#MinimumGrid: Toronto Advocates Move Politicians Beyond Bike Platitudes

Bike advocates are putting these questions to Toronto mayoral candidates. Image: #MinimumGrid

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Almost all urban politicians will tell you they think bikes are great. But only some actually do anything to make biking more popular.

In Toronto’s current mayoral and city council election, a new political campaign is focusing candidates on a transportation policy issue that actually matters: a proposed 200-kilometer (124-mile) citywide network of all-ages bikeways.

The campaign, led by advocacy group Cycle Toronto, was given its name by international walking-bicycling advocate Gil Peñalosa. It’s called “#MinimumGrid.” And it seems to be working: Last week, 80 percent of responding city council candidates, including more than half of the council’s incumbents, said they supported building such a system by 2018.

Speaking this month at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh, Peñalosa (a Toronto resident) explained the concept: to move cities from symbolic investments in bike transportation to truly transformative ones.

“We focus on the nice-to-have,” Peñalosa said in his keynote address at the conference. “Signage, maps, parking, bike racks, shelters. Does anyone not bike because they don’t have maps?”

Those amenities “might make it nicer for the 1 or 2 percent” who currently bike regularly, he said. But “nice-to-haves” won’t deliver the broader public benefits that can come from actually making biking mainstream.

“What are the must-haves?” Peñalosa went on. “Two things. One is we have to lower the speed in the neighborhoods. And two, we need to create a network. A minimum grid.”

‘I don’t care if you love bikes’

Gil Peñalosa of 8-80Cities.

With their campaign, Cycle Toronto and Peñalosa are tapping an idea that’s coming to the forefront of the North American urban transportation movement: that making biking a viable transportation option depends on creating a fully connected grid of protected bike lanes on busy streets and bicycle boulevards through quiet neighborhoods.

Rapidly installing full networks of protected lanes transformed Seville, Spain, in a matter of years (it jumped from 0.5 percent of trips by bike in the early 2000s to about 7 percent) and is doing the same in Buenos Aires today (from 0.3 percent to 3.2 percent, Peñalosa said).

For next month’s municipal election, Toronto biking advocates are trying to similarly focus politicians’ attention by rallying around the concept of 100 km of protected bike lanes and 100 km of bike boulevards.

If you’re talking to a politician, Peñalosa advised, “don’t ask him for one bikeway here or a bike rack. Because it’s going to take us 100 years.” And don’t let him say “Oh, I love bikes!”

“No, I’m not asking you if you love bikes,” Peñalosa said. “I don’t care if you love bikes. Are you for or against the minimum grid?”

‘It’s not a technical issue. It’s not a financial issue. It’s a political issue’

North Americans know how to create protected bike lanes, Peñalosa noted: About 200 are now on the ground in 24 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. And we know how to pay for them; they cost peanuts compared to almost every other transportation project.

“This is not a technical issue,” he said. “It’s not a financial issue. It’s a political issue.”

The solution to a political problem, Peñalosa said, must be political action.

“We need to raise our voices wherever we are,” Peñalosa went on. “We’ve got to send emails to the politicians. We’ve got to write letters to the editor. We’ve got to run for office.”

Streetsblog editor-at-large Payton Chung contributed reporting for this story.

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

  • qrt145

    I strongly disagree that bike parking is a “nice to have”. For me it is the most important of the must-haves. I live in NYC and didn’t start biking until the city passed a law that required the office building where I work to let me bring my bike inside the building. What use is a grid of bike lanes if you don’t have a safe place to put your bike at the end of the trip?

  • Harald

    I totally agree. Bike parking is an often overlooked measure of promoting cycling, despite the fact that it’s relatively easy to do, both politically and financially.

  • Dan

    I agree, but where I live in suburban car heaven, I have seen bike parking outside buildings in places where nobody cycles because they don’t feel safe, so I would say infrastructure is even more important. In TN it’s legal to lock a bike to almost anything, street lights, street signs, etc, although I prefer bike racks but have had to lock my bike on hand rails on occasion.

  • I think the point is bike parking is cheap and easy, but taking space from vehicles or lower speed limits is difficult and expensive. If a politician wants to appear to support bikes he can put up a hundred bike racks and go, “oh yeah, I love bikes”, but for changes to occur, people have to be able to get to those bike racks. Bike racks are a natural response to bicycles being locked to signs and trees, bike lanes are not.

  • Erica_JS

    I don’t know about maps, but I know MANY people don’t bike due to lack of signage. If you vaguely know it’s theoretically possible to take a path or lower-traffic route, but the entrance to that route is nowhere near main boulevards and hidden in a residential area, you’re not going to take the path. Signage is hugely important!