Toronto’s cycling network grew during the pandemic, as temporary expansions intended to give residents more space outdoors were made permanent.
A stretch of the ActiveTO route on Yonge Street, however, has sparked intense public backlash as the city considers continuing bike lanes piloted along a midtown stretch.
Since its beginning, seven of the temporary bike lanes included in the ActiveTO program in 2020 were made permanent parts of the city’s cycling network. Yonge Street, from Davisville Avenue to Bloor Street, was selected as another route to expand the temporary bike lanes in July of 2021, which city council voted the following spring to continue as a pilot for another year.
But while city staff recommended the route should continue indefinitely, several residents told Infrastructure and Environment Committee members it should be moved to alternate routes.
Samantha Kives has documented some of the traffic mayhem, as residents of side streets attempt to get to their only point of egress onto Yonge Street, only to be bogged down by snarled congestion.
“There are so many dead-end streets that have to use that Yonge corridor,” she said. “So now, instead of taking Yonge Street going north or south, people are like cutting off on all of these side streets.”
She said there are better options, such as neighbouring Mount Pleasant or Avenue Road, which wouldn’t be as prone to bottlenecks, she argued.
“It’s just the wrong spot to have it,” she said “There’s 18 streets that are deadlocked, there’s 28 new building projects that are being built, so that traffic is just going to get more congested in that area.”
A staff report said following 18 months of the bike lanes, both cycling trips and pedestrian trips increased, while after adjustments, motor vehicle traffic times in Midtown Yonge Street runs less than a minute higher than it did following pre-pandemic levels.
According to the report, various adjustments to the pilot brought decreases of about 20 seconds during peak travel periods.
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Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, who chairs the Infrastructure and Environment Committee, appeared open to making further adjustments to the bike lanes before deciding whether to make the lanes permanent.
“The reason we have been successful with the cycling network plan over the last three years is because we have been open to incorporating the voice of residents,” said McKelvie.
“So I think we’re open to listening (to) what they have to say, open to asking transportation staff if there are still some improvements that they can make, over and above what they have done.”
But as McKelvie spoke to reporters, she was confronted by one of the organizers of a group opposed to the bike lanes on Yonge, who introduced her to Alicia Mitchell, who said she was forced to walk across Yonge Street to reach her own ambulance after it became caught in traffic during a medical episode last May.
“It’s not working as it is at the moment,” Mitchell told reporters afterwards. “My ambulance was not able to get to me.”
“What I’m saying is lives should prevail over bike lanes,” she said. “I’m not here to object to biking, but there’s a time and place and it needs to be set up for success.” Mitchell said one of the main issues is the road narrows too much, causing traffic to clog far too easily.
But many of the cycling advocates who spoke in favour of the bike lanes said some of the emergency services concerns were being overblown.
“Our response times are better in our neighbourhood, are still better than most neighbourhoods enjoy across the city,” said Robin Richardson.
“I’ve got three kids. I’ve had to call 9-1-1 a couple of times; I’ve never been worried that ambulance won’t get there in a timely fashion.”
Richardson, a volunteer with Yonge4All which favours maintaining the bike lanes, said the concerns of many motorists needed to be balanced with those of cyclists. “I think we need to talk about everyone’s time and not only the time of drivers,” she said.
Richardson said despite the many claims made that cyclists aren’t active on lanes during the winter, she and her family used the Yonge Street lanes in the morning. She also noted that if the city cleared snow and ice for cyclists to the same standard of motorists, those on two wheels would be far more inclined to use the lanes in the colder weather.
After hearing from deputants for the better part of the day, the committee ultimately voting in favour of approving the staff report to make the bike lanes permanent, ultimately shifting the final say onto city council.
However, a motion was adopted to direct the city’s transportation staff to study options for improving safety on side streets off of Yonge Street, including preventing illegal behaviour like motorists driving over sidewalks.