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Does choice of bike-friendly architect signal hope for Toronto’s bike plan?

Toronto will be getting another building from famous London-based architect Norman Foster. Reports have it that he has been hired to design something for the corner of Yonge and Bloor where the old Stollery’s men’s clothing store stood for more than one hundred years. The city already has several Foster buildings, including the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy Building just south of Queen’s Park, on the campus of the University of Toronto. Foster’s latest building in his home town, where he also designed the “iconic” Gherkin building, is interesting for other than purely architectural reasons. The development consists of two residential towers, containing 930 apartments, and they contain one bicycle parking space per bedroom, for a total of 1,486. The buildings will have just 200 car parking spaces. The buildings will have dedicated elevators between the ground level and the parking area in the basement. In the basement will be a dedicated bicycle maintenance workshop where bike owners can work on their bikes.

The high level of bicycle provision goes beyond even what the City of London requires, and its standards are high. It was the local council that insisted on the higher level, and it is being praised by the pro-bike people on the London Mayor’s Design Advisory Group. That group released its latest Cycling Design Standards last summer, and they make Toronto’s efforts look pretty feeble in comparison. In London, where cycling is now considered “mass transport,” all new developments must meet the city’s cycling provisions.

The Mayor has set out his vision for cycling and his aim to make London a ‘cyclised’ city. Building high quality infrastructure to transform the experience of cycling in our city and to get more people cycling is one of several components in making this happen. This means delivering to consistently higher standards across London, learning from the design of successful, well used cycling infrastructure and improving substantially on what has been done before. It means planning for growth in cycling and making better, safer streets for all.

London Cycling Design Standards

The London Standards contain sentences that it is hard to imagine anyone saying in Toronto, never mind believing. “London aspires to be a great cycling city,” is one. “The future must not be like the past,” is another. The idea that a mayor of Toronto could have a “vision” for cycling, like the one articulated in the London Standards, has seemed about as likely as switching to drive on the left side of the road.

Toronto does have a cycling plan, but as of last summer, the same time that the far-reaching, even visionary London Cycling Design Standards came out, Toronto had determined to add just 10 kilometres of bike lanes in the city. Tiny as that amount is, it’s more than had been done in the previous four years. The Toronto Bike Plan was endorsed by city council in 2001, and it was ambitious. It set a goal of adding 1,000 kilometres of dedicated bike lanes and off-road paths by the year 2011, or 100 kilometres a year. As of June 2014, just 114 kilometres of on-road bike lanes had been built. According to the Toronto Star, the city lost bike lanes under Mayor Rob “it’s time to end the war on cars” Ford. The director of Cycle Toronto admitted that when it came to fighting for more on-road lanes in Toronto, “we kind of fell flat on our face.”

Other cities are doing better than Toronto too. Montreal has 650 kilometres of bike lanes, and plans to exceed 800 kilometres in two years. Copenhagen has 20-kilometre bicycle highways from the city centre to the outskirts.

Around 400,000 Torontonians are estimated to cycle to work and to school. As the London Design Standards put it with unarguable logic, “In an era of mass cycling, facilities designed for minimal cycling will not work.”

Foster + Partners are known for their bike-friendly design. The firm recently presented a concept to create a 220-kilometre network of bike paths above existing London railway lines, and its own head office in London encourages employees to cycle to work. Is it possible that some of that biking enthusiasm and London vision will find its way into their work at Yonge and Bloor?

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