City staff recommend Yonge Street bike lanes to be made permanent despite local pushback
City councillors are set to tackle a controversy today that’s been brewing in the Toronto’s midtown neighbourhood: Whether cycle tracks installed on Yonge Street as a pilot project should be made permanent.
On one side are cyclists and their advocates who say the lanes make for a healthier, safer ride. On the other, local residents and drivers who say the lanes — which have reduced Yonge Street in some parts of the busy neighbourhood from four lanes to two — are actually creating a safety hazard and unprecedented traffic jams.
“Our streets are completely gridlocked and chaotic,” Trevor Townsend, founder of BeRationalTO.com told CBC Toronto.
“Our biggest concern is the fire trucks and ambulances being able to get through the gridlock. We now have one northbound and one southbound lane in this neighbourhood.”
His group says the bike lanes would make more sense on Avenue Road.
The separated bike lanes at issue in Monday’s infrastructure and environment committee meeting were installed on Yonge Street between Bloor Street and Davisville Avenue in the summer of 2021 as part of the Active TO Midtown Complete Streets Pilot.
Staff say in a report that their analysis indicates the bike lanes, which are separated from traffic by concrete curb blocks and plastic stanchions, have been a success, and should be made permanent.
Robin Richardson, a spokesperson with Yonge4All and owner of an e-bike rental service, disputes the idea that gridlock on Yonge near St. Clair has become constant, or that reducing traffic to one lane in each direction is a negative.
“Bike lanes obviously make it safer for people who ride bicycles. They also make it safer for pedestrians. And believe it or not, they also make it safer for drivers,” said Richardson.
“Sometimes on roads that have two lanes of traffic in each direction, drivers are just trying to get ahead, so they weave in and out and they cut you off. But when you’ve got a single lane going in each direction, everybody proceeds in an orderly single file fashion,” she said.
Her group started an online petition last year calling on the city to make the lanes permanent. As of Jan. 29 that petition garnered more than 8,500 names. A petition by BeRationalTO.com had also gathered just over 6,000 names in roughly the same time period.
More than 1,100 letters sent to city staff
Richardson who lives in the area, says local businesses and residents’ associations support her group’s call to make the project permanent — and at least seven residents associations in the neighbourhood have written to council supporting the lanes.
In one of those letters, the Brentwood Towers Residents Association writes: “Our neighbourhood has been transformed with this pilot. Simply walking on the sidewalks down Yonge street is a much more enjoyable experience for many in our community thanks to this Midtown Complete Street Pilot program and the CafeTO developments.
“The new cycle tracks have decreased crossing distances at lights and provided a buffer between the sidewalk and car
traffic. Tenants now feel safe riding their bicycles on Yonge Street to get groceries, visit the library, or go to work,” it reads.
The letter is among more than 1,100 city staff have received in the lead-up to Monday’s meeting. As well, dozens of people are expected to be at the meeting in person to speak in favour of or against the bike lanes.
City staff say their research supports the idea that the lanes have been good for cyclists and pedestrians, while causing just slight delays for motorists.The report includes numbers gathered by an outside consultant, which were then analyzed by city transportation staff.
Travel times increased by average of 70 seconds: report
According to the staff report, cycling trips in the corridor have increased between 57 per cent and 250 per cent in the past 18 months, while pedestrian traffic is between 59 per cent and 145 per cent. Despite complaints from some local residents, who say traffic congestion on Yonge has become unbearable since the cycle tracks were installed, the staff report says travel times for cars in the corridor have increased by an average of 70 seconds.
The report says emergency vehicles are also largely unaffected.
But despite the glowing report from city staff, some local residents associations and businesses are questioning the accuracy of the report’s conclusions.
Townsend, as well as some residents associations and the Rosedale Business Improvement Area, all say the staff finding that congestion has not seriously increased, and that emergency services are unaffected, is the opposite of what they’ve been experiencing.
He said he has received threatening phone calls, and his group’s signs have been uprooted and tossed into the garbage.
In a letter to council, the Rosedale BIA writes: “The increase in traffic congestion, limited parking and extended travel times deters customers from coming to the area.
“Merchants have expressed concern about the validity of the traffic data in the latest ActiveTO report, which doesn’t align with the significant congestion that is visually apparent on a daily basis,” the letter reads.
Safety, well-being of locals ‘compromised’
The South Rosedale Residents Association said in a letter to councillors that firefighters have informally complained to them about the congestion since the pilot project kicked off.
“[Local emergency services] are all experiencing frustration with the gridlock on Yonge Street,” director Julia Clubb writes. “One experienced fireman said ‘it is going to take someone dying for this to be changed.'”
“It is concerning that the safety and well-being of the residents of Toronto are being compromised in favour of underutilized bike lanes.”
Despite city stats that show an increase in bike lane use, Townsend questioned how many of those riders are using bicycles compared to the number using electric bikes, or motorized scooters.
As for the increase in pedestrian traffic, staff point out that those numbers could be a reflection of the fact that people were simply getting out more, as pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Former city councillor and TTC chair Karen Stintz, who lives north of the pilot area, has also objected.
“As a cyclist, the bike lanes on these streets that are intended to create a safe environment for cyclists fall short. The bike lanes are often blocked by delivery vehicles making deliveries,” Stintz said in article in the North Toronto Post.
“The onstreet parking creates a situation where cyclists can be hit by a person opening a door, and the ebikes speed through the lanes.”
Jesse Coleman, the city’s manager of transportation data and analytics, said he stands by the numbers in the staff report. But he said the travel times given for motorists using Yonge Street “are averaged over months.
“There are definitely some days that are better or worse, some hours that are better or worse,” he said. “It doesn’t show the ups and downs that happen every day.”
Council to make final decision next week
Coleman added that during counts, the city’s researchers did not distinguish between traditional bicycles, e-bikes and motorized scooters.
Coun. Brad Bradford, city council’s most ardent cycling advocate said he supports the bike lanes on Yonge through Midtown. And for those who say they’re frustrated with the project, Bradford is advising patience.
“I think it’s a work in progress … it’s never perfect,” he told CBC Toronto.
“That’s how I would describe it … one of the challenges was with the left-hand turns, so we introduced four different intersections with dedicated left hand turns and that helped a lot.”
Whatever today’s committee decision, it will be up to council, at its February 6 meeting, to give a final thumbs up — or thumbs down — to the Midtown bike lanes.
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