10 Questions: Cycling In Toronto
The Canadian city of Toronto doesn’t have a reputation as a bike touring destination. Most cyclists head west to the majestic Rocky Mountains or east to the fishing villages and rolling hills of Quebec.
But Toronto native Allan Stokell – a keen bike tourist and owner of the Tour Cycle bike tour company – says there’s plenty for cyclists to explore in the big city.
In this week’s 10 questions, Allan recommends places to take your bike in and around Toronto, talks about taking your bike on public transport and gives tips from where to eat to how to see Toronto on the cheap – even where you might find a stealth camping place!
1. Toronto brings to mind images of big-city traffic and crowded roads, rather than enjoyable riding. What can you say to change these impressions?
Toronto is North America’s fifth largest city, so you might think that it had many of the issues of most large cities with over-crowding and poor bicycle infrastructure. The city is on the north shore of Lake Ontario and the city as well as the area around it, known as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has a size of 7,000 square kilometres and a population of more than seven million people. Toronto itself is more a collection of neighbourhoods than a metropolis, and as such has much to offer the touring cyclist.
Toronto has several things going for it. There is an active bicycle culture and city council has a City Cycling Advisory Committee to assist council with staying ahead on biking issues. Toronto also has the lake and the Waterfront Trail. This trail runs almost unbroken from the New York State border in the west to the Quebec boundary in the east. It is 740 kilometres of mostly off-road trails running alongside or near the lake. Thanks to the cycling committee and other concerned citizens, Toronto will soon have 500 km of bicycle lanes, 300 km of off-road paths, and 300 km of signed roadways (mostly in the core).
Further, by combining traffic friendly bike routes with bike friendly public transport, a cyclists desire for enjoyable riding within the city is quite doable.
2. Is it possible to get away from the traffic entirely, on a long-distance bike path, for example?
Toronto was named by the Huron First Nations as meaning ‘meeting place’. The tribes would canoe down the Humber and Don rivers to meet at the sandbanks that now form the Toronto Islands. These three areas are still car free so it is possible to cycle along both river banks and the entire Toronto Islands is a car-free paradise where people prove everyday that you can live comfortably in North America without a car. Although, The Waterfront Trail has some off-road exposure around Toronto, the really long traffic-free runs are within an hour or so of downtown by public transport. A two day trip might be to Hamilton, Ontario and then up the Brantford Rail Trail and then to Paris, Ontario. It is possible by using the governments GO Trains on the weekend to take a train ride to Niagara Falls with your bike, tour around the Falls, and return the same day.
3. What are some of your favourite places to bike tour in and around Toronto?
Depending on who I’m with and how much time we have, I have a number of preferred routes. My partner and I live along the lake, just east of downtown in a nieghbourhood known as ‘The Beaches’. The Waterfront Trail is off-road at that portion and there are a number of ways to get downtown with little exposure to arterial roads. Once at the ferry docks, the Toronto Island Ferry takes us to the islands. I suggest going to Hanlan’s Point and heading east to Ward’s Island. Ward’s and Algonquin Islands are where the Island Community live in car-free Nirvana.
A longer run might be up the Don Trail with a stop at historic Todmordon Mills, across the Belt Line to connect with the Humber River Trail, then south to the Martin Goodman Trail and home. Either one could take most of the day with a few stops, the latter is much more athletic than the Islands tour.
The City of Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee has an excellent bike map that can be downloaded.
4. Is it possible to rent bikes, or do you have to bring your own?
I always recommend that my clients bring their own bikes when possible. If coming by car, this is easy and affordable. Usually only airlines make a charge for carrying bikes. Having your own bike means that it fits you properly, you are used to its gear ratios and stopping times and the saddle is worn-in. Those travelling on a budget will also appreciate that bike rentals can be in excess of $50 a day, so bike holidays are much cheaper when you bring your bike.
If it is not possible to bring your bike, then there are a number of bike shops in Toronto that will rent you one. Some rent from their ‘used’ stock and others have dedicated rental bikes. My favourite is Curbside. The staff is warm and helpful and they rent an excellent Dutch-made city bike. Those only wishing to bike on the Islands can find a bike rental place on Centre Island which also rents pedal cars that can take four or more people.
5. Can you easily take your bike on Toronto’s public transport system?
The Toronto Transit Commission operates buses, subways, Light Rail Transit (LRT) and streetcars in Toronto. Today the majority of bus routes have buses with front bike racks that will take a maximum of two bikes at any time. Bikes are banned from the subways and LRT for morning and evening rush hours, but are fine at other times (bring a bungee cord to fasten the bike to a pole). Not every subway station has an elevator, so you may have to lug your bike up or down several flights of stairs. Streetcar operators have the right to refuse patrons with bikes if the streetcar is crowded. They are also 2 large steps up, so they are not comfortable to get bikes on or off.
Toronto Island ferries will take bikes on the Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point ferries, but sometimes ban them from Centre Island ferries because of crowding.
The Government of Ontario operate a bus and train commuter system which runs from Toronto to many points in the GTA. Most GO buses have front bike racks similar to the TTC. Each coach of a GO train can carry 4 bikes (2 at each door) except for the accessible coach. Bicycles are banned from the trains during rush hours when trains are heading into, but not away from the city. There are never additional charges to bring your bike on transit.
6. What about actually getting into the city by bike? Can you ride in, from the airport, for example?
Toronto has two international airports. The largest one by far is Lester B. Pearson International Airport in neighbouring Mississauga, Ontario. Riding into Toronto from Pearson airport is possible and I have done it several times. My preferred way of getting to and from the airport is by taking the subway ($2.75 cash fare from anywhere in Toronto) to the Kipling Station and the express bus to the airport. The TTC stop is at Terminal 3 (Arrivals Level) and Terminal 1 (Ground Level). Service operates from approximately 5:30 am to 2:00 am, seven days a week. Toronto City Centre Airport is already downtown and the Waterfront Trail is about 100 metres from the airport following Bathurst Street north.
7. How much do I need to worry about my bike getting stolen? Do I need the heaviest, strongest lock I can find?
Toronto has a reputation for being very safe. In fact even with our large population, our violent crime rate is much lower than other Canadian and American cities. That being said, sneak thievery and other non-violent crimes are about the same as most places. Never leave your bike unlocked, not even for a couple of seconds. Lock up your bike in an area with lots of shops or pedestrian traffic. The City of Toronto provides ‘Post and Rings’ just about everywhere. Check to make sure the post is solidly anchored to the sidewalk. If you have quick release wheels, use two locks or take off the front wheel and lock them all together. Never leave your bike outside overnight.
8. What do bike tourists need to budget if they’re coming through Toronto, on a low to medium budget, for example (campground or hostel, modest meals).
Many readers may already know that when I travel I enjoy following a budget very closely. Toronto need not be an expensive city. There is inexpensive accommodation downtown in several hostels and small hotels. Great Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) abound as do 4-star hotels. Camping can be a bit problematic as there are only 2 legal campsites in Toronto and both are in the suburbs, a long ride to downtown. Toronto is often called ‘a city within a park’. and the city department is called Parks, Forests and Recreation. Many of these parks are more like nature reserves as the city eschews pesticides and herbicides, allowing many of the urban parks to regenerate naturally. Camping in one of the many parks in Toronto is frowned upon but it is possible to stealth camp if you strictly follow stealth camping rules.
I really like the idea of eating a 100-mile diet when travelling. Prepared food in Toronto’s ethnic neighbourhoods tends to be very cheap. Downtown try Chinatown at Dundas and Spadina or Broadview and Gerrard. Further east go to Coxwell and Gerrard for Indian and Pakistani food. Toronto is called a world within a city, so if you are tempted you can get just about any style of food you wish. $2 banh-mi’s from Little Vietnam or $4 chicken buryani from the Indian Bazaar. Those wishing to prepare their own food will enjoy St Lawrence and Kensington markets where there is a lot of fresh and cheap meat and produce.
9. If people want to extend their tour outside the city, what are some nice places a little further away from Toronto to consider?
When I tour internationally on my bicycle, people ask me where I’m from and when I say “Toronto” may people reply “I’ve been to Toronto, it’s really near Niagara Falls.” Without a doubt The Falls are the most popular destination for international tourists. It is possible to do day trips to Niagara from Toronto including self-directed tours. Both Niagara Falls and the tony Niagara-on-the-Lake areas are expensive and fraught with tourist traps. When I take clients to Niagara, we stay at Niagara-on-the-Lake. We use a yet to be discovered motel down by the lake. The owner’s know that the entire Niagara region is full of five stars and offer a clean and efficient 2 star at a reasonable price.
Each year there is an organized tour of the Waterfront Trail. Hundreds of cyclist ride the length of the trail from Niagara to the Quebec boundary. Not far from Niagara is the Erie Canal. Canal Tow paths offer a comfortable off-road tour from near Buffalo to beyond Rochester, New York. Nearby Toronto are several rail trails so there really is a great variety of things to do.
10. What’s one thing you advise everyone to bring with them for bike touring in Toronto?
Their bike! In reality, you can rent a bike. I suggest bringing an open and enquiring mind. Toronto is more than just another North American city. It truly is the centre of the universe. I’d suggest planning at least a week for Toronto and the surrounding area. Toronto has enough museums and galleries to keep a culture hawk happy, great food for the gourmand, and sporting activities for those who need to get outdoors.
Add to that the incredible diversity of Torontonians and their acceptance of so many cultural groups makes Toronto a vast cultural mosaic of sights, sounds and tastes. You just have to get here!
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling around Toronto:
- Bike Routes From Toronto – This site has route information for cycling from Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa.