Ontario’s “Je ne sais quoi” Draft Cycling Strategy – part 1

A cycling tourist in Ontario is taking in the pittoresk landscape of a four lane highway from behind the safety of a painted line.
A cycling tourist in Ontario is taking in the pittoresk landscape of a four lane highway from behind the safety of a painted line.  A 2011 picture near Kingston, ON

After increased pressure from NDP Urban Transit critic Rosario Marchese and more recently Davenport NDP MPP and GTA issues critic Jonah Schein, Ontario Minister of Transportation Bob Chiarelli announced a draft bicycle strategy for Ontario and asks everyone for input. Finally, after earlier promises in August 2012 that he’d come with major announcements in weeks. This, after a city councillor from the GTA or Burlington somewhere had asked him the question during a Q & A at a major city councillor conference in Ottawa this summer. The Minister must have had enough of the NDP assaults and must have asked his staff to put an announcement together.

Cycling advocates received a forwarded invite the night before, as if the announcement was organised at the very last moment. I haven’t met anyone yet who was at the announcement. That was a hugely missed opportunity. What a great back drop Right Bike could have been, with volunteers dropping in on a Saturday morning, and have some friendly exchange with the Minister afterwards about some easy low cost ideas. Interaction with one of Canada’s most progressive bike communities. There could have been cookies and Yasir Naqvi could have driven the Minister around on his E-bike. Young cyclists could have shown their first bike skills picked up at this summer’s Can Bike course. But no: Friday morning at 10 am at a local cycle outfit it was. Back drop: Canadian flag.

If you had expected that hundreds of millions of dollars would rain down on the province, like ministers dole out when they announce new hospital wings, highway extensions or bail outs for car industries, you might be disappointed. There is little money for cycling.

Announcing what exactly?

Ward 9 in Ottawa is divided by a railway track; this 50's area would be a good candidate for better cycling infrastructure, connecting quiet Colonnade Road with Woodfield.
Ward 9 in Ottawa West Nepean is divided by a railway track; this 50’s area would be a good candidate for better cycling infrastructure, connecting quiet Colonnade Road with Woodfield.

So what was the announcement about? Basically, that the government is looking into cycling and that it needs your input. The good thing is that the province hopes to bring cycling to a higher, more comprehensive level (more reports to come). It is more of an inventory until now, it is not a draft strategy. There are no hard numbers the province is aiming for. There are no strong commitments. An example:

Access to Funding for Municipalities

The Ministry recognizes that most cycling occurs on municipal infrastructure and encourages municipalities to ensure that their proposed cycling infrastructure investments are integrated into their asset management plans. Asset management is a cornerstone of the government’s Municipal Infrastructure Strategy and helps prioritize needs to ensure the right investments are made at the right time.

In this context, the province will make cycling infrastructure eligible under the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Initiative, and will explore options to include cycling within other provincial funding programs. Municipalities will have the opportunity to apply for infrastructure funding under the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Initiative (MIII) from late 2012.

It actually sounds more than it is: the MIII has 51 mln dollars available for 2013 and the money has to be requested before January 9, 2013. This might be the reason for the rush announcement, as announcing it a month later would have shut out the MIII monies for 2013 already. The municipality also has to make the case that cycling is a top priority in order to get MIII money, so you know where that money is going……not to cycling, but likely to waste water treatment. Read more about the MIII (roads, bridges, water and waste water treatment) here.

What does the Minister think of his announcement?

“This means that what was in some respects a series of ad hoc initiatives that existed in Ontario by various stakeholders or municipalities and sometimes the province is now going to be much more comprehensive” – Ottawa Citizen, page E8 City Section

Minister Chiarelli acknowledges that the province has not paid much attention to cycling. That was honest of him. The announcement was a recognition for the many people who believe in cycling and who have worked for 30-40 years to get it on the provincial radar screen. While the Netherlands implemented a bike strategy in the seventies and now enjoy the fruit of their vision with bike modal shares of 25-50%, Ontario governments were busy widening the roads.

Cycling advocacy in Ontario is a patch work of grants and lots and lots of volunteer time. There are volunteer cycling and walking advocates who attempt to convince traffic control engineers to make some head space for active transportation, there are cities’ urban planners asking for minuscule changes, common for decades in other jurisdictions. There is some funding in recreation. A bit in Health. And then there are a few non profit projects, surviving year after year on grants and donations to educate kids to walk or cycle to school, all with various levels of success. Eleanor McMahon of Share the Road is -as far as I know- the only paid bicycle advocate in the entire province. Share the Road organises bike summits and flies thousands of kilometres around the province to work the politicians on the provincial and municipal level, attends conferences and summits and there are major advocacy groups like Citizens for Safe Cycling in Ottawa and Bike Toronto, trying to speed up some changes, bringing speakers in and organising awareness events. Carleton U. students organise themselves to make their own campus bike friendly.

