Thinking About Family Biking in North York

Photo: Aaron Orkin and his kids ride their Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E family sport trike with electric assist in The Annex

By Derek Rayside

Toronto City Council has been debating a proposal to put bike lanes on the Yonge Street corridor in North York. Those against the proposal seem to argue that people in North York do not ride bikes for transportation, and that building bike lanes is not enough to change that: North York’s density is too low; the distances are too far; bikes will never be practical there. It’s true that some locals need to travel to places outside of North York, and cars might make sense for some of those trips. But what about local transportation within North York? Let’s take a look at what family life was like in North York back in the 1980s, and see what has changed and what remains the same.

Hillcrest Village in the 1980s

I grew up in North York during the 1980s. In Hillcrest Village, somewhere in between  Cresthaven Elementary School, Zion Heights Middle School, and A.Y. Jackson Secondary School. This is the north-east corner of North York: Markham is to the north (across Steeles), and Scarborough is to the east (across the DVP). I’ve gone back to the old neighbourhood in recent years and, unlike Yonge Street in North York, not much has changed: our old bungalow is still there; the local strip mall still has Mac’s Milk, Baskin Robbins, and the Pickle Barrel. The ownership of the local grocery store has changed. I notice Cresthaven got a new playground.

Google Map of Hillcrest Village, North York

Yonge Street in North York, by contrast, has seen incredible intensification over the last thirty years. The residential density along the Yonge corridor is higher than downtown. One might argue from the standpoint of density that bikes as a mode of local transportation could work on Yonge Street in North York. Especially for working-age adults.

But what about families in Hillcrest Village? Could my parents have used bicycles for transportation? We lived there for the decade from 1977 to 1987, during which time my parents went from having one baby to having four children aged 5 to 12. We all walked to school at Cresthaven. Our father took the GO train to work downtown. We used the car primarily for family activity: groceries, hockey, swimming, Science Centre trips, visiting cousins, etc. Typical middle-class suburban life. It was good. I hope to offer my children similar experiences.

So how far did we go for our family activities? Let’s ask Google Maps:

Destination Distance
Local School (Cresthaven) 400 m
Local Hockey Rink (Cummer Park) 650 m
Local Public Library (Hillcrest) 700 m
Local Grocery Store (now Galati Fresh Market) 900 m
Further Strip Mall (Peanut Plaza) 2.6 km
Swimming Lessons (Van Horne Park) 3.8 km
Canadian Tire (Sheppard Ave East) 5.6 km
Cousins in Don Mills 9 km
Science Centre 13 km

Yes, we drove six hundred and fifty metres to the local hockey rink. Google Maps estimates it to be an 8 minute walk or a 3 minute bike ride. By modern standards this is an inefficient use of resources: money, energy, and space. A good way to reduce road congestion is to use a more space-efficient form of transportation for short local trips. That frees up the road for those who need to make longer trips by car. But back in the eighties, there weren’t really many options besides cars for transporting children, hockey equipment, and groceries around Hillcrest Village. So we approached transportation in a single-modal way: we drove. The future is multi-modal: use the most efficient form of transportation that accomplishes the task. On different trips use different modes: walking, cycling, transit, or driving.

Photo: Amount of space required to transport 60 people by car, bus, or bicycle. Press-Office, City of Müenster, Germany.

Twenty-First Century Family Bicycle Technology

There have been huge advances in bicycle technology in the last thirty years. It would have been difficult to do family grocery shopping, let alone transporting children and hockey equipment, with the bicycle technology of the 1980s. Modern bicycle technology makes these local family errands easy and invigorating.

The most common, inexpensive, and oldest bicycle technology for transporting children is the trailer. These are now available at almost every bike shop. One of the first was the Burley trailer, invented by Alan Sholz around 1980. His daughters were the first passengers, and they now run Bike Friday in Eugene, Oregon (which makes a great long-tail family bike). We even have a local bike trailer manufacturer: Wike, in Guelph. They also make trailers for pets, for larger children with special needs, for cargo, and even for canoes.

Photo: Hanna and Fraeda Scholz in an early Burley child trailer, 1981. Photo by Alan Sholz

Momentum Magazine, based in Vancouver, has a good guide to family biking. Toronto’s own Curbside Cycle also has a good comparison of some Dutch and Danish family bikes. The two most popular styles of family bikes are box-bikes (bakfiets-style), where the children ride in a box in front of you; and long-tails, where the children ride on an extended rear rack behind you. Box-bikes have been historically more popular in Europe, and long-tails have been more popular in North America, but recent years have seen these lines blur. Wike, in Guelph, makes a great box-bike that transforms into a stroller --- and your child can sleep through the transformation.

Photo: James D. Schwartz’s daughter in their Babboe box-bike on their commute to daycare in King West Village. Photo by James D. Schwartz. 


