Cycling in Toronto was a challenging experience

One of the several walk and bike bridges in the ravines
One of the several walk and bike bridges in the ravines
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“It is safe infrastructure that makes people bike, not more uniforms”.
Last week we visited Toronto. Karen had meetings and I tagged along for a day and a half. Because we booked the train in time, our tickets were only $100 return each in economy class. On the way in I had to listen to Dora the Explorer on the Ipad of the young traveller in front of me for an hour and a half. The lady across the aisle at the windows seat had her feet up on her partner’s lap. For reasons unclear to me, we were an hour and fifteen minutes late and I barely made it in time to the bike rental place on the waterfront in Toronto.

Yes, we were planning to cycle in Toronto. It may sound like a death wish to bike in Toronto nowadays. (Richard Florida just declared he won’t bike in TO anymore). I was quite ambivalent about it, so in the days leading up to our visit, I researched a possible safe route that would keep us away from traffic as much as possible. It isn’t easy. Cycling facilities are scattered around the city and putting a large enjoyable loop together took me quite a while.

No Bike Share for us in Toronto

We had looked into the bike share in Toronto, but we really wanted to bike most of the day the next day, and the area we were about to cover wasn’t exactly littered with bike stations. This would make bike share very expensive and day tours are not what bike shares are designed for anyway. So we rented two bikes (35 dollars for 24 hours) at a rental shop downtown. The bikes were OKish, but my chain was squeaking a bit, my bars started to come loose somewhat at the end and my bell didn’t work. Karen’s rental bike (a ‘Minelli’) produced a funny ‘clack’ sound as soon as she put a bit more pressure on the pedals.

Don Valley and Mud Creek

Day 1 route to Moore Park, purposely avoiding the downtown on road areas

We rode the bike from downtown on a 14 km ride to our family further north near the Mount Pleasant cemetery. This was not the shortest route, but it allowed us to use the Don Valley ravine. We took the very nice Martin Goodman trail along the waterfront eastbound to the Don Valley, where a myriad of roads threw us off a bit (no way finding) but several cyclists offered us help spontaneously when they saw us looking on the map.

The better part of the Lower Don Trail in Toronto
The better part of the Lower Don Trail in Toronto

The bottom part of the Don Valley River Trail is very crappy. It is narrow, a bit industrial sketchy, and the pavement is full of roots and bumps. Further north the path is getting wider and better maintained. At Pottery Rd, we turned west towards Bayview. Bayview has a separated bidirectional bike lane which brought us to the Brickworks. We had visited the environmental education complex before and at the end of the day there wasn’t much going on anyway so we moved on.

Where the Lower Don Trail crosses Pottery Rd. I was surprised not to see *any* warning sign, not even a modest yield to cars sign.
The bidirectional segregated path along the Don Valley leads us to the Brickworks
Trying to find our way towards Mud Creek as the Beltway path was closed

We wanted to take the Beltway Pathway through the Mud Creek Ravine, which would lead us towards Mount Pleasant, but the access was fenced off without any detour signs. After meandering a bit through the Brickworks, checking OpenstreetMaps and asking a runner who came from our desired direction, we found our way to a narrow path which brought us back to the Beltway pathway. How much effort does it take to put a little detour together, one wonders.

Eventually, we learned from a runner this was the path to take
The last part was steep, too steep for Karen and she decided to push her bike for the last 50 meters

Scarborough Bluffs

It had been on Karen’s wish list for a while: seeing the Scarborough bluffs. Earlier in the week, I had spent considerable time putting a route together with the help of different online maps. Google didn’t show me the cycling options I wanted but was helpful in getting a feel for the road situation. OpenStreetMaps sometimes shows some extra shortcuts. I also had to incorporate a visit to a high school acquaintance of Karen’s who lives close to the bluffs. The hardest part is to figure out where to cross busy roads safely, but Mapillary and Google Streetview help figuring out if there is a signalised intersection.

Day 2: Moore Park to Scarborough and back to downtown
Day 2: Moore Park to Scarborough and back to downtown (55 km)
The footbridge over the tracks between Rosedale and Moore Park. Toronto has some numbered routes, but not one that was going where we wanted to go.

Leaving Moore Park, we decided to skip the Mud Creek ravine we had used to come up to our family and instead cycled south, crossed the railway line that divides Moore Park and Rosedale, and used Summerhill Ave to cross the ravine via the Governor’s Road bridge across Mud Creek.

Nearly mowed down

In ten minutes, this brought us to an intersection with traffic heavy Bayview Rd. where I was nearly mowed down by a driver in a white SUV who turned right trying to get ahead of me.

