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A brief history of Toronto bike lanes

Posted by Chris Bateman / December 8, 2012

toronto bike 1970sToronto as a city is hardly overburdened with cycle lanes. There are just over 90 kms of bike tracks - not including off-street trails - winding their way through the region, often disjointed and rarely leading to or from anywhere useful. In comparison, the city ranks roughly on par with Vancouver, a city with a quarter the population.

It was 34 years ago that Toronto installed its first and immediately controversial bike lanes on Poplar Plains Road south of St. Clair. Before that, bike tracks were simple looping asphalt trails confined entirely to public parks, ideal for weekend riding with the kids but not so useful for getting to work.

Convincing motorists pre-occupied with the rapidly choking traffic to accept space for a new mode of transport wasn't, and still isn't, easy.

toronto beaches aerialMetro Toronto's first Parks Commissioner Tommy Thompson was, undoubtedly, a champion of the city's recreational spaces. His famous "please walk on the grass" signs that once dotted Toronto's verdant public lawns encapsulated his ethos that open spaces were at their best when visitors were free to wander off the path.

Under Thompson, the city built shared cycle tracks in Ashbridges Bay Park, the Toronto Islands, High Park, and many other public gardens. In 1972 the only path exclusively for the use of bicycles ran for 2.4 kms just north of the boardwalk in the Beach from the foot of Fernwood Park Avenue to Woodbine Park. It's still there, a piece of the much larger Martin Goodman Waterfront trail.

That summer the Toronto Star proclaimed the "Year of the Bike" with a full-page photo of a cheerful Tommy Thompson perched on a saddle surrounded by kids. Reporter Roger Whittaker and his 10-speed Schwinn mapped out a 100-mile route round the city from the Beaches track to High Park, up to Steeles, dropping down to Sheppard, through the ravine system out to Scarborough, and back. At no point did Whittaker have his own lane, painted or otherwise.

toronto poplar groveIt would take seven years for Toronto to get its first marked bike lane, a fury-inducing strip inexplicably located on a residential road south of St. Clair. Immediately drivers fumed about the road's reduction to one lane and cyclists "shooting down it two and three at a time" against traffic toward Davenport Road. "[Mayor] Sewell and his gang got us again," complained one driver to the Star.

The angry drivers might have had a point, the lane was poorly located on a steep hill that cyclists often had to dismount and walk up. In addition, the markings were only on the east side of the street so bikers wanting, naturally, to sweep down the hill had to share a lane as narrow as four feet with oncoming riders, if there actually were any.

No-one really used the bike lane, largely, I suspect, because of its horrible location. A report cited in news reports at the time said 847 cars used the road during rush-hour while just three bikers puffed up the winding hill. It wasn't good PR for Toronto's fledgling biking community.

An editorial published a few months after the Poplar Plains lane was opened warned with solemn dismay that bike lanes were "an ill-conceived notion that will only exacerbate already intolerable traffic jams." Under the headline "There's a limit to bicycle lanes," the piece fretted that further expansion of the cycling project to Wellesley and Harbord streets — a route that's getting its own entirely separated lanes in the new year — would fatally cut space for cars from four lanes to two and choke the city.

toronto 1970s cyclistsThe arguments against dedicated lanes were the same then as they are today: cold winters would drive cyclists off the street; after a week or turning up "sweaty and disheveled" at work, office workers would lose ditch their 10-speed; roads would become a dangerous obstacle course of pedestrians, bikers, and cars.

But that didn't happen. The newly-formed City Cycling Committee spent the 1980s developing the ring and post lock, installing tire-friendly drain covers, and establishing the Martin Goodman Waterfront trail for cyclists. Piece by piece, new on-street bike lanes were added to the network. A second bike lane opened on Wellesley on June 2. 1979.

Despite an occasionally ominous outlook and relatively low turnout in rush hour — apparently just 127 cyclists entered the downtown during a typical rush hour in 1979 — getting to work under one's own steam steadily increased in popularity. Today, in excess of 20,000 people ride a bike as their primary means of conveyance in Toronto.

In 2000, the city set itself a target of 1,000 kms of citywide bike lanes in time for 2011. So far, they're about halfway there. New separated lanes coming to Queens Quay and Wellesley will be a net gain for the city after the loss of the markings on Jarvis Street, but there's still some way to go.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Star; Thursday Oct. 11 1979, York University; 1974-002 / 461.

