There’s little I wouldn’t do for a sweet scoop of ice cream. So when a couple of workout buddies proposed that we run from the Athletic Centre to Ice Creamonology — which is all the way by the Harbourfront — I was in. 

However, I hadn’t thought about how I’d get back. I didn’t have my PRESTO card with me, and I neither wanted to run on a full stomach nor spend more money on an Uber. My friend suggested that we bike back instead. I hesitated, recalling every single report of bicycle collisions I’d ever heard in the news. But I couldn’t think of a better option. 

Following her lead, I pedalled on the rental bike unsteadily, thrown off by how heavy the bike was compared to the one I had at home. As we biked uphill, I felt the squeeze of the narrow narrow bike lane. I took a deep breath to steady myself and inhaled a lungful of smoke instead. On my right was a barrier separating me from restaurants’ outdoor patios, and on the left was a car lane. I could barely hear my thoughts of terror over the roaring of the cars speeding past me. 

I don’t know how we made it back in one piece, but we did. I’ve never biked downtown since. 

According to the U of T’s 2022 student census, 1.8 per cent of students cycle as their primary means of getting to school, while a combined 13 per cent list some variation of cycling and/or cycling and walking to school regularly. Among this population is Jared Madarang, a second-year Rotman Commerce student, who enjoys cycling but finds it stressful due to tight roads and lack of bike parking on campus. Despite the challenges, he’s rather nonchalant about biking in the city. Biking during rush hour “adds to the stress,” he told The Varsity. “But otherwise, it’s not too bad of an issue,” he added.

Bikes are a sustainable and affordable mode of transportation, but they are only effective if the local infrastructure can support cyclists’ needs. It’s no surprise that more people aren’t biking when bike lanes don’t always connect and not all of Toronto’s bike lanes are well protected from cars. According to a 2019 City of Toronto survey, out of 229 Toronto residents who were former bikers, 20 per cent stopped biking because they didn’t feel safe. Fears around biking accidents aren’t unfounded — in 2022, 36 bike collisions were reported to the City, but given that 74 per cent of bike collisions are not reported, the number of biking accidents is likely much higher. 

Since the construction of the first bike lane in 1979, Toronto has made notable progress in its bike infrastructure. Yet, despite evidence showing bike lanes benefit traffic congestion, the environment, and pedestrian safety, Toronto’s bike infrastructure is lacking in aspects such as cyclist safety. This lack is due to the dominance of both automobiles and a widely-used public transit network in the city. Today, with a pro-cycling mayor in office, there is hope for Toronto to improve its infrastructure — but after speaking with many cyclists and cycling advocates, it is clear that Toronto has a long way to go before becoming a truly cyclist-friendly city. 

Pedalling backwards

Cycling infrastructure in Toronto has slowly but surely come a long way. Before the invention of the automobile — and still today — people have seen bicycles as an affordable form of personal transportation. However, they lost their popularity to the automobile, which gained prevalence in the early twentieth century. Automobiles allowed people to move farther from their place of work, leading to rapid suburban development and making bikes irrelevant, as biking was only ideal for short trips. 

In the early 1970s, the introduction of the mass-market 10-speed bicycle started another wave of popularity for cycling. Around that time, social and environmental advocates were increasing public awareness of the environmental and social impacts associated with automobile use and urban sprawl. In 1975, to promote cycling and safety initiatives, citizen activists, City Councillors, and volunteers established the Toronto City Cycling Committee. 

In 1979, the Cycling Committee got its first marked bike lane located on Poplar Plains Road, a residential road south of St. Clair. Its placement received immediate pushback from drivers who fumed about the potential increase in traffic as a result of the road’s reduction to one lane. What’s worse, the bike lane was built on a steep hill that cyclists often had to dismount and walk up. Plus, the bike lane only existed on the east side of the street, so bikers going one way had to share a narrow lane with bikers travelling in the opposite direction. Unsurprisingly, bikers hardly used the lane. 

Albert Koehl has been an environmental lawyer and cycling advocate for 15 years. In an interview with The Varsity, he theorizes the reason the bike lane stayed was because it was popular with the local residents, as the cycling lane acted as a traffic calming mechanism. “In other words, this crazy two-lane roadway going north up this hill was converted to one motor lane and one bike lane going north… that was our illustrious first bike lane.”

