Is Toronto Heading Towards a Cycling “Highway?”

by Markus O’Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

Willowdale residents are already familiar with Council’s decision in December 2020 to add a grade-separated Cycle Track to Yonge Street when the stretch from Highway 401 to Finch is reconstructed. The Yonge TOmorrow project, approved by Council this week, has flown a little more under the radar. Focused on downtown Yonge between Queen and College, this plan shares a vision similar to REimagine Yonge, reducing space for vehicular traffic and adding lots of additional space for pedestrians, diners, shoppers, and cyclists.

Is it time to start thinking about the whole Yonge Street corridor and whether Toronto’s main street should present an opportunity to create a north-south cycling “highway?”   When the Yonge/401 interchange EA finally gets underway this year, it will take this idea into account.  Can we connect the dots?

Cities all over the world, even in colder climates, have shown that cycling infrastructure, when well designed, can have a tremendous reduction on traffic congestion with all the accompanying environmental and public health benefits.  Less understood is that these usually come with significant economic benefits as well.

In the UK, the city of London began building two cycling “superhighways” in 2015. The routes, physically separated from motor vehicle traffic, connected the central city with outlying areas. Routes were chosen because they ran above busy subway routes, offering relief from transit congestion as well as traffic. The impact was immediate. Cycling activity increased by 51% in the first year of operation and by 26% in the second. The improved streetscapes also saw a 17% decline in retail vacancy rates. The London School of Economics now estimates that cycling activity generates US$4.32 billion in annual economic activity in the UK.

Closer to home, Minneapolis, Minnesota has cultivated a cycling boom in a cold-weather climate. The completion of the Midtown Greenway, a “bicycle freeway” running east-west for almost 9 km along an old rail corridor, contributed to a 76% cycling increase in the city. Over a 10 year period, property values have increased 90% along the corridor.

The gold standard for cycling infrastructure however is Copenhagen in Denmark.  With nearly 400 km of bike routes and 50% of the population commuting to work by bicycle on a daily basis, 28 “superhighways” have been planned over the past decade.  What makes these routes unique includes innovative lighting, footrests at intersections and air pumps at every mile.  Traffic lights are also timed so that a rider moving at 20 km/h will have continuous green signals.  It’s estimated that the country gains about 18 cents for every kilometer biked in economic activity and reduced health care costs, while every kilometer driven costs 10 cents.

The benefits of biking are increasingly clear globally.  In Toronto, we have both the need of these benefits as well as the opportunity to now move them forward.  Let’s keep thinking about the potential of Yonge Street as an incredible destination for all users.

* More information on these and other international projects is available via the 2016 Urban Land Institute report Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier.