Should Ontario cyclists be allowed to cross on walk signals? Advocates speak out amid fines

Cyclists are speaking out after being hit with hundreds of dollars in fines for riding through a busy Toronto intersection on pedestrian signals, saying being allowed to cross with those walking is a matter of road safety.

Toronto cycling advocates say rules should be changed to follow Quebec

Cyclists cross early at Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto July 18, 2023
A cyclist crosses early at the Yonge and Dundas intersection on July 18, 2023. It's a move some cyclists say should be legal like it is in Quebec. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)

Cyclists are speaking out after some were hit with hundreds of dollars in fines for riding through a busy Toronto intersection on pedestrian signals, saying being allowed to cross with those walking is a matter of road safety. 

This week, Toronto police were at the Yonge and Dundas intersection issuing tickets — as high as $325, according to Dave Shellnutt, a lawyer for cyclists — to cyclists who proceeded through the intersection on the walk signal. In Ontario, the law requires cyclists to wait for the conventional traffic lights, but at least one province changed that rule in 2019 after a spate of cyclists deaths in motor vehicle collisions.

Now, following in line with Quebec, some cyclists are calling for a similar change in Ontario after 36 collisions involving cyclists last year in Toronto, with the majority resulting in major injuries and three in deaths. 

Despite knowing this province's rules, Toronto cycling advocate Alison Stewart says she regularly crosses early with the pedestrian signals.

"It's much safer. It keeps me in front of car traffic, and gives me the chance to be seen as I cross," said Stewart, director of advocacy and public policy for Cycle Toronto.

Advocates want cyclists to cross first

"When I do so, I am always very cognizant of looking around to see if there are police on hand, just to make sure that I am not at risk of being targeted," she said.

Cycle Toronto is not advocating for cyclists to break existing laws, she says, but would like to see police use their resources differently and not target people for trying to protect themselves. 

The organization wants to see improvements to the province's Highway Traffic Act that to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety, she says.

Stewart says the city has made great strides to improve safety for cycling and should continue to add special signals for cyclists and take other steps to allow cyclists to cross first until a wider sweeping change comes from the province. 

Lawyer wants a universal change

But Dave Shellnutt, managing partner at the Biking Lawyer LLP, says piecemeal solutions from the city aren't the answer.

"All these variations are confusing and costly," he said. 

David Shellnutt
David Shellnutt, a lawyer and cycling advocate based in Toronto, says cyclists are vulnerable road users and should be treated that way when it comes to crossing intersections. (Robin Pueyo)

He says many of the cases he sees as a lawyer for cyclists involve collisions at intersections. Early visibility by allowing cyclists to cross with pedestrians is the clear solution, he says.

"Giving vulnerable road users an advantage at those intersections to sort of ward off sometimes imminent harm is an important thing," he said.

He says police should refrain from what he viewed as "a blitz" against cyclists and believes the public should be informed cyclists crossing with pedestrians is appropriate.

Police say 'not a blitz'

Toronto police deny the characterization of their actions by Shellnut and other cyclists as a "blitz."

"52 Community Response was not on a "blitz", but were responding to calls from the public and local businesses," said Toronto Police spokesperson Victor Kwong.

He says police were receiving complaints about cyclists, including those on delivery, riding through the crowds of pedestrians who use the Yonge and Dundas scramble intersection, in which pedestrians can cross in all directions. 

He says officers spent months educating and warning cyclists instead of ticketing. 

Toronto Police did not confirm the number of tickets issued or the amount on those tickets.

Province won't say if it'll consider changes

Changes to Ontario's Highway Traffic Act are up to the province.

The province's Ministry of Transportation wouldn't say if it would consider following Quebec's lead by making a similar change to the act.

However, a ministry spokesperson, Tanya Blazina, told CBC News in a statement, "As part of MTO's commitment to improve road safety and compliance, we regularly review our policies and practices to see if they are in keeping with current research findings and best practices worldwide."

Scott Butler, the executive director of Good Roads, a municipal association that advocates for safe roads in Ontario, says studies from other jurisdictions including Australia indicate letting cyclists enter the intersections before cars is the right idea.

File photo August 12, 2019.
The advocacy group Good Roads says studies in other jurisdictions indicate letting cyclists enter intersections before cars is better for safety. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"This sort of accommodation does allow for safer outcomes than the traditional approach we've had in place defined in the Highway Traffic Act," he said. 

He says pedestrians have to be given the most accommodation because they are the most vulnerable road users, but as long as cyclists yield to them, the model should work well.

Butler says he's hopeful the province will follow Quebec's lead, saying the Ontario government has already demonstrated an interest in improving road safety by passing legislation aimed at tackling issues like stunt driving and better tracking cyclists being hit by car doors opening.

Meanwhile, as a lawyer seeing too many cases linked to dangerous roads for cyclists, Shellnutt says he wants to see change now.

 "Putting us out of work? Well, you know, anything, anything we can do for that would be great."


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.