Guest blog series by Alix Aylen
City infrastructure can make it difficult for people to enter and exit a city's boundaries, but that difficulty increases ten-fold when you attempt to navigate those boundaries by bike.
Alix, a Torontonian and fellow dandy, has made an epic trip from Canada to Mexico -- by bike. Follow her on her journey as she explores each city's gateways, and offers her own insight as a cyclist trying to get from one city to the next via cycling infrastructure.
Exiting Toronto by bike: The Western Waterfront Route
I have a somewhat-well-explored theory that you can test a city’s bike friendliness and dedication to cyclists by testing how comfortable it is to enter and exit the city by bike. Do you even notice that you're entering or exiting the city's perimeters? Do you feel like you’re participating in an extreme sport when you first approach a new metropolis? Is it even possible to exit by bike? These questions and other thoughts are inspired by my two year study (read: bike tour) of entering and exiting every town and city between Vancouver, Canada and Veracruz, Mexico. In this series I will explore exit routes from Toronto by bicycle, as well as those of each major city between Vancouver and Veracruz.
Today: The first installment for dandyhorse readers. Exiting Toronto.
Toronto is my hometown. It is a city filled with parks and many patches of deep ravine urban wilderness that you can get lost in, all within a short walk from public transit. Although the city’s bike lanes are not very well connected, it is relatively easy to commute by bicycle within the city’s boundaries downtown due to its flatness. The city sprawls out from the lake to York University with an elevation change of merely 246 - 686 ft. The most arduous of this being the old shoreline around St. Clair Avenue. Other than the lake to the south, there are no natural topographical features that should intimidate anyone who feels comfortable on a bike for extended periods of time. The real challenge to exiting Toronto, is one of cycling infrastructure and how connected cycling routes are between the city’s wards, the suburbs and communities outside of the city.
This year I’ve decided to leave Toronto by bike in as many directions as I can, not only to explore and understand the larger context in which Toronto is based, but also to ease my exit anxiety when I feel overwhelmed by the urban landscape. I refuse to be restricted to short, limited, seasonal and expensive options as the only means of exiting the city without a car. My curiosity is not seasonal and I’m stubborn enough to not want to give up the independence and financial freedom that my bike gives me, just to get beyond the city limits.
I started with a popular westward route, along the Waterfront Trail on a sunny, brisk Saturday in March. The route is fairly intuitive and runs parallel to the GO train line, making for a quick and easy escape should you decide to turn back at any point. I consulted two main resources to guide me on my way out of the city. The first was a detailed map of the Waterfront Trail route which I printed from the Waterfront Trail organization’s website and followed completely. This map is extremely helpful as it covers each section of the guided Waterfront Trail route, listing available resources in each section along the way. The second resource was a book that has become one of my favourites: A Place to Walk: A Naturalist’s Journal of the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail, by Aleta Karstad. This book provides a detailed naturalist’s account of the author and their partner’s trip along the Waterfront Trail, travelling by bicycle and canoe on publicly accessible lands only.
I started up at Yonge and Eglinton, meandering south using a combination of residential streets (Lascelles Ave.), existing bike lanes (Russell Hill Rd., St. George, Harbord, Shaw) and a few park paths. The true western waterfront exit from the city (from the cyclist’s perspective), is at Coronation Park. This is the entrance to the trail that will direct you out of the city running parallel to the Gardiner, but way more pleasant.
It takes a while to feel like you’ve actually “exited” the city as you can hear the buzz of the highway for much of the route. I made note, however, that Mimico was the point at which I no longer felt like I was in urban Toronto. The sounds of nature seemed to overpower those of the urban landscape at this point. But this isn’t outside of the city limits just yet. The cycling and pedestrian traveller’s border between Toronto and Mississauga is a little further and looks like this (in March):
Cycling signage on the Waterfront Trail is vintage, varying, and often easy to miss. The official Waterfront Trail signage is somewhat consistent, however sometimes it is so faded and small that it just gets lost in the landscape. The route is a bit of an emotional roller coaster at times as you’re often led off of a recreational path, onto a residential or main street for a tiny stretch before being reunited with the next stretch of path. This is what makes it more of a “route” than a “trail”.
Signage issues aside, I found the route to be generally easy to follow and very pleasant. When trying to think of a theme for the ride, I found myself thinking of it as the “tour de picnic spots” as there are a variety of lakeside parks and shaded spots to choose from. I’m accepting of the short sections that take you onto busy main streets and into heavy car traffic, but hope that one day the connectivity of the trails will be improved to make it more of a true cycling corridor.
There are, however, two sections of the route that I found disappointing. In Oakville, you are led onto a stretch of dirt path and sidewalk running parallel to the road. Luckily there aren’t too many pedestrians in this area, but the only people that this section seems to accommodate are those in motorized vehicles. I just felt wrong, awkward and somewhat forgotten by this section of the route and was constantly looking up for confirmation that yes, indeed, this is what the route was telling me to do.
The other, being a gorgeous patch of naturalized space, along a beautifully constructed wooden bridge overlooking an area that has been beautifully protected from development. You are led here only to look up and see this utterly confusing signage:
Should I be here? I checked my Waterfront Trail map again to confirm, and yes indeed, I was still on the correct route. I was torn between my appreciation for being led into a relatively wild area that I had not visited before, and my frustration over the sudden condemnation of my mode of transportation. This was a good reminder though that the Waterfront Trail is a multi-use, shared recreational trail, which “welcomes all types of non-motorized recreation including runners, cyclists, walkers, wheelchairs, strollers and roller bladers”, so I shouldn’t necessarily feel so entitled. But, when reviewing it as a cycling corridor, it’s definitely a bummer to see a sign with a bike with a red circle and line over it.
Exiting the city westward using the Waterfront route was simple enough, but a little awkward in terms of connectivity of trials, residential routes and weaving through the main streets of Oakville and Burlington. I rode all the way to Hamilton and it took me the entire day (10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to do so at a very leisurely pace, making a few stops along the way for food and to take in the view of the lake. I decided to stay at a Motel in Hamilton since I was so darned tired, and took the GO train back the next morning.
Overall, I found the route to be very pleasant. It’s not the route that you take to get lost in unkempt wilderness, rather, a great way to explore the natural environment that is capable of surviving in the slight patches of undeveloped landscape wedged in between the waterfront municipalities of the GTHA. It’s the best reminder that Toronto is indeed a lakefront city. As a cycling corridor, it is still more of a very well thought out, guided route using existing road and recreational infrastructure than that of a corridor designed to facilitate efficient longdistance cycling. But it IS a work in progress and an excellent asset for the GTHA’s recreational and commuter cycling community. For my next trip I’m going to head northwest in search of a spot to camp just outside of the city.
Alix lives on her bicycle, whether on a long distance tour, or while navigating the city in her everyday life. She sees her bicycle as her home, transportation and tool for exploration of new sources of inspiration in all of her creative endeavors.
This is a guest blogger series about exiting (and entering) cities by bike.
Related on the dandyBLOG:
A new Torontonians first bike ride (The first blog from our series from last spring about a new city cyclist's adventures)
End of the Road for Ride for a Dream (The last blog from our series about the Ride for a Dream bike charity tour.)