In November 2011, City of Toronto council voted to introduce separated bicycle lanes on Richmond Street, Adelaide Street, Simcoe Street and Peter Street, creating a continuous network of bicycle routes through the core of the city. Prior to the Richmond-Adelaide bicycle route project, the financial district had been a notable blank spot in the city’s cycling network.
The backbone of this new part of the bicycle network is the Richmond-Adelaide route. It consists mostly of separated bicycle lanes on Richmond Street and Adelaide Street, a pair of one way roads that form the main east-west motor traffic route into the financial district from the Don Valley Parkway.
In general the Richmond-Adelaide route is a huge improvement over the previous options for cycling through the centre of downtown. It also includes some notable steps forward in important areas of design.
With a width of over two metres, they are the first major one-way bicycle lanes in Toronto that are actually wide enough for two people to ride side-by-side. Such width is critical, so slower riders such as children and elderly people can be attracted to cycling without making the lanes unattractive for people who ride more quickly. It also opens up the possibility of having a conversation along the way, which makes travelling by bicycle vastly more enjoyable. Toronto’s earlier separated bicycle lane installation, Sherbourne Street, fell disappointingly short in this regard. Its 1.8 metre width is not enough to overtake a slower rider, leaving people with the choice of either leaving the bicycle lane to ride with traffic or getting delayed unnecessarily.
Richmond/Adelaide and Simcoe also introduced more substantial forms of divider between the bicycle and traffic lanes. While most of the routes are delineated with flexible bollards, some sections feature decorative planters, which add a welcome touch of vegetation to the otherwise barren streets.
Thanks to its directness, speed and relative safety, the route has quickly become incredibly popular for commuting. Preliminary counts (PDF) suggest that Richmond-Adelaide has become one of the busiest bicycle routes in the city. The daily bicycle volume of 4,200 per day falls behind some other parallel routes such as College Street and Queens Quay, but its nature as a commuting corridor results in a ridiculous peak-period surge, as high as 800 bicycles per hour in the peak direction.
The frequency of cars obstructing the Richmond-Adelaide bike lanes is relatively low for a downtown street, thanks to the physical barriers which generally separate cars from bicycles.
When bicycle lanes are simply delineated by paint, people constantly park in them, often claiming they had no alternative. Yet when there are physical barriers, they naturally stay out of the bike lane, illegally obstructing a driving lane instead.
Unfortunately, there are still spots without any physical barrier between the bike lane and the car lanes. In those spots, drivers illegally obstruct the bike lane anytime they feel like stopping their vehicle.
The main issue with the lanes’ design is the conflict between bicycles and right-turning cars at intersections. Because Richmond and Adelaide are one-way streets and maintaining short pedestrian/bicycle delays was of high importance, separated turning phases were understandably dismissed in the design phase. The next-best solution is careful intersection design, but that does not seem to have been implemented either.
There are three different ways right turns are handled across the bike lanes.
At most intersections, the lane continues right up to the stop bar and turning motorists must yield to cyclists going straight. The problem is that this requires them to yield to bicycles coming from behind, in their blind spot. Some drivers have learned to take very cautious wide turns, but most drivers are not used to doing so.
At some other intersections, the lane line becomes dashed leading up to the intersection, which suggests that drivers should use the bicycle lane as a right turn lane. But different people interpret the situation differently, and you never know in which lane to expect cars or bicycles.
Finally, some major intersections have a right turn lane on the right side of bicycle traffic, which makes cycling a bit stressful, but at least results in predictable driver behaviour. However, because the suggested behaviour is so stressful, some people choose to ignore the bicycle lane and stick to the right side of the road, instead dealing with conflict in the intersection itself.
There is definitely potential to address the issues with the current Richmond-Adelaide bike lanes, and make the route safer and more attractive. Of the numerous east-west arterials through the centre of downtown, Richmond-Adelaide is far from the most suitable for a bicycle route. East of Parliament Street, Richmond-Adelaide turns into an elevated expressway and interchanges directly with the Don Valley Parkway. In this part of town, there is a clear dichotomoy of roads: Richmond, Adelaide and Front have car-centric designs with overpasses, interchanges and sweeping curves, while King and Queen have more traditional rectilinear designs.
Having been the main car route for half a century, Richmond-Adelaide has few destinations and the streetscape is not very people-oriented.
City life occurs instead on King and Queen Streets, which have been the main streetcar routes for over a century, and are lined with cafés, bars, shops, theatres, and every other imaginable destination. These are streets where motor traffic should be discouraged in order to create an efficient and pleasant environment for streetcars and pedestrians. Placing the main bicycle route on Richmond-Adelaide does precisely the opposite, creating an incentive for drivers to seek alternatives, such as King Street or Queen Street.
Rather than simply placing bicycle route wherever it would have the fewest impacts to parking and loading, we could consider bicycle routes within the framework of network rationalization. Some streets are better suited for certain modes than others, and we can optimize streets to best serve a certain function. The current mindset of trying to equally accommodate all modes and activities on every street simply results in compromises for everyone, and is completely unnecessary given how dense the downtown arterial road network is.
King and Queen Street could easily become safe and efficient routes for bicycles and streetcars by removing the relatively small number of cars which currently create huge traffic problems on them. Meanwhile, Richmond and Adelaide could be improved for cars by removing the bicycle lanes, displacing the bicycle traffic which currently creates a lot of conflicts between bicycles and right-turning cars.
The City recently launched the “TO Core” initiative, which a comprehensive look at the function of downtown that could potentially include some network rationalization if there is enough public support. The first subject is King Street, which is getting a visioning study to re-imagine how the street could be adjusted to better serve transit and pedestrians.
Building a safe and efficient King Street bicycle route would undeniably take a lot more than the paint and flexi-posts, it took to install the Richmond-Adelaide route. But it is completely worthwhile because having a downtown street where bicycles and streetcars could circulate unimpeded by motor traffic would fundamentally change the way people travel across the city centre of Toronto.
Based on my bikeway report card, I came up with a score of 78% for the Richmond-Adelaide bicycle route. Thanks to its directness, good signal coordination and sufficient width for overtaking, it achieved a nearly perfect score in the Convenience category. But the issues with clarity and visibility at intersections lost it many marks in the Comfort and Safety categories. You can see the full report here.