dandyARCHIVE: A Cyclical History: Through the ages of Toronto’s bike history – updated

Mayor John Sewell about town. Photo courtesy of John Sewell.

A Cyclical History: Through the ages of Toronto’s bike history

Original text and updates by Steve Brearton

~ This article first appeared in dandyhorse’s Issue No 1, Summer 2008 ~


In Toronto’s earliest recorded bicycle accident, a bike hits a pedestrian with such force the victim fainted and ‘had to go to bed at once.’


Reports of ‘hackmen’ who ‘delight in driving bicyclists onto the rough parts of the road.


Two members of the Toronto Bicycle Club share the fastest time for the Belleville to Toronto run by completing the 117-mile route in just less than 14 hours – better than 8 mph.


Eli Franklin Irwin becomes Toronto’s first known bicycle commuter riding his high wheeler on a periodic three hour trip between the U of T medical school and his
home in Newmarket.


Tem Lawlor, of the Wanderers’ Bicycle Club, is reported to be the first Torontonian to ride a modern safety bicycle. Lawlor, is nick-named “the hearse” for assisting “capsized high wheelers” on club runs.


With suitable road surfaces a concern for the “thronging wheelmen and wheelwomen,” cyclists favour using the ‘Devil Strip’– the paved space between sets of streetcar track.


Despite its popularity, cycling is perceived as dangerous: Grace Hospital is rumoured to be “full” of women cyclists suffering spinal damage.


The city outlaws ‘scorching.’ “Will it be possible for pedestrians to cross the street at all,” the Globe asks, “Without taking out an accident policy beforehand?”


Bicycle theft is a major concern and organized gangs are said to be stealing bikes, disassembling them and shipping them to U.S. cities for re-sale.


Toronto passes comprehensive regulations for bicyclists – children are barred from double-riding and cyclists must keep hands and feet upon the handlebars and peddles.


The wooden bicycle track is torn up at Hanlan’s Point. “Unless a firstclass burlesque show together with other attractions are added,” writes one commentator. “I do not suppose that 200 people could be induced to witness a race meet.”


Toronto cyclist Bill Morton, along with W.E. Andrews, W. Anderson and Fred McCarthy, wins bronze at the London Olympics in the 4,000 m team pursuit.


“The bicycle is rapidly becoming a big factor [of ] daily life. The bicycle is serving the school boy, the school girl, the office man, the worker [and] the salesman.” From the Globe and Mail.

1920 to 1935

During this inter-war period, Canadian manufacturers enjoy record sales and produce over 330,000 bicycles. CCM notes increasing numbers of women riders and says the bicycle as a “dignified and effective means of ‘reducing’ is fast becoming the vogue.”


Toronto’s Willie Spencer wins the first of his world indoor cycling titles in Paris. He would repeat the feat 1923 and 1925.


Bob McLeod, a Canadian National Telegraph messenger from Toronto, wins the 10-mile race at the 1934 British Empire Game and upon returning is carried up Bay Street in a flag draped chair by a mass of messengers.


With an estimated 50,000 cyclists in Toronto, safety becomes a concern. During a four-month period 163 cyclists are injured in collisions with motor vehicles.


Nearly half of the average 2,184 bicycles stolen annually in the city are never recovered.


“The many cyclists crowded off the pavement by motor traffic, blithely tear along the sidewalks, frightening and occasionally bumping pedestrians.” From the Globe and Mail.


European immigration to Toronto causes a resurgence in bike racing and clubs request a wooden track to be built at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. City officials turn down the request.


Newly elected councillor John Sewell is called ‘undignified’ and ‘disrespectful’ when he rides to City Hall on a bicycle. “You were all alone riding then,” remembers Sewell.


“Five or six years ago, the only adults you saw riding bicycles were – well oddballs. Now everybody’s doing it – housewives, doctors, lawyers, brokers.” Toronto bicycle dealer.


Metro Toronto proposes 700 km of bicycle trails and a ban of cyclists on arterial roads in the city. The plan marks the beginning of bicycle routes in the Don Valley and Humber Valley Park system.


60% of urban bicycle trips are utilitarian and occur primarily on the same major roads and at the same times as heavy auto traffic – resulting in a dramatic rise in bicycle accidents.


City hires first Bicycle Planner. Ray Bremner, the public works commissioner, says “I don’t think putting bikeways down busy city streets is a good thing.”


Carlsberg Light Grand Prix of Racing held at Queen’s Park. Steve Bauer of Fenwick, Ontario, wins.


The Toronto Star heralds the arrival of mountain bikes to the city by suggesting they will “glide over manhole covers, broken glass and ruts.”


A survey finds that Toronto’s 350,000 cyclists account for one in five Metro residents and one in three vehicles on the roads. 100,000 people now use their bicycles to shop, travel to work or school.


Some 600 bike couriers from 13 countries converge on Toronto for the Cycle Messenger World Championships. Germany’s Lars Urban wins and more than 100 couriers ride naked through city streets.


A member of the Toronto Field Naturalists society says that next to developers, mountain bikes are the worst threat Toronto’s natural spaces have ever faced.


A coroner’s review of 38 cycling deaths in Toronto over 11 years recommends more bicycle paths and changing the Highway Traffic Act to give cyclists precedence over other drivers.


City of Toronto adopts a plan to creating 1,000 kilometres of new bike routes, double the number of trips taken by bicycle and reduce the number of accidents in the city.


Take the Tooker, an initiative to promote a continuous bicycle lanes on Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue is launched. The movement is named after environmentalist, and cycling advocate Tooker Gomberg, who died in 2004.


Toronto Cyclists’ Union launches to provide a voice for city bicyclists. By Spring 2012, the Bike Union surpasses 2,000 members.


BIXI bike sharing program launches in Toronto, making available 1000 bicycles at 80 downtown locations. Between 2001 and 2006, Community Bicycle Network ran a similar program called BikeShare.


Bending to the wishes of Mayor Rob Ford and supporters, council votes to remove Jarvis bike lanes. Following myriad delays, City crews remove the lane markers in November 2012 at an estimated cost of between $280,000 and $300,000.


City unveils a new separated bicycle lane on Sherbourne Street – the first of its type in the city.


The City green lights an environmental impact study on a separated bicycle lanes for Richmond and Adelaide streets. Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong predicts lanes will be installed by 2014.

Steve Brearton is a Toronto writer, researcher and cycling advocate who curated From Scorchers to Alley Cat Scrambles: The Amazing History of the Bicycle in Toronto at the Market Gallery in 2006. When he’s not riding, he’s walking.

~ This article first appeared in dandyhorse’s Issue No 1, Summer 2008 ~

Related on the dandyBLOG:

dandyARCHIVE: The Long Road To A Bike Path -- The Modern History of Bicycle Advocacy in Toronto

Winter Bike Spotting Duo: Steve Brearton and Liz Kingstone and family

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One response to “dandyARCHIVE: A Cyclical History: Through the ages of Toronto’s bike history – updated”

  1. barry says:

    I am surprised you don’t mention The Royal Canadian Bicycle Club
    Both Walt Andrews and Will Anderson were members of this the greatest cycle racing club during the most avid cycling era 1891 to 1903

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