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Canada’s bike lane boom comes with growing pains

Confused drivers, angry councillors and reduced parking are bumps in the road

Photo by: Steve Bilicki

Across Canada and the world, municipal councils have finally begun to embrace the importance of creating safe cycling networks. Bikes offer a socially distanced mode of transit and exercise—the current bike boom is a reflection of the important role they are playing in a rapidly changing world.

In Toronto, 40km of bike lanes were fast-tracked and are in the process of being installed. ActiveTO, a program which closes major streets on the weekends for cyclists to enjoy, saw 30,000 cyclists and 10,000 pedestrians on one of its first weekends open. Calgary has also closed major roads on weekends for cyclists. Montreal announced plans to add 327 kilometres of bike paths and pedestrian lanes this summer. Halifax has also announced it will be investing in new bike lanes. Vancouver has opened up the street to cyclists in Stanley park. In Winnipeg, active transportation routes were created that limit vehicular traffic to one block.

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In summary, things are starting to look up for Canadian cyclists. Patchworks of non-connected bike lanes are turning into rideable networks. Protected bike lanes are on the rise and the increased number of cyclists on the road are making cycling safer for everyone. Unfortunately, these improvements don’t come without the expected push back and a level of adaptation.

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Growing pains

In Victoria B.C., despite the pandemic, an Oak Bay bike lane expansion has been met with a similar level of vocal criticism often encountered in the municipality. Because of the massive financial impact of the virus, Vancouver is also looking at delaying, scaling back or even giving up on capital projects including bike lanes.

On the East coast, Joe Beef restaurant owner David McMillan successfully blocked a plan to remove parking spaces on Notre-Dame Street after he posted a series of angry Tweets.

In Toronto, some council members are opposed to making the new bike lanes permanent. “Taking two lanes of traffic out of University Avenue will be a disaster when we get back to normal,” said deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong. He predicts increased congestion and pollution due to the newly installed bike lanes. As evidenced by a few Twitter videos, some Toronto drivers are also struggling to understand how bike lanes work.

A closing window of opportunity

Canadian cities are having some trouble adapting to the rapid changes to streets amidst the global pandemic and its economic impact, but many argue that bike lanes are a high priority right now, and not just because of the increased number of cyclists. 

At a recent Kitchener On. regional council meeting a proposal to create 24km of bike lanes throughout the region was debated. Arguing against those who opposed the proposal Regional Chair Karen Redman emphasized the importance of installing the bike lanes as soon as possible. Because traffic is still significantly lower than normal Redman says there is a closing window of opportunity for these bike lane installations and urged councillors to take it before traffic was back to its full volume.

Adapting to a ‘new normal’ isn’t easy for anyone—it will and has been be frustrating for councillors, drivers and those who loose their parking. Cyclists are used to being pushed to the side and waiting years for delayed bike lanes but, as motions finally begin to pass and there are visible improvements to infrastructure, the momentum for bike advocacy (and against frustrated drivers) is picking up as well.

In [edit: Saint John], the non-profit group Saint John Cycling just proposed a $2.5-million project to make some streets in the city safer for cyclists and pedestrians. In B.C. the fine for dooring cyclists has been quadrupled. With the backing of scores of new cyclists, Calgary cycling advocates are pushing for more way-finding signage along bike paths. Despite pushback and growing pains, Canadian bike path networks are getting bigger and more use than ever. Now all that remains to be seen is if the momentum can be carried through the winter and into post-pandemic times.