by Mike Beggs
On June 9, 2016, Toronto Council approved its ambitious 10-Year Cycling Network Plan, designed, “to connect, grow and renew infrastructure for Toronto cycling routes,” -- and as Mayor John Tory put it, “to help Toronto residents who cycle save money, improve their health and well-being, and reduce congestion in our city.”
And according to a recent count conducted by the advocacy group Bells on Bloor, the response has been ‘phenomenal’. As reported by Metro, the group’s week-long tracking found an average of 6,000 riders per day are using the new separated Bloor street bike path (which runs from Shaw St. to Avenue Rd.), a year-long pilot project up for renewal by the City in mid-October.
While apparently popular with cyclists, however, on our streets, the cycling initiative has created some level of confusion -- and added tension -- between bikes and cars, including taxis.
“Well, it’s more and more pressure on the cab industry, especially when there is no training and there’s no education for the public,” says Sajid Mughal, president of the iTaxiworkers Association.
“It’s not that we don’t like the bike lanes. There’s no proper education. None.”
While initially cabs were among those vehicles allowed to do drop-offs or pickups in bike lanes, according to Mughal, under Tory’s most recent crackdown on gridlock, that exemption has been waived, and they are now subject to a $150 fine, and points -- creating just one more headache for Toronto’s downtrodden taxi drivers. (The City of Toronto did not respond to Taxi News’s interview request by press time).
“The cab driver is getting hassled for everything,” he adds.
“I’m on Sherbourne Street, if I stop in the bike lane it’s a $150 ticket. But if I stop in the (regular traffic lane), everybody is honking and screaming. You have to drop the customer where they want -- not around the corner on a side street. What can I do?
“And now everyone wants to pay by credit card. Obviously, it takes some time, and you can’t do anything (about that),” he continues. “So the Police come and give you a ticket. The cop can see the customer is still in the car.”
On the Union Station stand, owner/operator Mohammed Ahmed says matter-of-factly, “It’s not working.”
“The problem is driving with customers,” he says. “We can drive side by side (ordinarily), but what about when we load and unload the customers. Every time we get a dirty look. They bang the car.
“We don’t oppose the bikes, but this city it’s not a bike city. We are not in The Netherlands. We are in Toronto. Don’t copy, just do your own thing.”
And, he finds the downtown traffic is “three or four times worse than 10 years ago”, only exacerbated by the addition of approximately 40,000 licensed Uber X cars.
When asked how this new program is working, a seven-year man named Danny responds, “Terrible. They think they own the road. They hate the cars.
“If you’re close to the sidewalk, the cyclists get upset. Sometimes you can’t see them, and all of a sudden they come up to you.”
However, cyclists say it works both ways, with some motorists still not aware or respectful of their space, and rights.
“It’s very busy, and you’ve got to be careful,” says a regular bike lane user named Katie, on Bay Street.
“I’ve had a lot of friends who have been hit by car doors being opened (by drivers without looking), you fly over your handlebars. I’ve had a couple of very close calls.”
While cycling is her chosen mode of transportation, she finds the new separated lanes aren’t all that helpful when it’s busy.
“It’s very slow, because of all of a sudden the bike lane will stop. And you have to avoid parked cars,” she explains.
In turn, she finds cabbies and Uber drivers often cut corners.
“They’re just very annoying. They bend the rules a lot,” she adds.
Likewise for Bill, a bike courier for the past 26 years, the new lanes haven’t proven to be much of a boon.
“It has not helped my job. There are more people ending up in bike lanes -- before it was only cars (to deal with). There are not that many good rookie cyclists, they don’t know how to ride,” he says.
“At certain times of day (the bike lanes) are an improvement, but during rush hour they fill up and they’re no good to me. I just ride with (the regular) traffic.”
But he says cycling is “absolutely” the way go in getting around downtown. And he finds drivers are finally becoming cognizant of cyclists.
“People are actually starting to learn to use their mirrors when they open their car doors. But it took many years,” he relates.
According to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, riding a bike does not require a license, or special permit. However, cyclists are required to follow traffic rules, obey signs, and use hand signals, and can be stopped and fined by Police officers – while not receiving demerit points on their license.
