Bloor Bike Lanes: Changes Coming After Data Hints at Impacts

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Launched last August, the Bloor Street bike lane pilot project made a long-awaited piece of Toronto’s cycling network a reality—at least, a temporary one. Eagerly anticipated by the cycling lobby and demonized by the car lobby in equal measure, the relatively simple and inexpensive proposed infrastructure became a proxy battleground for a much larger ideological schism. Now, however, with the first set of data analyzing the $0.5 million pilot project made public, a preliminary look at the impacts provides an empirical basis for evaluating the costs and benefits of bike lanes on Bloor.

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The new bike lanes during the project’s official launch in August of 2016, image by Stefan Novakovic

According to the City of Toronto’s new report, the number of cyclists using the bike lanes has increased by 36 per cent. Some 3,300 cyclists travelled the 2.6-kilometre stretch of Bloor between Avenue Road and Shaw Street in mixed traffic before the bike lanes were installed, with the number quickly rising to 4,500 after the dedicated lanes were put in. Unsurprisingly, separated bike lanes—which are safer and more comfortable for riders—appear to have had a strong effect in encouraging a higher volume of cyclists.

The City also reports that approximately 25% of the total increase in volume is attributed to new cyclists, who switched from other modes. While the improved infrastructure has attracted relatively substantial new users, most of the growth is the result of cyclists choosing to divert from other routes, particularly Harbord and Dupont streets.

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The pilot area, showing typical cross-section widths, image via City of Toronto

For drivers, however, the installation of bike lanes has contributed to longer driving times, and decreased traffic volumes. During both the morning and afternoon peak periods, a noticeable increase in travel times was recorded. Eastbound, the morning and afternoon “rush hour” travel times increased by 4 and 3 minutes respectively. Westbound, travel times increased by some 8.5 minutes during the morning peak, and approximately 2.5 minutes in the afternoon. The volume of cars also decreased from an average of roughly 24,500 to about 20,000, marking a 22% decline. Notably, however, cars did not follow the same-routing patterns as bicycles, with no corresponding uptick in volume along Dupont and Harbord.

There are intangible impacts too. In addition to measuring travel times and multi-modal traffic volumes, the City also analyzed public perception of the project, as well as the effect on street-fronting businesses. Perhaps the most striking change in perception comes from drivers. A year prior to the installation (in 2015), only 14% of Bloor Street motorists surveyed reported feeling comfortable driving next to cyclists in mixed traffic. Following the installation, 63% of surveyed motorists described feeling comfortable driving next to cyclists along the 2.6-kilometre stretch.

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The City’s report cites broad support for the project, image via City of Toronto

Following the pilot project’s installation, 1,530 surveys were collected from local residents and business owners. 64% of respondents feel that the benefits of safer and more efficient cycling infrastructure are worth the impacts to traffic flow and parking. Meanwhile, the 10,800 online surveys collected from the general population offer further insight into public opinion.

Reflecting the section bias that often comes with such polls, 8,100 of the respondents identified as cyclists: 92% agreed that the trade-offs of installing the bike lanes were worthwhile. By contrast, among 2,300 respondents who identified as drivers who do not bike, only 34% agreed that the bike lanes were a net positive, with a further 6% assessing the impacts as neutral. Finally, the majority of the 810 respondents who walk—but do not cycle—responded positively, with 73% agreeing that the trade-offs yielded an overall positive result, while 4% responded neutrally.

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Intersection rendering, showing the new bike lanes, image via City of Toronto

Responding to the data, the City has announced a series of traffic flow improvements to help optimize the street’s functionality. Given Bloor’s intersection layouts, signal timing, and signage, were designed for a street without separated bike lanes, the hope is that modifying these elements will make the street more efficient. Accounting for a change in urban design that impacts all users of the street, the City’s changes could offset some of the impacts on cars while continuing to better serve cyclists and pedestrians.

Alongside turn restrictions at some intersections, the City will implement time of day restrictions to parking and loading, as well as changes to signange, line marking, flexi-posts and rubber parking curbs. The City is also undertaking a “review of cycle track design at intersection approaches in order to facilitate left and right turning movements.” According to the City, the changes are set to be implemented over the next two months, with operational improvements made “as soon as predictable.”

Although the early data already points to strong impacts, any conclusions that can be drawn so far remain fairly preliminary. Monitoring of the corridor and its surroundings will continue over the coming months, with the next data set—scheduled for release in June—slated to evaluate economic impact, parking, and safety, along with continued monitoring of public perception. A series of 23 cameras were placed throughout the area to evaluate traffic before the bike lanes were installed (establishing a baseline for comparison), with over 5,000 hours of footage set to be analyzed before a final report assessing the pilot project’s impacts is presented to the City’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee.

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A look at the 23 camera sites around the 2.6-kilometre stretch, image via City of Toronto

As it stands, the data so far provides ammunition for both supporters and and detractors. However, the “operational tweaks” made in the coming months could spell a “real reduction” in traffic time for drivers, according the the City’s Manager of Operational Services, Barbara Gray, who was recently interview by the CBC. Meanwhile, Ward 20’s Joe Cressy—a strong supporter of the project—told the Toronto Star that the “early data shows that there has been a very positive response but of course it’s a work in progress.” Cressy has touted a data-centric approach to evaluating the project, channeling former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mantra of “in G-d we trust, everyone else bring data,” at the pilot project’s Summer launch.

For supporters of the project—and of cycling in general—the hope is that the data collected will unambiguously point to net benefits. For cycling advocates, the associated economic benefits to local businesses, street life, safety, public health, and overall congestion, makes the provision of good cycling infrastructure an obvious priority. Yet, in a place as politically divided as Toronto, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, no matter the study’s results, the issue will not be quietly put to bed. Not when it continues to be made into such a potent microcosm of our larger debate about who—and what—the city is really for.

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More information about the Bloor Street pilot project is available via the City of Toronto’s official website. A full copy of the report, which was released today, is also linked here.

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