While much has been said about the pedestrianisation of Times Square in Manhattan, little attention has been focused on another bold project unfolding on the streets of Manhattan. While the Times Square experiment turns Broadway into a pedestrian-based destination, a recent re-design of 8th and 9th Avenues transforms those streets into bicycle-friendly routes with physically separated lanes for cyclists. The NYC Department of Transportation calls them “fully protected bicycle lanes”.
For many years, I’ve heard bicycle advocates fantasize about physically separated lanes. Usually their dreams are referencing examples in Amsterdam, Copenhagen or other far-away cities. It’s easy for our politicians and planners to reject ideas that originate across the Atlantic, but once they start appearing in North America it becomes harder to write them off as something that “wouldn’t work here”. Both Montreal and now New York City have implemented protected bike lanes that give cyclists a safe dedicated space on major arterial streets.
The idea isn’t just to make the streets safer for those who already ride around town, but to create safe spaces on our streets that attract new cyclists. One thing they’ve found in New York is that people are using the 8th and 9th lanes who wouldn’t be riding on the street otherwise, including families with children riding their own small bikes.
So, could we do it here? Yes, but the hard part is finding a street that can accommodate the space required. “Fully protected” bike lanes take up more space than a typical bike lane, when done properly. The Manhattan lanes for example have enough room for passing, in addition to a buffer zone that keeps parked cars a healthy distance away from moving bicycles. We’ve seen how hard it is to push for regular bike lanes on arterials like Bloor. Imagine how hard it would be to advocate for a wide separated lane? The trick is to find streets that have more than 2 lanes running in a given direction. If you have three or four lanes running one way, then you can more easily remove a lane of traffic (as we did on Jarvis). The best north-south location is University Avenue, and the best east-west corridor is Richmond & Adelaide. In fact the Toronto Bike Plan singles out Richmond and Adelaide as an ideal location for a major east-west bike route downtown. The plan says “more downtown commuters will be encouraged to cycle if an east-west bikeway in the Richmond-Adelaide corridor were provided.” The Plan specifically mentions the success of the separated lanes in Montreal and proposes a study for implementation on Richmond and Adelaide.
Here’s where things get complicated. The reason that Richmond and Adelaide could support wide “fully protected” lanes is because they are one-way streets, much like 8th and 9th Ave in New York. With four (sometimes five) lanes running in one direction, there is more than enough space to easily accommodate this kind of bicycle infrastructure into the existing streetscape
A recent proposal from Councillor Adam Vaughan to make Richmond and Adelaide 2-way streets could eliminate the possibility of having separated east-west bike lanes in downtown Toronto. Vaughan’s two-way plan is motivated by a desire to make the neighbourhood more liveable and to convert the streets from ‘conduits for moving traffic’ into ‘grand boulevards to host pedestrians’. But traffic doesn’t just consist of cars. Traffic includes bicycles and transit as well. The problem with looking at a situation through a “cars VS pedestrians” lens, is that cyclists often get left out. If our only goal is to reduce automobile traffic, then two-way lanes on Richmond and Adelaide would be the best approach. But if our goal is to create ‘complete streets’ that provide a safe space for all modes of transportation, then perhaps we need to take a step back and look at various options for these streets including both the two-way model and the one-way model with separated bike lanes.
It’s exciting that Adam Vaughan has launched this process. We need more politicians like Adam who are willing to propose bold steps to transform the downtown into a green and liveable community. When we do take those steps however, let’s make sure we’ve looked at all the options and made the best choice for all users of the road.