I thought I’d write a little on cycling in the Toronto this month, partly because is Bike Month, partly because I’ve been reading up on idea of complete streets, and partly because Toronto has just introduced a bike share system, Bixi bikes, and I fear for the consequences of more casual riders on Toronto’s dangerous streets. And because I bike to work everyday and spend most of my ride thinking about how things could be better. Oh, and because getting rid of our car-centred transport system is a key climate mitigation strategy.

Toronto is an awful city to bike in. The city streets are entirely car-centric, with a few bike lanes added in as an afterthought. The thing is, I enjoy biking to work for much the same reasons I enjoy dangerous sports. I like the adrenalin rush, and I like the hyper-focus that’s necessary to survive as a cyclist in Toronto. I’ve been doing it for many, many years, ever since I used to bike across central London as a grad student. I’ve been knocked off my bike twice in 25 years of inner city cycling (once in London, and once in Toronto), with no serious injuries either time, but then I’ve had good training in defensive biking. I ride fast and furious, I know how to own the road, and I know how to anticipate and avoid risks.

But dangerous sports are dangerous. I certainly don’t like the thought of my kids cycling on Toronto’s streets, even though I’d love them to be able to bike to school. The problem is that while the city has been developing a network of cycle lanes, the whole design is wrong. Worse than wrong – I think Toronto’s cycle lanes are more dangerous than the roads that don’t have them. The problem is that they’re formed just by drawing a white line a few feet from the curb. Which makes them an idea space for taxis to stop, delivery vehicles to park, construction crews to dump materials, and so on:

Where parking is allowed, there’s no buffer zone between the parking spaces and the bike line, which means that car doors are a hazzard – a neighbour of mine spent months off work with a broken shoulder recently because a car door opened in front of him.

On streets with bike lanes but no parking, there are “no stopping” signs everywhere, which are universally ignored. This makes cycling much more dangerous – whenever the bike lane is blocked, cyclists have to weave into the main traffic lane, which is now only just wide enough for cars and trucks. Such weaving is more dangerous than cycling along in the main traffic lane all the time. I used to get angry about this, and swear at people who stop their vehicles in the bike lane. But eventually I realized this isn’t the fault of the drivers – it’s the fault of the bike lane design. Delivery vehicles and taxis have to stop frequently, and will always pull to the curb to do so. The bike lane actually encourages this – it’s the ideal space, just out of the main traffic lane, perfect for temporary stops. It’s like the people who designed the bike lanes have no idea about the theory of affordances: what they’ve done is create a strip of road that’s just perfect for drivers to pull over into when they need to stop to pick up passengers or to drop off deliveries.

What we need are physically separated bike lanes. Ones that cannot be used by motor vehicles, because there is a physical barrier to stop them. It’s great to see the Toronto Cyclists Union taking this up as a serious project, and the city has even commissioned a feasibility study, due to be completed later this month.

But that still leaves us with a few other problems to solve. One is that most schools in Toronto are not reachable by bike, because nobody ever considered how to support safe biking to school for kids. The other is that, no matter how the streets are designed, there’s no accounting for stupidity. I’ll leave you with this wonderful video to explain what I mean by stupidity:


3-Way Street from ronconcocacola on Vimeo.

The Affordances of Bike Lanes
Skillset needed for living sustainably

5 Comments

  1. Physically separated bike lines have something of a history of increasing cyclists injury rates. They tend to raise collision risk at intersections, where most car-bike collisions actually occur, and serve as accumulators for trash, which is nasty, as the #1 cause of cycle crashes is surface hazards…

    I appreciate your end goal, but don’t think the approach is likely to work.

  2. @silence: I don’t buy that argument at all. First, the bike lanes in Toronto are in a terrible state, so represent their own set of surface hazards. A new set of paths that cannot be driven on with heavy goods vehicles are likely to remain in a better state for many mre years. And the trash accumulates in the kerb by the existing bike lanes just as much. There is one set of protected bike lanes in Toronto already, along Lakeshore to the beach. It constitutes half my regular commute. There’s no trash, no surface hazards, and a beautifully smooth surface that has survived Nearly a decade of Toronto’s harsh winters unscathed. And the lights at the intersections are well designed to mean they are the safest intersections for cyclists in the whole city.

    I call bullshit. Where’s your data?

  3. If only someone had done a study on this question.

    Oh, wait!

    http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/early/2011/02/02/ip.2010.028696.full

    (Summary: study compared separated cycle tracks—bike lanes—in Montreal to non-separated tracks. Injury rate is lower for separated tracks.)

  4. Pingback: The Affordances of Bike Lanes | Serendipity

  5. David Hembrow has published a whole bunch of info about the proper design and implementation of separated bike facilities. Reading him (and cycling the facilities he describes in Groningen and the surrounding area) has converted me from a vehicular cyclist to one who (somewhat grudgingly :-) admits that achieving mass cycling requires separated facilities.

    In fact, here’s an interesting post of his about the video Steve refs above:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2011/06/three-way-street-chaos-in-new-york.html

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