Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The joys and sorrows of cycling (Star)

Albert Koehl
Cycling safety is in the news again in Toronto. Too bad it’s not to celebrate the simple, joyful act of cycling. For many cyclists the death of bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard under the wheels of a car driven by the former attorney general of Ontario felt personal and frightening, if only because of the dangers we all face on our streets. If the City of Toronto actually paid attention to cycling safety — instead of being 400 kilometres short of its goal to install 500 kilometres of bike lanes by this year — the news stories might mostly have been about a violent altercation between two citizens. Instead, it became a flashpoint about cycling safety with Sheppard a proxy for concerns about road dangers and the inexcusable failure to give cyclists a fair share of the public roadway.
The popular stretch of Bloor Street where Sheppard was killed is a particularly sensitive point for cyclists. Two years ago, cycling advocates challenged the city’s adamant refusal to study the environmental impacts of a street redevelopment plan — which included the precise area where Sheppard was killed — that did not include a bike lane. Provincial planning laws actually direct cities to provide for the safety of cyclists.
Three years ago, city council approved a motion to do a “feasibility study” of a bikeway along Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue that would create a continuous 24-kilometre east-west route across the city. (A “bikeway” can include a combination of a painted lane, a separated lane with barriers, or just painted arrows.) A Freedom of Information request was required to pry the completed report from city hall. The 1,000 pages of the study showed not only that a bikeway was feasible along most of this route but that there would be only minor impacts on motor traffic. Instead of acting on this finding, the city has decided to rigourously assess the environmental impacts of the bikeway. This will cause several more years of delay without ensuring implementation.
Twenty years ago, a city report identified Bloor-Danforth as an ideal cycling route that could serve as a “spine” for Toronto’s cycling network. Since then, bike traffic on this corridor has increased, but the city has refused to hand over the recommended sliver of the road for cycling trafic. Despite the city’s inaction, politicians nonetheless missed no opportunity in the intervening years to celebrate the benefits of cycling: “bike days” became “bike months,” many speeches were given, and countless pancakes eaten, but city streets have not become “bike-friendly.”
It is perhaps understandable that a complex, technologically advanced society beset by major problems of traffic congestion, budget shortfalls, air pollution and climate change will routinely ignore or dismiss the bicycle as a part of the solution. Indeed, among the slate of would-be Toronto mayors in this year’s race are those who argue that we need to do even less for cyclists. Presumably they believe that a city with a scant 2 per cent of roads equipped with bike lanes is moving too quickly — and that 50 years of living with the negative impacts of the car proves that the answer must be more of the same.
It’s not just politicians who sometimes miss the point. Certain downtown merchants still suggest that they couldn’t possibly do without the small number of parking spots in front of their stores — even if a bike lane would bring far more patrons their way. Two recent studies for Bloor Street by the Clean Air Partnership found that pedestrians and cyclists spend far more at local businesses than people arriving in cars — and that there would be little impact from reducing on-street parking because of the plentiful spaces in nearby off-street lots. And the city’s own studies show that cyclists, on average, are from households with higher incomes than those of car owners.
Some committed motorists also stand in the way — although surveys show that many would be happy to cycle if they felt safer. A motorist recently stopped beside me at an intersection, rolled down his window and yelled (in response to my flag calling for bike lanes): “Do you want to pay for those lanes?” “Actually,” I began, “cyclists . . .” but the driver sped off without allowing me to answer his inquiry. I would have directed him to a recent study by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, which found that the average motorist underpays for city roads while the average cyclist and pedestrian significantly overpays. (Local roads, unlike highways, are mostly funded by general taxes instead of by vehicle fees or gas taxes.) Indeed, as a homeowner, I know that my property taxes aren’t any less than those of my neighbours who rely on cars to get around.
Other arguments are equally weak: “Cyclists don’t ride in the dead of winter so why devote space to them” (an argument perhaps most convincingly made by golfers); “cyclists don’t obey the rules of the road so why give them bike lanes” (an argument that would equally justify closing Highway 401, where most drivers break the speed limit); and “roads are meant for traffic” (except when motorists want to park their bulky machines in the public thoroughfare). The oddest argument is that bikes will cause congestion, as if the 401, DVP and QEW are congested because of bikes. Our streets are congested because we have too few bikes, not too many.
The real question is why we devote most of the room on our public roads to the least efficient vehicle (the car) and the least room to the most efficient vehicle (the bicycle). Cyclists don’t want to be quoted in news stories about the death or injury of fellow cyclists; we want to be celebrating the transformation of roads into places that are safe for cycling. It’s up to city politicians to give us those opportunities for celebration.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founding member of the annual www.bellsonbloor.caBells on BloorEND parade (High Park, Saturday, May 29). He represented the Safe Cycling Coalition in a 2008 action against the city.

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