Toronto city council voted for a 25-kilometre expansion of the city’s cycling network Thursday, a move that’s expected to help residents practise physical distancing as more people return to their commutes in the coming weeks and months.
The plan means Toronto has now approved 40 kilometres of new cycling infrastructure in 2020, most of which is expected to be ready for riders at some point this summer.
Councillors, who voted 23-2 in favour of the plan, are hoping the new infrastructure will encourage more residents to ride their bikes and relieve stress on public transit as Toronto adjusts to its new reality amid the novel coronavirus crisis.
“It allows us to move forward in a sensible way,” said mayor John Tory. “And it allows us to maintain the confidence of the public.”
Board of health chair Joe Cressy called the expansion “bold and sensible.” He added that 2020 has now become the most significant year for cycling in the city’s history.
The majority of the new infrastructure is considered part of the city’s new ActiveTO program, which was created to help residents get around while accounting for physical distancing requirements. Tory said the response to the program has been “extraordinary” and proves that Torontonians are in need of more transportation options.
The expansions under the ActiveTO program are considered temporary. Council is expected to review the expansions before the end of 2021.
Toronto says cycling will keep residents safe
The move to expand the cycling network comes as the city grapples with a looming and significant challenge: how to keep residents safe as more people begin heading back to work.
The TTC has already warned that physical distancing will not be possible on its vehicles in the near future. Ridership during the pandemic has dropped to around 15 to 20 per cent of typical levels. When that figure reaches 30 per cent, the TTC says it will not longer be able to guarantee two metres of space between riders.
City planners also expect an increase in vehicle traffic and congestion as Ontario reopens its economy, since some former transit users may be reluctant to return to the system during the pandemic.
“It will be critical to give people an alternative,” said Barbara Gray, Toronto’s general manager of transportation services.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, also expressed her support for better access to cycling and active transportation during the pandemic.
She said the lanes that run above TTC subway routes on Bloor Street and University Avenue could help mitigate transit crowding, thereby helping the city’s public health objectives.
Longtime cycling advocates welcomed the expansion, but said Toronto is still far behind other cities, such as Montreal, which is adding around 200 kilometres of new space for cyclists and pedestrians due to COVID-19.
“This is actually quite a timid plan,” said Albert Koehl, a founder of the Bells on Bloor, an advocacy group for bike lanes on Bloor Street. He said Toronto should consider at least 100 kilometres of new cycling infrastructure.
“We know the need right now is much greater because of the pandemic.”
The city says most of the new bike lanes will be ready this summer, though a more specific target date has not been provided.
A once-bitter debate sees little opposition
While the expansion of Toronto’s cycling network was a controversial topic for years at city council, the 25 kilometre expansion passed with little resistance, except from two councillors from car-dependent suburban wards, Coun. Stephen Holyday and Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong.
Holyday, who represents Ward 2, Etobicoke Centre, moved a motion to completely scrap the expansion and instead allow more free parking on Bloor Street West and Danforth Avenue.
“There are going to be a lot more drivers that are going to suffer enormously,” he said, noting a four-year-old city report that found about three per cent of residents used bikes to commute.
Holyday’s motion was defeated by an identical mark of 23-2, with only Minnan-Wong, who represents Ward 16, Don Valley East, supporting it.
Other councillors representing Toronto’s inner suburbs expressed their support for the plan, including James Pasternak, who represents Ward 6, York Centre.
“We’re not forcing anyone to take a bike, and we’re not forcing anyone to give up a car,” he said.
Michael Ford, who represents Ward 1, Etobicoke North, said he would “cautiously support” the plan, stressing the need to review the expansion when statistics around usage become available.
Cynthia Lai, who represents Ward 23, Scarborough North, said attitudes around bike lanes have changed in her area of the city. She said many new immigrants depend on cycling for transportation. Lai moved a motion for the city to create more multilingual information about cycling, which was approved.
The new cycling infrastructure will be installed on the following streets:
- Bloor Street West from Shaw Street to Runnymede Road (designated cycle track).
- Varna Drive from Ranee Avenue to New Heights Court (designated bicycle lane).
The following expansions are part of the ActiveTO program:
- Bloor Street from Avenue Road to Sherbourne Street (cycle track).
- Dundas Street East, from Sackville Street to Broadview Avenue (cycle track).
- University Avenue / Queens Park, from Adelaide Street to Bloor Street (cycle track).
- Huntingwood Drive, from Victoria Park Ave to Brimley Road (designated bicycle lane).
- Brimley Road, from Kingston Road to Lawrence Avenue (cycle track).
- Danforth Avenue, from Broadview Avenue to Dawes Road (cycle track).
- Bayview Avenue, from River Street to Rosedale Valley Road (multi-use trail).
- River Street, from Gerrard Street East to Bayview Avenue (multi-use trail).
- Wilmington Avenue, from Finch Avenue to Sheppard Avenue (bicycle lane).
- Faywood Boulevard, from Sheppard Avenue to Wilson Avenue (bicycle lane).
Cycle tracks are physically separated from vehicle traffic, often by bollards or planters, while bicycle lanes are distinguished by painted lines on the road. Multi-use trails can sometimes be used by pedestrians.