The emergence of COVID-19 has altered nearly every facet of our lives. Things that were normal just a few months ago, like meeting a group of friends for dinner, are now looked at with reservation, and things that seemed over-the-top in terms of safety, like wearing masks everywhere you go, are either required now, or just commonly accepted.

One of the fundamental changes that has flown a bit under the radar however is how we are now approaching allocating some of our public space, specifically, how the pandemic has shifted what many in our society perceive as the ‘optimal’ allocation of road right-of-way space between competing uses.

In pre-pandemic Toronto, this ‘optimal’ allocation was perceived by many as “as much as possible to cars, and whatever is left to everything else”. The pandemic has altered that calculation, principally because the forces promoting it and the forces pushing against it have rebalanced.

This article will focus on three types of infrastructure that have seen their profiles raised as a result of COVID-19: Bike lanes, transit lanes, and sidewalk patios.

Temporary sidewalk patio space in Downtown Burlington, image by Andrew Johnson

The Pre-COVID Status Quo

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, reallocation of road space for uses other than private autos was a tough sell politically. While some projects did succeed, some proceded only to be later reversed, some succeeded only because they started as a ‘Pilot Project’ and thus lacked permanence, and some were watered down to the point of being borderline ineffective at their original purpose.

On the cycling front, the biggest pieces of dedicated cycling infrastructure to enter service were the Bloor Street West Bike Lanes, which run from Avenue Road to Shaw Street. Approved by Toronto City Council in May, 2016, the project was the subject of intense debate. On one side of the debate were cyclists, active transportation advocates, and members of the community who wanted a Bloor West that was more hospitable to methods of mobility other than cars.

On the other were drivers and pro-car advocates who wanted to resist anything that would reduce road capacity for cars and theoretically slow traffic down and create more car congestion, and reduce the availability of on-street parking. Joining them were several business owners who were concerned that the reduction in on-street parking would negatively impact their business.

As part of the approval of the Pilot Project, the City conducted detailed analysis before and after the bike lane implementation focused on both the traffic and the financial impact of the bike lanes.

When comparing cycling usage from June, 2016 to June, 2017, the analysis showed the bike lanes resulted in a 56% increase in the number of cyclists on Bloor, 25% of them being new riders. At the same time, auto volumes decreased by between 16 and 18%, with only moderate increases seen on parallel corridors (between 4 and 7%). Travel times across the corridor were found to have been increased by 2 to 4 minutes during peak periods.

To evaluate the financial impact on businesses, the City obtained transaction data from Moneris. The data suggested that the majority of businesses saw an increase in business from June, 2016 to June, 2017, and that the overall increase was higher in the Bloor Street Pilot Area than on Danforth Avenue, which was used as a control group.

Despite these quantifiable metrics which show increased active transportation uses, an increase in sales for merchants, and only minor increases in travel times for drivers, bike lanes remain politically polarizing.

On the transit front, the biggest project to have been implemented recently was the King Street Transit Pilot. Urban Toronto wrote extensively on the rationale behind the project and its initial implementation, so those articles would be a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with the project.

Like the Bloor Street Bike Lanes, the primary opponents to this project were drivers and local businesses, who raised many of the same concerns that were raised on Bloor (and before that on Richmond-Adelaide, and before that on Jarvis, and before that on Roncesvalles, and before that…)

Unfortunately, the compromises that were included in the design in order to appease these groups, such as not physically restricting through movements at intersections where turns are required for non-transit vehicles, coupled with the lack of enforcement of these restrictions, has slowly chipped away at the gains in terms of timing improvements of transit vehicles across the pilot area.

In terms of street patios, prior to the pandemic they were only allowed in certain areas, and were a pretty rare sight in Toronto. Prior to the pandemic, there were only 660 restaurant patios on public property (with another 542 on private property) out of over 8,000 restaurants, or just over 8%. The combination of extra installation cost, restrictive legislation, and bureaucratic navigation required to install one restricted their appeal to many business owners.

What Changed With COVID

COVID-19 altered the transportation landscape in a number of ways. The first way is the drastic reduction in the number of both auto and transit trips happening daily, primarily due to the number of people whose jobs switched to working from home, or those who were laid off.

Auto commute trips in the GTA have dropped substantially since the pandemic began. In the days following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of stay-at-home restrictions, the congestion index (the percentage more time a trip would take at that given time compared to free-flow conditions) peaked at 17%. Pre-pandemic, the average congestion index during the PM peak in Toronto was 72%. Traffic volumes have slowly edged upwards as restrictions have been lifted, but evidence suggests we are not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.

On the transit front, data released by the trip-planning app Transit back in late March saw an estimated 83% drop in transit demand in Canadian communities at the onset of the restrictions and closures. The TTC has reported an 86% drop in the number of Presto taps, while it estimated back in May that revenue loss would reach $300 million by Labour Day. The TTC’s 2020 budget (drafted before the pandemic) estimated that fares would account for 63% of its operating budget. Other transit agencies across the GTHA have also bit hit hard, with many suspending fare collection for months.