Drivers are required to: yield for cyclists when making a right hand turn; to signal, check their mirrors and blind spots so they don’t cut off a bike; and to give 1 metre of space when passing a cyclist. They are subject to fines -- and demerit points!
Toronto’s designated bike lanes (as found on Bloor, Richmond Streets, etc.) have white poles separating the bike lane from the roadway. There are also painted bike lanes (in green), and checkered bike lanes, with less stringent rules. The City has posted information online about “Understanding Bicycle Lanes” at Toronto.ca/cycling.
Toronto’s Cyclists Handbook warns that, “Even though they have the right of way, cyclists should be aware that motorists making a right hand turn may not actually see them. And drivers must realize cyclists don’t just come out of nowhere.”
Along with the lack of clearly defined rules, comes complaints of slack enforcement efforts. Cyclists say delivery vans and the like continue to get away with illegal stops, while drivers counter that cyclists often run through red lights and stop signs if there is no traffic.
Bikes were involved in about 1,200 accidents in Toronto in 2016.
In a November of 2015 interview, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (who commutes in from Scarborough daily on his bike) told CBC, “one percent of drivers are lazy and inconsiderate, and put people’s lives at risk” by stopping in bike lanes.
“These drivers don’t realize that, when (cyclists) have to swerve around a car or a truck because the bike lane is blocked, they’re going into traffic,” he said.
He urged drivers to pay more respect to bike lanes, “And if you want to go to the variety store, go around the corner and park your car. It’s not too much to ask.”
While separated bike lanes may increase the comfort and safety factor for new cyclists, they have proven to be a source of frustration for more experienced riders.
“I wish it was a little wider, but it’s better than nothing. It’s pretty much single file,” says one daily bike commuter, who uses the Bloor Street bike lane to get across town.
And while it can be dangerous out there – and he has been knocked off his bike once -- he finds cyclists and motorists are gradually getting on better terms.
“My theory is to obey all the laws,” he says. “If it’s a red light, I don’t go through. That just gets people in a car thinking. Incrementally, it’s going to make people aware.”
But he sees cyclists doing some crazy things downtown.
“I’m living by the rules,” he adds. “I think if all cyclists did that there would be less tension between cyclists and cars.”
He agrees if you live close to downtown, it’s quicker to get around on bike.
“And, the more bike lanes they put in, the warmer winter gets, the more people will use lanes,” he adds. “On Bloor, I pass the same cars (stuck in traffic) every day.”
But Toronto taxi plate-holder Thomas Stern has little time for bikes on the road.
“I think they’re extremely dangerous, and they’ve taken away from the driver lanes (and parking spaces) for the city,” he offers. “They keep saying there’s a lot of congestion downtown. (But in non-rush hour), I don’t think there’s five bikes going down these lanes -- and you’ve closed them down to vehicles.”
He contests that, “You can’t bike in this climate, when we have six to nine months of really cold weather. It’s not practical. If you live in England (or continental Europe), they don’t get as much snow, and the countries are smaller.”
Mississauga resident Doug Ellis beefs that while motorists must pay taxes on the purchase of their vehicle, their driver’s license, insurance, gas, and repairs, cyclists pay taxes on next to nothing.
“Taxpayers pay for these bike lanes,” he says. “And, you read about a bicyclist hit by a car, he’s got no insurance to pay for it, no ID on the bike, no plate number so you can phone your insurance company to find out who he is.
“It‘s totally unfair. They’re supposed to obey the same rules as car drivers, but they don’t.”
However, the commitment to cycling is a Canada-wide trend, and Toronto Council is poised to keep building up the infrastructure. Witness the recent expansion of its Bike Share Toronto program, which has added another 70 bike stations (with the help of increased federal and provincial funding). Designed to “transform the way that Torontonians move, and work”, this program now numbers 270 bike stations, 2,750 bikes, and 4,200 docks.
And while the car-bike wars will continue, cyclists say it would go a long way if drivers would just learn to chill out a bit on our streets.
As one gently reminds them, “You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”
City’s expanding bike network creates added challenges for harried taxi operators