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Parents: Forget the station wagon or SUV

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Editor’s Note: Fred Sztabinski is a Spacing contributor and former project coordinator of TCAT who recently relocated to Amsterdam, Netherlands. He will write occasional blog posts for Spacing comparing Toronto and European urban landscape issues.

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AMSTERDAM — Riding your bike around the streets of Toronto, who else do you see on their bikes? Other people like you? Probably.

While Toronto does have some bike lanes and a growing bicycling population (as witnessed last summer by overwhelmed bike shops), you don’t see as much variety in the cycling population compared to the city’s total population. In Amsterdam this isn’t the case at all. You see teenagers with their friends, older citizens picking up groceries, and people in slick business suits on their mobile phones pedaling away. And one of the most charming groups among those in the bike lane is parents with their kids.

Either enjoying the ride on their parent’s bike or following behind on their own bike, children are as much a part of urban bicycle commuting as anyone else. Contrast this with Toronto where you rarely see kids riding on a main street and parents who tow their children in bike trailers often receive disapproving looks or concerned stares from passersby. Granted, there are reasons for this. But don’t blame the weather. Note the bulky jackets and scarves in the above photo – temperatures are regularly dipping below zero in Amsterdam. Not as cold as Toronto – and minus the snow – but it doesn’t have to be warm and sunny for Amsterdammers to get on their bikes. It is true, though, that Toronto roads don’t feel nearly as safe as Dutch roads for cycling.

But there might be more to it. In many cities parents might feel comfortable cycling to work themselves, but may think the fact that they need to drop their kids off at school or daycare necessitates a car. The Dutch are doing a great job of showing us that doesn’t have to be the case. You can take your kids to school, go to work, run errands and do most anything else you would do in a car by bike – you just need the right bike. Three kids to chauffeur? No problem.

photo by Bala Nallama



  1. These bikes are a great idea, in theory. But Toronto shouldn’t compare itself to cities like Amsterdam(*much smaller and compact)

    For starters, N.America is a “car culture” and until we invest in bikes lanes, or combination pedestrian/bike streets and so on, there’s no safe places to ride a “family-bike” in the city.

    I’m all for bikes and healthy living dont get me wrong, i bike to work, but until there’s serious changes to Toronto’s “car/bike street relationship”, i cringe at the site of a family-bike riding side by side with cars.

  2. My family is car free and I feel comfortable most everywhere I go towing my trailer. Of course, I spent a number of years as a bike courier and am more comfortable on a bike than most.

    Nonetheless, I’m tired of people (such as above) that suggest that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to places like Amsterdam. Cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have made a conscious decision to embrace the bicycle as a transportation choice, and we are on the way to doing that as well. Furthermore, my Toronto is dense and compact and should be more like Amsterdam and less like Missisauga.

    More and more of us are choosing to be car free, a choice that is actually facilitated by the dense neighborhoods where we choose to live. These downtown neighborhoods would be benefit from more cycling infrastructure, but in the meantime each new cyclist on the road makes it safer for everybody else, pedestrians and car drivers included.

  3. Toronto may not be the most accommodating place for cycling your kids around your bike, but I do think if you are willing to go a bit out of your way, at least downtown, you can find fairly safe routes most of the time.

    I was in Amsterdam last Feb and I’m going again this year. I was completely blown away by their cycling culture. Seeing twenty-something couples going on dates on their bikes seems like it’s straight out of a fantasy postcard. My favourite sight was seeing dozens of parents waiting outside a school with all manner of bicycle waiting to shuttle their kids home.

    That said, I do agree with Parkdalian, Toronto has a long way to go. Here’s links to three photos I took there that illustrate this point:
    1. the bike parking garage at the train station:

    2. separate bicycle lights on light standards:

    3. not really a requirement for better cycling conditions but still an awesome tandem bike for older kids to ride with you:

  4. It’s amazing how ingrained the bike culture is in the Netherlands. Even out in the country, people still ride bikes between towns. To comment on Parkdalian, it’s not so much the compactness, but that the bike infrastructure that encourages this. There are bike lanes, often separated by grade, everywhere. This is especially true in the congested older cities. Cities that were completely rebuilt after WW2, like Rotterdam, have much more of an automobile centered culture and you see less (but still lots more than here) bikes.

