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Posted by on Aug 20, 2012 in Bicycle Culture | 21 comments

Second Class in Toronto

Downtown Toronto’s streets are very clearly not for people anymore. An afternoon trying out the bike share program quickly showed me that the streets are only for motor vehicles and law-abiding cyclists are not welcome. I was wishing I was back in Dallas–enjoying the far friendlier drivers and lack of life-threatening conflict.

The BIXI Bike

Trying out Toronto’s new(ish) bike share program was simple enough. The bikes are easy to find, are well-maintained, and are easy to check out. However, the bikes do not have locking systems, so you have to find another bike share station to dock with when you want to stop. Finding a station seemed easy before I had the bike, but when I was at a destination I wanted to explore, none were to be found. I tried loading the website and map on my phone, but their website broke badly on my phone and I gave up. The station encourages you to wear a helmet, but of course I don’t pack a helmet in my luggage. The bikes are very heavy and slow (3 speeds), but do have a small luggage rack and integrated lighting.

BIXI Bike Station

But to the actual experience of cycling in downtown…. Wow. Hellish might be an appropriate word.

Motorists (especially taxi drivers) are very, very quick to let you know that you aren’t allowed in the travel lanes–no matter what. Want to avoid the door zone? Too bad. Honks for you. Want to avoid some construction? Too bad. Honks. Want to avoid getting right hooked? HONK. Want to avoid getting hit by a drive-out? HOOOOOONK.

Nearly every block has on-street parking, which leaves about 1-2 feet of space in the right lane. Knowing how dangerous door zones are, I was not about to ride in that space. My penalty for riding in the next available lane? You guessed it: honking and cussing. Constantly. On one short 2-way street, a taxi driver jumped in the path of oncoming traffic after laying on his horn at me. We met at the light (funny how that always seems to work), and he had some choice words for me.

Typical Downtown Toronto Door Zone

For anyone who understands the deadly dangers of door zones, right hooks, left crosses, drive-outs, and other dangers of badly engineered bike lanes, Toronto motorists will let you know very quickly that your right to the road has been revoked. I have never been honked and cussed at so much for riding in traffic. It’s not like I was holding anyone up… I spent way more time waiting for construction and traffic at signals than anyone ever waited for me (see: Reality Check).

Motorists causing me delay

There’s a few bike lanes in the inner district. But they end suddenly with no thought or consideration to proper re-integration back into traffic. The lane is dashed at intersections, but I didn’t see anyone understanding that concept properly. In the span of 5 minutes watching one intersection I witnessed close calls for two right hooks (one with a bus!) and one drive-out.

Chaos

Scofflaw cyclists are everywhere. Honestly, it’s not surprising. Cyclists are not welcome as part of traffic in Toronto anymore. Cyclists act like second class citizens (riding in the gutter, disregarding traffic laws, jumping queues, and cutting through traffic), and so they’ve lost the right to ever be first class again. Motorists keep cyclists in their place on the edge of the road, and the cyclists act as opportunistically as possible. A vicious cycle. Quite the opposite of a healthy, cyclist-friendly community.

A Real Cyclist-Friendly Community

There’s a couple of good things about riding in Toronto. First, there’s plenty of bike parking…if you have a lock. Which I didn’t.

Plenty of Bike Parking

Second, the drain grates are bike friendly. At least the gutter cyclists don’t have to worry about that.

Bicycle friendly drain grates

After getting honked at as much as I did for driving my bike, I started considering finding a nice path somewhere instead. I’ll never ride a bike on the streets in Toronto again. Dallas is a much safer, friendlier place.

This Lane Ends: Good Luck

21 Comments

  1. So sad. I biked in Toronto in 1977 as a teenager. I rode from Cleveland to Toronto with a high school friend and we stayed at his aunt & uncle’s place on the west side. We rode all over town for three days. There were no bikeways at all. Drivers were calm and courteous; not a single bad experience that I can recall.

    Bikeway advocates tout “safety in numbers.” How about “civility in numbers?” That doesn’t seem to be working in Toronto.

  2. Thanks so much for this. As a Canadian who lives less than two hours from T.O., it is great to get an outsider’s perspective.

