Big picture vision for the bicycling life in Toronto

I would ride my bike more, but…
I’m sure every second person has said that. They would ride their bike more but: they are too busy; they have children to transport; god makes it rain; their last bike was stolen… etc, etc.. Readers of bike blogs would say these are just lame excuses, but only because they are readers of bike blogs. To admit you’re a reader (or writer) of bike blogs is to admit you are a “bike zealot”. If our wardrobes were outside our houses, anyone but a clothing zealot would excuse themselves for leaving their clothes on the floor. Most people aren’t zealots. Most people rely on architects to design buildings and cities that encourage healthy and productive patterns of living.
All of our excuses for not riding bikes could be designed out of existence as thoroughly as we have designed out of existence any excuse not to use cars. There is no excuse not to use cars. Every street has been engineered to make driving safe and speedy. With no expense spared, every building has car parking slung over and under. Lifts and tunnels portal us from surrounding car parks into those buildings. Half our labours as nations has been spent making it possible to cart a tonne of steel with us, to work, to the shops, then back to garages adjoining our kitchens. The job of creating a similar city, where there is no excuse ever, not to use bikes, is hardly as mammoth as the car enterprise.

Marina City, Chicago

However, the bicycle city does need a site. Providing for bikes in urban areas where there are cars, is like designing kids play equipment to go into lion enclosures. Former industrial sites, and the rail corridors and waterways that can be used to connect them with bike trails, provide the separate network of space in the city that bicycling needs. Let the car-lovers play their game of checkers on the white squares, while we play ours on the black ones.

In Toronto in Canada, people are asking all the wrong questions about a redundant harbour side site they call Port Lands. How can it be connected to the rest of the city? How can it extend the life of the city? It is my contention that the viability of urban renewal sites such as Port Lands depends on their not having a bar of the city, its traffic, pollution, road kill, obesity, etc etc.. (At this point I want to thank Herb from I Bike Toronto who has inspired me to think about ways ideas I’ve developed elsewhere, might play out in Toronto.)

One of many master plans for Port Lands

The Port Lands site is where all the district’s waterways meet the harbour. Inland, those waterways have already attracted a spattering of bike trails, mostly along the Don Valley, though further upstream those bike trails seem like a baby’s chewed up scraps of spaghetti, with next to no continuity.
Being a port, the site also terminates the city’s main rail route.
Fundamentally, this site is not attracted at all to the city that hangs like its parasite off to one side. Historically, the port lands were nurtured by the rail route and waterways. As in the past, so too in the future, the port will not draw its life from the city.  Life will come to Port Lands via the routes that once were used to bring goods.
However, in the post industrial city, goods aren’t commodities on barges or trains. Now we are concerned with moving people about, so they can share ideas and share knowledge.

Transforming these former bulk haulage routes, into bike haulage routes, would maximise the fluidity with which Toronto’s brightest people (its cyclists) can meet. Developer infrastructure contributions from Port Lands could go into a fund to upgrade the Don Valley bike trail, and greatly extend it in the form of a broad lattice of car-free urban terrain, as notionally indicated in the mud map above.
That’s enough for a blog post. Elsewhere I’ve written about bicycle oriented development, and a brownfield-to-bikefield approach, and of course I write about the urban design and architecture of cycle-space in my forthcoming book.

Chris Hardwick’s Velo-City proposal

A procurement model I sketch out in that book could privately finance bike infrastructure of the kind envisioned by Toronto based architect Chris Hardwick, that he calls velo-city. If you live in Toronto and can tell me of any other large disused industrial sites that could be developed and linked to the Port Lands (perhaps with Chris’s glass tubes), do let me know.


  1. Herb says:

    Thanks for the post and mention! Here’s a link to that pdf:
    The Portlands is not exactly abandoned since much of the space is being used for things like a Chinese grocery store, golf, compost sorting, film studios, aggregate storage, park, a small port, small natural gas generating plant, … Some of that will stay and much will transition to whatever it’s developed into. I’m interested in seeing that the “Bike Network” they describe is much more than painted lines on the road. It doesn’t say – if they mention “pedestrian network” we know it’ll be sidewalks, but “bike network” can mean anything at all, though images are encouraging with suggestions of bike paths and raised bike lanes. With a separated bike lane being built on Sherbourne as I write this (to replace the painted white line) what cyclists demand and get in Toronto may shift from just a painted white line or sharrows to something stronger. That can help influence much better plans for the Portlands I hope. But it will also help with some current downtown routes that are of the old variety.
    I just remembered another place for a potential car-free lifestyle (in regards to my comment on your other post). It’s the Island airport. The last mayor wanted to close it down but the feds intervened to subsidize it in perpetuity, ensuring that people have a short hop from downtown to an airplane. It’s actually now popular with a lot of people so who knows what will happen to it. I recall an architect envisioning a car-free community in that space a few years. It would have been nice.

    • Steven says:

      I watched a few “come visit Toronto” style clips about Toronto yesterday in my office, and noticed every street scene and park scene had bikes in. So the bike culture is already strong enough there for cycling to be on architects’ minds. The problem I see, is architects and bike advocates alike can stare too hard at road networks, that came after the rail and the waterways. Maybe the rail line that “cuts off” liberty village could be the artery that makes it accessible, if it had bike lanes along side it. Minneapolis has bike lanes flanking many active rail corridors.
      Thanks for being my man on the ground there. This little exchange has really inspired me to apply for some funds to come research a few emerging bike cities, and right now Toronto is on my priority list. Thanks muchly!

  2. Herb says:

    As you say the trails in the city too often look like “baby’s chewed up scraps of spaghetti, with next to no continuity.” Interestingly the current mayor, a right-wing nutjob doesn’t like bike lanes but wanted to invest in some bike infrastructure that the burbs could get behind. Thus most of the funds is being directed to patching up these discontinuities:
    I lament this urge to kick cyclists off the road, particularly since the vast majority of cyclists live downtown and use the roads. But it is nice to fix these routes. They still have a sh*tload of planning work to do on that though.

    • Steven says:

      A nice summary of the class wars that cycling exposes. My advice is to think of the kiddies, born to suburbanite parents, who will grow up to be free-thinkers and cyclists.

  3. Edward says:

    Great post.
    “All of our excuses for not riding bikes could be designed out of existence as thoroughly as we have designed out of existence any excuse not to use cars. There is no excuse not to use cars.”
    I wish I’d thought of saying that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *