How pandemic bike lanes made some Canadian cities more accessible

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted Canadian cities to set up temporary bike lanes so more people can cycle, instead of being crammed into buses and subways in close contact with others. Cycling advocates want Canada to follow the lead of European cities and make these changes permanent.

Cycling advocates say temporary bike lanes should be made permanent

The coronavirus pandemic prompted Canadian cities, such as Toronto, to introduce temporary bike lanes to make it easier for people to cycle safely rather than drive or take transit. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Several Canadian cities set up temporary bike lanes to accommodate the pandemic cycling boom, and biking enthusiasts want the changes to stay.

According to a survey from Statistics Canada, more Canadians are now biking or walking to work than using public transit. After the pandemic began last year, many viewed cycling as a safer alternative to being crammed together with others in small spaces and increasing the potential risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Research from the University of Toronto published last month suggests the pandemic bike lanes improved access to jobs, parks and stores. Cycling advocates say the changes should be made permanent and expanded further — similar to what is being done in Europe. 

According to cycling advocacy organization Vélo Canada Bikes, several cities, including Moncton, Kitchener, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg have extended their bike lane networks since the pandemic began. 

In Montreal, Société du parc Jean-Drapeau, which runs the park area that includes Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame, opened a new, year-round cycling route this winter between the Jacques-Cartier and Concorde Bridges. 

In Calgary, 13 kilometres of roadway with vehicle traffic was temporarily closed to provide space for cyclists and pedestrians to use during the pandemic. 

In Toronto, 25 kilometres of new temporary bike lanes were approved in June 2020 through ActiveTO — an initiative that opened up streets for cyclists and pedestrians to have more space for physical distancing while spending time outdoors.

"These benefits are all temporary, and that's why we have an ongoing push to keep ActiveTO, retain the routes beyond 2021 and keep expanding," said Keagan Gartz, executive director of bike lobby group Cycle Toronto.

New bike lanes expand access

In the U of T study, researchers mapped the provincial capital's entire cycling network using city and survey data. It was discovered that the COVID-19 cycling lanes increased cyclists' road access to stores and jobs by 10.4 per cent to 22.3 per cent and increased access to parks by 6.3 per cent. 

New cycling lanes have made it easier to reach more areas of Toronto by bike. (Timothy Chan/University of Toronto)

"A little bit of new infrastructure can go a long way," said Timothy Chan, a U of T professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, who co-authored the study. "The bike lanes that were put in during the pandemic had a surprisingly big impact in terms of adding connectivity to the city." 

WATCH | COVID-19 prompts Toronto to expand bike lanes: 

Ride along Toronto's new bike lanes

2 years ago
Duration 5:14
Take a time-lapse ride-along tour of Toronto's streets that starts without bike lanes and then travels on some of the new cycling infrastructure the city has introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the study, the researchers classified each roadway based on how stressful it is to cycle on. Roads where a child might easily ride were ranked at the low end of the scale while dangerous, busy roads were pinned at the top. 

Using this ranking system, the researchers were able to measure the impact of new temporary bike lanes on accessibility.

Middle-class neighbourhoods benefit most

One of the other researchers leading the study, Shoshanna Saxe, said the areas with the most improved accessibility were those where new infrastructure built on existing networks.

"The places where we connect new bike lanes to old bike lanes are the places that benefit the most," she said. "And that means that places in parts of the city that didn't already have bike lanes are starting off a little bit farther behind. And so we need to build more for those parts of the city faster." 

Cities such as Vancouver made roadways more safe and accessible for cyclists. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Brian Pincott, executive director of Vélo Canada Bikes, said more work needs to be done to create equal access to cycling networks. 

"They were in places that were nice to go for a bike ride, not in more socio-economically challenged neighbourhoods," he said. "We have to look at cycling as a tool for equity so that lower-income neighbourhoods can access safe cycling infrastructure to get around." 

The federal government recently announced Canada's first active transportation fund in response to the need for safe, alternative transportation options. The $400-million National Active Transportation Fund will be spent over the next five years on projects such as new cycling paths and trails.

Bike lanes not always welcome 

However, not all efforts to expand bike lanes have been well received. 

The Vancouver Park Board recently met with criticism for approving to reinstate a temporary bike lane on Park Drive in Stanley Park. 

Last summer, the board opened up a lane dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians to make more room for physical distancing, restricting access to vehicles. The lane was later reconfigured to be shared between cyclists and cars as pandemic restrictions eased. 

Some argued that the addition of the new bike lane caused serious congestion as it forced the park's slow-moving horse-drawn carriages into a single car lane. Business owners in the area voiced concerns about customers being driven away by the closure. 

The public responded with 27,000-signature petition in September demanding the park board reverse the decision.

Pincott said that as municipalities develop new cycling infrastructure, they're learning more about which changes work.

"We can always make adjustments, but we have to be open to trying," he said.

Europe's investments in cycling 

U of T's Saxe said Canada should follow the lead of European cities in making temporary bike lane expansions permanent. 

"Around the world, we see examples of places that have said this is the future," she said. "This is how we get more people moving around in healthier, more environmentally-friendly ways. And Paris has been really leading the charge on that." 

According to the European Cyclists' Federation, 42 out of the 94 largest European cities have built new pandemic cycling networks and more than 400 kilometres of them are permanent.

The European Cyclists' Federation said 42 out of the 94 largest cities on the continent built new cycling networks during the pandemic. (Ida Marie Odgaard/Getty Images)

European cities have made significant investments in making it easier to travel by bike:

  • In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently made the expansion of 50 temporary bike lanes permanent. 

  • The European Cyclists' Federation's CO​VID-19 measures tracker shows that London, Milan and Granada, Spain, have put in the most cycling infrastructure since the pandemic began.

  • The British government announced funding last year for a new bus, cycling and walking initiative in England. That will provide 240 kilometres of permanent, protected bike lanes, as well as wider sidewalks, safer intersections and bus-only lanes by 2025. 

  • Kraków, Poland, introduced five kilometres of pop-up bike lanesand has developed a five-year plan to connect all the city's districts with the centre.

  • Brussels imposed a 30 km/hr speed limit through most areas of the city at the start of the year and is conducting feasibility studies for a network of fast bike highways linking the city centre and the suburbs.

  • Barcelona has accelerated the construction of 160 kilometres of new or expanded bike paths, which will bring its bike network to 305 kilometres by 2024. 


  • An earlier version of this story said the addition of a bike lane in Vancouver's Stanley Park forced cars, bikes, and horse-drawn carriages to share a single lane. In fact, bikes have their own lane while carriages and cars now share a single lane.
    Mar 18, 2021 12:17 PM ET