Across Bayview, we had to get to the start of a trail which required a 100 meter ride on the sidewalk. The sidewalk was partly dug up though (but no activity) which forced us on the road into oncoming traffic. Bayview Rd is an enormous barrier in this area for walking and cycling unless you are willing to make large detours.

Taylor Creek Pathway

A steep gravel path led us to down to a bridge over the Don River again, allowing us to continue east connecting us to the Lower Don River Trail, which is a very nice pathway in a park like setting. When crossing the railway tracks, I noticed a sign with a telephone number to call “if you need to talk.”

Lower Don River Trail; Taylor Creek trail looks similar

The trail follows the Don River and connects eventually with the Taylor Creek Pathway running along Massey Creek to Dawes Road. It gets a bit confusing there. If we’d follow the pathway we would veer away, so we chose the pathway on the south side of the creek underneath Dawes rd. But this led to a staircase (that is fine) but interestingly, the staircase connects to a 1960’s era pathway that ends abruptly after 20 meters.

Either overgrown or ending, we're on the road to nowhere...
Either overgrown or ending, we’re on the road to nowhere…

We wound our way through Crescent Town and saw a motorcyclist being caught by police for not wearing a helmet while driving on Victoria Park Ave. While the police was busy fining him, we used the opportunity to carefully cycle on the sidewalk, as Victoria Ave is not a road we wanted to cycle on. And in this area of Toronto, very few people appear to walk anyway.

There are a number of wayfinding signs along some routes. One route was built for the Panam Games.

Denton Ave, Toronto

The little side walk ride connected us to Denton Ave, a 40 kph street with several schools in the area. This allowed us to avoid Danforth Ave, which looks more interesting with its retail but is four lanes and didn’t look very bike friendly. Via some more sidewalk cycling on Warden Ave in order to cross the railway tracks (going underneath actually), we found our way through some residential streets and hooked up to the Waterfront Trail (which doesn’t follow the waterfront in that area, but goes through very pleasant residential areas) and Brimley Rd, which finally brought us to Bluffers Park.

We missed a shortcut to Brimley Rd and so we had to cycle a few hundred meters on the pretty ugly Kingston Rd (6 lanes). We once again cycled on the sidewalk instead, avoiding having to cross Kingston Rd twice. Brimley Rd descends fairly steeply to the waterfront: it has no bike lane and has some crappy road conditions along the edges of the road.

Part of the Waterfront Trail runs through Harrison Properties, where home owners must be nervous their house doesn’t fall of the cliff eventually

We continued towards the Beaches. We partly followed the same way back and again couldn’t find the shortcut to the Waterfront Trail so we decided to cycle along Kingston Rd again. The path appeared to lead into St. Augustine’s seminary of Toronto and the Redemtoris Mater Seminary. Back home, I looked on Google Earth, and I only now I noticed where we should have gone. O well.

Toronto RC Harris Waterplant: Purification Palace

Cycling the Waterfront Trail, you won’t actually get to see the waterfront, as the shore line is private property. We continued our route to the Beaches to get another glimpse of Lake Ontario. The Toronto Hunt (Golf Club) is a big hindrance and you have to go back to Kingston Rd once again, but several people had told us that “no one walks on the sidewalks there so use the sidewalk”, which we did.

R.C. Harris Waterplant in Toronto in Art Deco style
R.C. Harris Waterplant in Toronto in Art Deco style (Google capture)

Eventually the trail hooks up at the far east end of Queens Street East, at the Art Deco RC Harris Waterplant which looks like an attempt to rival a large European palace. This is what I found on Wikipedia about the plant:

With an early 20th-century Toronto plagued with water shortages and unclean drinking water, public health advocates such as George Nasmith and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Charles Hastings, campaigned for a modern water purification system. The structure was constructed on the former site of Victoria Park, a waterfront amusement park that operated until 1906. Construction on the plant began in 1932 and the building became operational on November 1, 1941.[1] The building, unlike most modern engineering structures, was also created to make an architectural statement. Fashioned in the Art Deco style, the cathedral-like structure remains one of Toronto’s most admired buildings. It is, however, little known to outsiders. The interiors are just as opulent with marble entryways and vast halls filled with pools of water and filtration equipment. The plant has thus earned the nickname The Palace of Purification.

Lesley Street Spit

View from the Lesley Street Spit towards downtown Toronto
View from the Lesley Street Spit towards downtown Toronto

We turned towards the beach immediately after the plant, as Queen Street East is not a pleasant street to cycle on with parked cars (dooring), buses and a street car. Unfortunately, the beach is just that: beach. We pushed our bikes through the sand for one block and decided to get back to Queen Street and cycled and walked our bikes a few blocks until Silver Birch Ave, where the boardwalk and the Martin Goodman Trail starts. Once again, the Beaches is a nice area to putter around and part of the Waterfront Trail but more destination then part of a serious route.

