West Toronto Railpath extension planning begins

Billed as a bike 'superhighway,' the city is studying ways to extend the popular West End Railpath from Dundas Street West into downtown.

Project will extend popular bike path south of Dundas St. West

Since its completion in 2009, the West Toronto Railpath has earned widespread praise, won design awards and become a busy route for cyclists in the city’s west end.

Running two kilometres along an abandoned railway spur, the paved, two-lane cycling and pedestrian path goes from Dundas Street West near College Street to just north of Dupont Street in the Junction neighbourhood.

Scott Dobson of the Friends of West Toronto Railpath community group said the path is an important piece of "connective tissue," linking the west-end communities it touches.

"Once it opened, all of a sudden, there was other uses for it that developed organically," said Dobson, speaking Tuesday on CBC Radio's Here and Now. "There's seniors walking, there's daycares taking kids out, there's been some yoga camps, there's been a couple of charity runs on the Railpath."

If there's fault to be found with the Railpath it's that it remains incomplete. Heading south from the Junction neighbourhood the trail comes to an abrupt end at Dundas Street West. The grand plan is to see the path extended past this point in a south-easterly sweep along the Georgetown rail corridor, creating a bike superhighway that would carry cyclists — many of them daily commuters — all the way to Strachan Avenue and eventually into the downtown core.

"Everyone wants the path to come south," said Dobson.

The city's west end currently lacks a dedicated east-west cycling route north of the Martin Goodman Trail on the lakeshore. 

Cycling consultant Yvonne Bambrick said the path will offer a level of safety to commuters uncomfortable riding on streets cramped with traffic.

"It’s an incentive for riders to give [bike commuting] a try, even if it’s only a few times a week. It will get people on their bikes, which is what we want."

Pinch points along the route

The city has started an environmental assessment to study how best to route the Railpath's southern extension. Unfortunately, running the trail into downtown isn't as simple as paving a path beside the railroad tracks.

For the existing section of the path, the city had purchased an out-of-use railway right-of-way. But South of Dundas, city planners and architects must squeeze the route along a busy rail corridor currently controlled by Metrolinx, which handles regional transit planning for the province. Though the corridor appears more than wide enough to accommodate a bike path, much of that space is needed for rail lines to handle expanded GO Transit service and the Union Pearson Express train, set to enter service in 2015.

"There's not a lot of space south of Dundas and that's a big challenge," said Daniel Egan, the city's manager of cycling infrastructure. "We are very pinched in several parts of that south corridor." 

Things get cramped for route planners immediately south of Dundas Street West, where a bridge will be needed to span GO Transit's Georgetown and Barrie rail lines.

Residents on the Roncesvalles side of the Georgetown rail corridor want a bridge built to span the tracks south of Dundas and connect the Railpath with Sorauren Park. Unfortunately, such a bridge isn't part of the southern extension project.

From Dundas, the tentative plan is to run the path along the east side of the rail corridor, but the routing gets difficult again near Queen Street West and Dufferin Street where Egan admits "we run out of space."

One possible solution is to route the bike path away from the rail corridor for part of the route, possibly along Sudbury, Douro or other side streets.

Bambrick said a more direct route would be better, but said she hopes the road will be delineated in a way that offers riders some level of protection on the side streets.

Eventually the path will swing south of the rail lines to connect with the planned bike and footbridge that will span another rail corridor and connect Stanley Park with Fort York and the lake shore.

The city will spend the summer gathering feedback on routing options for the Railpath extension. A second public information session will be held in the fall. City planners hope to get final approval for the path route in early 2014, with construction pegged to start in 2015. 

Egan said cyclists are eager to have the path built.

"The success of the piece that's been built shows the demand for this," he said. "Really it's like a bicycle expressway."

The path, and the push for its southern extension, has also become a symbol for cycling advocates who have been lobbying the city for safer cycling routes.

Cyclist Jenna Morrison was killed in November 2011 at the spot where the path currently reaches its southern terminus. The 38-year-old mother died beneath the wheels of a truck as it turned onto Dundas Street West.

Flowers, a tribute to Morrison, are often left beneath the Railpath route map at Dundas Street West and Sterling Avenue, mere metres from where Morrison died.

Dobson said having the path completed is well worth waiting out the long planning process.

"The first part took over 10 years and we're hoping it's not going to take that long for stage two," he said. 

"It wasn't until after [stage one] opened that people went, 'Hey, we like it and we want more.'"