In an piece that will be of interest to anyone campaigning for safe, green and adequate cycling routes (including the courageous trial just launched in Vancouver), Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl shows how provincial leadership can create biking bliss in this special column to the Globe and Mail.

Special to Globe and Mail – Jul 07, 2009

If cyclists in Ontario have learned anything over the past decade, it’s that getting city hall to make cycling safe is a slow process. The City of Toronto, for example, despite a green-leaning council, has installed, on average, fewer than a dozen kilometres of bike lanes each year. The world’s glaciers are melting at a faster pace.

Even a focused effort over the past few years to paint more bike lanes has achieved limited success. The problem is that the fight for bike lanes still happens virtually on a block-by-block basis, while the issues being addressed are communal, even global. The answer is for the province to step in to adjust the rules.

Ontario planning law already puts a healthy emphasis on cycling, walking and transit. Both the Toronto region’s growth plan and the Provincial Policy Statement, which is currently under review, require cities to consider the safety of cyclists. The growth plan directs cities to ensure that bicycle and pedestrian networks are integrated into transportation planning “to provide safe, comfortable travel for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Unfortunately, the law has just enough ambiguity to allow a “business as usual” approach. By imposing minimum standards on cities – such as the requirement to install bike lanes on roads with specified cycling levels or when road redevelopments take place – the province will move the municipal debate about bike lanes from “if” to “how.”

A change at the provincial level wouldn’t just help beleaguered cyclists but also benefit stressed city politicians. Why, for example, should Toronto Mayor David Miller have to spend political capital pushing for bike lanes when that’s effectively what provincial law requires anyway? Freed from endless debates about bike lanes, Mr. Miller could spend more time dealing with other pressing issues, such as labour unrest.

There are several other good reasons for imposing bike lanes from above.

First, since cycling is a part of the solution to urgent economic, health and environmental problems such as congestion, air pollution, obesity and global warming, it makes sense for the province to ensure all cities are heading in the right direction. The safety of cyclists shouldn’t be a matter of chance (or geography). The new requirements would only set minimum standards and be no more intrusive on local decision-making than provincial building code-imposed energy efficiency standards.

Second, old ways of thinking within institutions such as city hall, especially when the issue is “traffic,” die hard. When the rubber hits the road in transportation decisions, the rubber usually still accompanies a gas tank, a tonne of metal and one occupant. The current system remains so skewed in favour of cars that other options need a strong hand up. Optimizing the use of public road space should include facilitating the movement of super-efficient vehicles such as bikes, instead of sacrificing that opportunity to maintain room for dormant (i.e. parked) machines waiting for their drivers. New provincial requirements would also provoke creative thinking about car parking – perhaps by securing church and school lots when not in use while increasing the use of off-street municipal lots.

Third, clear provincial requirements would force cities to put bike lanes where they are most needed, instead of where they are least resisted. Ironically, people in Toronto still can’t even use a bike lane to get from Queen’s Park to City Hall, a distance of under two kilometres. And city initiatives about protecting cyclists on the busiest east-west bike routes have stalled despite the high accident and injury toll on cyclists.

Finally, as with many environmental issues, citizens often lead their political leaders. A change in provincial planning law will help municipal leaders catch up. A recent Clean Air Partnership report found that almost half of car drivers in the Annex area of Toronto’s Bloor Street supported the installation of a bike lane, even if it meant losing on-street parking. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of people cycling to work in Toronto rose by more than 30 per cent, with one of the biggest increases among women between 45 and 54. In some areas of Toronto, the modal split (the transport mode chosen by people to get to work) is approaching 20 per cent for bikes.

The province has loaded many burdens on cities in recent years. By taking responsibility for making cycling safe, Queen’s Park would lighten the load for municipal leaders, and give all of us a nice wind at our backs toward a cleaner and brighter future.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and a founding member of Bells on Bloor, a Toronto-based cycling advocacy group.