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That time when drains were a Toronto cyclist's nemesis

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 16, 2013

toronto drainsOn a sticky and overcast June 30, 1983, University of Toronto student Margaret Lawson was cycling north on Yonge to her summer job at the Ministry of Revenue. She remembers approaching a parking meter, then nothing. When Lawson regained consciousness a few minutes later she recalls a pain in her chest and no feeling in her legs. As the Globe and Mail reported, "she knew she was paralyzed."

Lawson was never sure whether she was sideswiped by a car or if her tires fell through one of Metro Toronto's notorious sewer grates, but after just three months in Sunnybrook Medical Centre, the irrepressible physiology major was back at St. Hilda's College with the help of a wheelchair. The city, however, wasn't about to accept blame for its dangerous drains.

toronto drain coverThen, as now, cycling in Toronto had its unnecessary dangers. In a letter to the Toronto Star in 1980, a reader cited the drain covers, uneven curbs, parked cars, and swerving drivers unaccustomed to passing slow, narrow vehicles among the top biking hazards.

The drains in question had long, thin holes parallel to the curb that were ideally sized and spaced to snag narrow bicycle tires. In the early 1980s there were more than 22,000 of the grates in Toronto, more than 1,500 of them on major cycling routes like Yonge.

The obvious solution was to simply rotate the problem drains or install replacement metalwork with the herringbone pattern used on the current gratings, and by 1984 more than 9,500 bike-friendly replacements had been dropped in place. From there, the city proceeded at snail's pace, installing roughly 50 new covers each year. If it hadn't sped up, it would have taken more than a decade to finish.

toronto bikeIn the meantime, cyclists demanded the city mark its remaining tire-hungry drain covers with a special decals, something that would have cost around $13,000 in 1984 - about $25,600 in today's money, but the city balked.

Labeling drain covers that were a danger to cyclists would, they said, be an admission that the streets were hazardous to users and could have exposed it to lawsuits in the event of a crash.

An editorial in the Toronto Star pointed out that a single spinal injury would likely cost the province considerably more than the $13,000 the city was trying to save in road paint.toronto drain coversThen in 1984, just over year after Margaret Lawson's accident, 11-year-old Dean Pace was killed when he fell off his five-speed bicycle on Sorauren Ave., fatally fracturing his skull. From damage to Pace's wheel rims and scratches on an old-style grate, police believed the boy had been flipped after his tired had fallen down a gap.

Though an inquest would later cast doubt on that scenario, the tragedy spooked the city enough to cough up the money to mark the remaining covers with yellow warning stripes.

"It is a sorry situation when city council seems only willing to act when tragedy strikes," said councillor Jack Layton, then head of the cycling committee. Fellow councillor and cyclist Richard Gilbert floated the idea of (groan) licensing cyclists to cover the steep cost of the upgrades - $8 million in 1984, $15.8 million today.

toronto drainsIn 1986, in a report published in its Watchdog magazine, Toronto Public Health found many inexperienced riders rode as close as possible to the curb to avoid brushes with passing cars. Of the 504 people who fell off their bike in Ottawa in 1983, only half were involved a collision with another other vehicle.

Toronto's catch basins were eventually rectified and now the majority of storm drains use the safer angled slot pattern. Streetcar tracks, especially at busy intersections, are now the biggest concern for narrow-tired cyclists. Should the city do more to ensure roads are safe in the absence of dedicated bike lanes?

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

Images: City of Toronto Archives, "Drain. Fork. Fish." by PJMixer/blogTO Flickr pool.



jameson / February 16, 2013 at 11:49 am
A physiology major had a summer job at the Ministry of, those days sure are long gone.
Dan / February 16, 2013 at 11:49 am
Great to read legitimate writing and journalism.

Good on you Chris, you're now my fourth favourite Bateman. Patrick, and Jason and Justine will be a tough climb.
loper / February 16, 2013 at 11:52 am
I don't ride a bike and I drive a car. I've been to many NA cities and Toronto seems like it has more year round bikers than any other. I find Toronto is very bike unfriendly. I think we could do a lot more to make Toronto work well with bikes and cars. This should be a priority.
Chris on Bay St / February 16, 2013 at 12:17 pm
Here's a thought: maybe cyclists should watch where they're going. Why do they think they're invincible? I saw a guy last night ripping along King through the theatre district wearing NOISE CANCELLING headphones. I'm a 24/7 pedestrian in the core and my head is ALWAYS on a swivel.
J / February 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm
"(groan) licensing"

Did you momentarily think you were writing an Op Ed? Your historical piece was coming along so nicely until you decided to inject that little bit of nonsense. No one is looking for your opinion. If you ever get a real job in journalism you'll quickly lean that.
Cwuish on Bay Stweet replying to a comment from Chris on Bay St / February 16, 2013 at 12:36 pm
Chris, let me get this straight: you self-identify as a BOBBLEHEAD who endlessly walks downtown 24/7?? Amazing!

