Sarah Efron [Journalist]

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Street Fighters: Sick of waiting for the city to act, activists paint their own bike lanes
Dandyhorse, Summer 2008

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What does it take to create a bike lane? According to the City of Toronto, it takes years of bureaucratic manoeuvres, presentations to committees and wrangling with local councillors, business owners and residents. According to a group of local activists: about two hours, a cardboard stencil and a can of spray paint.

Unauthorized bike lanes have popped up all over Toronto in the last two years. On Dundas Street West, a slightly wonky looking line and images of bicycles have been painted between Ossington and Bathurst. On Queen Street West, a white line and a row of penny farthings 19th century bicycles with a giant front wheels are visible from Bellwoods to Bathurst. Bloor Street West between Ossington to Dufferin has its own stretch of penny farthings in hot pink. These guerrilla bike lanes send a message of encouragement to cyclists, and remind motorists that they need to share the road.

"The city bragged last year that they were going to put in 30 kilometers of bike lanes, but they only put in 7.7 kilometres," says Alvin, the nom de guerre of one of the members of Urban Repair Squad, the group responsible for the bike lanes. "The city doesn't have the balls to install the bike lanes. Instead of waiting, we decided to paint them ourselves."

The members of the Urban Repair Squad, a loose group of people ranging in age from 20s to 40s, say their mission is to put in bike lanes where the city has been too slow to act, or where the city has said bike lanes can't be put in due to impact on motorized traffic and parking. "Bike lanes give more validity to cyclists on the road," says an Urban Repair Squad member known as Tinkerbell.

The group's first action was in March 2006 following a rally calling for a Bloor/Danforth bike lane. The activists waited until just after 4pm, when parked cars have to move from Bloor Street for the rush hour, to paint a lane. Other actions followed, some in the day and some under cover of night. The city has attempted to remove these guerrilla bike lanes using chemicals and power washers.

When word of the guerrilla bikes lanes got out some local blogs, people were quick to praise and criticize. Some some said the lanes caused confusion and could lead to collisions, while others argued cleaning up the paint wasted valuable city funds. Urban Repair Squad members counter that they choose their locations carefully to avoid potential collisions, and they say they aren't bothered by the city's expenses. "I don't have any guilt at all," says Tinkerbell. "The message is worth it."

Daniel Egan, manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, says the authorized lanes aren't effective, as they are in areas where motorists can legally park. However, he says he understands the activists' frustration. "We haven't kept up with the expectations created by the Bike Plan," he says. "We're increasing our staff to work on these bike lane projects and increasing our budget, so we're actually in better shape than we've ever been in terms of delivering on the Bike Plan."

Egan says the city is streamlining its procedures his team now has to report to just one committee, instead of the previous five. Egan is also trying to make the case that bike lanes aren't just a local issue that can be shot down by councillors, business owners and residents, but rather, an important city-wide network. According to Egan, the city's new climate change initiative is helping the bike lanes gain traction, and he says they're now on track to complete the bike lane network by 2012.

Of course, members of the Urban Repair Squad won't just wait and see if the city follows through on its promises. They're busy identifying new locations where they can paint bike lanes, and they're contemplating new ideas, such as putting up signs telling drivers to watch for cyclists. "We don't have time to wait for our kids to get run over," says another member of the group known as Jamie. "It could take decades, and meanwhile, cars are destroying our cities and damaging our personal health and the biosphere."

New infrastructure by the Urban Repair Squad includes the sharrows on Hallam and bike boxes on Harbord at Bathurst.