Delivering the goods: Toronto's clogged streets

Toronto's mayor Rob Ford hasn't done much for cyclists but that shouldn't stop cyclists from lending the beleaguered mayor a helping hand. Ford's campaign to reduce traffic congestion by taking on cyclists and eliminating transit projects hasn't had any success so a few new ideas -- and a bit of old fashioned ingenuity -- should be welcome. For a start, cyclists can point the mayor in the right direction in dealing with the large, traffic-blocking, cube vans used by major courier companies.

The delivery of goods is a key economic activity. In Toronto's downtown area alone about 80,000 letters, parcels, and packages must be delivered every day. Fortunately, bulky cube vans aren't the only option. Indeed other methods would not only reduce traffic congestion but also deliver additional benefits to the community. A quick peak back at Toronto's history would point the mayor in the right direction.

During the 1800s messengers on foot equipped with two-wheeled handcarts and wagons were a common sight on our streets. Messengers using the public transit forerunner of the TTC soon also played a key role in moving goods. Then the bicycle arrived to add to a messenger's available tools. A 1902 Toronto Star article noted: "The bicycle has revolutionized messenger work and the boys of today have what is known colloquially as a cinch compared to those of 20 years ago."

According to local bike historian Joe Hendry: "In the 1920s and 1930s bike messengers were everywhere in Toronto." They delivered a variety of items including telegrams and commercial products. A slow decline in the number of cycling messengers then began, partly because of the growing use of cars and taxis (many of which also ran afoul of traffic laws) for deliveries.

The bike messenger industry experienced a resurgence in the late 1970s in various North American cities. By the 1980s the delivery industry in Toronto was again employing hundreds of foot, bicycle and TTC-traveling couriers year round. Ironically, deliveries by active transport then experienced a new decline even as governments began extolling the virtues of sustainable transportation. Instead of seeing a proliferation of green options like bicycles, it was the obtrusive, gas-guzzling, cube van that rose to prominence despite the negative implications for air quality, climate change, and traffic flow.

The packages that active transport workers previously delivered in the next hour or so, now often sit in illegally parked courier vans, only to be dropped off the next morning from yet another (or maybe even the same) traffic-clogging truck. The fact that the City of Toronto condones some of this illegal activity -- even forgiving a substantial portion of fines against courier companies -- only means that these companies are being subsidized on the vulnerable backs of other users of the public roadway and sidewalk. Isn't such a subsidy the type of gravy Mayor Ford promised to eliminate?

The result on our streets is that pedestrians, people on scooters, cyclists, and motorists are often left to fend for themselves, perhaps glaring at or engaging in unpleasant exchanges with the drivers of courier vans blocking their way. The drivers themselves often have few options given the dictates of their jobs and schedules. All the while there is nary a helpful word (or action) from City Hall or the CEOs of the courier companies.

A 2009 Ryerson University Institute of Housing and Mobility report, supported by the truck-based courier industry, recommended that city planners provide more dedicated parking spaces for courier companies and that enforcement officials tolerate some of the companies' law-breaking.

But if the city is to hand over precious public road space for deliveries doesn't it make more sense to adopt an approach that serves the whole community instead of one private interest group? Promoting the bicycle messenger industry -- as well as couriers on foot and on the TTC -- would cost far less money, take up far less space, and achieve additional communal objectives. Now there's an approach our cost-cutting mayor should be able to embrace.

The only new infrastructure would be the establishment of neighbourhood depots where goods can be transferred from larger vehicles to active transport messengers, or vice versa, for the initial and final stages of deliveries that originate or terminate beyond Toronto. It's worth noting that bike trailers, cargo trikes, and a variety of handcarts can carry hundreds of kilograms of packages in a single load without having to hog the road or sidewalk.

The mayor could repay cyclists for letting him in on this cheap congestion solution by implementing, and maintaining year round, the long-promised bike lane network. This would help keep messengers and other occupational bike pilots safer on our roads, especially as they haul larger packages.

We all benefit, not only from keeping the public thoroughfares moving but also from a healthier workforce, cleaner air, and a happier road environment. This is the kind of intelligent solution that can't help but give a boost to our mayor's waning popularity.

Wayne Scott spent 25 years on Toronto streets delivering goods on foot, by bike, and by transit. Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer who works on efficient transport issues.

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