Friday, December 3, 2010

Toronto Needs More Contra Flow Bike Lanes

One of the first things I had to get used to when riding my bike around Toronto after moving here from Vancouver was all the one-way streets. I now live in the Annex and am entirely surrounded by roads that switch one-way directions seemingly every block. For the first two weeks I lived in Toronto, while I was walking everywhere and waiting for my bike to arrive (I shipped it here), I thought these switched-up one-way streets were a great idea for traffic calming on what are mostly residential streets.

And then my bike arrived.

Attempting to be the law-abiding bike rider, I went out of my way to follow the one-way street system as much as possible. But here's the thing: If the City of Toronto refuses to put in decent bike lanes on heavily used and often pot-holed filled arterial roads (Spadina, Bathurst, Bloor, Bay, etc) so that novice/nervous cyclist can feel safe, then they need to rectify the one-way street problem for cyclists because that's where they are being pushed. I'm comfortable riding on busy streets, but many are not. Cyclists are told basically that the main roads are not for them, but then the infrastructure isn't there on the minor roads (and there aren't enough Harbord Streets in the city yet to provide an alternative).

There is a fix to the one-way street problem in Toronto and that's the use of contra flow bike lanes. These are bike lanes that run specifically on one-way streets that allow the bike a designated spot to travel in the opposite direction of car travel. I have used one in the city already (but I know there are others, so please point them out), which is on Strathcona Ave just east of Withrow Park. I know this has been a dialogue in the city long before I moved here in May 2010. A quick google search turned up tons of posts on sites like Biking Toronto, Urban Toronto, and Spacing that dealt with the subject.

As it stands right now, no cyclist in Toronto really takes the one-way streets seriously. Including me. And I tried. I really did. I know that probably pisses a lot of drivers off under the banner of the "lawless cyclist" diatribe, but here's the other thing: bikes and cars should not be treated as the same.

Contra flow lanes recognize the different needs and safety concerns of riding a bicycle versus driving a car. The one-way street system in Toronto's residential roads was created for traffic calming, so cars didn't use the streets as speedways to bypass the arterial roads. Bikes don't create the same problem cars did on these roads. They're not as fast, as dangerous for children playing, and they aren't loud and polluting (unless your the kind of cyclist that smokes and swears while riding).

So yes, bicycles and cars are similar in that they are both road users. But it's naive and overly simplistic to say that all laws and rules applying to cars should similarly be applied to bikes without any thought as to the very different nature of safety needs for each. The 4-way stop is another example. Places, like Idaho, have, recognizing the different needs of the cyclist, instituted "rolling stops" where cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs, slowing down and if the coast is clear continuing through the intersection.

Installing contra flow bike lanes on specific routes will legitimate a practice that is already happening in the city and allow it to continue in a safer manner. And drivers should remember that, as I've written elsewhere, bicycle infrastructure is good for cars, too. Delineating between road space for bikes and road space for cars takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the picture. Those crazy cyclists have their own space.


  1. We need more of this in the UK too. Nearly every one-way minor road or sideroad in every city in the Netherlands is contraflow. Works like a dream.

    The little roads have signs like

    The more major minor roads have marked contraflow lanes like this.

  2. Thanks for that, Maryka. What would we do without streetview?