Sidewalk cycling in the ‘burbs

Seconds after taking this photo, a cyclist flashed past me on the sidewalk. In the suburbs, this is a relative non-occurrence, something I hardly even noticed until the raging granny article in the Toronto Star reminded me of the photo I had taken.

Etobicoke isn’t exactly bike-friendly. People do opt for two wheels, but a significant portion of these cyclists stick to the sidewalk.

Getting around on a bike in the suburbs isn’t for the faint of heart. Granted, the downtown has streetcar tracks, congestion, and cars parked along major streets, but suburban cyclists have a different set of obstacles. Unless you’re part of one of those uber-professional-looking posses of cyclists who wear lots and lots of spandex and aerodynamic helmets, there isn’t much “strength in numbers” in the western fringe of the city. And depending on your route, chances are you might have to go head to head with transport trucks going really, really fast in the more industrial parts of town.

Dundas sticks out as a street that sees a large amount of sidewalk cyclists. Near the Mississauga-Etobicoke border, The Westmall Crescent curves to the south, and the 427 looms above, dumping a steady stream of cars and trucks onto the multi-lane street.

Cyclists and pedestrians both have it tough in this part of town. In the winter, the walkways aren’t cleared of snow — forcing pedestrians into traffic if the snow is too high or melting into formidable, ankle-deep bogs of slush. Sunny weather isn’t terribly better — below the ramps, the area is dark, dank, and full of suspicious-looking puddles even in dry weather. Families of pigeons roost around the overpass lights, creating hills of droppings and the occasional body of a feathered casualty. One summer day, I counted the corpses of five dead mice.

As an arterial street where car is king, Dundas forces suburban cyclists to make this decision: pedal on the sidewalk or compete for space with vehicles doing 70km/hr in the darkness of the overpass.

I’ve stepped aside for many cyclists in this area. Pedestrians and cyclists share sidewalk space — I don’t think too many walkers begrudge them for taking this route.

It happens along other parts of Etobicoke countless times a day. I’m sure there are complaints and safety concerns about having bikes on sidewalks, but I’d wager that in a region of the city where cars are the preferred method of travel, pedestrians and cyclists are on the same side.

Unless you’re around the Kingsway. That’s where the first photo was taken. The signs appear frequently — about every block or so — between Islington and Royal York on the Bloor. The difference between this part of the city and Dundas and the 427? The Kingsway has actual pedestrians.

It’s easier to step aside for a person on a bike when you’re the only pedestrian for miles. But when cyclists compete for space with the more numerous amblers in the well-heeled Kingsway district, the signs come out.

The cynic in me wants to say the signs are there to keep the shoppers, restaurant-devotees, and bar-hoppers in the area happy. But the disconnect between the “stay off the sidewalk” signs and the actual cycling conditions of the suburbs leads me to wonder: if cyclists are forced off the sidewalks, will Etobicoke lose a large part of its cycling population?


  1. “peddle” on the sidewalk? What are they selling?

  2. Timely post. I just moved from Toronto to Dallas, the land of the car. I’ve been grumbling about the lack of bike lanes here since I arrived, until it occurred to me today that Dallas has far, far more bike lanes than Toronto: absolutely no one walks anywhere, so the sidewalks are entirely free for me. After biking for close to an hour today, I might have passed 2 pedestrians. Maybe.

  3. Same thing in Scarborough, although I’d guess that Etobicoke is worse. I’m pretty careful to give pedestrians a wide berth but have had an odd experience or two. I was nearly assaulted by one day by a vigilante who I came nowhere near. Scarborough has no downtown-type areas and in most places, the pedestrian count is so low that it really isn’t a problem. The sidewalk is all yours. However, a bit of common sense and consideration goes a long way.

    On some streets you would have to be crazy to ride on the road. What few bike lanes exist are not respected by public, private, or commercial vehicles. Why would bike lanes be respected? The transit lane on Eglinton is pretty much disregarded – it is an express lane for the brazen and uncaring.

    A number of recreational paths exist as alternatives but not all is harmonious there either. Dogs – on and off leashes – frequently monopolize the path and I’ve had more near collisions with the vermin than anything else.

    Bottom line: ride wherever you need to in order to come home alive.

