The awkward “opposition” to the Bloor bike lane

The awkward ‘opposition’ to the Bloor bike lanes

dandyhorse magazine, October 25, 2017

What’s all the ABBA noise about?

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Bloor bike lane at Brunswick Ave. during morning rush hour, Sept. 2017.

The dilemma faced by local merchants who oppose the Bloor bike lane was obvious to cycling advocates long before it became apparent to the opponents themselves. It took time for some merchants to realize that fighting the bike lane would mean offending a portion of their own customer base. In short, opposing the bike lane as being bad for business, would likely be bad for business.

Studies in Toronto over the past decade have shown that the percentage of customers arriving by bike at local shops along Bloor and The Danforth — despite the absence of bike lanes — is substantial. (In fact, studies everywhere now illustrate that bike lanes are good for local business.) The patronage of cyclists rivals or exceeds either or both the number of motoring customers or their spending on Bloor. So, what merchant would want to tell cycling customers that their safety, and their business, is of no interest?

By the time the Annex Business Bike Alliance (ABBA) — the de facto opponent of the current Bloor bike lane — spoke to the public works committee on October 18, it purported to fully support a permanent bike lane, albeit with design changes, even though City staff were already recommending that changes be considered as part of the process moving forward. Indeed, improvements had already been made during the pilot, in answer to merchants’ complaints, including the addition of new loading zones. At the public works meeting, ABBA focused largely on a lack of consultation about the bike lane, questions about an economic impact study undertaken by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT), and the scope of Moneris data collected by the city.

In a letter to local councillors in mid-September, Barry Alper, co-owner of Fresh on Bloor, suggested that ABBA represented 70 businesses, although only six — BMV, Greg’s Ice Cream, Risqué, Theodore 1922, and Midoco — were identified at the October 18 public works meeting. (Midoco’s owner is actually a board member of the Bloor Annex BIA, which recently endorsed the bike lane.) Alper’s letter said that one-third of merchants surveyed by his group in July wanted the lanes removed. ABBA recommended, among other proposals, removing the bike lane for one year as a pilot to assess the impact on business. Yet, this proposal was no longer being pushed at the works committee meeting.

As the public voice of ABBA, Alper was in an awkward, and curious, position for a variety of reasons. He says his business is down by 2% – a decline he admits isn’t necessarily attributable to the bike lane. Alper’s clientele at Fresh, a popular vegetarian restaurant, is presumably health-conscious and hence more likely than shoppers at large to be drawn to active modes of transportation like cycling.

If ABBA was actually a “business bike alliance” — as its names suggests — it was odd that the group didn’t try to engage the cycling community. At the public works meeting, ABBA included the lack of curb access for cars to drop off the elderly, the disabled, and children among its main preoccupations. If ABBA was sincere in this concern, it could easily have found allies in the cycling community, among local councillors, and in the Annex and Koreatown neighbourhoods.

What we do know is that when Alper attended the meeting of the Bloor Annex BIA in March 2017, he appeared to be concerned with his own parking problems. The BIA minutes note his complaint that “he could no longer park by The Common for his own coffee.” This coffee shop is a mere four blocks from his own restaurant. In any case, if parking is a major concern of merchants their attention would more productively be directed at fellow merchants, 49% of whom drive to work, according to the TCAT study. These merchants tie up local parking spots to the detriment of their motoring customers, including the disabled, seniors, and adults with children.

Opponents call for permanent – part-time – bike lanes

When ABBA spoke at the public works meeting its proposals had been narrowed to converting the Bloor bike lane into a part-time one — retaining the bike lane only for peak hours (defined as 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.) and removing the bike lane for an undefined wintertime period. Both these design proposals, however, are largely non-starters because of the adverse impact on cyclists’ safety and the confusion such changes would cause for road users. In short, this is not considered best practice…anywhere. It’s worth noting that about half of cycling trips are outside of these peak hours while wintertime cycling activity is significant, even if lower than summertime levels.

ABBA’s ambiguous opposition to the bike lane even created a challenge for the committee’s motor vehicle champions, councillors Stephen Holyday and Georgio Mammoliti. How could these councillors advocate for eliminating the bike lanes when this wasn’t what the merchants were demanding? (Holyday nonetheless proposed a motion to take out the bike lanes, supported only by Mammoliti.)

The 4-2 vote in favour of the bike lanes at public works means the final hurdle for a permanent bike lane will be the upcoming City Council meeting session beginning on November 7, 2017. The findings of the TCAT study and Moneris data showing a healthy local business environment, post-bike lane installation; Mayor John Tory’s endorsement of the bike lane; and the support of two local BIAs, bodes well for the outcome of the council vote, though cyclists know that cycling infrastructure is never a sure thing in our city. It’s worth remembering that a permanent Bloor bike lane is a step closer only after what Toronto’s transportation manager, Barbara Gray described at PWIC as one of the most comprehensively studied road projects in North America.

In the debate about bike lanes — at least the Bloor bike lane — it may now be the opponents who find themselves in a defensive posture. Traditional arguments about arterial roads as the exclusive domain of motorists, merchants supposed inability to survive without on-street parking, or cycling numbers being too small have been put to rest. Merchants who oppose bike lanes like the one on Bloor will now have to come up with new arguments about why their cycling customers aren’t entitled to their fair share of a safe public roadway.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founding member of Bells on Bloor. The group was a partner in the Tour de Bloor passport – an initiative to promote local businesses to cyclists.