Written by Robert McQuillan

After Smart Density’s recent “Out on the Town” bike tour, I’ve been reflecting on the state of cycling in Toronto. Is there such a thing as a bike lane NIMBY?

You’ve heard Naama talk about how NIMBYism stands in the way of achieving more housing in the city. In her mini-webinar, The Cost of Angular Planes, and her blog, How Angular Planes Perpetuate Toronto’s Housing Crisis, she discusses how strict policies for the development of new mid-rise and tall buildings reduce the number of homes that are added to the city’s housing supply.

 

In the mini-webinar, Why Height isn’t the Problem, and the blog, Design will make or break a neighbourhood–building height won’t, Naama talks about how opponents of new tall buildings get hung up on the number of storeys that are proposed, when they should really be focused on how well the building is designed to enhance neighbourhood character.

 

It has been said it before, and I’ll say it again: wealthy people who are fortunate enough to own single-family homes in the urban core are at the centre of Toronto’s NIMBY problem. They oppose adding density to existing neighbourhoods to preserve their privileged experience of the city. This comes at the expense of community members who need housing most.

 

With bike lanes, it’s the same story.

Robert McQuillan is riding his bike along the Yonge St bike lane

Case Study: ActiveTO on Yonge Street

 

Consider the ActiveTO Midtown Complete Street Pilot. Approved by City Council in April 2021, the project added protected bike lanes to Yonge Street between Bloor Street and Davisville Avenue by reducing four car lanes to two. This also freed up space for the expansion of curbside patios for several restaurants along the route.

 

The City released its road use statistics for the pilot project and the results are clear: build it and they will come. At the intersection of Yonge Street and Rowanwood Avenue, cycling increased by 193% between May 2021 and June 2022. Pedestrian activity dramatically increased too. Meanwhile, car travel times were not materially impacted by streetscape changes. During the midday period, it takes approximately 1.5 minutes longer to drive northbound than it did prior to the project’s installation. For the rest of the day, there has been a less than 1 minute change in car travel times. There were no spillover effects on adjacent routes either.

 

These are powerful facts that make the project a clear success for all road uses – cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers. Still, these facts haven’t stopped bike lane NIMBYs from trying to convince the City and the public otherwise.

Bike Lane NIMBYs

 

Opponents to the Yonge Street bike lanes have proposed some, shall we say, creative arguments against them. For example, they have suggested that adding bike lanes is bad for the environment. They say that reduced car lanes have caused congestion along the route which has resulted in vehicles idling for longer periods and increased emissions.

 

City of Toronto data shows that transportation, including the use of personal vehicles, represents the second most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Protected bike lanes offer a non-emitting option for getting around. Adding more car lanes to protect the environment is counterintuitive. Shifting away from auto-reliance should be the goal, and bike lanes help to facilitate the transition. Not to mention, the subway runs below Yonge Street too!

 

Another point advanced by bike lane NIMBYs is that emergency response vehicles are not able to respond quickly enough due to reduced space for cars. The Yonge Street project, however, was designed with standards supported by Toronto’s fire, paramedic, police and transit services. They have publicly stated that emergency response has not been impacted as a result of bike lanes.

 

Other opposition has stated that cyclists make the street more dangerous, that drivers shouldn’t be forced to spend their tax dollars on infrastructure they don’t want, and that schools in the area are harmed by increased cycling. All I can say is, seriously?

 

There is plenty of research to show that bike lanes make all road users safer, that they encourage an uptake in cycling, and that more cycling is better for the environment and human health.

 

The irony is that the more people ride their bikes, the more space there will be for the cars that remain. I wonder if the bike lane NIMBYs have ever considered that?

 

Standing in the way of Progress

 

These arguments are mere distractions from achieving progress and creating a truly equitable city for all. Bike lane NIMBYs – people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on expensive pieces of metal – should not control the way roads are used simply due to their cultural dominance. Why should someone with an expensive SUV have greater access to the street than someone who rides their bike instead?

 

I am not against the concept of cars. They are a useful tool in some circumstances, but like Naama and Misha have said, cars don’t have to be like shoes. In other words, they don’t need to be a tool that we rely on every day for movement. Just because some people in the urban core choose to drive every day rather than cycling, walking, or taking transit, it doesn’t mean that their right to public space should supersede everyone else’s.

 

We must ask ourselves, what type of city do we want to live in?

 

I want to live in a city where children can ride their bicycles to school without the fear of trucks and SUVs hitting them on the road. I want to live in a city with cleaner air and less vehicle emissions. I want to live in a city with vibrant streetscapes that support biking and walking.

 

The Yonge Street bike lanes have made my trips to school and work safer and more enjoyable. They have also inspired my friends and neighbours to take up cycling thanks to increased protection from vehicles along the route.

 

I believe we can achieve progress. Let’s not allow bike lane NIMBYs to stand in the way of sustainable transportation and street equity. If you care about cycling infrastructure in Toronto, tell your councillors and community leaders to stand up for all road users, including cyclists.