Bloor Bike Lanes: 120 years in the making

Until the completion of 2.4-kilometre stretch last month, Bloor hasn’t offered what cyclists have long demanded – a share of the road on one of the city’s best biking routes

NOW magazine; September 7, 2016

The finishing touches were recently put on the Bloor Street bike lane pilot project, tying together some loose ends in Toronto’s modest cycling network. We may finally have caught up with our cycling ambitions.

How long did Toronto cyclists have to wait for bike lanes on Bloor? On February 15, 1896, representatives of Toronto bicycle clubs met at the stylish downtown Athenaeum Club to craft a cycling plan for City Hall. Their proposal included Bloor along the top of a network to be created from a combination of asphalted roads and new bicycle paths. The cyclists had been inspired by Mayor R.J. Fleming, “the People’s Bob,” who earlier that year said Toronto streets “should be put in first-class shape for bicycle riders.” So attractive was the prospect of the cyclists’ proposed 16-kilometre circuit, along with other improvements, that The Globe beamed, it “will make Toronto a veritable wheelman’s paradise, exceeding in that respect even Buffalo.” Until the completion of the 2.4-kilometre route between Shaw and Avenue Road last month, Bloor hasn’t included what cyclists have long demanded – a share of a road that is one of the city’s best cycling routes, but for the risk of collision and injury.

The path to a Bloor bike lane has included many disappointments, pitfalls and potholes along the way.

With the decline of cycling’s popularity in the 1900s, cyclists lost many of their powerful friends at City Hall as well as their own advocates. But since roads were being steadily improved and cars weren’t yet a factor, the picture for cyclists remained fairly bright.
By the 1920s, however, private cars dominated, even while streetcars remained the most popular mode of transportation. Cycling endured given its obvious utility for commuting, business deliveries and as a transport tool for children, but it had become clear that cyclists would have to fend for themselves.

Not until the so-called cycling revival of the late 1960s, prompted in part by environmental concerns, did attention once again turn to biking safety. Yet it would take years for that concern to translate into on-road action in Toronto – and not for want of studies, reports and politicians’ patronizing pats on the back.

In a 1977 city consultant’s report on cycling infrastructure, Bloor scored highly in all categories, including its lamentable cycling casualty toll.

A 1992 city report identified Bloor along with Danforth as an ideal crosstown cycling route. A 2007 study confirmed the feasibility of a Bloor-Danforth bikeway, and in 2010, a major study of the environmental impacts of Bloor-Danforth lanes was initiated, then stopped under the Ford administration, revived and later abandoned.

City Hall was determined to protect road space for cars and parking, although it was increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that after a century of establishing, expanding and extending the road and highway network, cars often can’t keep up with pedestrians, let alone cyclists.

Nonetheless, the network first proposed in 1896 actually started taking shape between 2010 and 2014.

Along the bottom of the square-shaped network, bike lanes were installed on parts of Richmond and Adelaide. A contra-flow bike lane was installed on Shaw west of Bathurst to supplement existing north-south lanes on St. George. And bike lanes were added to Sherbourne, although parallel north-south lanes on Jarvis (among others) were removed, despite their success. Many councillors worried that Toronto was moving too fast on cycling infrastructure.

When a new council under Mayor John Tory took office in late 2014, the only gap to complete a network similar to the 1896 proposal was a bike lane along Bloor.

By this time, the crosstown Bloor-Danforth bike lane had been repackaged by advocates into a bite-sized proposal that even a bicycle-fearing city council might accept – a 2.4-kilometre pilot between Avenue Road and Shaw that runs further west on Bloor than the 1896 proposal, but not as far east.

Local councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton have championed the Bloor pilot. Their leadership reflects a key change at City Hall – everyday cyclists are again in community positions of power, as in the 1890s.

Though the Bloor lanes may only be a pilot, Toronto has not only answered a demand that cyclists first made in 1896, but finally moved the city toward becoming a place (once again) that takes the bicycle seriously as part of a healthy transportation mix.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer and co-founder of Bells on Bloor. This year’s Bells on Bloor ride is on September 25.