In the 1980s, it was rare to see a police officer patrolling without a squad car. 

But those four wheels and metal frame could be a barrier to engaging with the people law enforcement served. So in 1989, the Toronto Police Service introduced its first-ever Bike Patrol Unit.

Toronto Police Bike Patrol

These Toronto Police foot patrol officers from 14 Division volunteered for bike duty in 1990. The goal was to have six bikes on patrol at all times. (CBC)

Const. Hugh Smith was one of the original members of that unit. He's being honoured at the Toronto Bike Awards on Wednesday night for his service on the force and a lifetime of achievement in "changing the conversation" about cycling in this city.

"It's very humbling," Smith told CBC host Matt Galloway on Metro Morning.

"As a police officer to have that platform ... to make positive changes and look where we are today: it's not the cars (versus) bikes, it's how can we move together instead of 'we don't want you on the road'."

When Smith was assigned to the bike unit, it had 12 members plus a sergeant. 

The bicycle patrol represented a force that wanted to get back to community policing after the infamous bathhouse raids on Church Street.

'Squish you off to the curb'

Bicycles allowed officers to cover more ground than on foot, and could travel where patrol cars could not.

But officers were reluctant to get on the cycles at first.

"At first everybody thought it was penalty box, your punishment. But the officers didn't want to come [back from their shifts], they were coming in later on in the shift because they were getting involved in the community, riding through, talking," said Smith. "Fortunately they were enjoying their work."

Acceptance was slower on the street, too. Initially people mistook the bike patrol for couriers.

Having two wheels on the ground in the late 1980s allowed officers like Smith to experience firsthand the challenges of cycling in the city.

"We were starting this when there were no bike lanes; there was nothing ... The old rule 'squish you off to the curb', and nobody identified us as police officers. We didn`t have those bright yellow jackets until three years later." 

By 1994, officers were being trained specifically for bike patrol. Today there are more than 650 bike cops in Toronto.

Toronto police bike patrol 2013

Toronto Police now wear bright yellow jackets and patrol year round on bikes. (CBC)

Smith became an advocate for cycling safety. He says biking in the city is now very safe, and drivers have learned to give cyclists more space.

But with an average of three bike fatalities a year in Toronto, Smith, who's retiring this year, admits there are still problems.

"Coming out to make a right turn, if the cyclist is on your right for predominantly 90 per cent of that street, and you want to go up and make a right turn, there's no real communication sometimes," he said. "That's where we get these conflicts."

Corrections

  • An earlier headline on this story said Toronto's first bike patrol started nearly 40 years ago. In fact, it has been 27 years.
    Feb 24, 2016 4:47 PM ET