Money needed for cycling

Money is needed for some serious change. Ottawa, a city that actually started to spend more on cycling since 2010, intends to spend six million dollars on cycling a year, of which about 1-2.5 million dollars go into a major project such as the Multi Use Path along the O-train in 2012, the Saw Mill Creek project, the cross town bike corridor and the  Hickory Bridge in 2013 and the Laurier Bike Lane already in 2011. Ottawa is building bridges for cyclists and pedestrians over highways, train tracks, canals and rivers, connecting the many communities within the city. Ottawa is serious in getting people outside again.

Cycling infrastructure is not expensive. For a perspective: a one kilometre road is planned behind the General Hospital for no less than 65 million dollars, which is more than the entire 2013 MIII funding for the whole province. I hope it never gets built, because more roads have never helped solving traffic issues. I have seen it in the Netherlands when I grew up, it doesn’t solve any problems. And it cost too much money.

Real issue: increasing provincial debt

The province is clearly not willing to spend:

In these circumstances, funding for the redesign and construction of cycling-related portion of the agreed-upon treatment will continue to be assessed on a project-by project basis taking into account the impact of the redesign on overall project costs. Given the magnitude of the expenses entailed, where bridges or other structures need to be expanded to better accommodate cycling, incremental costs associated with the expansion will be the responsibility of the requesting municipality.

In other words, don’t count on the province for incremental costs. Ontario (read: we)  is facing ever increasing debt to maintain the standard of living we have gotten used to. The current debt stands at $235 billion for a province of 12.8 million people, plus a deficit of $16 billion for this year. (For starters: debt is what we have borrowed from others, deficit is the difference between your income and your expenses). This seems quite unsustainable to me, as the debt is growing, so don’t expect anything grandiose for cycling, not under an NDP, nor a Conservative nor a Liberal government.

If you want to be in the Ontario government, you have to win the 905 belt around Toronto and they are apparently fed up with Toronto’s traffic, hence the 905 belt decides on the province’s bike future. They will want the billions for LRT, Go Trains and roads: all you can expect for cycling is brochures on safe cycling, some new regulations and a few million dollars extra here and there. And hopefully some bike parking for commuters who cycle to a Light Rail station. The Liberals are simply to nervous for a backlash that might play in the hands of the opposition. Not enough attention for cycling: the NDP bugs you. Too much spent on cycling: the Conservatives will complain. Not that Conservatives don’t cycle, but in politics nothing is what you think you hear.

So where should the bread crumbs for cycling go: the obviously choice is to build the infrastructure where both bike traffic and car traffic is busiest. There is no need to build separate bike infrastructure on Manitoulin Island (I cycled there and loved the Island, it feels like a 1950’s time warp), but a bike bridge where Bronson crosses the canal might be a good idea. But that won’t come from the MIII budget as it is maxed to $2 million per project. Two million pays for a study, not for a bridge. And so municipalities have to be creative and call bike infrastructure ‘recreation‘, so they can also get a few dollars from another budget.

The city of Amsterdam -already with one of the highest bike modal share in the world- spent 27 Euro per inhabitant per year (PDF) between 2006 and 2010 on bike infrastructure. That would be $450 million a year for Ontario. For cycling. Sounds like a good start to me.

What can you do?

Here is the document: Ontario draft cycling strategy (in pdf) and the web site that goes with it. Do deliver input. Flood the folks in the Big Smoke with great ideas, but do it before January 29th, 2013.

Click here for Part 2.

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5 thoughts on “Ontario’s “Je ne sais quoi” Draft Cycling Strategy – part 1

  1. Excellent summary Hans – particularly calling out the MIII façade as the illusion of actual funding that it is.

    Ordinarily I try not to troll in comments with references to GPO policy, but since you mentioned the difficulty bike advocates face getting promises of dedicated funding from government, I wanted to mention that it is Green party policy to dedicate 1% of Ontario’s transportation budget to cycling and another 1% to pedestrian infrastructure.

    Admittedly even that is not enough to meet demand, but we chose 1% each in order to get the ball rolling at Queen’s Park.

    For interested readers, we updated our entire Transportation policy at our 2012 AGM. Here’s the section on Active and Public Transportation: http://www.gpo.ca/sites/gpo.ca/files/policy-book/current/ch22s02.html

    Cheers – Kevin
    Deputy Leader, Green Party of Ontario

    Like

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