Six months ago today, separated bike lanes opened on Sherbourne, a consolation prize of sorts for the loss of the nearby Jarvis bike lanes. But do cyclists feel any safer riding them?
Flash back to November 12, 2012.
With the lumbering arrival of high-powered scrubbing trucks on Jarvis, the long-threatened removal of that street’s bike lanes—a parting gift from the administration of David Miller—had finally come, bringing with it the climax of mayor Rob Ford’s infrastructural free-for-all. As if a line were drawn in the sand, cyclists rallied in response, taking to the streets in a different manner than on two wheels. Some sat in the middle of the bike lane, directly in the truck’s path. Others laid down.
It was almost as if the cyclists’ impassioned defence of Jarvis was a proxy battle in the War on Cars, perhaps its last stand. On his side, Rob Ford wheeled out the usual pro-motorist rhetoric. But rather than shrug off the inevitability of cycling deaths as a consequence, as he did in 2009, he began to champion a different vision than Miller’s—one that took cyclists off the streets altogether, for their own supposed safety. (The operative word, in this case, being “supposed.”)
On the other hand, there was also Ford’s family-values angle, illuminating the more decisive part of his thinking on the issue. “They want to get home to their families quicker,” Ford said of area residents, suggesting that the intrusion of bike lanes into the eminent domain of cars was a hot-button, city-wide issue. Constituents, he said, had been ringing his phone off the hook for years, complaining that these bike-riding pinkos were snarling the free movement of good, wholesome, car-driving Torontonians.
As ever, Ford positioned himself as a latter-day populist messiah—in this context, the Jarvis bike lanes had to go. The legitimacy of his myth depended on it.
“And that’s what I’ve done,” he continued. “I’ve listened to the taxpayers and done what they wanted me to do.” Regardless, he said, Jarvis wasn’t his problem to begin with. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t the one who voted to put them in in the first place.”
Of course, he wasn’t. For Ford the very idea of on-street bike lanes is anathema. So when Denzil Minnan-Wong and Ford jointly opened the Sherbourne cycle track on June 10, 2013—six months ago today—there were as many cocked eyebrows as there were surprised glances, with some bike-riding advocates encouraged that Ford could have a progressive thought of any kind on the issue of cycling. The new lane was meant to be a superior, safer alternative to Jarvis, a consolation prize of sorts. But it became increasingly apparent that there was only one thought propelling Ford’s resolve to bring separated bike lanes to Sherbourne, Wellseley, and other problem arteries throughout the city: Get these tottering things out of traffic, now.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” wrote Christopher Hume in that day’s issue of the Star, “and Sherbourne Street is no exception. When its new dedicated bicycle lanes officially open [today], Toronto will have taken another Baby Huey step toward a future its leaders desperately want to avoid.” By slotting a physically separated lane into the tiny space alongside cars, Hume suggested, Ford and Minnan-Wong had temporarily placated the cycling community, so that the business of the city could hopefully be left to less-fringe concerns.
“These largely notional spaces only make sense according to the convoluted logic of car culture,” Hume further pointed out.
Six months later, then, has Sherbourne made cycling in Toronto safer, or even more convenient for either car or bike? Or are we just in a slightly better-packaged state than we were a year ago, when Jarvis was blasted away?
Eric Krumins, a technical writer for an east-end software company, is in a somewhat unique position to comment on the issue. A vehicle owner, he has experienced Sherbourne over the dashboard of his car, but also over a pair of handlebars during his daily commute as a 10 km-per-day cyclist.
“The benefits of the separated lanes [for cyclists] are that you are generally buffered from high-speed traffic,” he says. But there’s a caveat. “This only applies on straight sections and not near intersections.” To Krumins, there are more drawbacks than benefits to the infrastructure of separated bike lanes—specifically referred to as “cycle tracks,” as per their design. “To pedestrians,” he says, “it feels like the sidewalk has been extended. The bike lane also passes through bus stops where people stand to wait for a bus. Whenever I’m biking on Sherbourne, I have to be more alert to the threat of pedestrians walking into the bike lane.”
“Secondly,” he adds, “the curb that separates vehicle traffic from the bike lane is a joke. It is softly rounded and easy to drive over. Cars and delivery trucks are always pulled over and blocking the bike lane. If the curb was steeper, like a regular sidewalk curb, this would not be the case.” Six months ago, Minnan-Wong declared unequivocally that cars, trucks, and other vehicles would be stung with a $150 fine in such an event, but that doesn’t seem to have done much good, Krumins argues.
