What do Jack Layton and David Byrne have in common? Sure, Layton’s Twitter account tells us he’ll be busking on the Danforth this Saturday, but at press time, the range of his musical talent remains untested. No, it’s a shared interest in the future of cycling that unites the current NDP leader and former Talking Head, who will participate in an October 24 panel discussion at the International Festival of Authors. Along with Toronto Cyclists Union executive director Yvonne Bambrick and urban designer Ken Greenberg, Layton and Byrne will discuss the potential of urban planning — specifically, bike lanes — to improve the political climate of cycling in Toronto and around the world.
Walk a block in Toronto’s downtown core on any weekday afternoon, and you’ll see the strain of cyclist-motorist relations from the belly of the beast. Drivers roll their eyes and drum their fingers, and many cyclists ignore red lights and stop signs as traffic allows. At its worst, the drama plays out with fatal consequences, as it did in late August, when a downtown road altercation involving former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, who was driving a convertible car, caused the death of bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard. Toronto cyclists rallied for bike lanes in the wake of the incident, insisting that separate roadways guarantee safer transit, especially in regions where traffic is busiest. Drivers and business owners, however, have been less willing to accept bike lanes as the solution, citing slow commutes and limited street parking, respectively, as evidence that city roadways have already been compromised enough. So with cyclists getting killed and drivers getting angry, what’s a judicious citizen to believe? Can’t we all just get along?
If recent history is any indication, the answer is no. And there’s more trouble coming: the newest version of the Toronto Public Works and Infrastructure Committee’s official Bike Plan — a strategic proposal with a mission to introduce cyclist-friendly policies and programs — details measures to advance bike culture in six major areas. First up? Launching a public bicycle system by spring 2010.
Toronto’s updated plan, modeled after Montreal’s two-year old BIXI and the 20,000–strong Vélib “shared bicycle” program in Paris, proposes a start-up service area bounded by High Park in the west, Broadview Avenue in the east, Bloor Street in the north and Lake Ontario to the south. The projected system — roughly 300 rental stations with an initial capacity of 1,000 bicycles, to be increased to 10,000 over the next decade — will inevitably place a greater number of commuters on some of the city’s busiest roads. As a public transportation venture, a bicycle system presents a unique safety imperative. But are bike lanes the solution? Beyond their formidable logistic and financial considerations, would separate lanes ease the competing interests of cyclists and motorists?
I call city councillor Adrian Heaps, chair of the Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee. Beyond novelty users at the program’s inception, he expects that a public bicycle system will appeal to three distinct categories of riders: those who typically use taxis to travel short distances, those who currently use car-share services for shopping trips, and, in non-winter months, tourists. Ultimately, the councillor says, the TCAC’s goal is to reduce car traffic in the downtown core, not to convert drivers outright. Ideally, cyclists and drivers would learn to share without incident. Heaps, though, is skeptical about the partitioning of bike lanes on existing roads as an easy remedy. “Putting a bucket of paint on the road doesn’t make a safer bike corridor,” he says. “It comes down to mutual respect.”
Still curious, I contact Christopher Sumpton, co-producer of Pedal Power, a documentary recently commissioned by the CBC to examine the shifting tides of bike culture around the world. What would happen, I ask, if 10,000 public bicycles descended upon Toronto tomorrow? “I think it would work very well,” he answers. “Toronto is a city of cyclists.” Sumpton makes repeated references to cities like Paris, where the Vélib program generated 120,000 trips a day in its first year of operation. He says the “dramatic immediate effect” of a public bicycle system will be a societal awareness of cycling, a “push to the process of mental change that bikes are a serious part of the transit system.” Moreover, he says, more bicycles and less cars in the downtown core will improve the quality of street life; Torontonians will experience “more human interaction, with people able to stop at shops and cafés instead of going by in a bus or car.”
Still, Sumpton says any higher-order change to the city’s transportation system requires the support and acceptance of most its citizens, not just those who cycle. “That’s where it gets messy right now,” he allows. “When you unleash a greater number of cyclists on the roads, you have to have some sort of provision for them.” In the shadow of the Sheppard-Bryant affair, and with the debut of Toronto’s public bicycle system on the horizon, Sumpton believes the bike lane debate is a study in prevarication. “Sure, a public bike system really ups the ante for safe cycling. Ultimately, that means providing bike lanes. But bike lanes are shorthand for a lot of things: rational traffic systems, advanced stop lines. A lot of imagination has to be brought to bear,” he says.
Next, I call Richard Poplak, who has written about bike culture for Toronto Life magazine and is currently at work on a graphic novel about bicycle hoarder Igor Kenk, the “Fagin of Queen Street.” As an authority on sharing the roadway, Poplak’s credentials certainly pass muster — he estimates that between commuting and training as a UCI–licensed racer, he spends twenty-five hours every week on a bicycle. Poplak is doubtful that the riders who use Toronto’s new public system will amount to a meaningful increase in the number of regular bike commuters, or a meaningful decrease in the number of cars downtown. In the meantime, he calls for improved road infrastructure (“so that bicycles can safely traverse the streets without having to dodge lake-sized potholes”) and a large-scale safety campaign targeting cyclists and drivers alike. I ask whether Toronto’s public bicycle system should underwrite an expanded network of bike lanes, and can almost hear him shaking his head from the other end of the telephone line. “What bike lanes don’t do is enshrine cycling as a right,” he says. “What they do do, is enshrine the primacy of the car.” Like Heaps, Poplak believes cyclists should simply obey the rules of the road: no more rolling through red lights as they see fit. As well, motorists should recognize cyclists’ right to share their roadways. “Cyclists have the right to be everywhere except the 401 [highway] and the Don Valley Parkway. End of story,” he says. “We have rules — all we need to do is enforce them.”
Whether enforcing the rules will neutralize the discord remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that no one, whether they travel by car or by bicycle, has the prerogative to ignore where and how their fellow commuters take to the road. Just before he signed off, filmmaker Christopher Sumpton put it to me this way: “It’s like the weather. Everyone has to deal with transportation.” Poplak was more frank in the last email he sent me: “No matter how much you may loathe cyclists, you’d have to agree that something has to be done, and pretty fucking quickly. Painting white lines on the road and/or handing out bikes isn’t the solution. Making sure we all understand the rules of the game, however, is.”