University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Kristen Courtney is lawyer and a founding member of Bells on Bloor.
Kristen Courtney.

Breaking the Cycle

The City of Toronto is not doing enough to make the streets safe for cyclists

My morning commute during summers in high school started at 5:45 a.m. While it was still dark outside, I loaded my lunch into my backpack and cycled the gravel roads toward work: past the cows and the turkey farm, down the hill away from the unleashed dog and between the ripening cornfields. About an hour after leaving my home in Princeton, Ontario, I arrived in Brantford, 30 kilometres away, to start my 7 a.m. shift at a long-term care facility.

Many other commutes followed as I moved to Ottawa and then Gatineau, Quebec. I also spent three summers guiding bike tours around different areas of Canada. So when I first came to Toronto to attend U of T’s Faculty of Law, I never dreamed my five-kilometre commute would affect me in the ways it did.

I have always loved bicycles, and the freedoms they provide: freedom from paying for gas, from bus schedules and even from my asthma symptoms as my fitness improved. Even more, I love what bicycles do for other people, for communities and for the Earth. I know that cycling helps combat obesity, heart disease and air pollution. I see people from very different walks of life lock up their bikes at the same rack while sharing a friendly good morning. I have seen others develop a respect for nature while mountain biking.

But within a few months of moving to Toronto, my trusty two-wheeled steed was knocked out from under me by a right-turning motorist, and I was sent skidding sideways down the pavement of Bloor Street. Four more hits, scrubs and nicks occurred over the following seven months. Then, on October 19, 2006, I was struck by a car door that a driver opened into my path. I was riding on Queen Street, in that narrow space where cyclists have no other choice but to ride, between the streetcar tracks to my left and the parked cars to my right. I was thrown over the car door and landed several metres away, in a crumpled heap in the middle of the streetcar tracks.

In the months that followed – as I began what would be years of physiotherapy and chiropractic treatments, battles with the insurance company and legal proceedings – I researched how and why cycling safety in Toronto is in its current state. I was shocked to learn that around 1,200 cyclists report being hit on Toronto’s streets every year – and up to 90 per cent of car-bike collisions are unreported. I was even more shocked to learn that the city has mapped, charted and studied the locations and causes of these car-bike collisions for over a decade (most of which occur on the main east-west arterials). There are also studies from around the world that indicate which road measures improve cycling safety (such as physically separated bike lanes and coloured bike lanes) and which do not (such as sharrows and bike lanes delineated only by painted white lines). Yet, the City of Toronto has not used this information to truly improve safety.

The law does not allow such a failure: provincial planning laws and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe require municipalities to facilitate sustainable transportation and to plan their streets to allow for safe travel for cyclists. The City of Toronto, however, rarely makes any reference to these laws when engaging in road reconstruction projects. It simply asserts that a given redesign will improve cycling safety despite all evidence to the contrary.

Torontonians have called on their city for action. In May, 2,000 cyclists rode their bikes at Bells on Bloor, the largest cycling-advocacy ride in Toronto’s history. Cyclists are out in full force at public consultations and environmental assessments for street reconstructions. But it is time cyclists began demanding more than lip service: we are not interested in painted white lines on quiet side streets – we need safe bike lanes on the streets we use. How much longer Toronto will ignore these calls for change remains to be seen. Change is inevitable. The death and injury of cyclists on Toronto streets is not.

Kristen Courtney (JD/Cert. Env. St. 2008) is a lawyer and a founding member of Bells on Bloor.

Map of Toronto cycling accidents, 2008 (via maps)

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  1. 6 Responses to “ Breaking the Cycle ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Kristen Courtney wonders when city streets will be safe for cyclists. My question is, when will pedestrians be safe from cyclists?

    I don’t care how many “safe bike lanes” there are – there are many cyclists who have no regard at all for people who enjoy walking. On two occasions I have been hit by bikes and verbally abused because I had the audacity to get in their way.

    In both cases, I had the green light, so I was in a legal position to cross the street. The cyclists went through a red light, which means they were in an illegal position. What is so difficult to understand about that? I’m also receiving treatment for the injuries I have received because of bad cyclists.