In the 1980s, the Cycling Committee improved cycling conditions by designing post-and-ring bicycle stands, constructing the waterfront Martin Goodman Trail and other trail systems, and replacing thousands of drain covers on city roads to be less of a potential hazard to bikes’ narrow tires. The Committee also developed bicycle safety training materials and public awareness campaigns such as a Bike Week. The City promoted events including Bike to Work Day to get people in Toronto more comfortable cycling to school and work. 

Around the same time, cycling advocate John Forester developed the concept of vehicular cycling, the practice where cyclists behave like drivers on the road and follow the same traffic laws and rules. This concept proved to be influential, as CAN-BIKE — a program run by Cycling Canada and the only accredited cycling program in Toronto — follows Forester’s principles. Although advocates argue that it increases cycler visibility, efficiency, and mutual respect between cyclists and drivers, critics argue that this method is less accessible to anyone who isn’t confident navigating traffic conditions and doesn’t account for aggressive drivers. Cyclists face a smaller margin of error when it comes to safety, since any given mistake a cyclist makes could be deadly. 

In 1998, the City of Toronto’s amalgamation took effect, weakening the influence of Old Toronto’s centre-left parties through representation from more conservative neighbourhoods. Koehl said, “The suburbs had the greater influence — and one of the things many suburban residents want to do is drive downtown.”

The City added new on-street bike lanes, albeit slowly. Professor Steven Farber is a transportation geographer at U of T. In an interview with The Varsity, he acknowledged that many Torontonians have long accepted Toronto’s transit system as the next best alternative to driving in the city, which perhaps diminished interest in bike lane construction. “[It] takes a very long time to move the hearts and minds of people to start getting serious about bike lanes… it’s happening, it’s just very slow going.”

And slow going it has been. The 2016 bike lane pilot project on Bloor Street between Shaw Street and Avenue Road took decades of continued advocacy to build, and only this August has the City proposed safety improvements to the Bloor Street bike lanes from Avenue Road to Spadina Avenue. Interestingly, bike lane construction accelerated during the pandemic, as many Torontonians viewed cycling as a safer alternative to being in close contact with others on public transit and risking a potential COVID-19 infection.

Although we are seeing the City plan and construct bike lanes, that doesn’t mean that people are happy with their construction. Enter a new barrier to biking: bikelash. 

Bikes: Public enemy number one

Throughout their history, bike lanes have received significant backlash, or ‘bikelash.’ The term was coined in the wake of large-scale bike lane rollouts in New York City. Although studies on bikelash have shown that some see bikelash as a sign that the cycling community in a given city is large enough to warrant attention, others become disheartened by the negativity. Bikelash can cause the removal of bike lanes — and has done so in Toronto. Fueled by public outcry in 2011, Toronto’s City Hall moved to replace the Jarvis Street bike lanes with a reversible car lane to fight congestion. 

A study conducted by Kirsty Wild and colleagues at the University of Auckland found four major opponents to bike lanes in cities around the world: cyclists who feel marginalized by bike lane planning processes, retailers, conservative voters, and anti-gentrification activists. 

Bikelash from cyclists seems most likely to occur when cyclists perceive poor design and lack of consultation to have produced more dangerous cycling conditions. Meanwhile, retailers object on the grounds that a reduction of on-street car parking will reduce this business. 

However, retailers objecting to bike lanes may underestimate the business generated by cyclists and foot traffic. A 2009 report by The Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation discovered, “Among patrons at local stores only 10% arrived by car. This refuted long-held assumptions that merchants’ survival depended on curbside car parking. In fact, people on foot, bikes, and transit were far more important to local business, and spent more money during visits to shops.”

Koehl has reported that businesses in Toronto are generally supportive of bike lanes: “When there’s a problem with a bike lane, whether it’s illegal parking in the bike lane or some construction project, the first person I hear from is the general manager of the Bloor Annex Business Improvement Area to say, ‘We’ve got to do something about this, this is not good for cyclists.’”

Conservative voters are also much more likely than others to be opposed to bike lanes. Wild and colleagues’ study points out that for some, cars are central to conservative notions of family and economic responsibility, commitment to suburbanism, belief in market-led growth over state-led planning, and preference for privatized road space. Conservative voters are more likely to essentialize car travel, as it enables families to live by suburban ideals and protect their families from the “dangers” of city life. They disproportionately influence bike lane decisions due to their wealth and willingness to bring their arguments to court. 

In the most extreme cases, racist sentiments can fuel bikelash. When discussing proposed bike lanes in New York, ​​a veteran community board member said, “Once Trump removes all the illegals from Corona there won’t be anybody to ride bike lanes.” 

