How the battle over Toronto's new, temporary bike lanes might play out in 2021

Streets filled with cyclists and pedestrians instead of cars have become a common sight in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are unanswered questions about the fate of the city’s new and much-expanded cycling network.

Bike lanes installed for the ActiveTO program are set to be reviewed by city council next year

Cyclists ride on Lakeshore Boulevard in June. Toronto has occasionally closed the road to vehicle traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of its ActiveTO program. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Streets filled with cyclists and pedestrians instead of cars have become a common sight in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are unanswered questions about the fate of the city's new and much-expanded cycling network.

This spring, the city began swiftly installing approximately 40 kilometres of new bike lanes and temporary road closures — including in high-traffic areas such as Dundas Street East, Bloor Street and University Avenue — as part of its ActiveTO program.

Early indicators suggest the program has been a resounding success. In late May, the city counted more than 30,000 cyclists and 10,000 pedestrians in select ActiveTO zones, though it has not yet conducted a second usage study.

"We have seen just an astounding response from people in Toronto," said Tamara Nahal, the community engagement manager for the advocacy group Cycle Toronto.

"We're seeing even more people riding their bikes to get groceries or to run errands in a way that feels safe and also kind of fun."

While preliminary statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest the program has been embraced by thousands of residents, the new infrastructure is technically only temporary and is due to be reviewed by city council sometime in 2021.

Already, advocates both for and against expanded bike lanes have started preparing their arguments.

'It's right for the city'

Cyclists like Nahal and Najia Zewari, co-founder of the Women's Cycling Network, see the success of ActiveTO as a sign of growing momentum in their push for expanded and improved cycling infrastructure.

Indeed, both of their groups are not only calling for the ActiveTO changes to be made permanent, but for further expansions into Toronto's inner suburbs and areas such as Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, where Zewari lives.

"There are many people, including women and children, who are commuting by bike and I feel that there's not enough space," Zewari said.

Nahal said Cycle Toronto has heard from many residents who have started cycling for the first time thanks to the new lanes. Her group plans on compiling some of those stories as it builds its case to keep the network in place beyond 2021.

Tamara Nahal, community engagement manager for Cycle Toronto, said the ActiveTO program has been even more popular than her group expected. (Tamara Nahal/Twitter)

Her group's plan, she said, is "to let [the city] know that we really need these bike lanes to stick around because they're so successful."

Both hope the continued presence of bike-filled lanes and roads will help bolster their case.

"I hope that even if they're not entirely convinced that it's right for them, they can see that it's right for the city," said Nahal of residents still on the fence about new bike lanes.

Suburban councillors remain unconvinced

But some opponents say the bike lanes were rushed and should not be made permanent and are hoping for a different reaction from Toronto residents.

"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, who is predicting increased congestion and pollution due to the newly installed bike lanes.

He also voiced concern that the program has not established a framework for accountability, which could make it difficult to gauge its success.

"A single additional bike can be used to declare victory," Minnan-Wong said.

Stephen Holyday, who also voted against the ActiveTO program in May, said he still doubts its long-term viability.

"I think a number of advocates for these types of changes used the COVID situation to their advantage to advance something at a far quicker speed than we're used to in Toronto," said Holyday, who represents Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre.

"Once they're installed they're very hard to remove, so we have to be very, very careful installing some of these measures," he added, suggesting cycling advocates used the pandemic as an "excuse" to push through the changes without proper public consultation.

Both councillors also suggested that measuring ActiveTO's success during warm summer days does not account for the fact that bike lane usage will decline in the winter.

Zewari dismissed those points, and said good and properly maintained infrastructure is beneficial all year round and to many residents across the city.

"I will not buy their arguments," she said.