COVID-19 makes cycling for transportation an even more important option

During the COVID-19 crisis, the need for our communities to provide safe, accessible routes for people of all ages and abilities to cycle to work, school, and other destinations has not gone away. For the roughly half of all car trips that are under 5km, cycling continues to be one of the most viable alternatives for getting us from A to B, helping to beat the automobile dependency forced on us by the last 75 years of sprawling suburban development. Why is automobile dependency so bad? Simply put, it is destructive to our environment, our economies, our health, and our social life.

COVID has, in fact, shown us that active transportation like cycling and walking have been crowded out by the immense space and expense we have devoted to moving and storing cars in our communities. Now that we need to social distance, “crowding out” takes on a whole new meaning, with walking and cycling routes too full for proper social distancing, and public transit carrying its own risks. It is an immense disappointment that while cities all over North America are temporarily removing traffic lanes in favour of pedestrians and cyclists, Newmarket and York Region have taken no such action. We are grateful, of course, that the already-planned curb-separated bike lanes on Yonge St. are set to open very soon, and we continue to call on the Region of York to expand lanes like these to all arterial roads, the ones that are the most dangerous for cyclists.

This takes us to the of crowding on the mixed-use trails in Newmarket. We have often argued that the trails are not the best option for safe cycling infrastructure. A network of safe on-street or curb-separated lanes is what is needed, with the trails providing an optional link in that network as well as a pleasant route for recreational cycling. Nonetheless, it is still important that cyclists who choose to use the trails respect social distancing rules, slowing down and alerting other trail users (remember: a bell is mandatory in Ontario) in order to give everyone enough time to pass with adequate space. The same holds even truer for sidewalks, where adult-sized bikes are prohibited but which remain a safer alternative for some riders.

Looking forward to a post-crisis world, it will be more important than ever for our communities to create opportunities for safe, environmentally friendly alternatives to automobile transportation. In the meantime, we encourage everyone to get out onto their bikes, not just for exercise, but for essential errands as well. Just make sure you respect other road and trail users while you do.

Pandemic & Shared-use Trails

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the fact that shared-use trails do not work for cyclists. There are things the Town and region can do temporarily to improve physical safety for cyclists and pedestrians until permanent infrastructure is in place.

The following expresses the general opinion of Cycle Newmarket, partially in response to Kathryn O’Reilly’s letter to the editor in the Era Banner: “Cyclists Must Respect Other Trail Users”, April 23, 2020, and is based on anecdotal observations of some of our members.

In this time of COVID-19 pandemic, being able to get out on Newmarket’s Trail system, particularly the Tom Taylor Trail, has been an important part of personal well-being for many citizens. For pedestrians, joggers and cyclists, the trails are safe places to be outside while maintaining physical separation. The trails are wider than sidewalks so, if one has to step, run or ride off the trail, it’s onto grass, not onto a road with cars, trucks and buses.

Unfortunately, there have been confrontations on the trails, between pedestrians and cyclists, many caused by cyclists failing to maintain the required 2m separation between themselves and the pedestrians.

Cycle Newmarket believes that these conflicts really highlight the fact that the shared-use trails do not work for cyclists, now or ever. They are too narrow in many places, sometimes as little as 3m wide, and many sections have edges that are in poor repair. We also believe that Newmarket and the Region must greatly expand on the great start they have made with street cycling infrastructure.

There are ways to act now, as the pandemic continues, to provide temporary relief and increased safety to both pedestrians and cyclists. Some examples:

  • Brampton and other places have created temporary cycle lanes on roads that have greatly reduced traffic loads. This could be done now on Davis, Prospect, Mulock and others that could provide true, direct connectivity.
  • Many places have restricted vehicle access on some streets to expand the safe zone for pedestrians and cyclists alike. Nobody should have to step out into a traffic lane to maintain physical distance from someone else. This may not be applicable in many areas of Newmarket, where so much is residential, but closing Main Street South should be possible, as it seems mostly to be used as a bypass for cars.
  • On-street parking could be removed on Regional roads.
  • Speed limits could be dropped to 30 km/h in residential areas, and lowered to 40 km/h everywhere else.

There are many reasons for the Town to beef up its cycle track infrastructure, beyond the safety of the cycling public. Cycling helps us meet our climate emergency commitments, improves community health outcomes, and strengthens local businesses. These considerations have taken on added urgency with the COVID-19 pandemic and the required physical distancing.

Update from May 2: Apparently the Town has been hearing the same complaints, and has developed these signs:

A very positive approach, and cyclists have been seen coming to a stop to let others finish crossing.

The difficulty of getting around Newmarket by bike

Like most suburbs, Newmarket is frustratingly difficult to get around by bike. Residential streets are generally safe, regardless of whether they have bike lanes or not, but few of them actually go anywhere practical, other than those in the grid-pattern downtown core. To really get somewhere–shopping, professional services, work–you need to use the arterial roads, which are actually operated by the Region of York. And these are often unsafe because they are multi-lane and traffic is too fast.
We are making some strides. From the first on-street bike lane on a stranded portion of Bathurst St, we now have lanes on Leslie St south of Mulock, an extension of the Bathurst lane to Davis, and grade-separated lanes on Yonge St from Sawmill Valley to Davis, part of the Vivanext Rapidway. (I’ll blog about my experience on that one once the snow and road pebbles are all gone). We also have lanes on mixed-use Town roads: Harry Walker Pkwy, part of Prospect St, and Main St N. Further, speed limits on arterials have been reduced to 60 km/h within the town limits.
But other arterials present an almost insurmountable barrier to cycling to the commercial and institutional destinations along those same routes. Davis Dr is of course the poster child: bike lanes were part of the initial design for the Rapidway but were scrapped due to limited space. I have nothing against Bus Rapid Transit lanes and wide sidewalks–indeed I fully support anything that is an alternative to driving–nor do I begrudge the plantings that double as low-impact water drains. But Davis Dr is highly unsafe for cycling without bike lanes.
Similarly, Mulock Dr (for which the Town is studying an off-road multi-use trail) is downright dangerous. The issue for both is speed. Drivers regularly move well over the 50 km/h (Davis) and 60 km/h (Mulock) speed limits, and rarely have any regard to the laws that state you must leave a meter of passing distance around a bike. I don’t blame the drivers as much as I blame the wide roads, which encourage speeding, and the overall car-dependent development pattern which forces people to use cars to get anywhere.
The bottom line is, I need to carefully plot my route anytime I venture out on bike for an errand. Sometimes a car is the only choice. Sometimes I have to take a circuitous route to get there. Sometimes I actually choose which plaza to visit based on its accessibility by bike! And sometimes, maybe in the early evening when traffic is a little lighter, feeling a little defiant, I just take the dangerous arterial road. Welcome to Newmarket.

Cycle Newmarket ~ Ride all Summer long!