Grate Expectations: Will City Act to Replace Unsafe Grates?

Story and photos by Lee Campbell

Toronto’s 2001 Bike Plan gave the city clear direction to replace hazardous catch basin grates with bike-friendly alternatives, but as sharp-eyed or unlucky cyclists are well aware, there are still some out there waiting to catch a wheel.

I always thought getting your skinny road bike tire caught in one was just an urban cycling legend. Turns out, when it comes to cyclist safety, not all grates are created equal. True, the old model with the drainage slots parallel to the direction of travel is a less common sight these days downtown, having been gradually phased out in favour of newer, bike-friendly models. But these dangerous grates are still out there.

How much of a menace are these obsolete grates? Getting a wheel caught in one is reportedly similar to getting stuck in a streetcar track. dandyhorse contributor Matt Talsma had a close call with one:

“I was heading home down Niagara, and approaching a red light at King Street. I was slowing down and moving to the right side of a car stopped at the light, so I was near the curb. I passed over one of those old grates with the open slot parts parallel with the street and suddenly my front wheel just dropped what felt like six inches, and completely locked in place. The back end of my bike just popped up and over because of the momentum, and I was catapulted forward. Luckily I was already significantly decelerated beforehand. I was okay, and I imagine it would have looked quite comical to an observer. Potentially very dangerous though.”

As urban cyclist knows there's often a fine line between comedy and disaster. Fortunately, the newer design of grate being phased in has the slots oriented in a friendly "tree-like" chevron pattern, at a 45 degree angle relative to the street. Pretty good, you'd say. But notice the gap:

"Not so grate."

These appear fairly safe and easy to ride right over, except that the gap at the edge is more than enough to capture a wheel and throw the rider to the pavement. The rider's instinct is to avoid an obstacle like this, and swerving out into the lane isn't always an option. These gap-edged grates are still common but obsolete. The newer design (below) has eliminated the gap problem entirely by making the grate round and filling in the edges:

"Great grate!"

So, given that the gap-edged square grates are a hazard and that a new, safer design is already being installed, and that the City has a (sort of) mandate to improve the state of our grates – can anything be done to accelerate the pace of the upgrading?

I called 311 to find out.

The helpful person I spoke with suggested they could submit a service request on my behalf, which would in theory prompt the transportation or water division to investigate the matter. I explained further: drainage isn't really the problem.

And she understood that it wasn’t exactly a service issue: the grates themselves along a whole stretch of street would need to be replaced.

She talked to her supervisor to try to find out who would be responsible for this infrastructure, but wasn’t able to offer much beyond the assurance that the 311 team would try to help if I could follow up with more information. She recommended I send an email with photos of the grates in question so that they could assess and point me to the right department.

I received a prompt reply informing me that a Service Request had been entered on my behalf. "The crew from Transportation will inspect this catch basin within 5 business days to see if the gap that your wheel falls into can be filled in a bit."


This grate's days are numbered.

So, with at least 5 business days to wait before embarking on some more exciting, street-level municipal infrastructure inspection, what can be learned in the meantime?

The Catchbasin Grate Replacement Program seems to have been effect since the 80's. The city’s 2001 Bike Plan proposed its continuation, recommending “that the City continue to replace catchbasin grates in all construction projects and on all City streets beginning with the bikeway network and popular cycling streets.”

"Since the mid-1980’s, the City has been replacing old style catchbasin grates which could trap a bicycle wheel with bicycle friendly grates. These are routinely replaced (or, as in The Former City of North York, rotated 90 degrees) when roads have been resurfaced or reconstructed. Most major arterial roads now have the newer bicycle friendly catch basin grates. In addition, the former City of Toronto had an annual program to replace old style grates on all streets beginning with important cycling routes and in response to complaints by cyclists.

However, there is no accurate city-wide inventory of roads that are still in need of conversion. There is a need to develop an inventory so that this program can be harmonized across all districts of the City. Catchbasin grates will continue to be replaced when roads are resurfaced or reconstructed. In addition, higher volume cycling streets would be addressed on a priority basis, beginning with roadways on the bikeway network."

So will we have to wait for College street to be resurfaced before seeing these unsafe grates replaced? Perhaps, except that this stretch is indeed part of the bikeway network and sees significant cycle traffic during weekday commuter hours. If city resources cannot be deployed to speed up the installation of the new, round grates, could there be a short-term solution, such as high-visibility paint, that would make it easier for cyclists to spot and avoid the hazardous grates that still threaten to engulf the wheels of cyclists city-wide? dandyhorse will report back.

Do you have any unsafe grates in your neighbourhood or along your commute?

Have you ever had a not-so-great experience with a grate yourself?


Related on the dandyBLOG:

Mapping Biking and Bikeability in Toronto

Safety Dance: feature from Issue 10

 dandyCommute: Dundas and Ossington to Adelaide and Spadina

Local parents support Richmond-Adeliade cycle track



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One response to “Grate Expectations: Will City Act to Replace Unsafe Grates?”

  1. hamish wilson says:

    Not to be too much of an ingrate, but there are gaps here, though it’s good to get a focus on this thanks.
    Ancient history: it started with the death of Dean Pace in summer 1984, a few months after Jack Layton tried to get bad grates marked on heavier bike-used roads. And, in a situation remarkably similar to the Morrison tragedy, “Council members were cautioned by the city solicitor that if the city marked the area next to the catch basins with flourescent paint it would be admitting its liability in the case of an accident. One cyclist, paralyzed after a fall from a bicycle, has launched a suit against the city” a “new” article has indicated.
    So there was a program eventually to change the grates over time, to both what is complained about, and then the newer round style, both of which are waaay better than in Hamilton.
    There are still some of the really bad old style around, and just maybe this year or last, some old grates on Dewson were finally made safer. And at least one other exists in the core. It could be a “hunt”/contest? In-grates are us??
    The third point is not noting that sometimes, the removal and replacement practices of these herringbone grates is really deficient so that there are still gaps aligned with bike traffic flow.
    That’s more worthy of fussing than that College St. pic in my view.
    So: re-grates – we’ve had a few, but it ain’t transit planning to get them aligned…

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