Nancy Smith Lea was recently interviewed for Public Radio International's The World in an article entitled "War on the Streets of Toronto: Motorists vs. Cyclists." The article focuses on the challenges Toronto cyclists are facing. It also shines the light once again on the divisive "war on the car" language that received some attention several years ago and that prompted an Open Letter about Complete Streets signed by a large and diverse group of people.
Ron Buliung, a professor of transportation geography at the University of Toronto, was also interviewed for the PRI article and wrote this thoughtful piece to elaborate on his interview and the representation of the cycling in Toronto:
“The war on the car”, “The war on public transit”, and now, care of the BBC, “The war on the bike”. This polarizing discourse about transportation in Toronto, launched by Mayor Ford, and sustained by a chorus of local and international media outlets, completely misses the mark. A more sensible conversation is one that acknowledges the multi-modal reality of passenger transport in our city and in cities across the globe. It’s much easier to play one mode against another than to do the tough work of figuring out how to make them work together.
In a busy city such as ours, irrespective of how you travel, the bad news stories are plenty. Congestion is getting worse, cars are crashing into each other, pedestrians, and cyclists. My personal story of cycling in the city includes the stories of friends and students being struck by cars; my partner was “doored” on College Street while pregnant and thrown over her handle bars into the street car tracks; and I was recently side-swiped while en route to a BBC interview to discuss cycling in Toronto (no injury occurred). This personal narrative influences how I think about the perceived and actual risk of cycling in the city.
In the BBC article, my comments regarding a retrospective analysis of reported injuries and fatalities were used as a counterpoint to the reporter’s suggestion that, “Toronto’s streets have turned into some kind of a roller derby”. Here we have, again, a complex process reduced to a simple binary description, i.e., it’s really bad out there/no it’s not. In the days since the BBC interview, I have spent a few hours observing the activity at one of our busiest intersections (in terms of bicycle traffic), College and Bathurst (also the site of the interview). During that time, I observed a young girl, escorted by an adult, trying to cross the street on her bike. She fell off her bike, lost a shoe in the streetcar tracks, and had to be picked up and carried the rest of the way; we are a long way from 8-80 indeed.
When I add my personal observations from around the city, to my cycling experience (about 11 years here), I can tell you that my perception of risk has increased over time. I can’t recall the last time I rode my bike in mixed traffic without incident, usually a near miss here or there. One could conclude that as I’ve aged I’ve also become more risk averse. Most of my experience bicycle commuting has occurred during the peak periods (rush hours) in the a.m. and p.m., at a time of day when the streets are awash with every kind of vehicle imaginable. The data tell us that most car-bike collisions are occurring at those times, particularly during the afternoon rush (City of Toronto, 2003). It may indeed be a bit of a “roller derby” during the peak hours. In other words, in my view, the roller derby exists, but not everywhere – and not all the time.
So, what of the good news? Data from the 2001 and 2006 census suggest that bike commuting to work is on the rise. While the city-wide bike to work mode share rests at 1.7%, we have neighbourhoods where the mode share is as high as 17%. Reported injuries and fatalities were lower in 2006 (during the peak) than in 2001. More recent data suggests little change in injury or fatality between 2006 and 2011 (City of Toronto, 2011). In other words, if we assume that the number of cycle commuters continues to increase, while frequency of injury remains relatively stable, then one could conclude that something is going right. One problem with this type of analysis is that the near misses, and unreported collisions are excluded. My near misses and unreported collision not only affect my perception of risk, they also fit into the broader story about the objective risk of injury associated with cycling in the city.
I would like to think that things are getting better, but I’m not completely sure yet. We are talking about preventable injury and death. It is not a good thing that, on average, close to 1000 cyclists are injured annually. Afterall each event carries with it several direct and indirect, and at times, enormous social and economic costs. These costs trickle across scales, from the individual to the employer and to the broader community.
The profile of cycling in Toronto has clearly increased through time; we have very passionate public advocacy groups (Toronto Cyclists Union, TCAT), and let’s not forget about our city hall staffers who are working to see the bike plan implemented. Although it might appear as though things have stalled (another claim from the BBC piece), there is more cycling infrastructure in the city today than there was in 2001. As of March 20, 2012 roughly 76% of the planned off-road capacity had been built, along with 56% of the planned signed routes, and 22% of the planned bike lanes (although these are the toughest sell of all) (City of Toronto, 2012). There will always be more to do, but that’s not the same as saying that nothing has been done! The best way to get people to consider switching to cycling is by building these supportive infrastructures, and – one of the best ways to reduce injury risk is to get more people cycling (i.e., safety in numbers).
While the currently available infrastructures might not all represent the grade and/or barrier separated ideal, they are a critical piece of the civic discourse on the role of the bicycle in the city – the painted line, the sharrow, the signed route, represent – if you will, a re-branding of our streets, a clear label telling all road users that the bicycle has a place in our city.
The relationship between the bicycle and Toronto is almost as old as the city itself. In the City of Toronto Archives I found a photograph of a bicycle storage facility located at the Toronto Lithograph Company, dated 1898 (that’s right, the idea of bike storage at work is more than a century old!). In addition, the conversation about bike lanes in the city has been dated to around 1896 (City of Toronto, 2001). The bicycle has been part of Toronto’s transport system for more than a century, it has survived the modernist auto-centric experiments with transport and city form of the past, and it will survive Mayor Ford."
Associate Professor, University of Toronto
Research Associate, University of Toronto Cities Centre
BBC News (2012) Cyclists accuse Toronto mayor Ford of ‘war on bikes’. Available from: http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17914504 [Accessed May 7 2012] City of Toronto (2001) City of Toronto Bike Plan: Shifting Gears. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/bikeplan/index.htm [Accessed May 7 2012] City of Toronto (2003) Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision Study. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/transportation/publications/bicycle_motor-vehicle/index.htm [Accessed May 7 2012] City of Toronto (2011) 2011 Cyclist Collision Summary Leaflet. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/transportation/index.htm#data [Accessed May 7 2012] City of Toronto (2012) Bikeway Network Project Status. Available from: http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/network/network-project-status.htm [Accessed May 7 2012].