September 2, 2010

Toronto Downtown Cycling FAQ

Filed under: interfaces,life,lunacy,travel — mhoye @ 10:51 am

To Trains, Still

My bike has been my primary method of transportation lately and gets me where I’m going often faster and invariably with less hassle than a car or even the subway. This summer has been mostly good days for that and, even though somebody periodically somebody tries to kill me, it’s just so much better an experience that it seems like a fair trade. And as a bonus my bike isn’t a cold-war relic that breaks down all the damn time. But when I tell people that I bike in the city they seem astonished that any sane human would do that. Biking downtown, they say? Madness! And then the complaints about cab drivers start.

And that’s how I can tell those people don’t bike and, in all likelihood, aren’t very good drivers. It’s possible that I’m holding a minority opinion on this but I love taxi drivers. I love them to bits.

Cabbies are just about my favorite people on the road for one reason only: they are completely, utterly predictable. Look five meters ahead of a cab and you know what they’re going to do every time. That space they can turn into to win them an extra car length? They’re going there. That pedestrian with their hand up? Here comes a cab, right up snug to the curb. Braking with nobody in front of them? They’re going to stop and then that door’s going to open.

By and large they even signal. And they’re going to make that move every time; just assume it’s coming and roll with it. Compared to cabbies the alternative is so much worse.

Q: As a cyclist in Toronto, what is my threat model?


  • Custom rims
  • Subwoofer
  • Baseball cap (any)
  • Spoiler
  • Custom paint job
  • Support ribbons (any)
  • Tiny woman, land-yacht SUV
  • Fat, moustachioed man, minivan
  • Aviator-style or larger sunglasses
  • One hand holding coffee
  • One hand holding cellphone

Perform a quick visual assessment of the cars around you; vehicles that meet any two of these criteria should be treated with due caution. Three or more and you should assume they’re actively trying to kill you.

Q: So, bike lanes?

A: There are none. Many wildly disjoint roads in Toronto have lines painted three feet from the curb and what appears to be a bicycle painted on the asphalt, but by convention these are reserved parking for service and delivery vehicles, police and parking enforcement officers. The city will also issue private contractors a permit to park in them at their convenience and you should expect any courier or cube-van you see to swerve directly into them and immediately stop. This is less inconvenient that you might think as these “paths” don’t actually go from anywhere to anywhere else.

Q: But bike paths, right?

A: Yeah, whatever. If you work somewhere on Lakeshore and maybe live under a bridge in the Don Valley then sure. Nobody who is not already a bicycle commuter gives even a fraction of a damn about cycling downtown.

Q: So can I get around on a bike, for real?

A: Ultimately the answer is yes, if you’re willing to act like a car. Take up a whole lane; you notice how police on bikes always ride side by side? Establish that you own the space around you. Don’t hug the curb or when you get cut off you’ll have nowhere to go. Signal when you need to change lanes, but don’t otherwise act predictably; a set precedent of scary randomness will earn you the wide berth you want. But be aware of your environment, 360 degrees of it, at all times. Travel light and agile and be able to make decisions fast. If you’ve got panniers or baskets or whatever behind your seat, then forget it; hug the curb, festoon yourself with lights and reflectors and pray that you live through the ride. If you’ve got any weight at all over your front wheel, panniers or grocery bags hanging off your handlebars then I hope your soul is prepared because you’re already a dead man.

You might get honked at now and then, but that doesn’t matter – in Toronto, car horns don’t mean “look out, I’m coming” or “pay attention, there is a car here”, they mean “Fuck you, I hate you and want you to die” – but my thinking in this is simple: let them hate, so long as they fear.


  1. As long as you don’t run red lights and stop signs, and generally ignore the rules of the road, I have no problem with a cyclist. It’s those that act like idiots that I can’t stand.

    Comment by Guillaume — September 2, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  2. That’s too bad, because I am 100% that guy. I am in-and-out-of-traffic guy, rolling stop guy, that’s me, and it’s entirely because I’m driving around fifteen pounds of bike powered by myself, and not two or three thousand pounds of metal-plated vehicle powered by gasoline.

    Which is all to say, you should be the one being extra-careful around me, not the other way around.

    Comment by mhoye — September 2, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  3. Another thing that I think needs to go into this guide:

    // Can I bike anywhere?

    Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that you should bike anywhere. Be strategic. Avenue Road? That’s not for bicycles, really. There are perfectly fine roads without cars to either side of it, punctuated by parks and one-way stretches that are fantastic for ensuring that cars are dissuaded from being in your way.

    Comment by Mike Beltzner — September 2, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  4. @mhoye – amen; you can also get way better visibility around corners on a bicycle, making rolling stops much much safer. I obey the laws of traffic when there is other traffic around. And of course I yield to pedestrians because they are an order less mobile than I am.

    But if a car’s coming up to a stop sign that I’m coming up to, I make some pretty clear eye contact that says “I’m not gonna full out stop here, you understand?”

    Comment by Mike Beltzner — September 2, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

  5. You just described biking conditions in DC. I assume full responsibility for running red lights and stop signs, though.

    Comment by Mark — September 4, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  6. What you are describing is the application of rules of the sea on land. The most manoeuverable yields to the least maneouverable – so, motor boats to sail boats, but sail boats to paddle boats. And this goes if it is an ocean liner and a dinghy. Everybody should have lights so they can be seen and a noisemaker so they can be heard (whistle or horn for boats). Then, you’re on your own to work out what make sense and will keep you alive.

    Personally, I like my bike path. I prefer not to have life or death struggles until after I get to work.

    Comment by Darcy — September 9, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  7. Regarding laws: since they do nothing to keep us safe on the road and waste energy, why obey them? They’re for cars.

    Comment by B — September 10, 2010 @ 4:55 am

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