COVID-19 forced Toronto to prioritize cyclists. Will its momentum last?

New cycling infrastructure was installed throughout Toronto last spring, giving a glimpse into how a pedestrian-first, car-second city could work.

To say the pandemic has changed how Torontonians think about bikes is an understatement.

In the early months of COVID-19, when the city was in lockdown, residents’ renewed interest in cycling was immediately clear. One Toronto bike shop reported a 30 per cent increase in new customers, and Toronto’s bike-sharing network experienced a sharp ridership increase. As a result, the city established initiatives that started to emulate the kind of bike-friendly environment local advocates had been dreaming of for years.

Streets that once saw some of the heaviest rush hour traffic were temporarily closed, and the city invited pedestrians to use them instead. In May 2020, Council approved the installation of 25 kilometres of temporary bike lanes, which, alongside other additions, contributed to a total laneway expansion of 40 kilometres. It wasn’t ground-breaking, but it was a start.

Still, Toronto cycling advocates fear changes to the city’s infrastructure won’t last once restrictions lift and more cars return to the road. With another socially-distanced summer approaching and more temporary bike access in the works, will COVID-19 have a permanent impact on how Toronto prioritizes cyclists?

What’s Toronto’s existing plan?

The City of Toronto began consulting with residents and analyzing information in Nov. 2014 to create the Toronto Ten Year Cycling Network Implementation Plan. The plan outlined goals surrounding bike infrastructure to be accomplished between 2016 and 2025. By implementing more bike lanes, the city hoped safety for drivers and cyclists alike would improve.

Previous strategies consisted primarily of implementing painted bike lanes and signage, while the new plan aimed higher. This time, the city’s objectives were to connect, grow, and renew areas around Toronto, both downtown and in residential and suburban neighbourhoods. Addressing the need to cut down Toronto’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was also a goal.

Toronto’s ten-year plan symbolized a gradual transition for the city, with the potential to shift priorities away from drivers towards cyclists and pedestrians. As the end of the implementation period draws nearer, advocates and residents say many of the city’s goals remain out of reach.

Experts in Toronto city projects aren’t surprised—they say the city usually completes bike infrastructure targets long after it intends to.

Neil Loewen is an associate urban planner at Urban Strategies, a private consulting firm often contracted by municipalities to plan urban design projects. Loewen previously worked at the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) and is familiar with the city’s discourse about bike infrastructure.

Loewen explained that none of the bike lanes he’s consulted on in the past have been built yet.

“I have never worked on a bike lane that has been constructed,” Loewen said. “These projects can take a long time to implement into neighbourhoods. Between the consulting period, analyzing data, and then seeing the projects installed, it can’t happen very fast.”

Loewen said more goes into planning community projects than residents know. As an urban planner, he first needs to research the area himself. Then, engineers, designers, and consultants build the project. Understanding the community’s residents is also essential.

“Thinking equitably, certain demographics have easier access to the consultation process and will have their voices heard,” Loewen explained. “So who aren’t we hearing from, and how do we get an understanding of what they need?”

Not everyone in the city is excited about the possibility of adding new bike lanes to their neighbourhoods or busy transit corridors.

Despite countless North American studies showing that increased bike lanes don’t significantly reduce transit times for drivers, car owners in multiple major Canadian cities react negatively to infrastructure change on roads.

Toronto data has shown that traffic from cars is still at the lowest levels since May 2020, with traffic dropping by 44 per cent in the first lockdown. Nevertheless, local drivers continue to feel uneasy about growing bike infrastructure. In Dec. 2020, Scarborough residents voiced numerous complaints against the temporary bike lanes on Brimley Road, eventually resulting in their removal.

Loewen said while he understands the frustration around building new bike infrastructure, there’s more to this movement than putting painted lines on the road.

“Overall change is difficult. You’re talking about changing the status quo, and for so long, [that’s] been providing enough space for vehicles,” Loewen said.

What changed in 2020?

When COVID-19 hit Toronto, the city looked to create changes that would help people get around the city better and at a safe physical distance. With warmer weather approaching and residents itching to get outside, city administrators quickly took action.

In June 2020, the city announced that its existing Bike Share Toronto program would see an expansion. In 20 out of Toronto’s 25 wards, new additions expanded the program to a total of 6,850 bikes, 625 stations, and 12,000 docking points for public use. The bikes have been used for more than 10.2 million trips around the city since 2011.

In the spring of 2020, the City of Toronto established ActiveTO, which would facilitate significant road closures, limit vehicle traffic, and expand the cycling network. The program was an effective way to help people move around the city at a safe physical distance from others.

In addition, the Quiet Streets project aimed to put signs and temporary barricades in neighbourhoods to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and local traffic only.

ActiveTO contributing to the “largest single-year expansion of Toronto’s on-street bike network ever” after it helped add 25 kilometres of temporary bikeways and 15 kilometres of permanent bikeways to the city.

