A trip along Toronto’s (sort of) bicycle super highway, Route 22

Every few months, I see an article pop up about another city creating or planning for a “bicycle super highway” where cyclists can zoom along unimpeded in a wide separated path with the same comfort that we provide to drivers. There’s one in Copenhagen that stretches 22km to connect areas outside the city core and then there’s the planned 29km bike super highway in London, England.

Do we have any in Toronto?

I suppose some of the paths through the ravines—like the Lower Don Trail, which stretches from the lakeshore all the way up to roughly Eglinton, is a kind of superhighway–however, these pathways are really billed as recreational trails rather than commuter trails. There is little access into and out of them to surrounding roads.

But then there’s Route 22. I discovered Route 22 while searching on Google Maps for parks to visit in Ward 4. That’s when I saw the little grey squiggle running underneath Eglinton Avenue from Scarlett Road to Highway 427.

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Route 22, I learned, is an entirely separated cycling pathway that runs parallel just south of Eglinton for a total of about 5km. The irony is that the reason there was room to put in Route 22 during this section of Eglinton is that the roadway was widened in anticipation of the Richview Expressway—an expressway that was cancelled in the 1960s.

So we did get an expressway, it’s just one for cyclists. It’s also prettier than a regular expressway.

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Below is an example of what it looks like when Route 22 crosses a major street. There is a red strip that indicates the trail connection across the roadway.

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But the best part about Route 22 is that it actually seems to go somewhere. We have some great trails in Toronto, but they’re often severed, ending at the edge of a park. Lines on a map doesn’t make a cycling network. It’s the connections between those lines that matter.

On Route 22, you can ride west where the trail seamlessly links (see title image) with the West Dean Parklands, which has Mimico Creek running down its centre. From there you can ride another 4km south where the trail ends near Burnhamthorpe and Kipling. On the east side, Route 22 links in with the Humber River trails which take you up to Steeles or south to the Martin Goodman Trail, which you can take both west to Mimico or east to the Beach. This starts to look like–gasp!–a trail network.

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OK, so Route 22 is not going to find itself included on any top ten list of bicycle super highways (or probably even 20), but it’s perhaps one of the closest things we’ve got in Toronto.

This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Biking the Scarborough Butterfly Trail

It was one of those beautiful Fall days near the end of September where summer seems to be hanging on by its finger nails that I decided to finally bike the Scarborough butterfly trail that threads its way through part of the Gatineau hydro corridor.

I’d wanted to check it out for some time, seeing as it was one of the big projects funded in 2013 under the Weston Family Parks Challenge, the grant program that Park People administers. But, well, it’s a bit of a bike from where I live.

There were a few ways I could go, some a bit more scenic than others, but I decided to choose the most direct route, since my ride was already going to be 1.5 hours one way. I biked through parts of East York and then entered the hydro corridor where the trail starts at Victoria Park.

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The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is the organization that led the creation of the butterfly trail, working in partnership with the City of Toronto who licenses the land in the hydro corridor for recreational trails. The butterfly trail consists of a naturalized native wildflower meadow along a 3.5km stretch of hydro corridor trail, where normally there would just be mowed grass, that runs from McCowan Road to Scarborough Golf Club Road.

But even without the butterfly meadow, the trail is well worth a visit. It’s not often that I can hop on my bike in Toronto and zip around off-road for kilometre after kilometre, but that’s exactly what you can do in the hydro corridor. Aside from one stretch where the trail diverts to residential streets, the entire trail is separated from the street.

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Where the trail crosses major roads there’s even a nice bike light for you and where there are minor roads the City has paved the crossings in brick which helps alert cars that this is more of a shared space. It’s a nice touch. Wish this was found in more places in Toronto.

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The butterfly meadow, however, makes a huge difference. I found myself biking slower without even realizing it. The smell in the air changed to be somewhat sweeter. The sounds also changed. Far more buzzing. I saw a few butterflies, but more bees lazily floating around.

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I also saw people. Far more people than I saw in any other section of the trail, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Walking along a path that snakes its way through mowed grass is not exactly the most pleasant or interesting experience. It’s fine to bike, but, I imagine, kind of boring to walk. Case in point:

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Not so with the butterfly trail. I saw people jogging, walking their dog, or just out for a stroll. The meadow makes the huge expanse of the hydro corridor feel more intimate, and there’s always something to look at as well.

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It just makes so much sense to create these native wildflower meadows in our hydro corridors. Better for nature and biodiversity, but also better for people.

This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Bridging gaps to expand our park systems

If a park is there, but people can’t get to it, does it still exist?

As cities grow in population and land for new parks becomes more difficult to find, we must refocus on the accessibility of our existing park system. If we have a great big park next to a neighbourhood, but a rail corridor, highway, or other barrier separates the two, then can we really say that park serves that community?

There are two ways to add parkland to a city. One is to buy more land and build more parks. The other is to connect existing parks better to the people that could use them. Okay, so the second one doesn’t actually mean you’re adding land to the system, but making that existing land more accessible can have almost the same effect–especially if you’re connecting an underused park to people that want to use it.

Take this example from New York:

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New York is building a pedestrian bridge to connect people over the West Side Highway to Riverside Park on the other side. Currently, the park is only accessible–if you can call it that–by going up and down a bunch of stairs and through a tunnel (which some residents noted feels unsafe). The new $24 million bridge is under construction right now and will make a more direct connection.

Toronto has long had a proposal to create a connection over the rail corridor in the South Niagara neighbourhood just north of Fort York in order to link a growing community to larger park spaces and the waterfront to the south (I’ve written about this before).

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Originally, the plan called for a land bridge that would basically create new parkland over top of the rail corridor (see above image). What’s now being proposed, however, is a pedestrian and cycling bridge that would connect new parkland being created just north of the rail corridor, with the already established large, green areas to the south. The title image to this post is one proposal for that bridge.

Also in Toronto, the Green Line proposal would require pedestrian bridges to link up different parcels of hydro corridor parks over top of the underpasses that have been carved out to allow drivers to flow underneath a rail corridor directly to the south. (Full disclosure: I work for the charity advocating for this project.) Link up these parks with bridges and you have a 5 kilometre continuous linear park. Don’t build the bridges and you have still useful, but much smaller disconnected skinny parks.

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Creating good connections between parks can be like knocking down walls in a house. There is essentially the same amount of space as before but it feels larger and more immediate.

It can also help parks increase their reach–a critical element for a growing city. A park that may have taken 25 minutes to get to by some hellish circuitous route, may now only take 5 minutes over a direct bridge crossing. The actual effect for people can be like adding new parkland. And, as we seen in the Fort York bridge example, these can become key elements of a cycling network.

So yes, of course, as cities grow we should be looking at opportunities to increase the amount of parks we have by acquiring more land. No amount of connections between parks can account for parks in high-density areas that are over-crowded already.

But I think sometimes we can get over-focused on the land acquisition issue as if it was the only solution to expanding the park system. Sometimes a better strategy is to look deeply at the parks you already have and make sure they are used well, connected to and serving the people they can. And if they’re not, then find a way to bridge that gap–sometimes literally.

photo credits: Landmark, NY Times, DTAH, Workshop Architecture