One of the often overlooked negative side effects of the exponential growth in e-commerce has been on urban cyclists.
As deliveries by courier companies have grown, so has the number of vehicles blocking bike lanes. This puts cyclists at risk, forcing them into busy roads to bypass vehicles blocking their lane. As someone who regularly bikes in Montreal, often with young children in tow, I can testify that this zigzagging is extremely stressful and unsafe.
Take UPS, for example. Boosted by increased demand due to the pandemic, in the first quarter of 2021, the company reported a year-over-year increase of 14.3 per cent in its daily volume of packages.
Add Purolator, FedEx, Uber, SkipTheDishes and DoorDash and you have loads of drivers seeking a spot to park just for a couple of minutes.
I don’t envy the drivers who have these jobs. On the one hand, they face pressure from their employers who are famously known for their obsession with logistics optimization and efficiency to deliver on time. At the same time, it’s practically impossible to always park legally when you have to move your vehicle every five minutes in the heart of major cities. Blocking a bike lane is too often their chosen solution.
A key factor pushing drivers to block bike lanes is that if they are ticketed, they don’t pay the fine out of pocket. While courier companies won’t formally admit it, sources say they treat those fines as a business expense and pay them for their employees.
As part of a profit-maximization calculation, courier companies figure they’re better off financially to pay the fines for blocking bike lanes in order to operate more efficiently.
When I emailed Rudolf Douqué, a UPS spokesperson, and James Anderson, communications adviser with FedEx Canada, and asked “who pays the fine for blocking a bike lane — the driver or the company,” neither company answered the question.
But conversations I had with several drivers who work for FedEx, UPS and Purolator made it clear the courier companies pay the fine. “The company takes care of it,” one FedEx driver told me. Another, who works for UPS, said: “I’m only responsible for speeding tickets or crossing at a red light.”
It makes sense. After all, a driver could lose a day’s wage on a single ticket. The fine for parking in a bike lane in Toronto is $150.
About four years ago, Toronto bike enthusiast and parking bylaw officer Kyle Ashley decided to step in and help cyclists. Equipped with his bike, camera and a charming smile, he started shaming offenders who blocked bike lanes. His campaign was noticed by Toronto police, who created a bike lane enforcement team and chose Ashley to lead it.
But despite Ashley’s efforts, drivers continued to stop in bike lanes. Ashley became frustrated and disheartened and, eventually, quit his job.
“I decided to leave the city because I’ve seen no measurable change in the four years that I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs,” he said over a Zoom call from Cambridge, Ont.
“Bike safety was my mission for years, but the people in power are unwilling to make unpopular decisions that save people’s lives. It’s a hugely unpopular issue for politicians to tackle. They treat public safety as a political issue and, until this changes, I honestly don’t know if anything will ever be done,” Ashley said.
Much can be done to solve the problem, from increasing fines, to stricter and automated enforcement, to the creation of dedicated delivery zones for couriers.
First increase fines. The current $150 fine for parking in a bike lane is not a deterrent. The city set that rate in 2012 and has no plans to adjust it.
Given the persistence of the problem, the city should consider increasing the fine, especially for frequent offenders. Just use the penalty for driving while holding a cellphone as a benchmark: in Ontario it is $615 for a first conviction.
Even with bigger fines, only enforcement can significantly change behaviour.
Brian Moniz, operations supervisor with Toronto police, said enforcement by his unit, which has 371 parking enforcement officers and patrol supervisors, has increased in 2021. While the number of tickets issued for bicycle-lane offences averaged about 7,000 a year in 2018, 2019 and 2020, so far this year, 10,311 tickets have been given.
It is encouraging that in 2021 enforcement has brought the daily average to about 60 tickets a day, up from 20 in the past three years. Nevertheless, this barely makes a dent in the profit of large courier companies and is therefore not very effective.
Assume a delivery company is accountable for 25 per cent of package deliveries in Toronto (which is likely an overestimate) even then, it would only face 15 tickets a day or about $200,000 in fines each quarter. To put this number in perspective, UPS made a profit of $2.8 billion (U.S.) in the first quarter of 2021.
In fact, the $200,000 figure cited above is probably an overestimation since courier companies can challenge many of the tickets they receive. Under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act they can argue that in many cases they were not actually “parking.”
According to the city of Toronto, “companies and individuals who are stopped temporarily for the purpose of and while actually engaging in loading or unloading merchandise are not parking according to the Highway Traffic Act — they are not offending the prohibition against parking.”
A second measure to consider is using closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage. Last year, in the United Kingdom, the department for transport gave local councils the authority to fine drivers who park or load illegally in mandatory cycle lanes, “on the basis of CCTV evidence alone.”
But “the city (of Toronto) does not have jurisdiction to introduce those measures” and it is under the responsibility of the province of Ontario. Hence, it is up to members of the provincial Parliament to introduce a new law that allows fighting the problem with CCTV footage.
Additional measures that could help reduce the volume of courier trucks include additional pickup locations and the execution of last-mile deliveries by an enhanced fleet of electric bikes. UPS tested a cargo bike in the GTA in 2017-18 and is now using the data for future final-mile innovations.
Enhancing Toronto’s Temporary Parking Pickup Zones (TPPZs) program, which allows vehicles to park for free for up to 10 minutes close to a business, could help as well. As of February 2021, the city had 131 TPPZs.
The city is also evaluating a few long-term strategies, including “the introduction of a permitting system to allow the use of available curb space for the exclusive use of commercial vehicles during midday and/or off-peak periods.”
Although biking is growing in popularity, Canada still has an auto-centric culture and cyclists don’t have strong lobby groups. Although progress has been made, an ultimate solution to the problem of blocked bike lanes, which is both dangerous and illegal, has been put off for way too long.
Cyclists deserve to be protected, and our politicians can make it happen.
Amir Barnea is an associate professor of finance at HEC Montreal and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @abarnea1