West Toronto Railpath

There seems to be a lot of angst and disappointment in the cycling community regarding the West Toronto Railpath. In particular, some cyclists are upset that this new multi-use trail isn’t a dedicated bicycle highway heading downtown. The disappointment is especially evident in a post titled This is not a bike path at the Spacing Wire and the comments that follow it.

Some cyclists seem to have built this route up in their mind so much that anything less than a DVP for bikes leading straight into the train sheds at Union Station would have disappointed.

The main issues with the Railpath seem to be:

  • it’s too short, running only about a third of the distance along the railway corridor from Dupont to Union,
  • it’s not a bicycle expressway downtown,
  • it’s not dedicated to cyclists, or doesn’t have a separate path for cyclists beside the pedestrian path,
  • the pathway is too narrow to be of any value as a mixed-use path for pedestrians and cyclists,
  • it lacks links to surrounding streets and nearby bike lanes, and
  • the city probably won’t plough the route in winter.

Let’s look at these issues one at a time:

It’s too short. Well, yes. All parks and paths are. I wish the Don Valley trail system ran uninterrupted all the way up to the headwaters on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

The complaint here is that the northern section of the trail, the only part being built right now, doesn’t really “go” anywhere and thus isn’t usable as a commuting route. And that’s fair. But as the first phase in what we all hope is a 2- or 3-phase project that eventually lengthens the park when the city gains control of the southern sections, it’s a good start. No one would be happy if we simply sat on the barren corridor until the entire thing could be built, either. We have to start somewhere. The “all or nothing” approach advocated by some is unreasonable here.

It’s not a bicycle expressway. Again true, and this ties into the previous issue. But I think a lot of cyclists have been taking this expression a little too literally. There is no dedicated bike expressway in Toronto. There never has been. And there never will be, unless the city is taken over by rabid cyclists who implement Velo-city. Yet there are plenty of routes that offer speedy and/or scenic commutes.

The Railpath is, first and foremost, a park that serves its community. Expressways, whether for car or bike, divide neighbourhoods. They discourage visits to a neighbourhood and instead encourage speedy travel through them. While this may be desirable to the commuters, it is undesirable to the neighbourhood. I would certainly agree that a highway for bikes is less invasive than one for cars, but it still wouldn’t properly serve the neighbourhood that it slices through.

It’s not dedicated to cyclists. It simply doesn’t make any sense to build infrastructure solely for cyclists at the expense of other non-motor-vehicle users. The best you’ll ever get is a multi-use path. Even in parks where parallel trails exist, one is signed pedestrian-only and the other is signed multi-use for pedestrians, cyclists, bladers, and whoever else wants to use it. Cyclists will always have to share the trails with other users, and that’s the way it should be. Cyclists and pedestrians shouldn’t be adversaries. If your sole goal is to ride as fast as possible from A to B, stay on the road. And lobby your politicians for more on-road bike lanes.

The pathway is too narrow. Actually, it seems to follow the same specifications as other mixed-use paths in Toronto, including ones that are used as de facto “bike expressways” like the Lower Don and Martin Goodman Trails. I cycle the narrow Lower Don pathway frequently and rate it as far worse than the Railpath ever could be. The main problem along most of the Don south of Riverdale Park is that the park is not much wider than the pathway. If you’re not on the path, you’re in the river or scraping your face along a chain link fence.

Much of the Martin Goodman Trail and virtually the entire Don park system feature similarly narrow trails, although the parks themselves are usually wider. Yet the kind of conflicts between users that cyclists are imagining will take place on the Railpath are virtually non-existent, particularly during typical commuting hours. Yes, it would be nice to have wider or parallel pathways, but what impact would that have on the park as a whole? At just 10-15 metres wide, there isn’t a lot of room in the corridor.

It lacks links to surrounding streets. This is a valid point. The worst thing about riding the Lower Don is trying to get out anywhere other than at the very bottom or top of the trail. Leaving the trail at Riverdale Park or Queen Street means having to haul your bike up a long flight of stairs. Those bike gutters beside the steps don’t help much and most people can’t quite figure them out. I find it faster and easier to just put my bike over my shoulder and sprint up the stairs, but I’m not an occasional cyclist out for a leisurely Sunday ride.

Unfortunately, they’re proposing this same kind of stairs + gutter configuration for access to the Railpath from Bloor and Dupont. It’ll probably discourage use of the Railpath by some cyclists.

As for connections to other cycling routes, the Belt Line is similarly isolated, directly connecting only to a scary-to-the-novice pathway in the Moore Park Ravine to the south. In the north, it’s a few blocks away from the Cedarvale Ravine system. It crosses a smattering of signed routes along its length, but no streets with dedicated bike lanes. Yet the lack of direct connections to the Belt Line doesn’t prevent it from being an immensely popular and beautiful ride.

The city probably won’t plough the route. Yes, welcome to the reality of off-road routes in Toronto. I’m not aware of any mixed-use path that receives city attention in the winter. There’s no reason that the Railpath would receive winter maintenance that no other trail in Toronto does.

That said, I think the Railpath should be ploughed in the winter. As should all of the other paved mixed use paths commonly used for bicycle commuting. But the city can’t afford it, you say? Nonsense. Since it’s already the responsibility of landowners to clear the walks in front of their homes and businesses, I’d like to see the city stop its sidewalk clearing service and instead dedicate its sidewalk ploughs to clearing park pathways instead. It would even end up saving money, as there aren’t nearly as many park pathways to clear as there are sidewalks. The city could continue to shovel for seniors and the disabled.

Although some parks are used in the winter by cross-country skiers and snowshoers (of which I’m one), they should still be able to ski or shoe beside the cleared paths. Dog walkers, cyclists, and nature lovers would rejoice.

I’d lobby my out-of-touch city councillor in this direction, but I highly doubt that he would take any cycling issue seriously.