As bike shops report booming sales, advocates push for a post-pandemic future on 2 wheels

With fewer cars on the road and a new reluctance to brave heavy crowding on transit, advocates are hoping the pandemic marks a new beginning for cycling in the city.

Busy bike shops, new city programs could herald a new era for Toronto cyclists

Intrepid early-morning cyclists and joggers take advantage of a closed portion of Lake Shore Boulevard on Saturday morning. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Normally, bike shop owner Sean Killen's seasonal stock lasts him until July. 

This year, it's different. His shop, Bikes on Wheels in Kensington Market, is already selling out. 

"The demand for bikes under $1,000 is crazy this year," Killen told CBC Toronto. "It's definitely up, especially in the hybrids … and kids' bikes." 

As the weather warms up and the pandemic wears on, bike shops around the city are joining their counterparts everywhere from New York City to Vancouver in reporting booming sales. 

"Definitely, the spike right now is something we have not experienced before," said Jabir Hassanali, co-owner of Giant Toronto, a bike shop on Queen Street West near Bathurst Street.

"I think there's been a huge influx in the amount of riders on the road," said Lori-Ann D'ornellas, of Scarborough's D'ornellas Bike Shop. "More kids on bikes, more families on bikes." 

Bike shops, declared an essential service by the Ontario government, have instituted restrictions in their stores to keep staff and customers safe. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

The interest in cycling is coming as other forms of transportation falter — and bicycle advocates are hopeful they can keep the momentum going, even after the number of people commuting starts creeping back up. 

"We want to make sure what we're seeing now isn't just a short-term reaction," said Michael Longfield, interim executive director of Cycle Toronto. 

Instead, he's hoping this moment will become "the beginning of Toronto embracing cycling and cycling culture." 

Push to expand cycle network 

Longfield sees reason for hope in the arrival of the city's ActiveTO plan, which is meant to free up more space for pedestrians and cyclists to move safely through the city without getting too close. 

The plan created 57 km of "quiet streets," which allow local traffic only. It also includes the temporary shutdown of more major arteries on weekends, including on Lake Shore Boulevard West this past long weekend. 

"It did seem to attract a lot of people, a lot of families, a lot of kids," said Longfield. "I think it meant a lot to a lot of people." 

His organization is now hoping to see the city move quickly on the third element of ActiveTO: more bike lanes, both permanent and temporary. 

Toronto's city leadership seems to be at least partly on board. 

Speaking last week, Toronto Mayor John Tory called cycling a "safety valve" for the TTC, which continues to implement measures to keep riders spread far apart and is seeing 86 per cent fewer Presto taps compared to before the pandemic.   

"We need to expand and accelerate safe distancing on sidewalks and with new bike lanes," Coun. Joe Cressy told CBC Toronto. "That's important because this virus isn't going away." 

A spokesperson for the city says staff are working on a program to accelerate projects in the council-approved cycling network plan, which aims to add 120 kilometres of new bike lanes over three years

Not everyone is on board with ActiveTO — or the possibility that any of its initiatives could become permanent. 

Over the weekend, the closure on Lake Shore Boulevard led to a traffic jam, and some took to social media to complain.

Coun. Stephen Holyday, who represents an Etobicoke ward and is a frequent critic of efforts to expand the city's bike-lane network, is also warning against anyone "seizing on COVID-19 as an opportunity to further the agenda, which is to create more cycling infrastructure.

"As more and more people go back to work and choose to drive their vehicle instead of taking the public transit system, we may see extremely acute congestion during rush hour," he said. "The addition of infrastructure that creates bottlenecks might cause a worse situation to occur."

Still, popular opinion seems tilted in favour of new lanes, with a 2018 poll finding that 80 per cent of Toronto residents support building protected bike lanes — including more than 70 per cent of residents in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York. 

A rosy future for e-bikes? 

In December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic began and shortly before Ontario launched its five-year e-scooter pilot project, market research firm Deloitte said it expected global sales of 130 million e-bikes between now and 2023.

Now, despite COVID-19 — or perhaps for some, because of the pandemic — some Canadian e-bike shops say their sales are ticking up. 

"I spoke to a lot of dealers and they say April has been a record month for them," said Michael Pasquale, a co-founder of the Canadian Electric Bike Association and the owner of Electric Avenue E-bikes in Hamilton, Ont. 

Elektrek, a site that tracks the transition to electric transportation, shared similar findings at the beginning of the month, with some companies in Europe and the U.S. reporting increasing sales during the pandemic.

E-bikes, allowed to travel at a maximum of 32 km/h in Toronto, are able to share the city's bike lanes. (Markus Mainka/Shutterstock)

Vassili Kokkinias, who owns Green Choice Moto in Toronto, hasn't seen such a dramatic rise, but chalks up his slight increase in sales both to people avoiding the subway and people working for food delivery apps like Uber Eats. 

In Toronto, e-bikes are allowed to ride in bike lanes (though they have to follow specific rules, including speed limits) and advocates like Longfield see an important role for them in the city's possible two-wheeled future.

"E-bikes fit in well into active transportation networks, and definitely co-exist with human-powered bicycles," he said.