For an experienced cyclist like Karen Segal, her daily commute downtown should be a breeze.
The distance between the 32-year-old lawyer’s home and the office where she works isn’t far, and the terrain is mostly flat.
“It should be a pretty short, easy ride,” she said, “but every morning it’s terrifying.”
Segal’s problem is there are no cycling routes she feels completely safe taking between her home near Main St. and Danforth Ave. and her office at College St. and Bay St., a distance of only about seven kilometres. Once she crosses the Don River into downtown there are separated bike lanes, but none of them reach into her neighbourhood.
On Thursday morning the merely terrifying nearly turned disastrous when a driver suddenly veered into Segal’s path on Danforth, causing her to crash into the back of the car. Segal said the driver didn’t signal or check to see if it was safe to pull over.
She escaped with cuts to her hand, but the incident left her shaken. Segal said she values the health and environmental benefits of cycling too much to stop, but she expects the crash will make her more afraid to bike, and it’s served as an unwelcome reminder that “I’m really at risk when I’m biking next to cars.”
Segal’s scary commute backs up the findings of a novel new study by University of Toronto researchers, which is among the first to attempt to quantify cycling accessibility by measuring the number of jobs reachable by bike.
The article, which will appear in the Journal of Transport Geography, concluded Toronto lacks networks of safe, comfortable cycling routes that provide easy access to a high number of jobs and other opportunities.
Shoshanna Saxe, the senior author of the study, explained that jobs are considered an important indicator of accessibility not just because of employment but because jobs tend to be concentrated in business districts, shopping centres, and other places people need to get to in the course of their daily lives.
As part of their work, the researchers assigned every street and bikeway in Toronto a “stress” value on a scale of 1 to 4, with stress defined as how comfortable and safe a cyclist would feel using the route.
Low-speed residential streets and routes that were fully separated from car traffic on cycle tracks or multi-use trails had the lowest levels of stress, at 1 or below. Routes that required riders to share the road with high-speed automobile traffic and “fight for the right of way” with drivers were assigned a value of up to 4, the most stressful.
Streets with painted bike lanes, as opposed to physically separated ones, could receive a stress level anywhere on the scale, depending on other factors like road width and driver speed.
The study found that while more than 67 per cent of routes in Toronto had low stress values, in order to access areas with a high number of jobs, at some point riders would usually have to travel on busy main streets where stress levels are higher.
The result is “isolated and disconnected islands” of low-stress routes that limit cycling accessibility, according to the study.
In most areas of Toronto, riders had access to fewer than 5,000 jobs within a 30-minute ride on low-stress routes rated 2 or lower. Using high-stress routes, that number would rise to 60,000 jobs, a figure that “illustrates the potential accessibility if most roads were safe and comfortable for cyclists,” the study authors wrote.
“There’s tons of places in the city that are low-stress, but they’re all disconnected from each other,” said Saxe. She said that because of gaps in the cycling network, only the most risk-inclined riders who are willing to brave mixed traffic are able to take full advantage of biking.
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Saxe argued that’s important because how safe people feel riding is a significant factor in whether they decide to reduce their reliance on cars and adopt cycling, a goal that’s increasingly recognized as key to alleviating traffic and improving the health of citizens.
Previous research from the U.S. has shown about 60 per cent of people would consider taking up cycling if they could find a low-stress network for their daily trips.
While the percentage of Torontonians who report cycling to work is growing, it’s still at just 2.7 per cent, according to the 2016 census. By comparison, the number in Vancouver, where there is a more extensive network of separated bike lanes, is 6.1 per cent.
“There’s a latent demand for cycling (in Toronto) that is waiting for infrastructure,” Saxe said.
Routes in suburban areas outside of downtown, where streets are wider and drivers travel at higher speeds, tended to have higher stress levels. Saxe suggested that pattern accounts for the proportion of people who cycle to work being several times higher downtown than the rest of the city.
The study authors estimated upgrading all painted bike lanes in Toronto to physically separated cycle tracks would increase the number of jobs accessible by cycling by more than 80 per cent.
Lowering speed limits for drivers would also significantly increase the number of low-stress bike routes, the study found.
Councillor Mike Layton, a vocal advocate at city hall for more cycling infrastructure, said he wasn’t surprised by the study findings.
The study “highlights the need for us to build an integrated grid of protected bike lanes across the city,” he said.
Layton (Ward 11, University-Rosedale) said the revamped bike plan council approved in July should help meet that goal. The plan will potentially include a pilot project of separated bike lanes on Danforth by 2021, as well as the addition of cycling infrastructure on other major streets like Bloor St. W. and University Ave.
But Layton warned progress on the bike plan could be slow, because to keep costs low, the city co-ordinates the installation new cycling infrastructure with other projects like road resurfacing.
“Safety isn’t first,” he said. “It’s more a matter of economic convenience.”