There is a spectre haunting the streets of Toronto — the spectre of separated bike lanes.
Okay, perhaps it’s not quite that dramatic, but being a bike-riding pinko, I felt obligated to include a reference to communism somewhere. It’s undeniable that the recent talk about cycling in Toronto has been focused on the separated bike lane. And for good reason: one of the key barriers to cycling noted for inexperienced or potential cyclists is perceptions of safety. Traffic is scary. Separate people from traffic and they feel safer. One 2007 study [PDF] highlighted this perception, noting that one minute cycling mixed with traffic was reported by respondents to be 4.1 times as onerous as one minute in a bike lane. The message: provide people with better infrastructure and they will probably cycle more and longer distances.
While many believe separated bike lanes are the bees knees, they aren’t the only way to get this done.
Both Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia have constructed bicycle boulevards. These are specially marked, traffic-calmed streets that run parallel to major arterials and are designated primarily for bicycle travel. When I first started biking in Vancouver, I was too timid to ride on the busier streets, so I used bike boulevards to get around town until I felt confident enough to ride on other streets. Without these, I may not have cycled as much as I did, or it may have taken me a lot longer to get comfortable.
These streets also have the added benefit of containing small traffic circles instead of four-way stops (and we all know cyclists hate four-way stops). In order to keep car traffic low, they often contain intersections where only bicycles are allowed through. This keeps residential streets from being used as short cuts for cars avoiding arterials, while making them safer for cyclists by limiting car travel and speed.
With Toronto’s somewhat disconnected side streets, however, it may be difficult to find routes that could be turned into bicycle boulevards, especially for east-west routes. But there are contenders, and many of them, like Euclid Street, already contain calmer traffic. Nearby Palmerston Street, which runs in some form from just north of Dupont Street to just south of Wellington Street is a perfect candidate for a bicycle boulevard.
Better, Faster Signal Changers
It took me awhile to figure out that those faded, three white dots on the pavement at intersections were supposed to be signal changers for bikes. The idea is that you rest your bike on top of them and (eventually, maybe, supposedly) the light will change. This only works, however, if you are fully resting on what the City refers to as the “actuation zone”, which frankly sounds a bit scary to me. Adding cyclist light-changers that are bumped out to the curb and have an actual button to push would add visibility to bike routes and, if they’re programmed to make the light change before the turn of the century, efficiency as well. And with buttons there are no actuation zones. You just, you know, push it.
Signs You Can Actually Read While Cycling
I know bicycle routes exist in this city. I’ve seen the tiny blue signs with the numbers on them. But, unfortunately, I have little idea of how they all connect to each other and I don’t think I’m the only one. Better signage would make routes through the city easier to navigate. Paint a bike on the street every so often so that both cars and bicycles know that this is a bike route, and put the bike symbol directly on the street sign for the same reason. At intersections where the bike street turns right or left, make sure the sign clearly indicates that it is doing so (an arrow the size of my thumb doesn’t count). Biking through Rosedale and attempting to find the Evergreen Brick Works, I became lost after losing the trail of the tiny blue signs, and ended up looping around the discontinuous street system. If not for the map on my phone, I may still be biking around Rosedale somewhere.
Contra-flow bike lanes, too, exist in the city, but there aren’t nearly enough of them considering how many one-way, switch ‘em up streets exist. While these configurations help to regulate traffic speed, noise, and pollution on residential streets, they don’t distinguish the car from the bike, which produces none of these.
Designating high (bicycle-) traffic residential routes as bicycle boulevards and providing contra-flow lanes where the street switches directions to allow the bicycle to travel through would create a more organic cycling network, better designing the routes people already use. This method is ultimately beneficial for the driver, too. It says, here is where you can expect bicycles, and here, in this painted lane, is where they will be riding on the road.
None of this is to say that separated bicycle lanes on roads shouldn’t be part of the conversation in Toronto. Nor is it to say there aren’t many other ways to improve the cycling network in Toronto (the bike box is one). It’s important to advocate for bike lanes on arterial streets as these are the most direct routes to the places where people want to go, but we need to recognize that a lot of bike travel in Toronto happens on residential streets—especially by the timid and freshly-minted cyclists out there. A good cycling network will be easy to navigate and have a mixture of bicycle boulevards, painted lanes and separated pathways, so that everyone can ride.
photo by Payton Chung