A Tale of 3 Cities – A Comparison of Cycling in Halifax, Toronto & Vancouver

BIXI TorontoIn early July, my family and I took a vacation to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on our way back to Vancouver, we spent some time in Toronto too. I was struck by the stark differences in cycling in each of these cities, particularly compared to our own cycling environment here in Vancouver.

Halifax/Dartmouth

Halifax is really two cities, paired with Dartmouth across a narrow harbour. Both cities are small and hilly with a small urban waterfront core surrounded by considerable sprawling suburbs. About 300,000 people live in the metropolitan area.

There are essentially no dedicated bike facilities, only a few painted lanes here and there on roads that have been rebuilt in the past 15 years. One large exception to this is the dedicated bike lane that was installed on the outside of the Macdonald Bridge connecting the two cities when it was resurfaced in 1997. Bikes are also permitted on the passenger ferries connecting the two downtown cores. Otherwise, those painted lanes that do exist are often very narrow (the minimum width is 1.2 m, including the gutter), and unconnected. The downtown core of each city has little cycling atmosphere, and bikes are rarely seen outside outside Halifax’s university/medical/central peninsula area. The city has been slowly pushing ahead with creating more painted bike lanes, and has recently approved a 3 km central north/south bike route (painted lanes). Rather progressively, Nova Scotia has a 1-metre passing law (the first in Canada).

Non-commuting cycling in Halifax, however, is quite good. A number of former rail lines have been converted to multi-purpose trails, and quite a number of regional parks and greenways have shared cycling trails as well.

The cyclists riding on the roads that I saw in Halifax/Dartmouth were mostly the geared-up, helmeted, comfortably riding in traffic sort. I admire their perseverance in the face of what is at best a cycling-tolerant atmosphere.

Toronto

Toronto, is, of course, the centre of the universe. Well, the Canadian universe, at least. It has a large, dense downtown core and is surrounded by sprawling suburbs relatively uncontained by geography or any other limiting factor.

The downtown core (pretty much all I saw other than the bumper-to-bumper “freeways” to get from the airport and back), was FULL of bikes. There is, of course, their financially-troubled yet seemingly popular Bixi bike share program. Mind you, we were staying in the University District and mostly travelling around the downtown core, but Bixi bikes and riders were everywhere. There were also lots of cyclists on their own bikes.

The presence of these bikes was made even more surprising by the relative lack of bike infrastructure (although Toronto just recently opened up its first separated bike lane). The majority of the cyclists I saw were riding on unimproved roads, dealing with several lanes of traffic, parked cars, buses, and streetcars. The majority of these cyclists were unhelmeted, casually-clothed, and relatively slow-moving. And yet, they just kept riding. There were young riders, older riders, men, women, seemingly all demographics equally represented. And, from what I saw, they were riding in reasonable harmony with traffic. It was all quite zen: I didn’t see any cyclists yelling at motorists, despite some inconsiderate traffic behaviour, nor did I see any motorists yelling at cyclists despite some loose observation of traffic laws. Local cycling advocate Chris Bruntlett had a similar experience and observations this summer.

The volume of bikes riding with traffic, not hidden from motorists, with cyclists going directly to the places they wanted to go despite the road infrastructure was really quite a sight.

Mind you, I didn’t see anything outside of the downtown core.

Vancouver

Which brings us back to Vancouver, with its on-(side)-street bike routes, and slowly growing network of downtown cycle tracks. The bike infrastructure here in Vancouver is enough to make anyone from Halifax or Toronto drool, I’m sure. And for recreational cyclists, the seawall and Stanley Park don’t have a match in either city (notice I’m carefully not saying a word about Montreal here).

The cycling atmosphere off the seawall and outside of Stanley Park, however, is not nearly as vibrant as it is in Toronto. Cycling in Vancouver, particularly on the roads, still seems to be limited to a small demographic. Although more and more people are cycling in Vancouver, something’s still missing. There are frequent “unfriendly interactions” between cyclists and motorists and pedestrians. There’s no air of casual riding across all ages and abilities (to borrow some of the City’s words).

So, I put it to you: Is there something missing in Vancouver’s cycling atmosphere? If so, how can we improve? Can Vancouver increase the casual cycling component, or is it doomed to slowly cultivate hardcore riders?

3 Responses to “A Tale of 3 Cities – A Comparison of Cycling in Halifax, Toronto & Vancouver”

  1. The only viable route I see to increasing ridership is to lead by example. Ride, and ride often. Be nice. Through your behaviour in the wide world as a cyclist, show drivers a picture of cycling as fun and peaceful – rather than the opposite. That will do more to help people entertain the idea of stepping away from the driving wheel and in front of some handlebars.
    ps. I’ve lived and ridden in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Montreal. Vancouver really has the best infrastructure by a landslide. I don’t see any other city models in Canada for us to be taking hints from. In respect to cycling, it doesn’t get better than right here on the west coast.

  2. Jen says:

    “Although more and more people are cycling in Vancouver, something’s still missing.”

    I can tell you what’s missing: good manners on the part of cyclists towards pedestrians. Also, cyclists who obey traffic laws. I don’t know how cyclists behave in other cities, but here in Vancouver, their behaviour is appalling. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been nearly run down by cyclists. When I complain, I get profanities screamed at me. Every day I see cyclists run stop signs and red lights. They think they’re entitled to do so, because they’re ‘green’, meaning that they don’t use fossil fuels on their trip. Well, neither do pedestrians, but their attitude to pedestrians is that we’re in their way and stupid and should get a bike. I do have a bike, but when I ride it, I’m careful to obey the laws and to watch out for pedestrians so I don’t run them down. Other cyclists probably hate me for that, because I don’t act entitled.

  3. Phil Johnston says:

    Just because I felt like it :)

    “I can tell you what’s missing: good manners on the part of drivers towards pedestrians and cyclists. Also, drivers who obey traffic laws. I don’t know how drivers behave in other cities, but here in Vancouver, their behaviour is appalling. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been nearly run down by drivers. When I complain, I get profanities screamed at me. Every day I see drivers roll through stop signs and speed. They think they’re entitled to do so, because “roads are for cars!” I do have a car, but when I drive it, I’m careful to obey the laws and to watch out for pedestrians so I don’t run them down. Other drivers probably hate me for that, because I don’t act entitled.”