On the other hand, cycling is also seen, according to Wild and colleagues’ study, as a “recreational activity of privileged white people.” The study found that bike lanes in minority communities can also be seen as a symbol of gentrification, which decreases the livability of those whom the process may displace. Given the history of gentrification forcibly evicting marginalized communities — for example, the demolition of Toronto’s original Chinatown from its former location at Nathan Phillips Square in the 1950s and ’60s — members of marginalized communities have cause to be suspicious about “urban revitalization” projects. 

Additionally, researchers pointed out that neighbourhood improvement only becomes a priority when it fits the needs of wealthier white people. Thus, the construction of new bike lanes is sometimes seen as a harbinger of gentrification.

In Toronto, dependency on cars contributes to the resistance of bike lanes. An externally-conducted report for the City of Toronto entitled “Planning for Urban Cycling” confirms that the City’s infrastructure prioritizes cars: “Urban cyclists today face a roadway system that was not designed for them and which, in fact, is usually hostile to them. The reason can be traced back to the drawing boards of municipal planning engineers and the concern, for many decades, has been optimizing the flow of automobiles and trucks.” 

Bike lanes are an easy target when it comes to Toronto’s congestion woes in a way that other transportation solutions are not. Farber notes, “There’s a visceral reaction to changes in the way streets are designed in a way that adding a bus to a street isn’t changing the infrastructure. It’s not really taking a lane away from drivers in the same way as putting a new bike lane in is perceived to be.” 

Shifting Gears

In the last mayoral election, candidates like Mark Saunders and Anthony Furey vowed to tear out bike lanes in major arterial roads to reduce congestion. However, an avid cyclist and bike lane champion rose to the top. Olivia Chow, the newly-elected mayor of Toronto, promised to build over 200 kilometres worth of new bike lanes in the next four years. 

With a pro-cyclist mayor and council, Koehl and Farber are cautiously optimistic about the future. However, they both have concerns. 

For Koehl, he’s worried about whether Toronto will improve cycling infrastructure — as a climate solution — within a timeframe consistent with the urgency of the climate crisis. “You only have to look back over this summer. Climate change is frightening in terms of what it’s doing. So for people today to be fighting [against cycling infrastructure], it just no longer makes any sense.”

Farber’s concern is about whether the City has the budget to make significant enough infrastructure changes, especially coming out of a pandemic. “These are very tough times, financially… I think the right people are there, but I still don’t know that the macro conditions are in place to see those investments that we need to see.” 

Previous politicians have put forward possible solutions to both raise the City’s revenue and reduce driving, including placing tolls on highways. In the same vein, Farber also promoted the idea of charging more for parking. However, whether or not the City implements these revenue tools will depend on how receptive people are to increased costs. 

Advocating for bike lanes may seem like an issue affecting only a niche population, but how streets are designed affects everyone in Toronto. When bike lanes are removed, this worsens congestion, as cyclists forced to use alternative forms of transportation may use cars. 

Adding more car lanes doesn’t solve congestion, due to a concept called ‘induced demand’; an increased supply of car lanes results in increased demand for driving, and the intensity of traffic stays the same. The reverse is true: U of T economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner showed in 2009 that if a city takes car lanes away, the amount of traffic on the road readjusts, and congestion doesn’t increase dramatically as people find alternative forms of transportation. While there are limits to this theory, replacing car lanes with bike lanes would encourage people to explore alternatives to driving. 

This leads to the idea of “complete streets,” which shifts the focus from automobiles to accommodating multiple forms of transportation. Such a system is not just safer for cyclists but for pedestrians as well. As an example, Koehl mentioned that if someone stumbles and falls into traffic, it would be safer for them to fall into the bike lane rather than in front of a car. Cycling lanes reduce fatalities for all road users by forcing cars to slow down, and fewer cars mean reduced noise pollution and a safer road environment, especially in neighbourhoods where children play outside. By improving safety for cyclists, urban designers improve community safety as well. 

Although I’m hesitant to bike in Toronto because of how the current bike infrastructure is designed, I would be open to biking if conditions were safer. People shouldn’t have to rely on cars for safe transportation or freedom of movement. 

And despite the challenges of cycling in a city, cycling can be joyful. When asked what he liked about cycling in Toronto, Madarang replied, “I can look up and see a blue sky. Because I lived in Shanghai, there’s a lot of pollution. So actually just being able to appreciate the air and the scenery — it’s actually really nice.”