My morning commute during summers in high school started at 5:45 a.m. While it was still dark outside, I loaded my lunch into my backpack and cycled the gravel roads toward work: past the cows and the turkey farm, down the hill away from the unleashed dog and between the ripening cornfields. About an hour after leaving my home in Princeton, Ontario, I arrived in Brantford, 30 kilometres away, to start my 7 a.m. shift at a long-term care facility.
Many other commutes followed as I moved to Ottawa and then Gatineau, Quebec. I also spent three summers guiding bike tours around different areas of Canada. So when I first came to Toronto to attend U of T’s Faculty of Law, I never dreamed my five-kilometre commute would affect me in the ways it did.
I have always loved bicycles, and the freedoms they provide: freedom from paying for gas, from bus schedules and even from my asthma symptoms as my fitness improved. Even more, I love what bicycles do for other people, for communities and for the Earth. I know that cycling helps combat obesity, heart disease and air pollution. I see people from very different walks of life lock up their bikes at the same rack while sharing a friendly good morning. I have seen others develop a respect for nature while mountain biking.
But within a few months of moving to Toronto, my trusty two-wheeled steed was knocked out from under me by a right-turning motorist, and I was sent skidding sideways down the pavement of Bloor Street. Four more hits, scrubs and nicks occurred over the following seven months. Then, on October 19, 2006, I was struck by a car door that a driver opened into my path. I was riding on Queen Street, in that narrow space where cyclists have no other choice but to ride, between the streetcar tracks to my left and the parked cars to my right. I was thrown over the car door and landed several metres away, in a crumpled heap in the middle of the streetcar tracks.
In the months that followed – as I began what would be years of physiotherapy and chiropractic treatments, battles with the insurance company and legal proceedings – I researched how and why cycling safety in Toronto is in its current state. I was shocked to learn that around 1,200 cyclists report being hit on Toronto’s streets every year – and up to 90 per cent of car-bike collisions are unreported. I was even more shocked to learn that the city has mapped, charted and studied the locations and causes of these car-bike collisions for over a decade (most of which occur on the main east-west arterials). There are also studies from around the world that indicate which road measures improve cycling safety (such as physically separated bike lanes and coloured bike lanes) and which do not (such as sharrows and bike lanes delineated only by painted white lines). Yet, the City of Toronto has not used this information to truly improve safety.
The law does not allow such a failure: provincial planning laws and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe require municipalities to facilitate sustainable transportation and to plan their streets to allow for safe travel for cyclists. The City of Toronto, however, rarely makes any reference to these laws when engaging in road reconstruction projects. It simply asserts that a given redesign will improve cycling safety despite all evidence to the contrary.
Torontonians have called on their city for action. In May, 2,000 cyclists rode their bikes at Bells on Bloor, the largest cycling-advocacy ride in Toronto’s history. Cyclists are out in full force at public consultations and environmental assessments for street reconstructions. But it is time cyclists began demanding more than lip service: we are not interested in painted white lines on quiet side streets – we need safe bike lanes on the streets we use. How much longer Toronto will ignore these calls for change remains to be seen. Change is inevitable. The death and injury of cyclists on Toronto streets is not.
Kristen Courtney (JD/Cert. Env. St. 2008) is a lawyer and a founding member of Bells on Bloor.
Map of Toronto cycling accidents, 2008 (via thestar.com maps)