    I have rarely ridden my bike in Toronto, but have driven there often and rarely if ever saw cyclists taking lanes.

    There are definitely lots of Toronto cyclists who get it and ride safely, but unfortunately they seem to be in the minority among downtown riders. Cycling has always been a tough sell in Toronto, particularly with jokers like Rob Ford at the helm.

  3. Thanks for the comments and re-post, Rantwick. It really is a tragedy, downtown is built really well for cycling: relatively flat, density, lots of multi-lane roads.

    • My pleasure! One other unique feature of many downtown Toronto streets that drives cyclists to ride to the right is streetcar tracks… lots of riders don’t like dealing with them.

  4. Kevin telling us to eat CROW in 3, 2, 1…

  5. I’m probably not the Kevin NE2 is referring to, but I’m sorry you had such a poor experience riding in Toronto. Honestly, I find Toronto a fairly enjoyable place to ride, not some cycling hell. It’s not perfect, but I imagine few cities are.

    While I’m commenting from my phone I have to wonder how much of your observations are determined by route – Front and University is best avoided in my opinion (given density of cabs and construction), whereas Bay is much nicer for north south traffic in the core.

    I can elaborate more later, but I can honestly say that myself and many of my friends do not feel unduly at risk in the city. Moreover, as someone who lives in the core, I find it to be remarkably pedestrian friendly relative other Canadian cities, so I’m slightly puzzled by the core isn’t for people remark.

    • Nope, there’s a Kevin here that always posts the same link about Dutch CROW standards and how we need to build sidepaths everywhere.

      Seems like wayfinding signage would be a big help in helping non-locals choose a route. Even Orlando now has a bit (to get between recently-constructed trails).

      • There is some signage for cycling routes in town — but I think it’s fairly sparse and poor quality (blue signs with white lettering, lots of text packed into the sign as in this picture). The city website also has a map with recommendations, though I have no expectation that tourists check it out, but making it available at BIXI racks would be a good idea.

        • Yeah, it would be useful to have a map on display at suitable locations. Orlando may not have a nice connected system of signed bike routes, but we certainly splurged on maps :)

          Of course there will be cyclists who choose, for whatever reason, not to use these routes, making Eliot’s criticisms still completely valid.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, KevinK.

      I said “Downtown Toronto’s streets are very clearly not for people anymore.” Pedestrians do not generally use streets except to cross. This article is about vehicles on roads.

      University would have been a pleasant road if not for the impatient and arrogant drivers. It has 3+ lanes in both directions and has a low speed limit. There’s no reason confident, safe cyclists shouldn’t be welcome there.

      One question for you, in that photo of the parked truck, about where do you normally ride?

      • Have you never heard of the phrase “walking down the street”? You, know, as in “People were walking down the street”? If you mean “Streets aren’t welcoming to cyclists” you might want to use those words.

        And I was referring to the intersection at University and Front (featured in your photograph captioned it’s probably the worst snarl you can find. A high volume of cabs, tourists attempting to access and leave the city via the Gardiner, construction has been bad in the area. At peak traffic in the afternoon, it’s far from an ideal route.

        Also, consider your hyperbole about riding on University Ave. How many times were you honked at on University? Every motorist that overtook you? Constantly is highly unlikely, I live two minutes from the road and take it frequently and witness individuals cycling on University frequently. We all aren’t constantly getting honked at by frustrated drivers. Were you northbound or southbound? How far along the road did you go?

        As to your question, typically at the edge of the blue line towards the center of the road. Variation for speed and road conditions — not sure about the cracks in the foreground of your photo.

  6. What I object to is Eliot’s hasty generalization about the experience of bicycling in Toronto. He had one “hellish” afternoon in his words, and that was enough to get him to say that he’ll he never bicycle in downtown Toronto again. But, route choice can exacerbate negative experiences — as I’m sure you’re well aware. So, to write off bicycling in Toronto the grounds of one afternoon, with minimal knowledge about the city seems like an overreaction.

    The problems seem like they could happen in nearly any other major city in North America. You could easily have as bad an afternoon in Chicago, New York, Montreal, etc. This is not to say that everything is rosy when it comes to cycling in Toronto. Just cut out the hyperbole.