Photo: Angus MacPherson and his twins love their new Yuba Mundo long-tail. Photo by Urbane Cyclist.


Two less-common styles of family bikes are tadpole tricycles, with a box up front (like the lead picture above), and tandems (such as my family’s bike).

The author and his family at the Coldest Day of the Year Ride on a Onderwater family tandem. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick.

Toronto’s own Yvonne Bambrick authored a best-selling book on urban cycling, and there is a similar book from Seattle’s Madi Carlson.

Modern family biking technology goes beyond young children and now includes solutions for the elderly and those with special needs. Whatever your family situation, there is a bike for you. If you want a little boost getting up hills, any bike can be fitted with an electric assist. Family bike vendors in the GTHA include Curbside Cycle, Urbane Cyclist, and Urkai.

Photo: Cycling Without Age. Photo by Ole Kassow.

The Home Economics of Bicycles

There are now more households in America with three cars than with one car. The Google street view photo of our old bungalow in Hillcrest Village, dated August 2016, shows three cars: one in the garage, and two on the (now widened) driveway. The land area devoted to parking cars at our old house is now almost as much as the land area devoted to living space. That is probably an inefficient use of space, money, and energy. There are probably many families in North York that could replace a second or third car with a modern family bicycle if there were an adequate network of protected bike lanes in North York. How many families? How much could they save?

Let’s look at a comparable example. Washington, D.C., has about the same land area and population as North York: both are around 175 square kilometres, with around 675,000 people. Over the last few years, about 4.5% of the people in Washington, D.C., or about 15,000 people, have switched to cycling for local transportation. That’s not a huge number, nothing like the high cycling numbers one sees in exotic locations like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vancouver, or Montreal. 4.5% is an achievable goal in a north-eastern North American city with relatively modest infrastructure investment.

How much are those fortunate Washingtonians saving on their transportation spending? The annual cost of car ownership in Canada is somewhere between $8,000 and $14,000 per year. So these newly wealthy Washingtonians are, collectively, saving somewhere around $150 million per year, or $1.5 billion per decade. That doesn’t even count the money they saved by not widening the driveway.

The property taxpayers of North York could be saving even larger sums of money if the residents of North York cycled more: bike lanes are cheaper to build and maintain than are car lanes. It is a little known fact that municipal roads are paid for from municipal property taxes, so your contribution to the public thoroughfares is based on the value of your house, not the kind of wheels you roll with. Drivers do not pay for the roads: homeowners do. The damage you cause to the roads, however, is based on the weight of your wheels. It is in your financial interest, as a property taxpayer, for your neighbours to switch from cars to bikes for local trips. It is in your financial interest, as a property taxpayer, for your tax dollars to pay to install bike lanes to support that mode switch.

The provincial taxpayers of Ontario would also benefit if the residents of North York used cycling for local transportation: cycling for transportation reduces healthcare costs. The Toronto Board of Health and the Toronto Medical Officer of Health want the families of North York to cycle around town, for their own good and for the collective good. In a single-payer healthcare system like we have in Ontario, improved public health means more efficient use of provincial taxpayer dollars.

Brent Toderian, former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, reports that for every dollar a family spends on biking, society pays $0.08. By contrast, for every dollar that a family spends on driving, society pays $9.20. Driving for local trips costs both the individual and the taxpayer hundreds of times more than is necessary to accomplish those tasks.

The fiscally conservative position, both for the taxpayer and for the private citizen, is to build bike lanes. I bet that most of the 61% of North Yorkers who support bike lanes do so for other reasons, and aren’t even aware of these financial realities.

What about those cousins in Don Mills?

Maybe Hillcrest Village, out in the hinterlands of North York, is some kind miracle neighbourhood, where everything you need for family life is nearby. Let’s take a look at where my cousins lived in Don Mills. Just about everything you need for family life is around The Shops at Don Mills: groceries, skating, and the public library. My cousins lived about a mile from there as the crow flies --- across the Don river. If you want to drive, there are several circuitous routes that are all about 5km. But there is a path through the valley, with a little bridge across the river, that cuts the distance down to under 2km. That is how we used to walk it back in the eighties. Going down into the valley and climbing back out again are both a bit steep, so you would probably want an electric assist on your family bike for this route --- one of the many twenty-first century innovations in bicycle technology that are available today.

Family Biking Downtown

Nowadays I’m raising my own children downtown, because it is the only location that works for the commutes my partner and I have to make. We use a triple tandem bicycle as our main mode of family transportation. We ride 2.5 km to our local hockey rink twice a week, year round, which is four times farther than my parents had to go back in Hillcrest Village. Our “further strip mall” is the Eaton Centre, which is slightly closer than the Peanut Plaza was for my parents. The public library is twice as far away for us. We live the roughly the same distance to the Science Centre as my parents did. The only things that are closer for us are Canadian Tire and swimming lessons.

