Home > News

What motorsport columnist Norris McDonald got wrong in his criticism of Toronto’s new bike lanes

Cycle Toronto explains why cycling infrastructure is important during a pandemic and beyond

Photo by: Cycle Toronto

On Sunday, June 6, Norris McDonald—an “industry-leading” motorsport columnist and the former editor of the Toronto Star ‘Wheels’ section—published his opinion on the 40 kms of new bike lanes in Toronto. The opinion piece, titled “Council added 40 kms of bike lanes when nobody was looking” offers a fascinating view on the perspective of someone who isn’t educated on the importance of cycling infrastructure. As of June 7, the opinion piece has 322 likes on Twitter and 689 replies—most of which tear the article apart.

Though it’s easy to dismiss the article as the ranting of a stubborn cyclist-hating driver, a more compassionate take would be to assume the author is so far removed from bike culture that he simply has no idea why these lanes are being made. With the help of Michael Longfield, interim executive director of Cycle Toronto, let’s break down a few of the misconceptions published by McDonald. Though some of these points are specific to Toronto, most of the discussion is applicable to any Canadian municipality (and may be helpful if you ever encounter your own Norris McDonald)

Years in the making

In his piece McDonald calls the fast-tracking of new 40km of bike lanes, “just the sort of thing you slide through when people aren’t paying attention,” citing the pandemic as a distraction. “Contrary to what he implies, this isn’t something that happened overnight,” says Longfield. “All the lanes were part of the city’s cycling network plan that was voted on years ago.” Municipalities across the globe have taken action to implement emergency bike lanes as a means of safe transit and social distancing during the pandemic. Toronto was, in terms of other Canadian cities, actually somewhat late to respond to calls for emergency infrastructure changes.

“Toronto and cities around the world are having to rethink how streets work,” says Longfield. One of the biggest parts of the development will be bike lanes along Danforth, connecting with the recently installed Bloor bike lanes and running parallel to one of the city’s major subway lines. The new design for the lanes will include accommodations for patios. It reimagines the street as a space to buy food, eat outside and shop locally. People who used to pass under the street on the subway will now bike by local businesses and contribute to the local economy’s recovery effort.

Commuters use bike lanes

Citing a Toronto.com article, McDonald says that bike lanes won’t help commuters during the pandemic as there are no commuters. “Somebody should tell council that nobody is at work during the crisis, including them,” he says. “They did this while holding a virtual meeting.”

It should not have to be said that there are people currently working. These new bike lanes are intended to create a more connected network for essential workers, helping them get across the city more safely. They will also benefit those who aren’t commuting by bike.

“One third of all trips in Toronto are less than 5km,” says Longfield. “Not everybody can commute to work, but they might ride their bike to get groceries or for mental and physical health.” He notes that the urgently needed bike lanes haven’t been created to force everyone to bike. They increase safety for those who choose to ride, and make cycle commuting a more appealing choice, thus reducing the number of Toronto transit riders and hopefully keeping public transit below 30 per cent capacity. “Every person on a bike is one less person on transit, which gives the people that don’t have the option to bike more space.”

Winter biking

When discussing a concept for a car-free road circling Toronto, McDonald says, “Will somebody please tell these people that this is not California. We live in Canada. Even in a good winter, it is either too cold to ride a bike or there is snow on the ground five months of the year. Sometimes six.”

A recent study found that winter cycling is no less safe than summer cycling. “A 5-6 km trip is about 10-15 minutes outside,” says Longfield. “Not much longer than waiting for a bus. As long as bike lanes are safely cleared, winter cycling is very possible in Toronto.” We need only to look towards another, colder, Canadian city to see that winters aren’t a big deal. Montreal already had more protected bike lanes than Toronto before the pandemic, and the city continues to grow its network at a rapid rate.

The downtown cyclists

“Downtown, in the old city of Toronto, is where the cyclists live,” says McDonald. “Most on council forget that Toronto is a megacity. It is more than the Lake up to Bloor and Parliament in the east over to Bathurst. It’s the Rouge River to the 427 and north to the 407 (approx.) and if you’re living out there and working downtown you are not going to ride your bike.”

In a way, Longfield actually agrees with this statement. “We need to ensure these lanes are rolled out and successful, but we also need to expand the program for cyclists outside of downtown. The 40km announced are really important but it doesn’t complete the network. We need to create more temporary and permanent protected bike lanes and quiet streets” he says. He suggests lanes in places like Etobicoke, “where there are some of the busiest busses and a high number of COVID cases and wealth disparity.”

In many major Canadian cities, low-income communities on the edge of the city have much less cycling infrastructure, despite many locals commuting by bike out of necessity.

40km is just a beginning

The ActiveTO program has temporarily closed some major Toronto streets to vehicles. Longfield says riding down Toronto’s  three-laned Lakeshore Boulevard feels euphoric. “These measures help build a strong framework and add a crucial component to boost the network,” he says, “but I think the city is also acknowledging that bikes are important for mental health. What a joyous space it is—people are able to ride or walk with kids while staying physically distanced, safe and free of traffic.”

McDonald has some learning to do, but that’s ok. The pandemic has, and will continue to, cause major disruptions and changes of most of our lives. Now is an important time to learn why bike lanes can make commuting safer for everyone, how targeted advertising works, and why adding more bike lanes doesn’t mean you’ll be forced to give up driving and bike up to a “noninsulated cabin north of Kenora for a January vacation.” Just like European cities, such as Paris, cars can still exist while cycling thrives.