However, major road closures drew the most attention. Beginning in the middle of May, both Lakeshore Blvd. East and West, as well as Bayview Ave., were closed for 25 consecutive weekends. The program was extended twice, once in September and then again in October. Before ActiveTO was extended into October, Mayor John Tory said in a news release that he hoped to see residents get outside to use the new space.

ActiveTO had a massive impact on the city. In September, the city released data from the summer that counted the average number of street users during weather permitting days in June, July, and August.

On Lakeshore Blvd. West alone, an average of 18,000 cyclists and 4,000 pedestrians took to the road every day.

One study from Feb. 2021 also found that central Toronto saw dramatic increases in bike accessibility during COVID-19. It was easier and safer to cycle around the city, which increased access to jobs and retail.

The study also maintained that keeping temporary bike lanes on Bloor Street East, Danforth Avenue, and University Avenue past 2021 would be vital to prioritizing accessibility for cyclists.

Even with this positive public response, ActiveTO is still only temporary. While city councillors were supportive of the program as a pandemic initiative, they’ve hesitated to entertain suggestions that it becomes permanent. However, there are residents and advocacy groups that want the program to stay.

Will these changes last past 2021?

While COVID-19 had the unintended benefit of incentivizing bike-friendly infrastructure in Toronto, the question remains whether this momentum will last after the pandemic ends.

Cycle Toronto is a not-for-profit organization that aims to make Toronto a better cycling city. Working to develop a more robust culture around cycling is Ry Shissler, the organization’s communications manager.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Shissler said their organization wants to see significant road closures happening all over the city, not exclusively in the downtown core. Similar to Loewen, Shissler reinforced the need to hear from all the voices in a community.

One initiative they highlighted was the push for more patio space and artwork on the street on Danforth Avenue in the spring and summer.

“Getting to that point took a lot of work by city staff—talking to business owners, residents, people who work and go to school there, [and] finding the compromises that work for the individual neighbourhood,” Shissler said.

“Part of what the city is learning to do is to reach out to people and continue to make them part of the process so they can get better [at implementing changes],” Shissler said.

This consultation process could be seen during the spring of 2020 when residents sought more outdoor active spaces and the city obliged.

It looks like the city of Toronto has improved its ability to listen to residents and respond to their needs, especially when it comes to public spaces. But has COVID-19 changed the perception of biking for good?

What comes next?

Toronto’s winter weather is steadily thawing, and soon enough, the city will be in its second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reminiscent of last summer’s boost in bike-friendly city planning, Toronto’s city council recently proposed converting another three kilometres of downtown Yonge St. into bike lanes. City councillors are reportedly focusing on Yonge as this summer’s target for infrastructure, despite concerns that temporary installations could impede on the four-lane traffic in this part of downtown.

Yonge St. bike lane growth is just one of the many new ActiveTO initiatives for summer 2021, in addition to plans for expanding bike access outside of the downtown core. However, the city has yet to release its official proposal for ActiveTO 2021.

A 2021 operating budget briefing note from Tracey Cook, Toronto’s deputy city manager for infrastructure and development services, outlined expenditures for this year’s version of the program. The city is allocating $2.8 million towards hiring four temporary staff, employing duty officers, and buying barricades and equipment specifically for ActiveTO.

In an email to The Pigeon, Eric Holmes, who is a part of the strategic communications team with the City of Toronto, explained that City staff will present a report on ActiveTO in the fall of 2021.

He mentioned that the program’s existing bike lanes are expected to stay put until the end of 2021 but declined to say whether they would remain past Jan. 2022.

“At this point, City staff can’t speculate on the potential future of the ActiveTO temporary bike lanes beyond the end of 2021,” Holmes said.

While the city hasn’t made any promises, local organizations plan to show their support for better infrastructure.

Albert Koehl and Mary Ann Neary founded the Toronto Community Bikeways Coalition in May 2020.

“When the pandemic started, a question we had was, how can we help? What is it that we can bring to the table in terms of making our city a better place?” Koehl said in an interview with The Pigeon.

The coalition wrote a letter signed by over 120 Toronto-area community groups calling on the city to take action for cyclists. They asked for the municipal government to lower speed limits on roads with bike lanes—specifically a 60 km/h limit along some of the busiest transit routes—and requested that it install cross-town bikeways along Bloor-Danforth and Yonge St.

Koehl explained that installing more bike lanes could also lead to lower GHG emissions, something the city set out to accomplish with its ten-year plan. After Mayor John Tory declared a climate crisis in 2019, he pledged that Toronto would reduce GHG emissions by 65 per cent by 2030.

In Dec. 2020, the city released data collected in 2018 on Toronto’s GHG emissions. Thirty-six per cent of emissions came from transportation, with 80 per cent from personal vehicles alone.

Koehl said the city’s mindset around transportation needs to be re-evaluated. Rather than seeing bike lanes as only being useful for leisure activities, he explained they continue to be a way of getting around the city for commuters and essential workers.

“We need people to think of bicycles as part of transportation […] not just because they’re good for cycling enthusiasts,” Koehl said. “[We need to] turn our streets into places that are welcoming for transit users, for people on foot, [and] for cyclists.”

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