  5. Hey Andy. Like i said, i’m all for healthy life style choices so i don’t know why you’re “tired” of people like me. You must have interpreted my comment incorrectly.

    Second, cycling “like a courier” and cycling “as a family”(on bike friendly roads) are two differnt things. Kudos on you for having achieved a healthy balance with your family, but not everyone that we’re encouraging to cycle are as confident as us, so they wouldn’t feel as comfortable riding so tightly to other riders or motorists.

    Third, i did not mean Toronto wasn’t like Amsterdam in it’s “pursue” of bike-friendly paths. I meant we weren’t like them in it’s cycling infrastructure “now”.

    So like i said before, and Rick agrees to, Toronto has a ways to go to be like Amsterdam(*which for the record, i’m encouraging)

  6. There are people who would get upset with the city snowplowing bike paths, even though pedestrians would also be using them.

  7. In response to Christopher’s comment that “it’s not so much the compactness”… No, actually a good part of the difference is the compactness or density of these two cities. What discourages many people from cycling in Toronto is the fact that you often have to go very very far from point A to point B. Through kids into the mix and for many, the prospect is just too daunting unless you happen to live in the downtown core. If you can do it, great, but not everybody is ‘privileged’ (and it most certainly is a privilege) enough to live within easy distance of where they need to go. In terms of density, Toronto is a big sprawling mess — the likes of which would not be tolerated in Europe. That has all sorts of implications for how people move through that space and how wasteful we are. It took decades of ‘planning’ to get us to were we are now. Much of this city (and certainly most of the GTA) doesn’t even qualify as ‘urban’ space, even though it seems to have become our favourite word. Yes, we need to reconfigure our space and how we use it — but things are not going to change overnight.

  8. I’ve seen more children on bikes here in New York than I ever saw in Toronto. Once I had a friendly chat with a man who had outfitted his bike to fit two bike seats on the back for his two children, both under the age of 5.

    He told me that the typically aggressive New York driver does slow down when they realise he has children with him, but the cutest part of that conversation was when he told me that his little ones have taken to yelling out things from the back of the bike, like: “On your left!” and “Watch it buddy!”

  9. The cycling culture in Amsterdam goes back to post WWII when every family was given a bike and you still see a lot of old bikes in the city. Amsterdam is also flat compared to Toronto.

    The subway is so crowded during rush hour. I’d rather cycle a child to daycare than take them on TTC. We’re looking for daycare within walking distance which is nearly impossible.

  10. Samg, you’re wrong about “Toronto is a big sprawling mess — the likes of which would not be tolerated in Europe.”

    There are a bunch of Euro cities just as sprawling and auto-centric as Toronto. My girlfriend, a German national and well-travelled architect, often notes that Toronto is more dense than Hamburg and other Euro cities she’s visited.

    Secondly, what you call a mess was a plan that was better executed here than anywhere else in North America. We’re built this way intentionally.

  11. I’m not sure what the “cycling” suituation is like in Chicago, but they sure over-shadow us on the “sister-city” comparison.

    Expansive parks, good metro, green neighbourhood plazas, waterfront beaches, Harbourfronts w/amusement parks, street blocks that are smaller(and easier to walk around), ect…

    If Toronto was planned intentionally this way, and we’re here disccusing ways to make this city more bike-friendly, would there not be room for improvement? We’re not a mess but there’s definitely alot of room for improvement here.

  12. Metro Toronto (the inner burbs) are intentionally planned the way it is now (read Public Metropolis, Concrete Toronto or the new John Sewell books to learn about Metro Toronto’s growth and plans). Bikes weren’t a part of the plan, but could easily be fit into the inner burb landscape. It just needs getting short-sighted councillors and some traffic planners get out of the way.

