated. That’s a big deal when it’s a residential street. I knocked on doors down that whole stretch. I wanted people to know what we were doing, how it was going to protect lives.
That took a lot of convincing, and it was exhausting. We’re trying to do the same now on Argyle. I’ve got to go there and convince people in English, Chinese, Portuguese and Italian that this is a good way to go, that this new yellow stripe going down the middle of their street is actually going to make their life better.
Is there a single project that you think would be a quick win for cyclists?
I think there’s enough capacity to put bike lanes down University Avenue – ideally, separated ones. It’s a big street, and we should be able to make space there.
Will this ever be a bike-friendly city like Copenhagen or Amsterdam?
We’re hampered by the fact that people think they can’t ride all year round. This was a particularly bad year because of the amount of snow and ice, but there are still people out there, and if we make it safe and convenient for people, we can get more people onto bikes.
Layton’s long view on biking
Investment in infrastructure
“Let’s start drafting the plans, then take them to the community,” says Layton. “Let’s get money to transportation planners who can do that work. Let’s get more bike lanes on the road.”
The city should also consider focusing on contraflow bike lanes on residential streets in addition to traditional bike lanes on major roads.
The rules of the road need to be more strictly enforced for all users, especially drivers who park in bike lanes. Layton and Councillor Josh Matlow led a successful push this term to increase the fine for parking in bike lanes to $150, but enforcement has been spotty.
Better road maintenance
People can’t ride on unsafe roads. “Normally, the space reserved for bikes is where the road gets most damaged,” says Layton. “It’s cracked up and terrible. Winter maintenance is also huge. We lost most of our bike lanes for a good chunk of the year” because they weren’t cleared of snow.
More bike parking
It can be next to impossible to find a place to lock your bike downtown. Substantial bike parking should be part of every new residential development and transit station.
The city currently has strict regulations about how wide bike lanes, sidewalks and car lanes must be. “Sometimes we forgo entire projects because we don’t meet that standard by just a little bit,” says Layton. “I think we need to build in some flexibility.”
Safe cycling should be part of school curricula and driver training. (These ideas fall outside the jurisdiction of city council).