    • How much time in your mind is required before I would be qualified to say how badly the motorists treated me on every single street that I rode?

  7. I have had days where motorists have been jerks in just about any conditions, from country highways to downtown Toronto. Should I have stopped riding my bicycle in those conditions on account of any one day?

    I don’t need to have some sharp limit of times to know that your experience in Toronto is not the general experience of cyclists in the city.

  8. In truth, local knowledge really is important in shaping our perceptions. Around DFW, for example, most freeway service roads are very comfortable for cyclists, but a few are horrible. And I dare say that Eliot would not enjoy riding on Westport in NW Fort Worth. I rode on the Alliance Gateway Freeway in preference to Westport. Still, a bixi program should provide some help to people without local knowledge. At least Eliot did ride in Toronto – unlike Bicycling Magazine before they tarred Dallas as the worst cycling city.

  9. When I ride in cities other than my own I experience little harassment or conflict. That’s just a function of how much exposure I have in those respective places. But as often as not, when I do experience harassment in another city, it’s because I wasn’t using a parallel bikeway or was driving defensively by controlling a lane, or had the temerity to ride side-by-side with someone. I inevitably end up on those city’s “less desirable cycling streets” because I tend to just roam and not follow a local cycling map.

    That Eliot experienced so much harassment in a single “afternoon” of riding is very telling to me. While he didn’t log the exact number of insults he received that day, it sounds like the amount I get in, oh, about a month in supposedly-bicycle-unfriendly Orlando.

    Outside Jackson, WY: cowboy in pickup tells me to get on a sidepath (even though the road has a paved shoulder, which I was using).

    St. Louis, MO: driver honks on a virtually empty 4-lane road because I and two friends were not in the door-zone bike lane.

    Missoula, MT: driver honks as I avoid a bike lane that directs me into a high right-hook risk.

  10. Hmmm…. How a bout a jersey reading:
    Honk!
    If you like bicycling

    • That is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. You, sir, are a genius.

    • “Honk if You Dive your Bicycle”

      • Oops, DRIVE.

  11. I’ve lived in Toronto for many years.

    Some parts are good. For example, Toronto has North America’s largest urban car-free zone. It is very popular, with far, far more people (including me!) wanting to live there than there is currently housing available. See:

    http://www.theurbancountry.com/2011/06/no-cars-no-traffic-signals-no-deaths.html

    Where I do live, in the Riding of Toronto Centre, the current transportation mode share is:

    38% Public transit
    34% Cycling and walking
    26% Motorists (drivers and passengers)

    Source:

    http://www3.thestar.com/static/googlemaps/starmaps.html?xml=080830_commuters_walkandbike.xml

    The infrastructure is very poor by Dutch standards, but in many places it is better than most North American cities.

    The one big thing that Toronto did right was kill a proposal for an American-style set of segregated car-only freeways. This made it essentially impossible to use a car to commute to downtown. Those car drivers who try to do so anyway find themselves travelling at average speeds as low as 11 km/hr. See:

    http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2010/01/09/12401501-sun.html

    A lot of the bike lanes allow cyclists to zip by cars that are stuck in hours-long car traffic jams.

    Yes, our mayor is an embarrasment. The man who should have won the last election was knocked out by a sex scandal. This left the voters with a choice between several sensible but lesser-known candidates and the well-known right wing crazy ranting kook Rob Ford. I voted for Joe Pantalone, one of the sensible but lesser-known candidates.

    Here is a Youtube video in which Rob Ford describes how much he hates cyclists. “Cyclists are a pain in the Ass!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwxiv2aznB0

    But cheer up, cyclists. We are not alone! Rob Ford also hates homosexuals. He also hates immigrants (except Chinese, who “work like dogs”). In spite of his own dubious grasp of reality, he hates the mentally ill. Rob Ford hates the poor and he really, really hates the homeless. Here is a video in which Rob Ford lays out his solution to the homeless problem, which is “A public lynching.” See:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YZQ4oQjxgc

    Like everywhere else, Toronto is a mix of good and bad. What is good, like the extensive car-free zone, is very good. What is bad, like our mayor, can be fixed.

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