Evidence from Toronto: Well-designed bike lanes encourage cycling, improve safety for all

By Michael Brenneis

People need no encouragement to use transportation networks that connect them to the places they need to be, if the networks are comfortable, convenient, and safe to use. This has certainly been the case for the use of motor vehicles on North American roads, with the possible exception of safety. Some cities are catching on to the need to serve active modes in the same capacity. Well-designed transportation networks for walking and cycling encourage people to be more active, and reduce their use of cars. A new report from the City of Toronto adds further evidence to the notion that improvements to the cycling network can dramatically increase cycling mode share and actual numbers, while improving safety for all road users, with little to no degradation of motorist level of service.

The Richmond-Adelaide cycle tracks were installed as a pilot project in 2014 and 2015, providing a critical east-west connection in the Toronto downtown core and “access to the largest concentration of jobs in the City, as well as housing, culture, entertainment and retail destinations,” according to the report. Additional bike lanes installed on cross streets connect to the University of Toronto campus, the city’s waterfront, the waterfront trail, and other existing cycle tracks.

In September of 2018 the average daily cyclist volume on Richmond-Adelaide at Spadina Avenue was 6,160, an over 1000 percent increase in pre-installation counts. Data from adjacent parallel streets found only slight reduction of the number of cyclists indicating that, according to the report, “94 percent of the growth in the number of cyclists on Richmond-Adelaide was a result of new cyclists, shifting their transportation choice from another mode.” The report states that bicycles accounted for approximately one third of vehicles leaving or entering the downtown core during peak travel times via the routes with separated bike lanes.

Since bike lanes were installed, collisions involving cyclists per 1000 average daily weekday cyclists in good weather have decreased by 73 percent. Motor vehicle collisions involving injuries or fatalities have decreased by 18 percent. The number of pedestrian collisions, while up 16 percent over this period, is consistent with a city-wide upward trend. No pedestrian volume data is available.

The separated bike lanes consist of a painted buffer with flexible posts, but no raised curb or other official barrier. A recent vote by the Toronto City Council has made the lanes permanent. City staff are recommending the installation of more robust barriers, and one lane will switch to the other side of the street to improve continuity and eliminate some conflict with loading zones.

Evaluation of the pilot bike lanes was based on their effects on cycling, motoring, and walking. Stakeholder feedback and public perception were also included in the report.

Various surveys of cyclists and motorists found a sizeable increase in their perception of safety after installation of the bike lanes. Surveys of pedestrians found a slight reduction in perceived safety; a drop from 8.1 to 7.6 points on a scale of one to ten. Area business groups have generally supported the bike lane installation, maintaining planters in the lane buffers, and engaging with city staff over design concerns.

A number of factors changed over the pilot period, including a reduced speed limit. But additional travel time for motorists was determined to be minimal. However, one of the biggest takeaways of the test project was the tremendous increase in cycling volume, pointing to a huge amount of latent demand. This along with the positive impacts on safety, with almost no increase in driver delay, is further evidence that separated bike lanes—especially fully protected bike lanes—can make a big difference in giving many people the freedom to choose modes other than motor vehicles.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.