    It’s bad enough that drivers don’t understand the rules of the road -- and there are many of those -- but I see a lot of “sidewalk rage" building between cyclists and pedestrians. This is unfortunate because there are so many healthy aspects to walking. I wonder what rights Kristen thinks pedestrians should have.

    Lynne Ross
    Faculty/Facilities Assistant, Faculty of Law
    University of Toronto

  3. mark says:

    Re Lynne Ross's comment: "I’m also receiving treatment for the injuries I have received because of bad cyclists."

    Huh? How?

    I kind of question that. I've been biking for over 18 years. I've raced some of the world's toughest races. Been down the side of a volcano at 70km/h with rocks the size of bowling balls etc...

    I have had self inflicted wounds. Nothing major. I've hit a cow. I accidentally hit a dog.
    I've been bitten by many dogs. I've been run over by other cyclists in a group formation. Yet, the most injuries I have suffered is when being hit by a vehicle. Metal hurts. Skin on skin doesn't.

    I find it completely ridiculous that people would complain about cyclists like that.
    It's not as though there are millions of us. We are few and far between. I think cyclists are an easy scapegoat for our easy-to-do-lifestyle. Soon, that will change though...

    Soon, we will see many more bikes on the road. As GDP eats away our cheap, easy-to-get-at oil. Our easy-to-do-lifestyle depends on cheap oil. Cheap oil is soon to end. As we go after the nasty hard-to-get-at stuff.

    Humans. We aren't the smartest creature on the planet. We sure do use a hell of a lot of it, though!

  4. jen says:

    Someone should do a study on:
    1. Traffic and the economy: Is there a correlation between aggressive drivers and the state of the economy?
    2. As the economy grows, how much more oil do we use?
    3. As more vehicles crowd the road, do stress-related illnesses increase? How about asthma? (Research the growth of roads and asthma from the 1950s on. Is there is a correlation?
    How about cancer?

    Interesting reads: - don't agree with it all though...

  5. Bruce Francis says:

    For two years now I've been biking daily (weather permitting) from home in the Beaches to U of T and back, 9 km each way. I haven't had an accident. The reason is simple: I use common sense. That means I don't ride on Queen Street in rush hour (unlike Ms. Courtney), I don't ride on Bloor Street in rush hour (unlike Ms. Courtney). If there's a car at an intersection I slow down until I have eye contact with the driver, I slow down and stop before the traffic light turns red, I stay a metre away from parked cars to avoid hitting a door that opens, I'm courteous to car drivers, and, finally, I don't assume a car isn't going to turn just because it's not signaling. While I am riding to work and back I notice other cyclists. Many don't have helmets, many don't stop at lights, many swerve around grates without looking, and some ride the wrong way in the bike lane I'm in (I stop and dismount). In short, many don't ride sensibly.

    These cyclist advocates argue that they have just as much right as cars to be on the road. They're right, of course. But then they ride as though they're equal to a car, when the difference is obvious. Many also think they're superior beings because they're not polluting the planet. It's dangerous to be riding around crowded streets feeling superior.

  6. Michael says:

    Ms. Courtney says she was hit "by a right-turning motorist" on Bloor Street. Where was she at the time? Trying to overtake between the vehicle and the curb? I've had cyclists try that on me several times. It's a suicidal move.

    I have been a cyclist, and a motorcyclist, and I agree that drivers don't pay enough attention. But many cyclists bring danger upon themselves by their totally anarchistic attitude towards the traffic laws and their lack of forethought.

  7. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Kristen Courtney asks when Toronto's streets will be safe for cycling. The answer is "never," as long as drivers can park their cars almost anywhere they wish on major crosstown arteries. Banning parking on major crosstown arteries would go a long way toward improving cycling safety in Toronto. All of us cyclists have been "doored" and/or forced to swerve into the main traffic lane by parked cars on main streets. The city must decide between parking and smooth and safe traffic flow on major crosstown arteries. Toronto's streets can accommodate both cars and cyclists if they are not used as short term parking lots.

    Malcolm Levin
    Retired Administrator, OISE-UT