Interestingly though, there has been an increase in the amount of active transportation trips being taken. BikeShare Toronto, the City’s bike-sharing network, saw a record 36,000 trips in a single weekend. This increase is likely a combination of former transit users choosing a ‘safer’ (i.e. less potential for COVID exposure) option, and more people cycling for recreational purposes.

Bicycle sales have also been booming. One bike shop is reporting a 30% increase in sales, with demand exceeding supply. Anecdotally, if you have been able to find a bike for sale in a store around the GTHA, you’re one of the lucky ones.

For many restaurants, the initial stay-at-home restrictions limited them to take-out and delivery only. Those with no direct public access (i.e. those inside malls or private other indoor areas) were closed completely. This change in service delivery significantly impacted the bottom line of most restaurants, and forced many of them to cut back employee hours or lay employees off.

Statistics Canada reported that restaurant sales in April, 2020 across Canada were 61.4% lower than the same month a year earlier. In Ontario, that number was 62.4%.

The Demand for Change

All of these sudden and drastic changes to our daily lives have spurred demands for change in order to help mitigate some of the negative impacts. The two largest opposition blocks to road space re-allocation in the past (drivers and business owners) are in significantly different positions as a result of the pandemic.

For drivers that are now working from home or are not working, the lifestyle change has likely gotten them out in their neighbourhood more, be it by walking or riding a bike. Streets that were once seen as little more than a way to get from home to work may now potentially be seen as destinations unto themselves.

This increase in active transportation has lead to increased demand for quiet streets, weekend road closures, and temporary bike lanes. Through the City’s ActiveTO program, quiet streets “are shared space designed to enable local residents to maintain physical distancing within their communities.  Signs and temporary barricades have been placed on select neighbourhood streets to open up space for people who walk, run, use wheelchairs and bike by encouraging slow, local vehicle access only.”

Weekend road closures of parts of major thoroughfares like Lake Shore Boulevard and Bayview Avenue have given residents alternative active transportation options to existing infrastructure like the Martin Goodman Trail, which has had crowding issues this summer.

The cycling network has seen a rapid increase in size this summer, with approximately 40 kilometres worth of new on-street cycling lanes to be implemented in 2020. In response to the pandemic, 25 additional kilometres worth of were added to the network beyond what was originally planned for 2020.

Bike lane projects to be implemented in 2020, image courtesy the City of Toronto

The new lanes repurpose curb lanes along several key corridors, including Bloor Street East, Danforth Avenue, University Avenue/Queen’s Park Crescent, and Dundas Street East. According to the City, “the plan includes flexibility so that bikeway installations can be adjusted based on considerations such as changing traffic volumes, and the evolving needs of residents and businesses in the wake of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has also allowed the TTC to advance the timeline for the installation of transit-only lanes on key corridors throughout the City. The TTC’s 5-Year Service Plan & 10-Year Outlook, released in December, 2019 only commits to “explore bus transit lanes” on Eglinton East, Steeles West, Jane, Dufferin, and Finch East from 2020 to 2024.

Under the accelerated plan outlined in July, bus-only lanes will be installed on Eglinton East by by Fall, 2020, and on Jane Street by Spring, 2021. Timing for the remaining corridors is still to be determined, but suffice to say the commitment to “implement” rather than “explore” is a big step forward.

The TTC's Priority Dedicated Bus Lane Corridors, image courtesy of the TTC

For restaurant owners, the restrictions on the spacing of tables and where patrons can eat has forced them to look for any means by which to increase the number of tables they can have. For many, that has meant placing patios in front of their business. As of the writing of this article, 396 new patios have been added under the City’s CaféTO program. The majority of these have involved either removing parking in front of their business, or involved using the majority of sidewalk space in front of their business, which in turn requires the adjacent road space to be turned into temporary sidewalk space.


How To Make The Pandemic Infrastructure Permanent

So how do groups and individuals who have been asking for this type of infrastructure for years (if not decades) ensure that this newfound urbanity isn’t merely a flash in the pan? Start demanding that these projects be made permanent now: send a note to your City Councillor.

CaféTO, as enacted by By-Law, has a defined end date of November 15, 2020. Without a permanent amendment to the Municipal Code or a re-enactment of the 2020 program, the layout and location options that were available to business owners this summer may not be available next summer.

The Staff Report which recommended the installation of the temporary cycle lanes has a recommended end date of December 21, 2021. This means that, barring any future moves by Council to make these additional 25 kilometres of bike lanes permanent, they will be removed after that date. It should be noted that while the actual By-law does not make mention of this removal date, the By-law that enacted the Richmond-Adelaide Cycle Track Pilot does not mention a specific end date either. It was not until a By-law was enacted in 2019 that the Cycle Track was made permanent.

Should citizens want to ensure that the 25km of additional bike lanes enacted this year don’t suffer the same fate as those on Jarvis St, a concerted effort will be required to make these changes permanent.

At this point in time, no one knows exactly when things will get back to “normal”. The pandemic has altered our lives in many ways, but in a way has also provided an opportunity for us to re-examine our urban realm and modify how we allocate public space. Let’s seize it.

Want to get involved in the discussion? Check out our Cycling Infrastructure Forum thread, or various threads tied to the TTC in our Transportation Forum, or leave a comment below.

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