    Chicago gets way more hype than it deserves. They have some great architecture which puts Toronto to shame, but while their downtown core and bits around the U of Chicago are nice, the transit service is horrible: unsafe, dirty, and less reliable than TTC); its harbourfront (outside of Grant Park) looks exactly like our waterfront from Bathurst west (which is nice but nothing to write home about) and is pinned in by a similar size boulevard as our Lake Shore Blvd; its beaches are dirtier than ours yet they stay open during the summer; and it has worse sprawl than Toronto — we are 66% more dense, according to the Neptis Foundation.

    I only say this because too often we Torontonians say every where else is doing it better, but when examined and experienced up close for more than an afternoon, Toronto is often ahead of the curve (believe it or not).

  13. Mathew… you are right… there are European cities that are autocentric (though I don’t think there is anywhere in Europe that rivals the sprawl of the GTA). The point I was making was that density (and by extension, the distance one needs to travel) is very much related to the types of transportation that people take. I was also making the point that when we look to other cities for ideas, we should also be mindful of differences in circumstances that may impact on whether certain ideas will work here. Density and proximity to where one needs to go are important factors.

    Secondly, the fact that we built this way “intentionally” in Toronto and the GTA, doesn’t mean our current situation is not a mess. Planning (even when well “executed”) does not preclude a disaster from taking place … given that the plan itself may not have adequately taken into account future needs. Of course, sooner or later, all plans need to be revised… but the tragedy (and I think it is one) of the GTA is that it has taken just a few decades to see how unsustainable the communities we “planned” actually are.

  14. Samg: I agree with everything you say in the above post. I shouldn’t have used the word “wrong”, and instead used “not entirely accurate”.

    And my assertion that Metro was planned is not meant to be an endorsement of how poorly some of those plans have worked out. I grew up in North York for 23 years, drove everywhere from Eglinton north to King Sideroad on a regular basis, so I got to see up close those brutal mistakes.

  15. Matt: I guess i’ll have to believe you that Toronto is ahead of it’s curve, for now.

    I’m planning my first trip to Chicago this year which explains why its on my mind. But going by pictures and satelite images, i can’t see how anyone can dispute their waterfront on Lake Michigan.

    But we do seem to agree that Toronto can be adjusted to accomodate more bike infrastructure. I don’t want to get away from the main topic too much here..

  16. It’s funny that Parkdalian mentions waterfront amusement parks of Chicago. We’ve had an interesting one for decades which seems to fly under the radar for some. Part of it is a fascinating complex of buildings which brilliantly tower over the water of the lake, connected with white bridges. There’s also a geodesic dome with a movie theatre showing films of an advanced Canadian format.

    The best thing to do is to visit both cities in comparison, and know them well.

  17. Wow, 15 comments in and no one has noted the conspicuous lack of helmets in all four of the photos above? Thoughts?

  18. … I meant to ask if the no-helmet thing also reflects on the different cycling cultures (or if it was just an aesthetic choice for this post).

  19. Toronto is as compact as you make it, it’s possible to live, work, go to school within a 5k radius.

    Copenhagen was just as carcentric as Toronto in the early seventies, they even went further and ditched their streetcar system. It was through government policies that they encouraged the bicycle to make a comeback.
    We can do the same.

  20. I have some difficulties with the “ahead of the curve” suggestion.
    To me, that would mean the City doing an EA on the Bloor St. Transformation Project and providing safe cycling there, parallel to the subway. Not every road should have a bike lane, and there are idiots on bikes, but to miss wider Bloor St. for bike lanes is disappointing given the climate crisis etc.
    It’s still nice to see the pictures – thanks Fred.

  21. Copenhagen was as carcentric as Toronto in the early seventies, they even went further and ditched their streetcar system. It was through government encouragement that they worked to bring back cycling.
    Toronto can do the same thing, but we’ll have to step it up a few notches.

