Cycling in Toronto: why it sucks

In advance of the Toronto premiere of Bikes vs. Cars this Friday, I thought I would share this article I wrote about cycling in the city.

As I was cycling to work the other morning, a garbage collector threw an empty can in front of me. I pulled an emergency brake and managed not to fall off. “Oh my God!” said my friends on social media. “That’s really extreme, what did you do about it? Did you take their license plate?” Nope, said I, calmly. I just cycled on. The thing is, this kind of occurrence is not extreme to me. It’s extremely horrible, but I don’t consider it extreme behavior because it happens on a fairly regular basis.

In fact, every day biking in Toronto is a mini adventure. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of adventure where you get to do exciting things; it’s more of an adventure in commuter stress and aggression.

Although biking is touted by enthusiasts as a way to beat the stress of the public transit system (TTC for Torontonians) or driving, biking in the city also leaves you exposed to the frustration and idiocy of others. It is an unusual bike ride when I don’t get beeped at or narrowly avoid a car doing an abrupt maneuver or a pedestrian stepping into the road. It is also normal for someone to yell at me at least once a week.

Women on Bicycles --- Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS
Women on Bicycles — Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS

I remember years ago, before I moved to Toronto, a friend telling me the media had created a ‘war’ between cyclists and drivers and that Toronto was a very aggressive city to cycle in. I thought, how can any city be worse than London (the UK one) where cycling to work means you join the daily influx of eight million people and have to contend with gridlocked roads, plus hoards of pedestrians? (As an aside, the streets of London make Toronto look like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape by comparison.)

Now, having lived here for two years, I still think London is a more dangerous place to cycle than Toronto, but I also feel that the animosity towards cyclists is next level in Toronto. Sure, when I biked downtown from my house in London I was taking my life into my hands. I knew that the busy London roads resulted in the frequent deaths of cyclists. But I never worried so much about aggression from the people behind the wheel. I never thought the drivers themselves were out to get me.

The three recent cyclist deaths in Toronto become even more chilling when you think that fatal bikes accidents are the logical extension of car drivers who don’t want bikers to exist. Bikers are losing their lives in Toronto and no one seems to care.

It’s not just that the streets are unsafe for cyclists in Toronto. It’s not just that weaving in and out of traffic on streets where there are no bike lanes (or the ‘bike lanes’ are actually car parks — I’m looking at you, College Street) makes behavior unpredictable and collisions more likely. It’s also that the rank animosity and violence directed towards cyclists makes Toronto a horrible city to cycle in.

As a female cyclist I have no doubt I experience more aggression from car drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists than I would if I were a man. I also think that, because I am exposed to more vitriol from fellow travellers, I get a glimpse into the city’s attitude towards cyclists that I wouldn’t necessarily get if I moved through the streets unchallenged, as some men seem to. (Either that, or cycling itself exposes you to the jerks of all walks, or rides, of life, as Scott Colby argues in his article for the Toronto Star.)

There could be many reasons for this animosity. Is it because Canada is an oil-reliant nation, and its laws have been primarily focused on cars? Is it because the city’s travel infrastructure is so shitty that the roads are becoming more and more clogged? I certainly think that the level of stress and misery at rush hour commute time contributes to the fights that happen.

Perhaps it is also that Canada’s obsession with oil and cars results in a gendered national pride invested in being able to drive. Men, especially, have some weird macho pride resting on their ability to buy a 400 horsepower SUV that can smash a cyclist to pieces. I remember reading the comments in an article about the danger of cycling in Toronto (never read the comments, people), in which a few vocal trolls seemed to relish the damage their powerful cars could do to the human body.

For now, I have no solution to the apparent war other than to quote Aline Calvacante from Bikes vs. Cars and say “it’s not a war, it’s a city.”

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