Spreading core beliefs

Burb bikers can only hope for what downtown cyclists take for granted


No need for an old map to locate the boundary between the former city of York and suburban North York. As I cross the imaginary line on my commute from the Dufferin Grove area to York University, Keele widens to five lanes and the speed limit jumps to 60 km/h: welcome to a suburban arterial.

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I’d avoid cycling these stressful main streets if I could, but loopy subdivision roads are a trap, so I squeeze into the leftover space affectionately known as the gutter, where water, debris and potholes collect.

My work at York U assesses Canada’s efforts to promote physical activity, which ironically means eight-hour shifts sitting at a computer. So I’m usually up for my one-hour hard pedal from the west end to burbville, and, by the way, it beats TTC time, which is 10 to 30 minutes longer.

But it’s no casual cycle. Keele has four major hills, the most dangerous being downhill between Lawrence and Eglinton, where potholes eat into pavement. That’s where I had an accident last winter.

Going uphill, the danger is long-term: choking on vehicle exhaust, a steady diet of toxins that counters my exercise regimen.

Many of my co-workers would love to cycle but worry it’s too dangerous. Even the two or three who do ride up here feel compelled to retreat to the sidewalks on brutal arterials like Finch or Keele. It may be hard to project a cool image pedalling in a pedestrian zone, but long blocks, few walkers and speedy motorists make this option irresistible.

It’s no long-term solution, though sidewalk-riding is statistically more dangerous than using the road, because of conflicts at intersections.

My co-worker Nash has another issue: he says he’s actually quit riding to the office because the route is so dull. “There aren’t a lot of trees.” Traffic engineers claim trees distract drivers, who seem to have no problem with lighted advertising signs.

Despite all this, there are advantages to riding in sprawl territory. No line of fellow cyclists slows you down, for one thing – not like navigating the Harbord bike lane or fighting for turf on Queen.

But can bike culture really thrive on the growing asphalt of wide highways and big boxes? The stats aren’t exactly encouraging. While commuting to work in T.O. rose 20 per cent between 1996 and 2006, according to Census Canada (though still representing only 1 per cent of commuters), in the suburbs studied, levels declined or remained stagnant.

Nine years into Toronto’s Bike Plan, the few lanes given to us in the burbs are on minor collectors or in parks. When bike routes are sidelined to local roads or park ravines, I figure someone’s trying to give me a hint.

One of the major problems, complains Anthony Humphreys of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) is that “when kids hit 16 in the suburbs they get their licence.” And while a growing network of suburban park trails has boosted the number of Sunday cyclists, he says, people still drive to parks.

And, of course, leisure cycling is a far cry from daily transportation.

So while I’m begging for bike lanes on main suburban drags, let me offer my own private no-cost interim solution: let cyclists share that new $38 mil busway now being constructed from Downsview station to York.

It sounds tiny, but the fact that bikes are forbidden on part of this route is a metaphor for the whole problem. Right now, though bikes are allowed on the Dufferin/Allan part of the busway, they’re not permitted on the Finch hydro corridor leg, from Dufferin to Keele, and from there onto university property.

There’s even a fine for this transgression. Strange, really, since there’s plenty of room for buses to pass bikes, and cyclists would at last have a clear, well-maintained route with relatively low traffic.

When I ask Malcolm MacKay, TTC rep for the busway, why the bike shutout, he says, “We considered putting lanes immediately next to it, but keeping cyclists away was thought to be the prudent thing to do.”

Why? I ask.

“It’s not a normal street. Speeds are faster. It’s a segregated right-of-way,” he says. But, I remind him, the speed on Finch is 60 km/h, and vehicles typically travel at 70. “Would buses go faster?” I ask.

He admits they won’t. So I guess I’ll keep pedalling the completed sections of the busway, waiting to see if I get ticketed – or if main-street bike lanes suddenly appear. Whichever comes first.

Suburban cycle tips

Map your quest

You need a map for burb riding to find that perfect route running parallel to speedy arteries. The trick is to cut out a few kilometres using parking lots, field paths and local roads.

Squat on sidewalks

Sad as it sounds, many sidewalks are desolate in car country. In desperate moments, this may be your only choice, but remember: it’s illegal if your wheels’ diameter is 61 centimetres or greater.

Up your motorist skepticism

Think cars in the core don’t know how to deal with cyclists? Try the fringes. Here, you’re nearly as novel as a horse-drawn carriage and certainly more vulnerable. Watch drivers’ eyes they’re only scanning for big metal boxes.

See and be seen

Ride predictably and be visible. Wear bright clothing, a fluorescent vest and lighting at night. Suburban drivers don’t expect you.

Deftly manoeuvre

Ride assertively and beware of staying too close to the curb, since this encourages large trucks to pass in your lane and gives you no room to move over.

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