  4. When I lived in Downsview, I regularly took to the sidewalk where appropriate. It’s important to give way to pedestrians, but on long stretches of Finch, Keele, and Dufferin there are few walking.

  5. I frequently walk in my mid-sized city (Cambridge) and just as frequently have the wits frightened out of me as a cyclist overtakes me, silently, from behind. I can’t help thinking “What would have happened if, at that moment, I had inadvertently moved a few inches to the left (or right)?” and the conclusion makes me shudder. Nobody uses a bell or says “Bike coming through”. I realize that cyclists use the sidewalk on busy, multi-lane roads because they have no bike lanes and the cars don’t give a toss about them. But equally, the cyclists apparently don’t give a damn about scaring the daylights out of pedestrians. I wonder if anyone is every seriously hurt or even killed by being struck from behind by a bicycle?

  6. It’s sad how easy it would be to build bike lanes on the suburban arterial roads with all that space by the road.

    Do we make progress? Of course not. New subdivisions in Brampton and Oakville still lack a grid system, and they’re built are built with feeder roads into higher speed parkways.

    What we need is a region wide planning authority similar to what Metrolinx is to transit.

  7. This article*shiver* brought back memories of cycling around parts of waterloo(actually better than cambridge for cycling imo.. nothing to brag about)..countryside is nice but you have to get there.. places like this harden us cyclists into a different species.

    Whenever I ride in a section like this I think how could any member of a typical family(not a usually young person geared physically and psychologically for this riding) ever cycle or walk here,I am surprised there are actually sidewalks.

    I don’t miss these suburban sections, at least in the city people are used to seeing other cyclists.

  8. @D.B. Scott – Pedestrians always overreact to bicycles and jump out of the way like a 18 wheeler is barreling at them. GET OVER IT. Yes, a maintained bike is almost perfectly silent. No, I am not going to ring my bell or call out a few dozen times on my ride. Any NO, a bike isn’t going to hit you. Even in the extremely unlikely event that it hit you you probably are not going to be hurt.

    I’ve ridden tens of thousands of miles on my bike and the number of times I have hit a pedestrian or seen ANYONE on a bike hitting a pedestrian is exactly ZERO.

  9. James> I ride my bike all the time but whenever somebody says “The Cycling Community” I’m reticent to include myself in it because I’m afraid of being lumped in with people with your approach to cycling.

  10. I don’t think a regional planning authority would work, heck even a decade after amalgamation, the planning is different from one part of Toronto to another. What is needed is for the Province or the Feds (not sure who looks after this), to change the minimum road standards, so that when a road is built or renovated that any road gets 2m wide bike lanes as standard operating procedure, rather then something added on, sidewalks on both sides should also be in the minimum road standards. This way, over the next 30-40 years, every road would get bike lanes. The exception would be limited access highways,

    The province should pass a law, that all bicycle lanes, are to be considered on equal footing with other live traffic lanes, and that parking in one, means you get towed. The local constabulary can easily find where these offences occur on a regular basis, and dispatch an officer and tow truck. If you park in a bike lane and get a $150 ticket plus the cost of a tow and impound fees, your likely not to make that mistake again.

    As for sidewalk riding, even in heavy, high speed traffic, it’s actually more dangerous on the sidewalk then on the road. Sidewalks are designed for walking speeds, so sight lines are often poor, as walkers can immediately stop in a danger situation. One is far better to add a bicycle or helmet mounted mirror and take their chances on the road, using the mirror to see what’s happening behind you.

  11. Cycling on suburban sidewalks is just plain dangerous. As a bike-aware driver, I nearly killed a cyclist while making a right turn on a suburban road. The sidewalk was set back too far from the road, and the cyclist was barrelling along at full speed. Even when checking my blind spot, I couldn’t see him coming. If he had been on the road, I would have seen him and given him his space.

    While cycling in hostile territory, I find it much safer to take up the full right-hand lane. Traffic is forced to slow and pass properly rather than narrowly whip past my handlebar. A few drivers honk a bit, but they get over it. I’d rather delay someone for 6 seconds than get creamed.

