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                    Mayor Tory To Make Bike Lanes Decision Based On Data, 

                                     But Missing Data Important Too


By Terri Chu

Now that the Bloor Street bike lanes are in, it's a little surreal to me that anyone actually wants to pull them out.  But the fate of the pilot project is coming up on October 18 and it's all dependent on data, according to Mayor John Tory. Thankfully, the data looks good.

While it might seem like a huge win where we finally have some political leadership that makes decisions based on data, don’t forget that what data gets included and how it is interpreted leaves a lot of room for ideological bias.  

The mayor has made it clear that his support for the bike lanes rests on the data that is produced. Ostensibly he will look at the traffic flow data that has been meticulously collected – how long have cars been delayed, how many cyclists use the lanes, etc. The neighbourhood Business Improvement Area also spent a lot of money on business impact studies. They wanted information on how business has been affected, how much more difficult loading supplies have been and that sort of thing. 

Not likely looked at is ancillary data that is much harder to quantify.  For example, research done by Barcelona’s Institute for Global Health found that children exposed to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) in the air had a reduction in the growth of working memory.  (Yes, we get this out of car exhaust.)  Is there a quantifiable value to smarter children within Mayor Tory’s four-year mandate?  Are dumber children anybody’s problem? 

Also unlikely to be included in this evidence- based decision is the association between commuting by bicycle and lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Health care, after all, is a provincial issue and it's certainly not within Mayor Tory’s mandate to lower its cost. Unless we can convince the province to tally up how many heart disease cases they aren’t paying for and transfer those funds to the city, the councilors likely don’t have any reason to consider this as a factor, let alone an “evidence-based” one. Good luck getting a bean counter to work on this!

The majority of businesses along the bike lanes have reported an increase in business. This goes against the conventional wisdom of the vast majority of shop owners.  It’s a sign of the changing times now that more business comes from foot and bike traffic than cars.  Young people are shunning vehicle ownership in droves and with good reason. Who wants to sit in traffic all day long? Fewer than 10% of patrons along the corridor depend on the car to get there. Why should the neighbourhood continue to function as a thoroughfare for car commuters? This is a neighbourhood, not a highway.

If we want to increase business further, we need to take the money we put into subsidizing car parking spots and put that into making transit more affordable. At $3.25 per ride, it’s a big deterrent for me to get out and spend money. I know for my family, we stopped going to dinner at places that aren’t within walking distance unless we are meeting friends or family.  The extra $13 every meal adds up. 

Here’s another piece of data we know. Westbank plans on adding 800 residential units to the former Honest Ed’s site on Bloor Street. If Mayor Tory thinks cars have a long commute now, wait until there are 800 more cars in the neighbourhood and no bike lanes to encourage cyclists to relieve the congestion. 

Looking solely at collected (historical) data also doesn’t allow city council to gauge the impact of technology on transportation. Few people in the tech sector think that broad rollout of driverless cars will be more than five to ten years away. Though that is outside of a Mayor’s term in office, the decision he makes now will have huge pact for years to come. If he doesn’t factor in technological advancements, we risk white elephant infrastructure that serves little use.  Self-driving vehicles will mean a lower percentage of vehicle ownership all together. 

Car culture will go down in history as one of the biggest mistakes any society has ever made. The more we build, the more congestion we will get.  Public policy that focused on moving cars is an anachronism of the past. We are no longer in the Nixon years where an oil and gas executive is the sitting transportation secretary.  The reality is that we no longer have to plan our cities and our lives around cars. Carmakers are no longer the big employers they once were.

The evidence is already overwhelmingly in favour of the bike lanes. John Tory and the rest of city council have a big decision to make when they decide what’s most important to them. There is a lot of data that will be presented, but equally, a lot of data that they won’t have the opportunity to see, simply because we can’t quantify it.  This goes for all data-driven decisions.

Mayor Tory will need to decide if he wants to leave a legacy of building infrastructure for historic times or for a new age.  Evidence based decision making is great. We just have to know what evidence is and isn’t being considered.


Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization "Why Should I Care", a not for profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.






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