Let’s finish the job on Shaw: understanding the benefits of bicycle boulevards for Toronto

3 cyclists for every car on Shaw St has become the new normal. But there's more work to do to finish the bicycle boulevard.

Jared Kolb, Executive Director


Shaw St is one of my favorite streets in Toronto to ride a bicycle on.

Shaw St has long been identified as an ideal cycling corridor. It’s a long, uninterrupted residential street that runs parallel to Ossington Ave and connects major cycling corridors. The contraflow lane, installed in late 2013, was the product of years of work by the City of Toronto’s cycling staff, local Councillor Mike Layton and Cycle Toronto’s staff and volunteers, who worked with residents on Shaw who wanted to support improvements for cycling on their street.

The Shaw St bicycle boulevard has been a resounding success and a mainstay for west-end cycling commuters. According to traffic counts produced by the City of Toronto, bicycle traffic was counted at 606 cyclists per day pre-bike lane. In Sept 2014, nearly a year after the contraflow lane was installed, 1,341 cyclists per day were observed. That’s a 121% increase in less than a year!

There’s more to the success of a bicycle boulevard, though, than painting a contraflow lane. Key components were adding traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, reducing speed limits across the corridor from 40 km/hr to 30 km/hr and installing new cycling-specific traffic signals at major intersections - all essential to the success of Shaw St.


But shouldn’t the contraflow lane on Shaw St be physically separated?

It’s true: we often make a lot of noise that painted bike lanes aren’t sufficient and that we need physical separation between cars and bikes.

Over the past several years, we’ve consulted design experts and researched guidelines. We’ve looked to home-grown expertise in the Ontario Traffic Manual and world-leading expertise in the Dutch CROW Manual for Bicycle Traffic.

This nomograph, taken from Ontario’s Traffic Manual for bicycle infrastructure design, visualizes the relationship between traffic speed, the number of vehicles, and what this means for the type of cycling infrastructure that should be built.  The faster the speeds on a street and the more cars there are, the more bike and motor vehicle traffic should be separated from each other.

Image from Ontario Traffic Manual Book 18

Conversely, if traffic speeds are below 30 km/h and the motor vehicle volumes are less than 4,000 cars per day, then physical separation is not recommended.  But how does this North American guidance hold up to international best practices?  We consulted the CROW manual for bicycle design, the manual used in the Netherlands.

Table from Dutch CROW Manual for Bicycle Traffic

The Dutch guidance is a bit more nuanced because they take into account that some routes may have very high bicycle volumes.  However, based on this review, we’ve found that the numbers surrounding physical separation as being ideal for streets with motor vehicle traffic at speeds of 40 km/hr or higher is a consistent standard. When the speed limit is reduced to 30 km/hr and there are less than 4,000 cars on that roadway in 24 hours, a shared roadway is recommended, even in the Netherlands. A recent 24 hour traffic count on Shaw St at Essex St done by the City of Toronto indicated a combined bicycle - motor vehicle total in excess of 2,000 people per day.

I find it fascinating that both the Ontario Traffic Manual and CROW Manual are in agreement on this point.

What this means for Cycle Toronto is that for low speed roadways, we should actively advocate for bicycle boulevards. Bicycle boulevards generally include these features:

  1. 30 km / hr maximum speed limit: Speed kills. When a person is hit by a motor vehicle travelling at 50 km/hr, they have a 85% chance of death. When a person is hit by a motor vehicle at 30 km/hr or less, their chance of death drops to 5%. Read more in Toronto Public Health’s Road to Health.

  2. Traffic calming: reducing the posted speed limit alone does not reduce driving speeds. We have to change the street design. This could include speed bumps or bulb-outs to slow traffic down, or contraflow lanes on one-way streets which reduces the width of the street by making it two-way for bicycles but one-way for cars and trucks..

  3. Traffic diversion: to make streets safer for cycling, motor vehicle traffic should be discouraged. There are a number of ways to do this. One approach is to change the direction of motor vehicle travel from one major block to the next. Another is to physically change intersections to allow pedestrians & cyclists to travel through, but restrict motor vehicles.

The Shaw St bicycle boulevard isn’t finished yet.

The Shaw St bikeway does a good job on the first two criteria but falls short on the third. Too many motor vehicles use Shaw St as a through street, which creates more conflicts for cyclists and pedestrians. It also reduces the liveability of the street for residents who must endure traffic infiltration. Shaw St runs parallel to Ossington Ave. Motor vehicles should use Ossington Ave, not Shaw St.

Traffic diversion with cycling bypass on Heath St E and Inglewood Dr in Toronto

The answer on Shaw St isn’t to physically separate the contraflow bike lane. To improve Shaw St, we need to work towards reducing the number of motor vehicles on the street.

One way to do that is to flip the direction that motor vehicles can travel in; allow motor vehicles to travel south from Bloor St to Harbord St, but only allow cars to travel north between Bloor St and Dupont St. Changes like this require traffic studies which not only take time, but require consensus-building among local residents. Aside from calming traffic, another important benefit, would be that the contraflow bike lane could then be curbside, and not next to parked cars anymore.  If Shaw were northbound, between Bloor and Dupont, then a southbound contraflow bike lane could run along the west curb, and the parking for residents could be on the east curb.

Another way to do this is to add a traffic diverter with a cycling bypass, like what was done on Inglewood Dr at Health St E (see image above). Traffic diverters reduce through car-traffic while maintaining two-way streets. They’re not only flexible and convenient for local residents, they remove the need for contraflow lanes. Vancouver uses traffic diverters extensively.

Reducing car & truck through traffic not only increases cycling safety, but makes the street more liveable for local residents. Suburban cul-de-sacs are designed with this same principle of traffic diversion to reduce through traffic and make streets safer.

The City of Toronto has recently launched a new cycling network planning process and we believe that both protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards should be in this plan. Last year, we called on all city council and mayoral candidates to commit to building a city-wide Minimum Grid of 100 km of protected bike lanes and 100 km of bicycle boulevards by 2018.  25 of Toronto’s 44 councillors endorsed that commitment. Let’s extend bicycle boulevards across Toronto.

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