  12. BIking on the streets up in my area Keele and Finch is just way to dangerous. The pot holes along the curbs are worse for us then they are for the drivers. Trucks and busses flying by at speeds they should not be driving at. Com’on when ever I here that this is a “cycling friendly” city I think they mean south of Eglington. Sidewalks are you safest bet up in Downsview. I usually pass on the grass anyway and use my bell on the rare occasion someone is walking on the sidewalk. No one has ever stopped me to question me about my sidewalk biking lane so until someone does you can catch me on the sidewalks along Finch Ave West.

  13. also, biking in scarborough is goddamn ridiculous. if you dare to bike on the road, you’re constantly breathing in truck fumes and the road near the curb is super bumpy and uneven.

  14. Our society seems to be increasingly lawless and it is every person for themselves. I’m going to try and stay out from under the wheels of large and dangerous vehicles by whatever means necessary. Safety is the paramount ethical concern and our laws are a joke. I’ll try to be considerate to pedestrians when I can but, thinking about it, a whole lot of them aren’t very considerate.

  15. “While cycling in hostile territory, I find it much safer to take up the full right-hand lane. Traffic is forced to slow and pass properly rather than narrowly whip past my handlebar. A few drivers honk a bit, but they get over it. I’d rather delay someone for 6 seconds than get creamed.”

    I would strongly suggest against it. I’ve had stuff thrown at me for pulling stuff like that. Even had a guy on a motorcycle try to run me off the road (and I was only in the way for about 20 metres as I was heading over an overpass. After a few incidents like these I opted to walk my bike along the narrow walkway).

  16. on the major streets in etobicoke, mississauga and scarborough there’s no way you could safely pull off taking up a whole lane. on dundas west, lakeshore, or kingston road you’d be killed in no time. when i’m given no choice but the sidewalk, i’ll take it. but i’ll ring my bell for every pedestrian i overtake, slow down drastically, or even hop off the bike to pass the elderly or skittish. i don’t see how ringing the bell a few dozen times a ride is a huge inconvenience as james asserts. it’s called respect.

  17. For clarity I’m refering to passing pedestrians on recreation paths, not sidewalks. In general there seems to be less disruption and ill feeling when I do not ring my bell and just pass with adequate room. Pedestrians often react more negatively to the bell so I don’t do it any more.

    On sidewalks I give them a wide berth but won’t stop using the sidewalk for safety when necessary. You really don’t see many people walking on sidewalks in the suburbs anyway.

  18. The day after doing a 100 mile ride in NYC my buddy and I were walking across a bridge on the sidewalk (no bike path) when my friend got clipped by a cyclist who passed in between us, with little warning. I found it a little ironic, and maddening at the same time.

  19. Jeeff: I ride from Bloor and Lansdowne to Mississauga and back almost every weekday.
    I often “take the lane” on Bloor, Dundas or Burnhamthorpe, depending on which road I’m on. So far, I haven’t been killed.

    Taking the lane is absolutely necessary along some sections, especially on Burnhamthorpe between Martin Grove and the 427, where the right lane (in each direction!) is pretty much rubble.

    I pretty much take the lane on Dundas St. West between Royal York and Islington. It’s too narrow to safely share.

    Sure, I’ve been honked at a few times, but I’d rather have more space and a decent patch of road to ride on than get squished up against the curb while zig-zagging around potholes.

    I’ve also been known to take the lane on Hurontario when riding down to the lake from Square One. There are enough other lanes for passing. 🙂 Heck, motorists usually take the lane too and often get in my way… I try not to get angry at them for doing this.

  20. If you do not feel comfortable riding your bike on the road you should either walk or take public transit. Sidewalks are the only refuge pedestrians have from drivers and bicyclists, we should not have to compete for their use.

  21. I’m one of those pedestrians who was very happy to read the ‘raging granny’ article, as it voiced my experiences as a constant walker in downtown Toronto. It bothers me that so many in cycling community go on and on about the rudeness of cars and drivers, yet are happy to occupy the sideWALK in just as disrespectful a fashion. I walk to virtually all aspects of my day-to-day life, as do many others. Hey, we’re doing our part for sustainable transportation too… perhaps in a quieter and more subtle way, but surely we deserve some respect in our allotted sliver of the transportation corridor. It’s called a sideWALK, not a sideRIDE.

