Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2019/ Bicycle Infrastructure in the GTA

Bicycle Infrastructure (in the GTA)

A few weeks ago I followed through and cycled to Mississauga. In fact, I cycled all the way to Toronto, and because an incredibly generous reader (thanks Michael!) offered me a place to stay, I was able to spend the entire weekend there. Thus, I cycled both to and from Toronto, and along the way I encountered many different kinds of bicycle infrastructure. The trip helped solidify some of my opinions about good vs bad bike infrastructure. As a spiritual followup to my entry on bike lanes, I want to describe some of what I encountered, in descending order of preference.

Cadillac Separated Bike Paths

In Toronto proper there was some dedicated bike infrastructure, especially along Lake Ontario. Some of it was along Lakeshore Road, and some of it was on Queens Quay. This infrastructure consisted of entirely separated lanes for bicycles, including fully-signalized intersections. There was quite a bit of signage along the lanes encouraging riders to slow down when things got dangerous.

The path was mostly straightforward and well-connected. I was able to get from Etobicoke to downtown Toronto along these paths.

I call this "cadillac" infrastructure because it must be quite expensive to maintain. It was fine to use during the summer, but I wonder whether everything gets cleared in the winter.

Signage for these paths was pretty good overall, but I did get lost once or twice (in particular when the path swung away from Lakeshore onto Queen's Quay).

I did notice that not all cyclists obeyed the expensive bike signalling -- some rode through red lights without compunction. It is also noteworthy that a lot of joggers used these same paths, so you had to be careful (and slower) when using it. There were a few stretches where the path was shared by joggers, cyclists AND pedestrians, and I did not enjoy those stretches at all.

I now understand the vision that Waterloo Region planners (and the local bike zealots) have for bicycle infrastructure here. I even understand what they are going for with the ridiculous bike light that crosses Erb St going towards the Spurline trail, because it is the same type of bike signal used in Toronto. But I remain unconvinced that such infrastructure will happen here. Everything is too patchwork, and as I note below, having separated infrastructure is not good enough.

Painted Bike Lanes/Rural Shoulders

Honestly, I usually felt safest with a plain white painted line separating me from traffic, with the usual caveats that the bike lanes were clear, no cars were parked in them, and they did not suddenly end. One caveat I would add was that it felt important that these lanes were on the shoulder of the road, as opposed to in the middle of the road with car parking to the right. Any time I rode beside parked cars I got nervous, because drivers might open their doors suddenly (the infamous "door prize").

Here's the thing: the lanes usually were as clean as the car lanes, and furthermore cars respected the white painted lines. Having a painted lane meant that the street was wide enough for both cars and cyclists to travel side-by-side.

There was one section in Mississauga where the bike lane was deliberately closed so that cars could use it for parking (I think some local business was having its parking lot repaved.) That was irritating.

I consider paved shoulders on country roads to be pretty much the same as bike lanes (and -- at least in the Region of Waterloo -- it appears that they are intended to be used that way). As long as the shoulder is wide enough (half a bike lane is fine) and in good condition, I felt safe and comfortable cycling on paved shoulders.

Another important consideration was that there were no joggers in the bike lane, and for the most part I could travel at full speed.

Separated Bike Lanes in Etobicoke

Lakeshore Blvd in Etobicoke had some strange bike infrastructure: there were two bike lanes on the right side of the road, separated from the main street with a separated curb. In this sense they were similar to the Cadillac bike lanes, but without separate signalling. Instead of a separate curve, some places had vertical posts separating the bike lanes from the street (similar to the vertical poles used on some stretches of Blair Road in Cambridge).

I was worried about these at first, because passing other cyclists or swerving to avoid debris looked difficult. But because the bike lane was two lanes wide (one in each direction) and the lanes were not that busy, things worked out. Other cyclists could pass me on the left, so long as there was sufficient room.

I feel that this is also expensive infrastructure to maintain. It is also unintuitive and downright dangerous when there are transitions. When one is going down the bike lane and it suddenly ends, you have to go to the other side of the car road to continue your journey. That sucks.

Wide Roads

I got so frustrated by some of the recreational trail infrastructure in Mississauga (see below) that I started cycling right on Lakeshore Blvd, without any explicit bike infrastructure. This was not great, but it was okay because the streets were wide and traffic was not hideous. There were busy parts when lots of cars would pass me, but then stretches where there would be few cars to contend with. Furthermore, the cars were willing to give me my space so long as they had space to drive. When they did not have enough space then things got a little scary, although nobody came close enough when passing to really put me in danger.