Discussion

18 Comments

steve / December 8, 2012 at 07:52 am
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I recall sewer grates used to parallel to curbs, a very dangerous situation for cyclists. The city refused to acknowledge the problem. After much lobbying the solution was to paint a wide diagonal line on the pavement.
They have now all been replaced, but the city still refuses to offer safe convenient infrastructure for cyclists.
Breathe Much / December 8, 2012 at 11:28 am
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To get the population safely cycling just seems like common sense: cleaner air, less congestion, less money, healthier people. Why is it so hard for Toronto to 'get it' when it comes to the investment in cycling infrastructure that so many other modern cities have made? Instead of putting in more cycle lanes, our genius council votes to take them out! If we are depending on cars and a lame TTC to transport our growing population, we are in big trouble. Do those of you who favour motor vehicles realize what you are breathing in everyday? Your health will tell you when you are older.
bee / December 8, 2012 at 01:02 pm
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Yeah, they got rid of the Jarvis lanes but one street over on Sherbourne the new separated bike lanes are pretty sweet and they run from Bloor to Front St. We should get separated bike lanes for the east/west bike traffic, I vote Richmond St!
steve replying to a comment from bee / December 8, 2012 at 01:41 pm
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The Sherbourne lanes were already there, removing the Jarvis lanes is a net loss. If the city felt they were a hindrance, which is not the case, then they should have installed lanes on Church Street. That would have been a net gain.
Aaron / December 8, 2012 at 02:40 pm
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Any history of Toronto bike lanes would have to be 'brief' out of necessity, considering the truncated, ill-designed, half-assed implementation of the current 'system'.
W. K. Lis / December 8, 2012 at 02:56 pm
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When bicycles very first appeared on the scene in the 19th century, most streets were dirt. They were asphalted for the benefit of bicyclists, however, the motorized vehicles soon took them over for themselves.
Mike / December 8, 2012 at 02:57 pm
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The bike lane that used to be on Birchmount from St Clair to Danforth seemed like it was hardly ever used. I never, ever saw a bike using it.
Chris / December 8, 2012 at 03:08 pm
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In my opinion, the main point of bike lanes is to increase bicycle use. There are other factors of course, the main one being that, according to evidence, bike lanes decrease accidents on a per rider basis. But I think the main point of bike lanes is the perception of increased biking safety. Biking is by far the fastest and cheapest way to get around downtown if the distances are too far too walk. So why don't people do it? There really are only a few weeks of the year when the weather is so bad that biking is not feasible (extreme cold or recent snowfall). I believe it has to do with a perception that it is not safe. But, as the situation in many other cities with similar climates to Toronto shows (New York being a good example), more bike lanes means more bicyclists, which very likely means fewer cars. Bikes cause far less congestion than cars (on Jarvis street, for example, the presence of the bike lane increased travel time along Jarvis by 2 minutes) but they increase the capacity of roads for almost no cost. And indeed, the Jarvis bike lane was a good example of this. The number of cyclists increased by a large amount on this road and then the number of cars stayed constant. And, as the number of people who live downtown increases, it is these people who any city planner would hope would drive a bike (they are likely to live close enough to work for biking to be feasible). If they are too afraid of biking and instead drive cars (which would be far more expensive and slower) they would cause the traffic for those who need to drive cars (like those coming in from distant suburbs)even worse when they get downtown. So when people say biking infrastructure is "sustainable," though this may be true from an environmental perspective, I believe it is more true in terms of a road capacity perspective. Road can easily handle lots more bikes than cars, the only challenge is convincing people to use them. Bike lanes do this.
Greg / December 8, 2012 at 03:11 pm
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At any point during the day or evening the new "separated" Sherbourne bike lanes are being used as parking spaces. Last night in front of the Pheonix Concert Theatre (Sherbourne south of Wellesley) there were at least a dozen cars parked in the bike lane.
FordMath / December 8, 2012 at 03:57 pm
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How is it that the city is halfway to the goal of 1000km of bike trails (end of article) when there are only 90km of bike trails in Toronto (beginning of article)?
Antony / December 8, 2012 at 04:15 pm
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I love how the 1970s arguments against bike lanes haven't changed. Thankfully the clothes have.
Dale / December 8, 2012 at 05:06 pm
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It's at moments like this that I like to throw out this quote from the mayor's inaugural address to city council in 1896:

“In the construction of streets hereafter the Council should pay special attention to the needs of those who ride bicycles. A part of each street should be paved with the most suitable material for them. In addition to this, strips on a large number of streets in different parts of the city, where asphalt or brick does not now exist, should be put in first-class shape for bicycle riders. We must remember the fact that the traffic upon the streets is changing rapidly, both because of the electric service and because of the introduction of bicycles, and parts of the streets hereafter should be graded and paved with special reference to the comfort of those using wheels.”
(Toronto City Council 1896 Appendix C, 1)

We still need to come a long way to get to where we've been.
tim / December 8, 2012 at 07:51 pm
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I used the Birchmount bike lane. My usual route only required a short portion at the southern end, but I did ride them. In the same way that Mike can say he never saw any cyclists, I can say that I never saw any drivers disadvantaged by the bike lanes being there. Auto traffic is never that heavy along this portion of Birchmount, and there were left turning lanes. I thought the design of the road with bike lanes made traffic more orderly. Which is safer for everyone.

North-south arterial roads in Scarborough are narrow, and they're signed at 6okph, which means that cars and trucks are travelling at 70kph or more. Two lanes mean that cars race along the streets, weaving across the lanes to pass. Over to the left to get around a bus, back to the right to avoid the turning vehicle without breaking speed. This makes them anxious rides for the cyclist. I'd rather ride along the Danforth, where parked cars make the street mostly one-lane, turning the outside lane into an unofficial bike lane, or on downtown streets, where there are so many other users of the streets that automobile behaviour is moderated, where cars are less dominant than in the burbs.
Justin / December 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm
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This article is sure to please the lefty-pinko cyclist readership of BlogTO.
jennifer / December 10, 2012 at 12:27 am
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Neat! My local bike lane was the first one ever! I'm pretty glad it's a one-way northbound now, though. I can't imagine trying to deal with downhill riders while slogging up it.
Mike Harris / December 17, 2012 at 01:05 pm
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Status quo - traffic, pollution, obesity
Cycling - no traffic worries, no pollution, getting exercise

I want the fuckin common sense revolution.
Juan Manuel / May 6, 2013 at 08:24 am
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I rode in a bike in 2011. Im awensome, because im argentinean. You can ride in every places but you fight with walkers and drivers because doesnt respect you.
I wanna return to Canada, and ride in all Ontario.
バッシュ / November 14, 2013 at 10:01 pm
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