Toronto needs separated bike lanes — on wide, fast roads such as the Richmond/Adelaide corridor, suburban Eglinton Avenue where the LRT will be built, or the Bayview Extension that connects bike paths to the Brickworks. On these streets with fast, heavy multi-lane traffic, a simple painted line is not enough to give cyclists a sense of security.
Where Toronto does not particularly need separated bike lanes is on slow roads with only one lane of traffic in either direction that already have bike lanes, such as Sherbourne and Wellesley. I bike on these lanes most days coming back from work, and the painted lines do their job — there’s a clear separation between vehicle traffic and bikes, and vehicles are generally travelling slowly. Yet these are the streets where Toronto is putting its effort to add a physical separation for the bike lanes, in the form of rounded curbs (rounded to allow emergency vehicle access).
More seriously, on Wellesley at least separated lanes could actually make cycling more stressful, because there will not always be enough room for cyclists to pass each other comfortably, and also they will get trapped behind any blockage in the bike lane.
I went to the recent open house about the Wellesley project, wondering how the City would find enough space on this narrow street to create separated bike lanes where cyclists could still pass each other. The answer is, it can’t. The separated lanes will be as narrow as 1.6 meters wide (PDF) for some blocks, and 1.8 meters wide (PDF) on others. Only a few blocks will have the 2.0 meters generally considered the minimum for comfortable passing.
I cross the Bloor Viaduct every day, with its nice wide 2-meter+ bike lanes, and even there cyclists passing others often end up on the bike lane lines to create a comfortable space.
It’s a serious problem. Speeds between cyclists vary far more than between vehicles or between pedestrians, and cyclists pass each other constantly as a result. I visited a hard-core cyclist friend in Paris a few years ago shortly after the new Socialist mayor introduced different kinds of bike lanes all over the city, and asked him how he liked them. He loved them — except for the separated lanes that didn’t have enough room to pass, where he always got stuck behind slower cyclists. He avoided those.
The result of narrow separated lanes will be that aggressive cyclists will either pass other cyclists very tightly, creating the danger of collisions and an intimidating atmosphere for slow cyclists, or try to cross over the rolled curb to pass, also risking an accident; as for couriers, many will probably simply cycle in the vehicle lane. Less aggressive cyclists, after being trapped behind slower cyclists a few times, may start to look for other routes.
The main problem that we cyclists currently encounter on Wellesley is vehicles stopped in the bike lane for deliveries or to pick up someone or something. At the moment, that means cyclists have to pass them on the left, which is annoying but not too much of a problem because of the slow traffic. These blockages won’t stop with the separation, because vehicles can cross the rolled curb. However, with the curb bikes will have to somehow cross the curb to get around the stopped vehicles, adding an extra element of danger — or else they will hop the sidewalk, creating problems for pedestrians.
The net result of separating the bike lanes on Wellesley would be to make these perfectly adequate bike lanes more complicated to use, without adding much net benefit. The Wellesley bike lanes could certainly be improved, and some of the other ideas being floated by the City in this exercise might be good ideas, but not the curbs.
No cost-benefit analysis would have given priority to Wellesley for separating bike lanes. That they are the target of this exercise is the result of political manoeuvering on the part of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee and its chairman, Denzil Minnan-Wong. They are wasting staff and cyclist energy and resources that would be better placed advocating for and building wide, fully separated lanes where they are most needed.