  22. Great post, I lived in Amsterdam and the way the Dutch balanced their kids on their bikes was one of things that immediately stood out to all us non-Dutchies. You bring up a good point with the climate. Amsterdam isn’t really warm and its definitely not sunny, but excusing the climate factor completely won’t work. Also, you can’t forget that the biggest hills in Amsterdam are the bridges.

    In terms of the kids on the bikes I think a big part can be attributed to the lesser extent that a culture of safety obsession exists in Europe. You rarely see the Dutch wear helmets whereas its illegal for kids here not to.

    The biggest factor in the difference though seemed to be the Dutch propensity towards material modesty. There are no McMansions in the Netherlands and it seemed like flaunting wealth was considered inappropriate there. Maybe its just cause I’m from Oakville, but here it seems like people look down on those who don’t own cars.

  23. As I’ve been learning, the bike-friendliness of Amsterdam (at least as you see it today) is not as old and ingrained as us North Americans tend to think. Specifically, it was a policy decision to invest in more bike infrastructure in the 1970s, after years of car-centric road design that followed the war. Policy-makers were forced to reverse their direction after a mini cultural revolution against the desire to build more roads and public transit. Many Amsterdammers – led by a younger/student population – were very much against losing Amsterdam’s unique architecture and tight urban form that could be lost were the city to expropriate land to accommodate large corridors required for motorways and metro lines. In addition to now having lovely bike lanes all over the city, this was also the reason why Amsterdam is poorly served by a metro, compared to other European cities. The tram network is pretty extensive though.

    –> I hope to write more on Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure history in future posts.

    Greg: No the lack of helmets in the photos was not an aesthetic choice. Out of the thousands of cyclists I’ve seen in Amsterdam, one or maybe two were wearing a helmet. It definitely isn’t part of the culture here to wear a bike helmet.

  24. I think we have little to teach the Dutch about bike safety. Awesone post, Fred!

  25. Unfortunately the images of European cyclists (where cycling is more popular) not wearing helmets just gives “Citizens for Safe Cycling” more ammunition for their argument that requiring helmets discourages cycling.

    – please ignore previous post –

  26. AR: Thanks for mentioning Ontario Place as an amusement park, but it’s really just a park with kiddie rides. By amusement park i meant a CNE-like establishment, that runs year-round(*maybe even indoors) And yes, once i see Chicago, i will compare our two cities. Duely noted.

    Great comments up top in regards to cycling cultures and infrastrustures both here and abroad. Very informative to distinguish between what we do here and elsewhere.

    But my point here is that we can and should do more to increase bike use within our city core. That is a job our politicians are lagging a little behind on.

  27. Hello Parkdalien,

    Toronto should absolutely compare itself with anyplace that has achieved a better balance introducing intramodal transportation and Toronto should do so regularly.

    There is no better way to find the means to an end than by locating a model of success among those working toward the same end or whose successful means can be adapted to your end.

    Regarding the difference you had as reason for not comparing, compactness. Toronto has developed outward throughout its history. Autocentric design did much to facilitate or accommodate this outward growth commonly termed “sprawl” It is resonable to presume that few residents would at this time prefer to be able to ride from their home in Brampton etc to their job in downtown, especially in the wintertime. Distance, weather and road conditions would prevent the average resident from even considering it.

    However, one of the means that has come about naturally with some fostering in places like Amsterdam is the concept of living where you work, or if you love your job, working where you live. Accepting that living near to the place where you must go each day is paramount. Other services such as schools, markets etc. may already be within biking and walking distance in your neighbourhood, certainly the Parkdale area is an example of such a neighbourhood. You can get everything but a job there. Demanding that residents look at their practices, especially when buying homes or renting, and designing or redesigning the urban landscape to give incentive to change those practices will do more for cycling than any collection of bike lanes.

    Toronto is well on its way with many of its naturally formed neighbourhoods providing everything a resident needs close at hand, especially in the downtown and surrounding areas. Much more work needs to be done to address this fundamental change required to make alternative or intramodal transportation initiatives more palatable to the general population.