“It can be touch and go with the sections where the track’s raised to sidewalk level, by the TTC stops,” agrees Steve Fisher, a local freelance writer, 15-year veteran of the Canadian Forces Naval Reserves, and—notably—the first cyclist to sit in the Jarvis scrubbing truck’s path on Nov. 12, 2012. (Full disclosure: Fisher and I are both regular contributors to Torontoist.) “There’s a blending with the sidewalk, which isn’t fair to either cyclists or pedestrians. I believe in bicycle infrastructure, but bicycles are vehicles that belong on the road, not the sidewalk.”
In short, critics say, Sherbourne doesn’t even come within spitting distance of what Jarvis actually provided. And the fact that it could be a worthy substitute is laughable in the worst possible way. “The Sherbourne cycle track is an unwieldy experiment that doesn’t fully use curbs, or fully separate cyclists from drivers or pedestrians in places,” Fisher continues. Far from the superior, safer alternative to Jarvis that Ford and Minnan-Wong advertised city-wide six months ago, Sherbourne has problems—some of which create even more problems—that make it an inferior alternative to Jarvis.
“Jarvis was and is superior to Sherbourne for cycling for many of the same reasons it’s attractive to drivers,” Fisher says, underscoring the pitched battle for diminishing on-street resources that, arguably, was the impetus behind the Jarvis debacle in the first place. “It made the street far safer, according to the City’s own Collision Report of April, 2012.” That report, Fisher points out, indicated that the removal of the reversible fifth vehicle lane in favour of bike lanes dramatically improved Jarvis—to the tune of a 23 per cent drop in collisions involving either pedestrians or drivers. “The fifth lane never worked well, and still doesn’t.”
Along with other separated bike lanes in the city—the Roncesvalles bike lane, for example, with its raised cycle track for west-end cyclists—the problems with Sherbourne appear to be endemic. Rather than creating a positive, progressive, and indeed safer framework for local bike-riding that benefits drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, what’s been offered creates potential new crises for two-thirds of that commuter demographic. Drivers have a clear path, sure. But cyclists and pedestrians, critics say, have been lumped together as part of the same competing column of transportation—and that, as anyone opposed to sidewalk-riding is aware, can spell disaster.
“It really does feel like I am biking on the sidewalk,” Krumins adds. “The added issue of wandering pedestrians makes the Sherbourne bike lanes more stressful to ride on than the former Jarvis bike lanes.” (On Roncesvalles, especially, the repeated incursion of transit users into space used by cyclists raises terrible, perilous possibilities. What happens when a prospective streetcar rider doesn’t hear a cyclist’s bell? With the only alternative being to ride precariously off the raised curb into traffic—or worse, a streetcar track—what would happen to a cyclist in the safest possible outcome for pedestrians?)
Meanwhile, cars are still making right-hand turns through the bike lanes—and with the raised, separated infrastructure, arguably doing so with a greater false sense of impunity. “The possibility was to make the lanes better than Jarvis,” Krumins argues, “but the implementation was poorly thought-out. What model was followed? Are there any studies into raising bike lanes with the sidewalks that were followed to decide on this design? Have any cyclists asked for such a design? It makes no sense to me.”
Not all Sherbourne riders are so critical of the new lanes, of course. But even those with more positive opinions are quick to include caveats. “Protective bike lanes are not a form of sidewalk riding,” says Tammy Thorne, editor-in-chief of Dandyhorse magazine. “That is ridiculous. It is a lane and you are riding in a bike lane.” Still, she maintains, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of a disastrous outcome, as Krumins and Fisher suggest. “The worst possible scenario for both pedestrians and cyclists is when a city like Toronto comes up with some ridiculous design for a bike lane or a path that is meant to be shared by everyone, and bicycles aren’t given a proper space,” Thorne adds.
Six months after Sherbourne’s ribbon-cutting, Fisher says, we’re definitely behind where we were in the summer of 2012. “Let’s not forget that there were already bike lanes on Sherbourne before the cycle track was installed,” he argues. “The loss of Jarvis was a net loss for bicycle infrastructure in Toronto. We’re three years behind schedule on the Richmond and Adelaide separated lanes, and the Dupont lanes are under threat of removal.”
“I would say we’re treading water,” Krumins adds, reflecting over the last six months. “I feel sad when I see other cities endorsing initiatives to encourage cycling, and making investments in infrastructure to do so. Luckily, I feel like—regardless of the official city position—cycling is currently growing at an exciting pace in Toronto.”
Cyclists, motorists, pedestrians—how are the new Sherbourne bike lanes working for you? Let us know in the comments section below.