Traveling can provide needed and overdue perspective on home, and visiting other cities reveals that Toronto is behind in some ways, but also not exceptional or alone. Currently I’m in Berlin, a city that, like Toronto, put in “pandemic-resilient infrastructure” in the form of new bike lanes that connect more of the city’s existing cycling network together.
Though Berliners I’ve met often complained about cycling here, coming from Toronto the city seemed like a dream in comparison, and now it’s even better. Wider, protected routes have replaced car lanes on some arterial roads and there are connections that did not exist before the pandemic.
One of the transformed areas is Friedrichstraße, a main north-south street that was also infamous as the site of “Checkpoint Charlie,” a gateway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Part of the street has been closed to vehicular traffic, the sidewalks widened, benches added, and two wide bike lanes put down the middle. They call it the “Flaniermeile Friedrichstraße,” flaniermeile being a fine German word meaning a street for shopping and strolling. Here, the people-friendly changes are designed to also bring shoppers back by making it a more inviting place.
Germany is different though, right? They’re anti-car, surely? Ah yes, Germany, a country where automobile manufacturing and driving are legendary. These kinds of changes can happen everywhere there’s political will. There was some of that in Toronto as new lanes were added here and there during the pandemic. Not a Berlin transformation, but good by Toronto standards. Last summer the process continued, with long-desired lanes added to Yonge Street, north of Bloor to Davisville.
There are some vocal opponents of the Yonge lanes even though cars can still drive the street and the fact that there’s been a subway running alongside it since 1954. “Put the bike lanes on Avenue Road” is an often-heard refrain, as Avenue has more car lanes to give up. But if there are destinations on Yonge, they deserve safe lanes too.
That’s another lesson to learn from European cities: for real safety, security and usefulness, good bike infrastructure has to connect and reach deep into all neighborhoods. A series of trunk routes, like bike highways, are good but they need to get to where people are coming from and going to. Here in Berlin, cyclists can expect there will be some provision for their safety just about anywhere they go, a confidence we do not have in Toronto.
This “network connectivity” is a key recommendation of a new guide called “Safe Bicycle Lane Design Principles: Responding to Cycling Needs in Cities during COVID and Beyond.” Produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI), an international non-profit, it underscores how Toronto was not unique in its uncharacteristically quick implementation of COVID infrastructure. The WRI found that “between March and July 2020, 394 cities, states and countries reported interventions that reallocated street space for people to cycle and walk more easily, directly and safely.”
There was not much good about the pandemic, but the WRI points out that the “shift to cycling comes at a perfect time when cities have been making efforts to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.” Safe car speeds, good signage, and proper management and enforcement are other recommendations if these “pop-up” lanes are to become permanent additions to our cities.
The WRI guide was presented at the International Transportation Forum in Leipzig last week, a global summit on all things mobility I attended. It was supported by other civil society cycling organizations and a few more things stood out to me as I watched the discussion.
One was the rapid expansion of bike infrastructure in Paris, led by Mayor Anne Hidalgo who was elected in 2014 with the promise of creating 1,000 kilometers of bike lanes. Jill Warren of the European Cyclists’ Federation said that because Paris had a good plan on hand, it was able to accelerate it during the pandemic. Also, by going big, doing a lot at once, the “Band-Aid” was ripped off once rather than over and over.
Another thing I learned is that activism for cycling infrastructure works, but it can take time. The Netherlands is often looked to as one of the best places to cycle in the world, but it did not happen overnight. Decades ago, cities like Amsterdam were as clogged with cars as North American ones, but Margot Daris of the Dutch Cycling Embassy said that a movement called “Stop Child Murder” is what spurred on the change.
“With a name like that, politicians can not ignore it,” said Daris.
She also pointed out that in 1996 the Netherlands implemented national standards for bike infrastructure, so it’s the same everywhere, not differing from city to city as it does here. It’s predictable.
Toronto has a long way to go to reach Europe, and the process is slow and frustrating, but we’re heading in the right direction.