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A beginner’s guide to bike commuting in Toronto

June 21, 2017

Found in Activities, Skills and tips

I grew up cycling in residential Toronto on park trails and tree-lined streets with minimal traffic, then moved away from the city for 14 years. Now I’m back and am living and working in the downtown core. Biking to work in Toronto is something I’d always wanted to try – fresh air and exercise seems like a great way to start the day – but I’ll admit I was nervous about taking on the rush-hour city streets.

To help me navigate my way through the city, I joined local bike group Cycle Toronto for a ride along downtown routes to learn about bike infrastructure, and picked up a lot about biking in Toronto along the way. Here are some tips for newbie cyclists in Toronto:

1. Not all routes are created equal

Funny thing: to get to my meeting spot with Cycle Toronto, I had to bike there first – a little daunting when I was heading there to learn how to bike through the city. This was my intro to the Toronto Cycling Map, which helped me figure out a safe way to Bloor and Shaw.

There are cycle tracks, bike lanes, shared roadways with cars, quiet residential streets in pockets of downtown, and multi-use pathways. You can usually link routes together and avoid the really busy traffic areas. (Use the fly-out menu in the top left corner to show the different options.)

Group of cyclists in Toronto

2. Communication is key

We rode in a group of 20, so letting other riders know our plan was key to preventing mishaps. But even if you’re out solo, Cycle Toronto let me know how important it is to communicate with drivers and other cyclists. Brush up on your hand signals (left-hand turn, stop, right-hand turn) and use them. Eye contact with drivers is also big – assume no one sees you.

3. There’s a whole handbook

It’s a quick read, it’s free online and it comes in a bunch of languages. The Toronto Cyclists Handbook covers all you need to know before you start riding, like:

  • The rules of the road
  • How to turn at intersections
  • Whether you can ride side-by-side
  • Everything to do with passing

4. Bike classes exist (for adults, too)

Just because you know how to ride a bike doesn’t mean you know how to safely ride in a big city. Toronto has Can-Bike classes to teach you and get you feeling confident (they’re the same classes the Toronto bike police need to take).

5. ease into it

It’s okay to take your time, especially if you’re new to navigating your way through the city. Practice on quiet weekends (i.e., not rush hour).

“Most trips in the city are less than 5km,” says Jared, the Executive Director of Cycle Toronto. “For those trips, cycling is the fastest and most convenient way to get from A to B. With a bit of practice on residential streets or park paths, most people can build up the confidence to ride on most streets. Take your time, plan your route, review the rules of the road and get out there!”

6. Streetcar tracks: watch out

Cross them so your wheels are perpendicular to the tracks, or your tires might get caught.

7. Cycling infrastructure involves lots of people

We stopped at several places on our ride, including Queens Park, to learn about some of the cycle advocacy issues that Cycle Toronto’s working on with the city. Making bike lanes usually involves a lot of steps and stakeholders, and local businesses also get involved to talk about how bike infrastructure ties into the city.

Some highlights of our ride? The planter-lined bike lane on Gerrard and the intersection of Richmond and Simcoe, where Cycle Toronto wants to install more signage to indicate a bike lane intersection for the safety of cyclists, drivers and pedestrians. They’re working with a local city councillor and City of Toronto Transportation Services staff to make this happen.

8. Any bike works

I was on a Midtown, but one thing that struck me was how many different bikes I saw. Any bike works for commuting, as long it’s tuned up and has a bell, front white light and rear red light or reflector. A helmet is always recommended.

9. Lock it or lose it

Like your bike? Whenever you park it, lock your bike, and not with a skimpy cable lock either.

10. It’s a community

Something I noticed was that I felt a strong sense of community on the ride, not just within our group but from the other cyclists on their daily commutes. Despite riding a single file, we managed to have some great conversations about why people cycle in the city and the sense of freedom they feel riding downtown. Even through everyone has a different reason for cycling and are heading to different places, we all share the road.

Since my intro ride, I’ve been bike commuting to and from work… hope to see you in the bike lane!

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