Don't you ever get sleepy? And how's your neck, anyway? That sounds painful!

tommy replying to a comment from J / February 16, 2013 at 12:57 pm
Last time I checked this was BLOGto, not NEWSPAPERto. I think a little leeway can be given on a local blog. And if you're taking a community BLOG as hardcore journalism, then maybe you need to re-evaluate how you get your news. Yeesh.
jon lofto / February 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm
sean / February 16, 2013 at 01:05 pm
streetcars and streetcar tracks are expensive,inconvenient and dangerous.if the city had switched to trolley buses like vancouver,there would have been no problem getting around cars in the recent snowstorm.also no closing an intersection for weeks to rip up the street for track replacement.another legacy of that american idiot jane jacobs who ruined our city.
Ford4ever replying to a comment from J / February 16, 2013 at 01:21 pm
"...if you ever get a real job in journalism, you'll quickly lean (sic) that."

If you ever grow up and start paying for the news you read, you will have the right to expect better.
Chris Bateman replying to a comment from J / February 16, 2013 at 01:24 pm
W. K. Lis / February 16, 2013 at 02:13 pm
The Eglinton West bike path is STILL not cleared of snow. The pedestrian walkway is, however. Same with the roadway, of course. Rob Ford wants bicyclists to use bike paths, but how can one use them in winter if they are not cleared of snow? Toronto is very unfriendly towards bicyclists.
Sean'sDiaperNeedsRealChange replying to a comment from sean / February 16, 2013 at 02:28 pm
Oh dear, SOMEBODY'S colicky today! Have you had a nap today, Sean?

Can someone please give Mr. Frownyface a BIG hug and a cookie??
Retro / February 16, 2013 at 02:48 pm
I still remember those old sewer grates, what a pain in the rear they were for teenagers on narrow-wheeled 10-speeds back in the day. Glad they're gone.
10MonthCyclist replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / February 16, 2013 at 03:01 pm
This is one of the smartest comments I've seen yet for the cycling debate.

Bike lanes are rarely cleared and, if they are at all, it takes place literally days afterwards. What's worse, because the edges of the snow/ice berms are sloped, you have to give them a wide berth to the right and still watch traffic alongside on the left. This is in addition to watching for black ice, rock-solid ice chunk, slush puddles, etc. So winter cyclists, already having their work cut out for them, are pretty much powerless to reduce their effect on traffic flow, which (understandably) angers drivers who think cyclists are inconsiderate.

I'd like to hear from motorists about this debate: what do you think about bike lanes in winter...should there be pressure on the City to clear them within say a few hours of a snowfall?
w-hat replying to a comment from Ford4ever / February 16, 2013 at 05:00 pm
Nothing is free. If you're not paying for something, it's because you're the product.
the lemur / February 16, 2013 at 07:55 pm
You didn't pay for those grates as a driver either, but as a property tax payer like everyone else.
Don / February 17, 2013 at 06:13 pm
The issue of catch basins appeared earlier than the 1980s.
I started cycling again in the late 60s and by 1971 had purchased a 'racing style' bike thing tires included, not realizing the challenges ahead with the catch basin problem..

In the early 70s catch basins became a big issue. The City said it would take a decade or so to replace them. It was not a simple solution of re-installing, turning the grates sideways. That was they said, impossible. Brand new V-style grated catch basins would have to be ordered to replace the old grabbers. We now know that basin replacement took many years longer than anticipated.

Check out the June 30, 1973 Toronto Daily Star, a letter to the editor complains of the catch basin problem and one reader say bicycles can not exist with cars, while another shudders over the riding habits of the young and teens on bicycles.

And here we are. As if yesterday! But with one less problem.

Aaron / February 17, 2013 at 11:45 pm
Toronto: Where progress is measured in decades and where the level of debate could be mistaken for Chatham ON.
Other Cities: Montreal