History Cycling Toronto

Vintage photos of cycling in Toronto

Toronto has a surprisingly rich cycling history. While biking culture has experienced a resurgence over the last five years or so (some might trace it back further), if you go back 100+ years the bike was even more of a fixture on city streets than it is today. Although rarely the primary subject of archival photos, careful attention to street scenes captured between the 1890s and 1920s reveal cyclists darting across the frame as ghostly streaks all over the place.

A dignified looking group, we'd call many of these riders "utility cyclists" nowadays. While recreation was a part of the picture — at one point there was even a velodrome at Scarborough Beach — a host of factors contributed to make the bicycle a highly desirable mode of transportation — perhaps even more so than today. "New smooth-riding bikes replaced what were affectionately known as bone shakers," Simon Wallace explains in a great piece on the rise of Toronto's cycling culture in the 1890s. "And given border tariffs importing bikes was prohibitively expensive, but they were cheap to make here. Factory after factory after factory opened in Southern Ontario, and with the bike market flooded, prices dropped to the point where virtually anyone could afford one."

Consider this staggering stat that Wallace has dug up for us: "An 1895 city commissioned count found that between 6:00 and 6:30 am 395 cyclists travelled westbound via King St. into the downtown. By comparison, only 29 riders take that same route, at the same time, today." One of the reasons for this, to be sure, is that cyclists use different routes, but it's remarkable to consider just how much two-wheeled traffic there really was back then.

Along with Wallace's article, those interested in the city's cycling past can turn to the brief history put together by the municipal government (PDF), which traces biked-based transportation in the city from its birth in the 1800s to the push for bike lanes in the 1990s. My little contribution to the subject will come in visual form, as I present this collection of cycling-themed photos from the Toronto Archives. Let it be a reminder that it's always possible to ride with style.



Bike storage 1898


Passin Old City Hall when it was new, 1899


Cycling club in Toronto, 1900


A leisurely ride Jarvis Street, 1903


Bay Street, 1907


Walking it up the hill to St. Clair, 1907


Photographer William James' family (and evidence that the fixie predates the hipster), 1907


Cyclists occupy the edge of the frame at a busy Queen & Yonge, 1910


Crossing the Queen Street Viaduct, 1911


Apparently the World Naked Bike Ride goes way back, 1912


University Avenue, 1912


Cycle Corps, 1915


Yonge Street near Summerhill, 1915


Darting across the new Bloor Viaduct (a photograph that should be familiar to In the Skin of Lion readers)


More Bloor Viaduct, 1918


Broadview and Queen, 1918


Trick riders at the CNE, 1920


North Bathurst hill looking daunting, 1922


CNE bike race, 1922




Scarborough Beach Velodrome (!), 1926


Where's Waldo at the new Royal York Hotel, 1929


My what big wheels you have, 1930


Spadina, 1931


Double big wheels! 1934


Bike Marathon, 1950s


Riding on Davenport, 1955

Photos from the Toronto Archives

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