  22. It’s always interesting hearing from different people.
    Cyclists can be non-stop quick and quiet passholes and it can be very un-nerving to be passed without warning at some speed – and sometimes this is while riding, as if I’d just swerved for a pothole/problem, what would have happened.
    The trick may be to try to ride with respect – yes being on the suburban sidewalks is lself-preservation though City staff tend to be down on this because there are significant negative car/bike crashes having the bikes a bit removed from the traffic.
    But the City has put a lot of resource into coloured pavement in splash zones – why not alongside sidewalks? (though we don’t need to grind up too much more Niagara Escarpment).
    Cyclists can and do injure pedestrians. There was a CBC producer in Montreal a Joan ? who was really harmed by a sidewalk cyclist and maybe a decade or more ago an older woman walking was killed by a bike rider at Bloor and Clinton.
    My favourite prize dork incident was about as long ago where a cyclist going westbound on the College St. sidewalk beside the bike lane had a head-on with a cyclist coming on the sidewalk the other way.
    And the term “passhole” was inspired by a cyclist.
    So as much as I like cyclists and bikes, it’s very difficult to always advocate for us.

  23. I used to ride my bike in the Downsview area, Finch & Dufferin, Finch & Keele, etc. and there really are almost no pedestrians. Maybe 1 or 2 for a 30 minute trip. The real danger is trying to cross the street while biking. Like others have said, it’s dangerous to cross the street as a bike because cars are less likely to see you coming up so fast from the sidewalk when they make a turn. I had many close calls.

    It’s just not realistic to bike in the suburbs. There are no bike lanes and no safe options. The buses usually don’t have bike racks up here either.


    95 % of sidewalks in Toronto are empty of pedestrians 95 % of the time. The same cannot be said of roads. Most sidewalk cycling is done on otherwise empty sidewalks.

    95 % of roads in Toronto (even if they don’t have dangerous streetcar tracks) have IMPASSABLE potholes at the edge of the curb, where bicycles are expected to ride. Sidewalks on the other hand, are safe to ride on.

    During rush hour: 95 % of the time there is more cycling/walking space, even on the most crowded sidewalk in Toronto, than there is car-free space for cyclists to ride on the road during rush hour!

    The final proof that pedestrians and cyclists co-exist just fine when cars aren’t mucking things up: On Waterfront trails and park paths, there are NO CARS allowed and pedestrians and cyclists ARE SUPPOSED TO MIX TOGETHER! Did the entire city of Toronto collectively lose their minds and do something ILLEGAL when they built our sidewalks/paths in the parks system? I don’t think so.

    The collective car-driven hypocrisy, hatred against cyclists and willful blindness at work is saddening and shocking.

  25. When I walk on the sidewalks, I resent being over-run by electric scooters (everywhere downtown!) and the occasional cyclist.
    When I drive my bicycle, I get pissed at the cars (usually taxis) that graze my shoulder or the trucks that nearly knock me flat, or the pedestrians that step in front of me without looking.
    When I drive my car, I hate sharing the road with the damned bicycles. Jarvis is a prime example: one cyclist in a 3 block stretch can cause quite the jam as cars try to squeeze around one, lone cyclist.

    Any of this sound familiar? We are getting crankier, more selfish and, yes, more lawless. Our roads are wholly inadequate for any use, let alone squeezing bicycle lanes into them. If the city has the money to widen Finch or Kingston Rd., and wants to add bicycle lanes – great. Otherwise, hands off the measly 4 lanes that exist as it is.

    I love comparisons to cities like Dallas! If we had their weather, I’d build the bicycle lanes myself. Rather, on a recent trip down the new bicycle lane on Birchmount on a sunny Sunday, there was nary a cyclist in sight. Pity the workers who have to drive to their jobs in the factories in the area no; restricted, as it is to one lane north and south now.


  26. By the way, CBC producer Joan Donaldson was not gravely injured by a sidewalk cyclist. The cyclist who hit her was riding on the bicycle path that runs just outside Maison Radio-Canada, on boulevard René-Levesque. Cyclist was an absolute jerk though, yelling at her although she had obviously been severely wounded.

    I’m not only a cyclist but a longterm cycling activist, however I have very little patience with the lycra-lout subspecies that provide fodder to the pro-pollution bicycle-hating set.

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