Ontario’s efforts to expand cycling infrastructure across the province may have taken a subtle but significant step forward on Dec. 12 with the second reading passage of legislation that would require paving one metre wide shoulders on all provincial, non-400 series highways.
Bill 137, the Paved Shoulder and Construction Bicycling Act, from Progressive Conservative MPP Norm Miller (Parry Sound–Muskoka), if passed, would require the Ministry of Transportation to factor in one metre wide paved shoulders on all provincial highways on a go-forward basis as routine maintenance and repaving efforts unfold.
“I’m not suggesting, and Bill 137 does not call for it, that the province go out and pave every shoulder tomorrow,” Miller said at Queen’s Park during second reading debate. “The paving would only take place when a road is being repaved or resurfaced. Paved highways have a lifespan of approximately 18 years, so the shoulder-paving in Ontario would take place gradually over that time period.”
The legislation would also make a crucial and previously overlooked change to the Highway Traffic Act to make it legal for cyclists to actually ride their bikes on the paved shoulders that Miller wants the province to begin expanding. Currently, such action is illegal, he said.
Bill 137 doesn’t mention on other aspects of the provincial cycling strategy, but touches on a crucial element to long-distance riders fearful of life-threatening altercations with fast-moving vehicles when they’re riding on slivers of paved roadway on provincial highways. That said, Miller’s bill is not a panacea to make cycling safer in Ontario, but it doesn’t market itself as such: the change is an important one but remains one part of a much larger network of cycling infrastructure that is required province-wide.
The bill had been in the works before Miller joined with New Democratic MPP Catherine Fife from Kitchener–Waterloo and Liberal MPP Mike Colle from Toronto in forming an all party cycling coalition with interested stakeholders and municipal councillors from across the province. But issues that arose as a result of those talks made their way into the final bill and ultimately made it a stronger piece of legislation, including the Traffic Act amendment.
Despite the Liberals under Transportation Minister and avid cyclist Glen Murray releasing their long-awaited cycling strategy over the summer, CycleON, which called for various improvements to cycling infrastructure across Ontario, it was the Liberals who threatened to derail the bill with concerns over cost and feasibility.
“We have had some hesitance on this bill, I’ll be quite frank,” Murray said. “It was less the content of the bill than the politics of this House sometimes, [but] to actually build out the full cycling system of shoulders and proper trails, we’re looking at something significantly over $2 billion to actually build the kind of system that people in other parts of North America have.”
Liberal backbencher Dipika Damerla said the government was supportive of the “intent” of the legislation but costs are an obstacle as the Liberals attempt to stare down a $11.7 billion deficit.
“As proposed by this bill, it would be around $2.3 billion,” she said. “If we are going to do it we need a plan to fund it, and this bill does not speak to it. I understand the limitations of a private member’s bill. That said, it is a reality. This is going to cost $2.3 billion, and there are no suggestions as to how this could be accomplished.”
Damerla also raised concerns with how the proposed roll out of adding paved shoulders on an ad-hoc basis would result in a “patchwork” of paved shoulders that could threaten cyclists safety.
“Instead of having a plan ahead of time as to what those cycling networks will be, we are going to have ad hoc pieces of the highway where somebody can use their bicycle and then long stretches where they wouldn’t,” she said. “That is also problematic in the sense that it would be much better if you could have a comprehensive plan and build around that.”
But New Democratic MPP Rosario Marchese was worried the province through CycleON has already created far too lengthy a timeline in which to improve cycling infrastructure.
“Why does it have to take 20 years when we can move on an initiative that’s just been presented by [Miller] and what appears to be a vision that could be done, in my view, in five years as opposed to 20?” he asked.
“We spend $1 billion to bus kids across the province, and we spend so little for safe and active routes to school where we can bring kids to the school by making sure they use their bicycles,” he said. “Why do we spend so little?”
Crucially, Miller was able to obtain the support of some heavy-hitting stakeholder groups in the province, including the Ontario Medical Association, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Canadian Automobile Association and a slew of cycling advocacy and road builder organizations.
Bill 137 ultimately received support from all parties before being sent to Social Policy committee. It will begin to hammer out the fine print when MPPs return to Queen’s Park in late February from their winter break once the legislation is called for further public debate.
Cycling advocates – stay tuned.