Tommy Thomson Floating bridge in Tommy Thomspn Park on the Lesley street Spit
Tommy Thomson Floating bridge in Tommy Thomspn Park on the Lesley street Spit

This led us back to the bicycle rental place downtown. But not before we decided on an extra detour to the Tommy Thomson Lighthouse on the Lesley Street Spit, a landfill to create a breakwater for the Outer Toronto harbour and now a conservation area. This added an unexpected but pleasant 10 km to our trip, except for the numerous speed bumps. Again, no one thought of cycling there as it would have been easy to keep the speed bumps a wee shorter so that cyclist can avoid the bumps. Just before our 24 hour rental was over, we dropped the bikes off downtown again.

A less attractive part of the trail underneath the Gardiner Expressway, the road that just doesn’t go away.

So how do I feel about cycling in Toronto?

For one, there is very little bike infrastructure on the route we took. Other than the multi-use pathways in the ravines and the Martin Goodman trail along the downtown shores, I don’t think I even saw a sharrow on our 70 km of cycling, other than some painted directional sharrows on the Waterfront Trail. It is like there is no bike infrastructure at all in Toronto on regular roads. It appears there are not even attempts being made.

I think our route was safe to cycle though and we really enjoyed seeing parts of Toronto we had never seen before, but it took quite a bit of effort to figure out the route. What I noticed is that there are a number of really interesting and nice areas to cycle, but it is tough to get to these places by bike.

There is the Martin Goodman trail. I don’t why the lines are green and blue.

It appears the city council’s mindset is still very much that cycling is a recreational activity in a park, not a means for everyday transportation. I don’t mind cycling in traffic, but in this part of the city where I saw virtually no other cyclists and very few pedestrians, I fear drivers are just not paying attention to others on the road. I rarely cycle on sidewalks as I don’t feel the need to, but in Toronto I felt safer to do so at large intersections, some stretches of multi lane roads or underpasses where it gets really tight.

It is never busy on Google Streetview, but side walk cycling it is here on Warden Ave.
It is never busy on Google Streetview, but side walk cycling it is here on Warden Ave. No mural can change my mind.

We saw very few cyclists (some late commuters and some fit seniors in the ravine trails and none on the Waterfront trail bits that we cycled other than at the Martin Goodman Trail. Railway tracks, highways, ravines and 6 lane arterials don’t make it easy to get across town and sooner or later you will need to use an arterial. An example of a missing link is the connection from Nesbitt Drive to the Crothers Wood Trail in the Don Valley where I was nearly run over.

Example of a missing link: Nesbitt to Crothers
Example of a missing link (in red): Nesbitt to Crothers (image: Google)

Ideally, there would be a cross ride and a short MUP; it wouldn’t be too difficult and expensive to build it there: advanced green for a safe crossing and a MUP instead of a sidewalk for 100 meters; those small improvements can make a huge difference to connect neighbourhoods to trails. I read that Mayor Tory is going to add traffic wardens, but that I think is not a solution. They can only be at one place at a time. It is safe infrastructure that makes people bike, not more uniforms.

The Waterfront Trail is well marked nearly all the time, but Queen Street East should either not be part of it or be improved. There are many of those small sections which really could use some improvements. As Karen commented: “We have cycled in Toronto now, we enjoyed it, but we don’t need to do it again.”

NB: As I write this blog, a 58 year old female cyclist was killed in traffic yesterday on June 12, 2018. This is the fourth cyclist killed in traffic in 2018 in Toronto. And the fifth one was killed on Friday, June 15, hit and stabbed (!) by a thirteen year old and his friends. Almost 100 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed since the city introduced Vision Zero in 2016, just two years ago. That is nearly 1 victim a week. This blog post is not a reaction to this collision. Oliver Moore in the Globe and Mail has 5 suggestions to improve safety.


  1. I know this is 2 years late, but the reason for the speed bumps on the Leslie St Spit (Tommy Thompson Park) is actually because of bicycles. Guys on their racing bikes would go too fast on the roads and people were complaining, so they added the bumps to discourage it. It’s annoying, but it’s better for the average rider and pedestrians than when these guys were trying to set new Strava records along those roads (IMO).

  2. Thanks for this; Caronto is unfriendly to bikes and overall carservative, if not carrupt. Part of the problem is being dominated by suburban politicians; nothing to new to the problems of that, but we do not have corridor thinking, but ward-by-ward patchwork, meaning a notwork vs. network. And bike projects are given very close scrutiny vs. say, a Gardiner rebuild and/or a Suspect Subway Extension in Scarborough costing billions, and up.
    You’re not alone in having reservations about us however: this is also powerful.

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