By Edward Keenan, Columnist for The Toronto Star

Way back when, dedicated motor vehicle lanes were hotly debated but we got used to them — and the same will happen in Toronto with bike lanes, writes Edward Keenan.

City transportation staff are recommending that council make the Bloor bike lane project permanent.  (Eduardo Lima / METRONEWS)

City transportation staff are recommending that council make the Bloor bike lane project permanent. (Eduardo Lima / METRONEWS)

Friday morning, my commute to work was delayed by four minutes and 44 seconds due to the infrastructure for dedicated car lanes along my route.

You may not be used to hearing an experience like this expressed in that way. I’m talking about traffic lights and the time I spent as a pedestrian waiting for them to change.

About a century ago, when cars were first becoming common and popular, we decided to dedicate huge swaths of our common roadways to motor vehicle traffic, shunting pedestrians onto narrow, grade-separated strips along the sides. This was a big change from how we’d used these spaces before, and it was controversial at first, (“a number of localities banned the ‘devil-wagon,’ ” a history of road evolution by Carlton Reid notes), but it has since come to seem natural.

I started thinking about this while reading the report on the pilot study of the dedicated bicycle lanes on Bloor St. W. There’s a part about the effect on the “motoring environment” in which it points out travel times for cars travelling eastbound in the corridor have been increased by about two minutes in the morning and about four minutes in the afternoon.

But talking about the delays caused to other road users by dedicated vehicle infrastructure made me think of those traffic lights I encounter every day as a pedestrian on my way to and from the TTC segment of my commute. So I thought I’d use a stopwatch to time the delays I already encounter as a matter of course to accommodate our now-uncontroversial dedicated motor vehicle lanes. I kept track of time waiting for the lights to change so I could cross. As I say, Friday it was a little under five minutes.

And you know what? It was fine. It felt normal. It did not occur to me to insist that this motoring infrastructure should be ripped out because it slowed me down.

Nah, it’s fine. In fact, as I’m sure you’re already thinking, waiting for traffic lights for a chance to cross is usually an unremarkable experience. We all have to get where we’re going. Safely. And if possible, reasonably quickly. To do that, we’re gonna slow each other down a bit sometimes. C’est la vie en ville.

And I hope, and expect, we can take the same attitude to the mild increases in travel time for some users of Bloor St., given the rest of the report on the bike lane project. Because most of the other metrics show great success.

The number of cyclists using the route every day was up by 1,616 year-over-year after their installation (a 49-per-cent increase), making it the second-most-travelled bike “facility” in the city (in the language of the report).

And the road got safer for all users: the city counted both collisions and near-misses (together classified as “conflicts”) and found them down by 44 per cent altogether. This isn’t just about cyclists being safer. Conflict between motorists — one car hitting or almost hitting another car — were down 71 per cent after the separated bike lanes were installed. Conflicts between motorists and pedestrians were down 55 per cent. Conflicts between bicycles and motor vehicles were down 61 per cent — and despite cyclist traffic increasing by half, the number of actual bike collisions with cars remained the same, a fairly dramatic decrease in the accident rate.

One place where there was an increase in conflicts is in cyclist-pedestrian interactions, caused by mid-block jaywalkers not checking the lane before stepping out. It’s a problem we’ll have to work on solving as we expand our cycling infrastructure in the city.

Still, all road users surveyed — cyclists, pedestrians and motorists — also reported feeling safer or more comfortable travelling on the route after the lanes were installed.

This is in keeping with the experience of other cities, including New York, when dedicated cycling infrastructure is installed. All road users become safer as a result. I have mentioned a book called Street Fight a few times, written by former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan about her experience transforming that city’s roadways.

She details in the book that sometimes, when evaluating tests and making changes, you need to guard against just accepting people’s gut-level reactions and anecdotes. How people feel is important, but it isn’t necessarily true.

For instance, after New York City pedestrianized its famous Times Square, Sadik-Khan writes, cab drivers furious about the change insisted their own travel times were far worse. “Cabbies told any reporter who would listen that the reworking of Broadway… caused traffic jams, slower speeds and fewer fares,” she writes. However, the city authorities accessed the GPS units in cabs that tracked their movements and fares and found interesting results. Cabs in the area were actually moving faster after the change.

Toronto took a similar approach with the Bloor bike lane pilot to gathering information about the retail impacts of the changes. They conducted a traditional survey which showed “merchants on Bloor Street reported growth in the number of customers,” though a similar control-group survey on the Danforth showed an even greater increase in customers. In the meantime, some merchants conducted their own surveys showing great business losses, and have told reporters that the bike lanes killed business.

However, the city also got actual point-of-sale data from the biggest processor of credit and debit card transactions. That data showed spending was up in the pilot area and had grown more than in the surrounding area and more than in the control-group area of the Danforth.

Some particular businesses may well be right that the change has had a negative impact. But for businesses as a whole, the card data shows an actual increase in spending.

It is heartening to hear that Mayor John Tory will be supporting making the lanes permanent. We can only hope this city council — who have been known to lose perspective when bikes become a topic (remember Jarvis?) — follows suit. The city should expand the lanes east and west, as well, and continue expanding the network of cycling infrastructure so it becomes a more viable form of transportation for more people. And so that the roads become safer for all of those who use them.

A few minutes of inconvenience here and there notwithstanding, I expect, in time, the bike routes will become as uncontroversial as the vast network of designated motorist lanes we have now.

Source: The Toronto Star