Last month, I spent some time in my hometown of London, Ontario. With Toronto’s Bike Month about to start, and having just participated in the Toronto Group Commute in May, I was noticing all of the new bicycle infrastructure that London has built since I moved away in 2007. Close to my parents’ home, Wonderland Road, London’s only continuous north-south arterial thoroughfare, has had separated bicycle lanes as far back as I can remember, probably since the Guy Lombardo Bridge opened in 1977. However, a reconstruction of the busiest stretch of London’s busiest road changed the separated bike paths into on-street painted bicycle lanes. Other areas where road reconstruction has resulted in new on-street bicycle lanes include Commissioners Road East where it crosses the Highbury Avenue Expressway, Oxford Street West in the Oakridge area, and much of Fanshawe Park Road West, which has a speed limit of 80km/h, and yes, cyclists were using them.
As Torontonians, we’ve been hearing the rhetoric that bicycle lanes impede traffic and cause congestion and delays, and our mayor Rob Ford famously promised to construct a bicycle network without any new on-street bicycle lanes. Former mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi swore that bicycle lanes on University Avenue and Jarvis Street would lead to “GRIDLOCK!” and snarl traffic throughout downtown. Why would London install all these new lanes on its busiest arterial roads?
London has long recognized that their public transit system can’t keep up with commuter demand, and has come up with a Bicycle Master Plan [PDF] for long-term development and promotion of cycling as an option for commuters in the city, and as a way to reduce vehicle congestion, promote active healthy living, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Master Plan features a commuter bicycle network and a recreational bicycle network, recognizing the different needs of different cyclists. London and Toronto share similar geography, including a system of rivers and ravines leading into the city centre, and generally flat terrain otherwise. Both cities have a system of multi-use recreational trails along the ravines. London’s Thames Valley Parkway trail connects downtown to the northeast, southeast and west along the branches of the Thames River.
However, unlike Toronto, London recognizes that the meandering pathways along the rivers are not well suited to the commuter cyclist, and while the river trails are an important part of the recreational network, commuter cyclists are looking for more direct routes. Based on research and study, London’s Master Plan calls for on-street lanes only on streets with traffic volumes in excess of 40,000 AADT, which means that only London’s busiest thoroughfares are being considered for bike lanes. In areas with less traffic, London’s plan calls for widened curb lanes and signed on-street routes, or likely something like Toronto’s sharrows. The Master Plan recognizes that painted bicycle lanes provide a degree of safety to experienced cyclists who will ride on the street anyway, reduce the conflicts between bicycles and vehicles at intersections, and boost the visibility of cycling in general.
Another interesting finding from London’s Bicycle Master Plan is the recommendation to remove the city’s version of separated bicycle lanes, like what has happened on the Guy Lombardo Bridge. London’s planners found that separate bike lanes within the boulevard but set back from the roadway created conflicts for cyclists at entrances to laneways and parking lots. Because of reduced visibility, cyclists have to slow down or stop at every entrance to avoid collisions. That finding comes just as Toronto’s city council is considering installing the city’s first separated bicycle lanes on several downtown streets.
In Toronto, under the current mayor, cycling is being treated as a nuisance to vehicle drivers, instead of as a viable alternative. 100km of multi-use pathways in the city’s ravines is a nice touch, but it doesn’t encourage cycling as a commuting option, except for a very limited set of residents. It doesn’t get people from where they are to where they want to go, and leaves thousands of residents without decent access to cycling facilities. Rather than integrate cyclists in the city’s transportation matrix and promote cycling as a healthy alternative to sitting in traffic or on crowded TTC vehicles, Toronto’s plan tucks cyclists neatly away from transportation corridors without doing anything at all to accommodate the many commuters who are already riding on busy city streets. Toronto could learn a lot from London’s commuter cycling network plan.