Photo: Bringing home a step-ladder home from Canadian Tire at the Eaton Centre. Photo by Derek Rayside.

In downtown Toronto today, there are just barely enough bike lanes, and the cars go slow enough because the congestion is so bad, that I feel comfortable to bike my family around. The arterial roads of North York, where cars go 50+ km per hour, are dangerous for families on bikes. I remember taking a ride down Leslie and across Eglington with my mother when I was ten years old: it did not feel very safe. The roads in North York do not feel any safer to me today than they did last century. A person’s chance of surviving a collision decreases dramatically above 30 km/h. There are established design guidelines for North American roads that can move both cars and bikes quickly and safely.

Toronto has also started providing winter maintenance (i.e., plowing) for bike lanes. Oulu in Finland gets more snow than Winnipeg, and 27% of its residents cycle year-round. As with car lanes, if you plow them, then people can use them safely in winter. My family uses our bike all year: if the weather is too bad for the bike, it is also unsafe to drive in. More than once we have ridden our family bike to some lesson only to discover that the instructor, who was coming by car, couldn’t make it.

Photo: Coming home from a late-night hockey game last winter. Photo by Derek Rayside.

North York Needs Bike Lanes

The TransformTO report, which received unanimous approval from Toronto City Council on July 4th, calls for 75% of trips under 5km to be made by walking or cycling by 2050 as part of our carbon reduction strategy. In other words, we need to become multi-modal: for each trip, use the form of transportation that is most efficient and appropriate.

Reducing our carbon output is good not only for our city and our planet, but also for ourselves. Your children are exposed to more air pollution while sitting in the back seat of your car than they would be if they were on a family bike: your car’s air intake system is just sucking up the exhaust from the tailpipe in front of it. I estimate that my family saves about 250kg of CO2 emissions per year by our switch from driving to cycling for family transportation.

The essentials of family life in North York are within the 5km easy family cycling distance for the majority of residents. Don Mills, as one of the first planned suburbs in Canada, was intentionally designed this way: every area would have a local school, park, church, and grocery store. The design of Don Mills greatly influenced much of the rest of Toronto’s suburbia.

Families are not just about children. As we age, our ability to ride a bicycle (or a tricycle) can last  longer than our ability to drive a car. Ron McCurdy in Etobicoke reports that his uncle kept riding his tricycle until age 95 --- even after he could no longer use a walker. Bike lanes help seniors stay independent and mobile. The CARP reports that one quarter of its members use bikes, and that more would if they had access to protected bike lanes. The AARP supports bike lanes. Would you like your neighbourhood to have mobility options for you once you are too old to drive?

Photo: Ron McCurdy’s uncle continued to ride his trike even after he was too disabled to use a walker. Photo by Ron McCurdy

The difference between living downtown and living in North York is not the distances for family life: I now travel further (by bike) for family activity, living downtown, than my parents did (by car) in North York in the eighties. The difference between family life downtown and family life in North York is that downtown has bike lanes.

What North York needs to do is to make it more attractive for its residents to use the new wheels of the twenty-first century: bicycles. The streets need to feel (and be) safer for families on bikes, children on bikes, seniors on bikes, and even working-age adults on bikes. North York needs protected bike lanes to facilitate local trips, and to reduce road congestion for those travelling longer distances by car.

North York is surrounded by cities that have built, and are building, bike lanes: Markham, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Pickering, Ajax, Peterborough, Oshawa, Mississauga, Milton, Burlington, Oakville, Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo, etc, etc. Some families in those cities are switching to cycling for short trips around town. When I have a business meeting in Markham, I put my regular bike (not the tandem) on the GO Bus 71 at Union Station, and then cycle the last 3km along Markham’s new bike lanes. I arrive at my meeting feeling productive (from working on the bus) and energized (from cycling), rather than aggravated (as I would have felt from driving in traffic on the DVP). The 905, the 705, and the 519 are all moving into the multi-modal twenty-first century. It’s time for North York to get with the program.

Photo: John Hauser rides his family bike in Peterborough. Photo by Peterborough Examiner

Families in North York that have a car (perhaps a second or third car) just for family activity, as my parents did in Hillcrest Village in the twentieth century, would be better off with a modern family bicycle for local trips here in the twenty-first century: they would be wealthier, they would be healthier, and they would get better value for their tax dollars. What’s holding them back is lack of safe bike lanes. Bicycle technology has changed over the last thirty years, but North York’s road infrastructure has not kept pace.

Let’s build bike lanes in North York to support local transportation. Let’s re-imagine not only Yonge Street in North York, which has the highest residential density in the GTHA, but also Hillcrest Village, Don Mills, and the rest of North York.

Graphic: Rendering of proposed re-design of Yonge St and Oliver Square. Source: City of Toronto

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