The Tour de France is in France … not on the Bloor bike lane

dandyhorse magazine, October 10, 2016

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-12-57-16-pm“You were going too slow,” a cyclist recently chastized    dandyhorse publisher, Tammy Thorne on the new Bloor bike lane. The cyclist had brushed dangerously, and at high speed, past Tammy as she cycled along the lane. When she caught up to him at the intersection she demanded an explanation, and he offered his rationale. (See the full story here.) But is there such a thing — whether by law or by etiquette — as a maximum or minimum speed in a bike lane?

Bloor bike lane, September 2016. Photo by Martin Reis.

Bloor bike lane, September 2016. Photo by Martin Reis.

A speed limit for cyclists on our roads hasn’t received much attention in recent years. We’d probably have to go back more than a century to the era when bicycles first became popular for a lively debate on the topic. Today, however, as cyclists find themselves interacting directly on an exclusive bike lane with other cyclists — including novice riders, parents with young children, and dandyhorse publishers — the issue may again become prominent.

On trails in parks, cities have the authority to regulate cyclists’ speed. On parts of Toronto’s waterfront bike trail, for example, the speed limit is posted at 20 km/h, presumably to protect the many pedestrians, including tourists, in the area. In fact, this bicycle speed limit, pursuant to Chapter 608 of the Municipal Code, is in force in all city parks.

On roadways, section 128 of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act (HTA) sets a maximum speed for motor vehicles, while giving discretion to cities to set a higher or lower limit. And s. 132 of the HTA prohibits motor vehicles from travelling so slowly that they “impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” Neither of these HTA provisions, however, applies to bicycles.

In the 1890s when bicycles first became a common sight on roads, the potential for speed attracted many riders. The Globe wrote in July 1894 that the bicycle provided “the facility for covering space and making a jest of time.” The downside was the danger to other road users. Beverley Jones, a pedestrian who had been seriously injured when hit by a cyclist, wrote to The Evening Star on March 29, 1895 about “the necessity for some legislation to regulate the ‘scorcher’ cyclist.” Influential Toronto cycling clubs, however, generally resisted speed limits, such as a proposed maximum of 8 mph (13km/h). Instead, by-law 2464 ‘for the regulation of the Streets, and for the Preservation of Order therein’ was amended in 1895 to prohibit cyclists from racing or riding at “an immoderate or dangerous rate.”

It’s doubtful that the by-law was ever vigourously enforced against cyclists given the vague wording. The provision relating to travelling at an immoderate speed was repealed in 1904.

Since that time, cycling speed on the roads hasn’t often been a matter of public debate — until now.

Although there is no upper speed limit for cyclists in Toronto, except in parks, is there nonetheless a right speed, and should cyclists care? There’s a good reason to answer both questions with “yes”.

Cyclists have long advocated for bike lanes on the basis of safety concerns. A speed in the bike lane that keeps safe not only all cyclists but also pedestrians who cross, or accidentally step into, the bike lane is consistent with this safety goal.

And, of course: A safe speed will vary with the road environment.

On constricted parts of the Bloor bike lane — especially in the busy Christie to Spadina shopping area where the lane is between parked cars and the sidewalk on the south side — the speed of cyclists must be a cautious one, with 20 km/h likely being a (more than) reasonable upper limit. Such a limit protects young and novice cyclists, pedestrians who inadvertently step into harm’s way, and cyclists who need to take evasive action when coming upon a negligently-opened passenger car door.

Where the bike lane is broader and sight lines unobscured, the upper limit can be somewhat higher but not beyond 30 km/h – the speed recommended by Ontario’s Chief Coroner and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health for automobiles on residential streets.

When a cyclist is travelling “too slowly” in the bike lane, a following cyclist can pass but the passing must be done safely either by moving into the car lane — where that option exists — or, when space permits, within the bike lane. In each case, the passing must be done on the left while leaving adequate space. A courteous warning is useful – especially in the event that the cyclist you are passing has to maneuver around debris or potholes in the bike lane. Faster cyclists can also take the lead at intersections, while waiting at the red, by pulling in front of the “peleton.” A cyclist who negligently causes a collision by passing too closely at a high speed, regardless of the absence of a speed limit, may also be subject to civil liability or charges under the HTA for careless driving.

The only acceptable number of serious pedestrian (or cyclist) injuries or deaths is zero. This is consistent with the international Vision Zero road safety strategy recently adopted by Toronto. It’s unacceptable for cyclists to suggest that a pedestrian who mistakenly steps into the bike lane is responsible for his or her misfortune. Such an argument simply perpetuates a mentality that has justified the automobile carnage on our roads for over a century.

It’s worth noting that a serious pedestrian injury on the Bloor bike lane, regardless of ‘fault’, will likely get widespread media attention and, fair or not, hurt the cause of cycling in this city.

The other option (unless you are running late to perform heart surgery) is to fall in line with slower cyclists, enjoy the outdoor air, and savour the fact that you are among the first people in Toronto’s history to cycle on a bike lane on Bloor.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer, and co-founder of Bells on Bloor.