    The first step is changing the way you think. Personally I don’t want residents of the outlying areas to commute to work on bicycles unless they work within 2 – 5 kilometers of their homes. I disregard completely efforts to get them to do so. I see bragging of the length of a commute discouraging as it represents a larger failing.

    We should compare places like that to ours, one neighbourhood at a time.

  28. Hello? Thanks for mentioning Parkdale as an example.

    But although i’m extremely lucky to live and work in such close proximities to everything i need, most people in our “sprawling” city, don’t have that luxury.

    The reality now is, because of poor urban planning from the 50’s on, we’re now having to grapple with “distance” issues that we wouldn’t have had to, had city planners thought things out.

    I wholehearterdly agree that comparing us to successful cities, with similar size and climate, is moving forward. But because of our past(mistakes), we need to work with what’s already here. Every city presents its own challenges. We’re not all the same.

  29. Re: Svend’s comment that “Toronto is as compact as you make it, it’s possible to live, work, go to school within a 5k radius”.
    Sorry, but this statement does not apply for all people. In many cases, it only for those who have sufficient income (so that location is not an issue) and stable, long-term employment (so that they don’t have to be uprooting everytime their job changes). Sadly, not everybody falls into this camp. Many, many people — especially in this economy — lose jobs, change jobs, or are on very short-term employment contracts.

  30. SamG: You hit the nail on the head. “Stable job employment” allows people to move near their work so that they can walk/ride to work easily everyday.

    And defenitely not everyone is in that suituation. Our work circumstances have a huge part to play in where we choose to live and work. And ideally, they’re within a 5km radius.

  31. Despite recent developments and a trend over the past 20 years toward part-time, temporary and contracted labour the larger portion of the population still have and are able to maintain stable employment. That aside, my point was that it is incumbent on the individual to make that choice and the responsibility of our different levels of government to promote and facilitate means and incentives for the individual to make that choice the right one. If you pay taxes at all then encouraging people to live where they work (or vice-versa) whenever possible through advanced urban planning and development is in your best interest regardless of your use of the bicycle. Transportation is the largest industry requiring more resources than any other, rightly so as all other industries rely on transportation in several ways. Lessening a commute benefits everyone and it’s apparent to most.

    I’m not sure I understand your response. People without the means to decide where they work have great flexibility in Toronto if they are renting. In most neighbourhoods, Rosedale and a few others aside, median income levels of residents vary wildly indicating that poor and well off alike are rubbing shoulders. Persons with greater say over where they work have even larger advantages when deciding where to live.

    Neither group that makes a poor decision with regard to that question are likely to utilize bike lanes to commute, you’d be lucky if they use them to do things within their own neighbourhood on a bicycle, much less leave the neighbourhood.

    In any case examining practices elsewhere in no way indicates these places are the same, you are still required to apply a solution sought elsewhere locally.

    I have to continue to recommend Fred’s analysis of practices in Amsterdam as a good thing for Toronto, that there are in fact safe places to ride in Toronto with children, especially on family bikes that travel at a slower relative pace with more stability than the sort of bicycle generally chosen in North America, and finally that bike lanes or other facilities will be a smaller part of a larger, lasting solution than many imagine. Not a small part, but smaller than the attention they receive from within the cycling community warrants. Urban planning, campaigns to change consumer habits and undoing the mismanagement of individual personal transport will do more for cycling than cycling will in North America.

    A cycling golden age will come to this continent after the underlying problems are addressed, not before.

    In the meantime lobbying for facilities at least keeps us moving in the right direction, if not as effectively as we would like. Asking your friends and families to consider how they live, why, and having them consider the challenge of changing, drastically or in increments, is the best form of lobbying there is.

    They seem to have gotten the point down south, at least, what I’ve written jibes with what Obama has up on the Whitehouse web pages regarding transportation and urban policy. If we don’t get a move on they’re going to show us up!

