Biking in a protected bike lane on Bloor street, by the quirky Bata shoe museum. Toronto has installed over 17,000 of it’s distinctive post-and-ring bike racks. Photo: John Greenfield
This article also ran in the Chicago Reader weekly newspaper.
Toronto’s late mayor Rob Ford was notorious for his cocaine consumption, but there were some other white lines he didn’t care for. The Chris Farley-esque politician, who famously called bicyclists “a pain in the ass to motorists,” made a point of having existing bike lanes removed to create more room for cars. This led to a memorable showdown in 2012, when protesters temporarily stopped the removal of the Jarvis Street bike lanes by laying down in the street to block the pavement-scraping machine.
But when I visited “the Six” (as Toronto native Drake calls the city) earlier this month, I found that post-Ford Toronto is a highly bikeable place. It even has a network of high-quality protected bike lanes with features that Chicago would be wise to emulate.
In some ways Toronto is a parallel universe to Chicago. They’re both cold, northern cities on Great Lakes, with consistent street grids and generally flat terrain (although Toronto slopes downward towards Lake Ontario).
Canada’s largest city recently overtook Chicago to become the fourth-most populous city in North America, with 2.83 million residents as of 2015, slightly more than our 2.72 million inhabitants. But since more than 100,000 immigrants settle in the Toronto area annually—about half of the city’s population is foreign-born—while Chicago lost about 2,890 residents in 2015, that gap is likely to grow in the future.
Painting a mural on a bike shop on Bloor Street. Photo: John Greenfield
And since Toronto is a sister city to Chicago, there’s been some sharing of ideas when it comes to improving conditions for biking. The Chicago Department of Transportation’s Bicycling Ambassadors outreach team was directly modeled after Toronto’s Road and Trail Ambassador program.
There’s been some friendly competition between the cities too. In the early 2000s, when I worked as CDOT’s bike-parking czar, Toronto was my white whale. Even though Chicago had installed more bike racks than any other U.S. city, Toronto had put in a few thousand more of their distinctive “post-and-ring” parking units. The current tally is about 15,000 Chicago racks to more than 17,000 in Toronto. Annoying, eh?
Much more importantly, our neighbor to the north has us beat when it comes to traffic safety. Chicago averaged about six bicycle fatalities annually between 2009 and 2014, but Toronto typically only sees between one and four fatal bike crashes a year, according to Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, who manages cycling infrastructure programs for the city. And while Chicago averaged roughly 110 total traffic fatalities annually between 2010 and 2014, Toronto has only about 50 traffic deaths a year, Gulati says.