Community cycling hubs get things rolling for biking advocates in Scarborough

A new report suggests pent up demand for cycling infrastructure in Scarborough, despite the widespread belief in the suburbs that the car is king. A City cycling plan identifies 'sidewalk-level boulevard trails' as a way of creating separated multi-use paths without impacting automobile traffic.

It's hoped encouraging 2-wheeled travel in the suburbs will lead to more cycling infrastructure

Marvin Macaraig, coordinator of the Scarborough Cycles program, helps Logan Ketchum do some basic bike maintenance at the Lawrence-Orton Bike Hub in Scarborough. (Marvin Macaraig/supplied)

Bike lanes may be a political hot potato in this city, but a new report suggests cycling infrastructure in Scarborough could be added without outraging drivers and that there is grassroots support for two-wheeled travel — challenging the idea that cars will always rule the 'burbs.

Scarborough neighbourhoods range from 1950's post-war bungalows to the sprawling subdivisions built in the 70's and riddled with cul-de-sacs. Both led to road designs that favour the automobile.

But a report released by The Centre for Active Transportation at Clean Air Partnership called Building Bike Culture Beyond Downtown suggests that today not all Scarborough residents drive to where they need to go.

'This idea that everybody drives'

"There's this idea that everybody drives and that everybody has a car. And we found that that's really clearly not the case," said Nancy Smith Lea, Director of the Centre for Active Transportation. The report also found there were many households that didn't have a motor vehicle at all.

Nancy Smith Lea, Director of the Centre for Active Transportation says cycling hubs help build a culture of cycling which is necessary when advocating for infrastructure. (CBC)

The report indicates that while Scarborough has low public transit service levels compared to downtown Toronto, 32 per cent of residents rely on it as their main mode of transportation.

Smith Lea says cycling should be a low-cost option for many people without cars, but the lack of infrastructure, knowledge of such skills as bicycle maintenance or motivation may be holding them back.

Marvin Macaraig, coordinator of the Scarborough Cycles program, would like to see that change.

"Most [residents] get it. They get that cycling is healthy --  they get it that they want to reduce their carbon footprint. They don't want to be stuck in traffic. Or they've been burned by transit many times. Now it's our job get them everything that they need," says Macaraig.

Over the past few years, he's run community cycling hubs to encouraging new cyclists to get on the road. They offer a way to connect with the cycling community, repair bikes and get advice.

Macaraig and Scarborough Cycles offer people who'd like to begin biking a supportive network to learn the necessary skills and workshops to refine them. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Macaraig says in all of Scarborough there is only one bike repair place and such places are often a source for advocates of biking culture.

"Our community hubs are a place where local residents can learn about bike culture. It's a safe place where they can come and fix your bike for free. They can learn hands on skills. It's about community building," said Macaraig.

Need for community demand

Smith Lea says the hubs help build a culture of cycling which is necessary when advocating for cycling infrastructure.

"Without the kind of community demand for that infrastructure, it's really difficult to get the decision makers to support it or to even propose it." she said. "Especially in the suburban environment where there are streets that are so wide, traffic is fast and really quite dangerous -- there needs to be separated facilities for people on bike."

But in a suburb with a car-centric culture and where few people cycle, those infrastructure projects can face political opposition and there are recent cases where they've been removed.

In 2008, painted bike lanes were installed on Pharmacy Ave. between Danforth and Eglinton Ave. reducing car traffic by one lane. Critics said they were not being used enough, and the bike lanes there and on Birchmount Ave. were removed three years later.

The state of cycling infrastructure in Scarborough as shown by the city's Cycling Network Map. (City of Toronto/supplied)

Macaraig says there's a way to build cycling infrastructure that's cheaper and doesn't require any road reconfiguration and, unlike downtown, it won't mean one less lane for cars.

"In the suburbs along major arterial roads like Finch, Midland and Sheppard you see there's four lanes and then right next to it a big patch of grass, then a sidewalk and a backyard fence," says Macaraig. "That presents a huge opportunity to accommodate separated bike lanes with very little impact on the current roadway."

'Build a culture to support it'

The city calls them "sidewalk-level boulevard trails" and these mixed use paths could unlock a huge cycling potential in the suburbs, he says.

Damion Ketchum seen at a drop-in session at Lawrence-Orton Bicycle Repair Hub, a joint initiative between the City of Toronto, Toronto Community Housing, and Access Alliance's Scarborough Cycles. (Marvin Macaraig/supplied)

Use of cycling infrastructure is popular downtown. When bike lanes were installed on Richmond and Adelaide streets in 2014, usage jumped from about 730 people each day to 7,509 a day in 2018.

The problem says Macaraig is the city's hasn't identified the suburbs as priorities in its 10-year cycle plan. Passed in 2016, the $153.4 million commitment aimed at doubling the cycling network by adding 560 kilometres of bike lanes and cycle tracks, which are separated from cars.

Also part of the plan, 110 km of sidewalk-level boulevard trails, which Macaraig proposes for Scarborough. But so far, Macaraig says, the city has only built a small fraction of the cycling infrastructure promised.

"All we can do is build a culture to support it and raise the voice that the community needs. So that infrastructure to get around safely does get built," he says.


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.