Similarly, on going back home I found myself using Burnhamthorpe Road directly instead of the separated multi-use path, and it was fine.

The biggest problem with wide roads was that there was often car parking to the right, which again made me anxious about door prizes.

Wide roads are probably the scariest infrastructure for new and anxious road cyclists, but they are not that different from painted bike lanes. But the roads have to be wide enough to accomodate a car and a cyclist side by side, and the side of the road needs to be clear and well-paved.

I do not feel that rollover lanes (where the bike path is slightly elevated from the road, as is the case in Uptown Waterloo or on the West side of Columbia) are helpful at all.

Separated Multi-Use Trails

Now we get to the bike infratructure that I actively disliked. In Mississauga there are some long multi-use trails (along the Queensway and along Burnhamthorpe). I actively disliked these for three reasons:

The third reason was the killer. Dismounting and walking bicycles across intersections slowed me down immensely. It made me really grumpy and actively resentful, because car drivers never need to get out of their cars and push their vehicles across intersections. I would have to stop every few minutes because I hit another intersection.

The Queensway trail was particularly aggravating because it kept switching from one side of the road to the other, and there was not always adequate signage.

This bike infrastructure is expensive to maintain in the winter (so maybe it is not maintained) and actively unsafe (because intersections are dangerous). I can understand why they appeal to anxious new cyclists (just as riding on the sidewalk does) but I am even less enamoured of separated trails than I was before. Contrast this to the Cadillac bike lanes, which have much the same intention but are even more expensive. I think multi-use trails end up being the failure mode for planners who wish they had the money for Cadillac lanes.

Narrow or Busy Roads

Fortunately I mostly avoided these during my trip, but it really stresses me out when I am on a very busy street (think Homer Watson or Ottawa in Kitchener) and the lanes are not wide enough so that the cars can give me enough space. Then they try to squeeze past me, sometimes very close.

I tried to plan my trip to avoid these situations, and for the most part (except some parts of Derry Road in Milton) I succeeded.

Recreational Waterfront Trail

Ugh. There is supposedly a "Waterfront Trail" that runs from Mississauga to Toronto along Lake Ontario. I tried taking it for a stretch in Mississauga, and it was awful. For one thing it was not straightforward at all -- it veered from multi-use paths to residential streets. The signage was often bad, not clearly indicating which directions to go when there were forks in the path. The trails were recreational and thus shared with pedestrians and dog-walkers. It was slow to traverse at the best of times, and had so many twists and turns that it was bad for actual transportation.

Recreational trails are fine for recreation. But they are bad for transportation. This trail made me angry, which is why I ended up taking Lakeshore Blvd directly.

Conclusions and Other Thoughts

There was tonnes of bike infrastructure in Toronto. Some of it seemed scary, but a lot of it seemed okay. I cycled down Dundas St at night and felt pretty safe.

There were tonnes of people using the City of Toronto bikeshare. At least on the surface, the system appears to be well-used. Unfortunately I bet it costs the City a lot of money to run. But it was surprising (and encouraging) that a bikeshare system is working okay somewhere.

Honestly I am leaning towards relatively cheap, easy to maintain bicycle infrastructure. Unfortunately I am in the minority. All the city planners want Cadillac bike infrastructure, as do the bike zealots. But even in Toronto I only saw that kind of infrastructure alongside Lakeshore Blvd. Having that infrastructure was nice to go East-West in Toronto, but that is only one line. And let us not forget that it is slower than riding on the street in bike lanes.

I feel that whenever a city is refurbishing a street it should be wide enough to accomodate a car and a bicycle, regardless of whether a painted line exists between the two . I don't know what exactly should be done with on-street parking vs bike lanes, but cities should understand there is a conflict. Cities should endeavor to keep the lanes swept and clean of detritus (and snow!). None of this is trivially cheap, but it is likely cheaper than trying to build separate infrastructure everywhere.

When cities do build separated bike infrastructure, then it should not be shared with pedestrians. It should be well-marked and there should be good wayfinding so that people do not get lost while trying to follow the trail. It should be direct and well-connected. It should be maintained all year round. If cities cannot commit to these things then they cannot commit to actual separated bicycle infrastructure, and they should not pretend that they can.