    Parkdalian, I suspect your acceptance of car culture as a reason for normal i.e. “non-cyclist” people not to ride bikes as transportation is probably what got you a negative response initially. Perhaps it’s your phrasing if that isn’t what you meant. Keep cycling 🙂

  32. Hello?, some very good points in your post. Yes, of course people should live as close to where they need to get to as possible. (Most people posting here will no doubt be aware that many of the areas of the inner city that are enroute to being gentrified were once designed as neighbourhoods where people would be able to walk to work — that is until manufacturing started dying out about 30-40 years ago.)

    But I think you are very much underestimating the stability of the job market and the impact that one’s employment situation has on the choices one can make. Through a family into the mix and the choices are even less limited than would be faced by a single person (which from some of the comments, I would suspect that many of those posting are).

    Regarding rental affordability, I think your point that there are abundant options throughout Toronto holds true if you are single or a couple, without the need for a lot of space, or concerns for whether a given neighbourhood is suitable for kids. But if you are a family that has certain space requirements and are of modest income, you are more likely to find something that is in one of the inner suburbs, especially if you are trying to stay away from certain areas for the sake of your kids. Yes, we should live close to where we work — but not everybody is in the same boat in terms of achieving this.

  33. *more limited* (not less limited) than would be faced by a single person…(I should really stop posting at night when I am tired)

  34. I do envy the flatness of cities like Beijing or Amsterdam – makes for much easier cycle commuting!
    Those confident Dutch cyclists know they have a network of wide bike lanes, and that cars will yield to the cyclists.
    I saw a construction site in Rotterdam that created a temporary bike lane to allow bikes sufficient space around the site, even if it meant narrowing the car lanes. We never see that in Toronto; we only get big orange signs that say “Bike Lane Ends” for an indefinite time frame.

  35. european cities like amsterdam and copenhagen evolved organically over several hundred years – they were built for people and then retrofitted for cars when the reign of the automobile came. now, that great mistake is being repealed as they have been systematically given back to human-scale functions.

    toronto and most other north american cities have been built for cars and we have the daunting task of retrofitting them for people. this requires imagination and a cultural mind-shift, but is an achievable goal.

    it is also, however, a very different situation since we have gutless bureaucracies as governments who hide behind the guise of “democracy” and “public consultation” in their defense of the status quo of road use. at this rate, transit city will remain a pipe-dream and the bike plan (which is not nearly enough) will never see its proper implementation. it will take strong, unwavering leadership to turn a place built for giant robots into dense, mixed use, green urban places integrating active and public transportation. i fear we won’t see that anytime soon.

    ultimately, no matter what we do to make toronto a more walk-able, bike-able, transit ride-able city, if we don’t systematically reduce the number of private automobiles on our streets, especially in the downtown core, it will be in vain.


    ps. toronto is about as flat as it gets for easy pedal-powered access. besides, the odd hill is good for your buns.

  36. Just saw this post as I don’t read through spacing toronto often (one can’t follow everything). Copenhagen does get significant snow, and yes, they do plough their bicycle lanes (see and ), moreover it is a considerably larger city than Amsterdam. It is not uncommon for Amsterdamers to commute to the many nearby towns and cities though (The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, etc) and this is done by combining rail and cycle. The Parisian Vélib scheme is also an attempt to solve this problem in a very large urban area. Yes, there are problems as reported here, but it has been a factor in dramatically increasing bicycle use and creating an urban cycling culture in a city seen as very unwelcoming and aggressive towards cyclists.

    Nobody wears helmets in Amsterdam. I’ve very occasionally seen them on small children in carrier seats, and I saw what looked like a couple of young male Mormon missionaries from Utah wearing them.

    What people DO wear is raincoats and capes, as they get a lot of rain. And lights are mandatory on bicycles, and it is enforced, at least to a far greater degree than here in Montréal and I presume also in Toronto.

    We have the advantage of being a bit older than you as a city; even early 20th century neighbourhoods were developed long befor the average family had a car; moreover we are an island, which is a big help in limiting sprawl. There is some dreadful, soul-destroying sprawl in some of the off-island suburbs though.