Two decades was a long time for cycling advocates in the province to wait for an overhaul of the Ontario Cycling Strategy, and the draft report released Aug. 30 has left many underwhelmed.
The report from transportation minister – and avid cyclist – Glen Murray (who represents the urban riding of Toronto Centre) outlined five priority areas for improving the way in which people cycle on Ontario roads and the relationship between cyclists and other road users:
Design healthy, active and prosperous communities;
Improve cycling infrastructure;
Make highways and streets safer;
Promote cycling awareness and behavioural shifts; and
Increase cycling tourism opportunities.
In many ways, the report reads as an urban planning document with various aspects to be implemented through ministries as varied as health, tourism, community safety, environment and municipal affairs and housing.
The diffuse nature of the cycling strategy is both a blessing and a curse, as implementing various aspects of the plan could easily suffer from having too many cooks in the kitchen. Add in the advice and recommendations of academia, cycling not-for-profits, municipalities and the public and you may well have a recipe for inaction.
Murray recognized this challenge in his preamble to the report, saying “To strive for our vision of a more cycling friendly Ontario, we need to work in partnership – across ministries, with municipalities, schools, transit agencies, cycling associations, tourism organizations, drivers, health promotion agencies, and many others.”
He added: “There’s a role for everyone.”
I’m a daily commuter cyclist in downtown Toronto and should be pleased for progress on an issue that impacts my day-to-day life, so why my lack of enthusiasm?
In a word: vision.
It’s mentioned 69 times in the 42-page document and a further six times by numerous cycling advocates in a backgrounder supplied by the ministry entitled “What People Are Saying About Ontario’s Cycling Strategy.”
“Ontario’s new cycling strategy establishes a forward-thinking and exciting new 20-year vision for a more cycling-friendly Ontario.”
– Dave Richardson, senior project manager and Partner, MMM Group
“We look forward to seeing implementation steps in the near future, to turn this great vision into a concrete reality for Ontario.”
– Beth Savan, principal investigator, Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank, University of Toronto
“The strategy offers a bold vision to making cycling safe, encourage more people to cycle, and provide the necessary infrastructure. Most importantly, the strategy provides practical and achievable steps on how to achieve the vision and make Ontario a leader in cycling.”
– Chris Drew, co-captain, Bike 27, Cycle Toronto’s Ward 27 Advocacy Group
And talk of “vision” isn’t limited to quotes offered up by MTO. At a friend’s birthday party in the week following the report’s release in downtown Toronto with people active in that city’s cycling community, the conversation shifted to the strategy. “It’s a start” was about the best thing anyone could think of to say.
“Have any of you spoken with someone that is happy with the strategy as a guiding document for cycling in the province?” I asked.
Heads shook all around until one person summed up the entire situation nicely: “It’s a vision document,” she said. “It’s not supposed to have all the nitty-gritty details.”
Let’s be clear: the government cannot easily move forward with implementing real change in how provincial roads and trails are used by cyclists without an overarching vision for what that change might look like (there, I used “vision” myself!) It’s important to put the horse before the cart.
However, for any cyclist looking for tangible changes to their daily commute, any anxious rider looking for ways the government is making roads safer for them, any driver worried about colliding with cyclists running red lights, this strategy – dubbed #CycleON by Minister Murray – will leave many wondering what next.
And the answer could be not much. Anyone familiar with Ontario’s gridlocked minority legislature these days under Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne will know that achieving legislative change in the current political environment at Queen’s Park on any issue, big or small, is a near impossibility.
Endless procedural wrangling over legislation that all parties support – such as implementing stricter access to tanning beds for minors – is the new norm, let alone lengthy debate for more in-depth strategies that require cross-ministerial and opposition cooperation. Recently, the House has shown it can work together to achieve some measure of progress, but weeks of procedural motions, acrimony and delay ensued. The result was a timeframe for passing several non-controversial bills, but few would point to this as an efficient way to govern a province of 13 million people.
Back to cycling: remember how the strategy’s broad, multi-stakeholder vision is both a blessing and a curse?
Also bear in mind cycling advocates have been waiting since then NDP Premier Bob Rae’s government updated the strategy in 1992 for changes to be made. It’s been 21 long years between overhauls, and with Murray talking about organizing “Action Plans” aiming at rolling out proposed changes on yet another 20 year timeline, change – if it comes at all – is a painfully long way off.
If all goes according to plan, the Ontario of 2033 will be a very bike friendly place, indeed. But those who applauded the 1992 remodelling and hoped Ontario in 2012 would be a much bike friendlier place, their aspirations may have come up short.
Asking Ontario cyclists to have patience and play the long game for significantly overdue changes to the strategy is an especially hard pill to swallow given Murray and the governing Liberals found $1.4 billion seemingly overnight to support a subway expansion project in Scarborough, east of Toronto, before an Aug. 1 byelection.
What this shows is Murray can find money for subways when the political climate at Queen’s Park calls for it, yet for tens of thousands of cyclists across Ontario waiting for greater infrastructure to appear in and between our cities and towns, we have only an updated plan heavy on vision but light on funding dollars, timelines or regulatory changes to compel police forces to take parked vehicle-bike collisions seriously.
To this end, look for any cycling-related changes that are implemented in the near future to come as a result of regulatory modifications that don’t require a trip through the House as legislation.
What exactly is missing from the strategy? A joint press release from Cycle Toronto, the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation and the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank sums the issue up nicely. While showing their support for the strategy as a good step, they point out some obvious gaps in the plan that need immediate attention:
MTO should take a hard look at ponying up serious money to cycling as other jurisdictions have (they point to Britain recently allocating ₤10 per person each year towards a cycling budget);
Make complete streets urban planning the norm for all Ontario municipalities;
Enshrine cycling education in Ontario’s school systems; and
Dear to most cyclists hearts, change existing legislation to allow police officers to track and crack down on “dooring,” the most serious type of bicycle/motor vehicle collision, according to a 2003 City of Toronto study.
“With a strong strategy in place, the time to act is now,” they write. “We are collectively committed to continue our work with the provincial government to take this important document from policy to practice.”
The good news? Ontarians care deeply about making cycling safer in the province for all involved, whether they’re on bicycles or not. At any opportunity, Murray speaks at length about how cyclists are not drivers are not pedestrians independently, but that everyone is concerned with finding efficient, affordable and healthy ways of moving through and between their communities. And he’s right.
A draft of the strategy was posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights website for public comment last year and garnered more than 1,100 comments, which can be viewed here. The substantial volume of public comments helped shape the strategy to this point and indicates stakeholders from all corners of the cycling sector will be instrumental in how and when the new strategy begins taking effect.
There is no shortage of passionate and intelligent opinion about how Ontario can become the leader in cycling safety and infrastructure that Murray and others believe it can be. This strategy, for all its faults, is another step in the right direction, but it’s not the first, and it cannot be the last.
But many of us who were hoping for a more concrete plan of action will no doubt be disappointed with the prospect of waiting on the roll out of a 20-year action plan. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of cycling around the Ministry of Transportation these days and the time is soon coming when the minister may need to put government money – i.e., your tax dollars and mine – where his mouth is.