Five things we learned from Toronto’s cycle track pilots

Nicholas Sanderson
Mar 1 · 4 min read

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since living in Toronto, it’s that the city — or at least its Mayor and councillors — seem to love a pilot project. A five-year-long “pilot” of bike lanes in downtown Toronto will finally become permanent after a committee of Toronto City Council approved it, off the back of some stunning results. So what prompted councillors to vote unanimously in favour?

What are they?

The small grid of protected bike lanes, or cycle tracks, primarily on Adelaide St and Richmond St with small spurs were first installed in 2014 with later additions. Both streets operate one-way in opposite directions. For nearly nine kilometres they are largely ‘protected’ by bollards or planters along their length. The lanes on Simcoe St, pictured below, provide one of the north-south connections for the two routes.

Looking north on Simcoe Street — cycle track protected by planters, wands and dividers

The City’s evaluation report on the pilot has some interesting findings worth reflecting on (hat-tip to both Edward Keenan and Matt Elliot of the Toronto Star and CBC, respectively, for highlighting it). Here are five things I think we can learn from it:

1. They make cycling popular

The numbers reflect a fairly enormous growth in cycling along the two corridors in the years since the cycle tracks first went. On the first section, which opened in 2014, there was, on average, 400 people on bikes a day using the streets in 2013. By 2018 that number reached 4,380 a day — a tenfold increase in just five years. To say the tracks are popular is maybe an understatement. Over 6,000 people now cycle along the tracks each day, the equivalent of over four full or “crush loaded” (sounds pleasant doesn’t it?) subway trains.

2. They make streets significantly safer

A survey with over 9,000 responses asking them to rank the comfort and safety from one (being worst) to 10 (being best) found that “the average overall perception … increased from 3.4 points before cycle track installation to 8.4 points after cycle track installation.”

And this isn’t just a perception thing. After the tracks were installed the collisions rate for people cycling plummeted, too, by 73 per cent. Importantly, this is the collision rate, not absolute numbers.

The tracks were also accompanied by a speed limit reduction (from 50 to 40km an hour, equivalent to 25 miles per hour). Injuries sustained from motor vehicle collisions (no pedestrians or cyclists involved) decreased by almost a fifth (18 per cent). The set-up is safer for drivers as well.

3. Even drivers prefer them

Despite the venting of frustration we often hear from drivers about cycle tracks, it turns out Toronto drivers actually prefer these streets with the tracks in and speed limit slowed. As the report states, from 2,600 responses to the City’s survey, “the average overall perception of driver comfort increased from 5.2 points before cycle track installation to 8.1 points after cycle track installation.” Clear space for cycling makes for simpler, safer and easier driving.

4. Pedestrians need greater protection, city-wide

Unlike the collision rate used for cyclists, only absolute numbers are available for pedestrian collisions in the report. They show an overall increase of 3.9 collisions per year. However, it states this is inline with a distressing city-wide trend of increased pedestrian injuries. And they speculate that new development along the streets has increased pedestrian activity (likely contributed to the cycling increase, too). However, without better figures (that normalize for activity, just as the cycling and motor vehicle figures do) it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that pedestrians need greater protection from vehicles, city-wide. Something that’s likely to do with the concomitant rise of SUVs and smartphones, as others have pointed out. We know that reducing speed limits and volumes is likely the most effective solution to reduce danger posed to both people walking and cycling. It’s not just up to government either, tech companies need to do more about distracted driving.

5. Cycling is a quick and cost-effective boost to transport capacity

Ultimately these bike lanes highlight what we’ve seen the world over: that cycling is an incredibly efficient way to boost a city’s transport capacity and liveability. In fact, the report highlights that these two relatively narrow cycle tracks carry a third of all the traffic along the street; less than a quarter of the space carrying nearly a third of the people. At the busiest times of day when streets are congested and subways and streetcars are crowded, the cycle lane is a much needed release of pressure on the system at a fraction of the cost of new subway infrastructure.

An argument against this might be that the increase simply comes from people rerouting from other streets. However the report has that covered, too. observing modest changes to the cycling volumes on surrounding streets, they conclude that 94 per cent of the growth is a result of people taking up cycling — new residents, new journeys or people shifting from another mode altogether.

The report consolidates on findings from elsewhere in the world: cycling happens to be one of the quick, cheap and easy ways to improve our cities, even when they get as cold as Toronto.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on 18 January 2019

About the author: Nick is an independent policy and communications consultant working out of Toronto, specializing in transport and environment issues.

Nicholas Sanderson

Written by

Urban Planning and Transportation policy consultant and advising on communications. New to Toronto.

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