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In early June, I was riding my bike in downtown Toronto — smothered by humid heat, a basket weighing down my bike. Ahead of me, a white female rode a Bike Share bicycle, both of us navigating the roadworks on either side of us, the changing winds and the tangle of ad hoc signals that make up a city under perpetual construction. Jaded from the day-to-day reality of Toronto cycling, I followed her lead — until a police officer in the construction zone signalled me to stop by putting his hand out as though he was coming in for a high five.  

“Do you know what you did wrong?”

I didn’t. He said that I went through a red light. I was completely unaware that I had done so. He also didn’t stop the woman in front of me – a fact that I verbalized and that he dismissed by saying that he didn’t stop her because she kept going. She kept going because you didnt stop her, I thought. But I didn’t say that out loud because I was aware of the power play, the violence I could potentially incur. I wanted to nurture my safety. 

He told me that cyclists receive the same fine as drivers for running a red: $325. 

I kept silent, letting him lecture me about City of Toronto traffic laws in his aggressive tone. I said “Okay” and rode off, without getting a ticket. I kept cycling up John Street, and a man in a postal delivery truck slowed down and opened his window. He signalled me to stop, so I pulled aside. He was a Black man, with kind eyes and a look of concern. He told me that he had never witnessed anything like this – that the cop was obviously on a power trip – and that I needed to get the officer’s badge number and report him. I couldn’t help but wipe my tears on my sleeve.   

I knew the officer stopped me and not the white woman who committed the same offence — and who wasn’t wearing a helmet — because I am a darker shade of brown. I didn’t go back to ask for his badge number, fearing he might write me a ticket after all. That’s part of what upholds state power — the calculated fear embedded in the population, so retaliation is kept to a minimum.

Police Interactions with Black and Indigenous Cyclists

For racialized cyclists across Toronto, my experience reflects a familiar reality — and one made more malicious for the Black, Indigenous, and Muslim populations who face a pronounced degree of scrutiny by the state. However, a dearth of public data limits the public visibility of policing. The Toronto Police force started collecting race-based data in January 2020, for incidents in which force was used on civilians. Currently, race is not a searchable data set on the TPS’s Open Data website. Yet, even with limited hard numbers, there is ample evidence that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately stopped by police officers.

Last June, for example, a driver recorded video of police stopping a Black bike courier after a legal left turn. A month later, an Ottawa woman called the police on a Black man resting on his bike after his ride, doing absolutely nothing wrong but existing in a space she was in. It’s a long-standing pattern; Julius Haag, a Black man and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, recalls being arbitrarily stopped for a “bike safety check” by police officers in 2015. In July 2020, Ontario police illegally assaulted two Indigenous men, while also allegedly falsifying notes in regard to the incident. Driving, walking, existing while Black and Indigenous is criminal in Canada. I wish the data existed, but there are a multitude of lived experiences documented by the different people who create Canada. 

In the United States, meanwhile, more robust public data bears out the same phenomenon. Bicycling conducted an analysis of bicycle stops in three U.S. cities: Oakland, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., finding that Black cyclists are more likely to be stopped by police, and Black neighbourhoods are disproportionately policed. For example, in Oakland, police stops of Black cyclists accounted for 60 per cent of stops, even though Black people represent less than a quarter of the city’s population. 

The Inaccessibility of Bike Sharing

While policing inordinately impacts racialized and low-income people, so does the infrastructure of bike sharing. There are 6,850 bikes and 625 bike shares available throughout Toronto. Bike stations are mostly saturated in the city’s core, leaving outlying communities — including densely populated stretches of Scarborough and northwest Toronto — underserved.  

According to Sabat Ismail, a volunteer at Transportation Equity Toronto, and a Master of environmental studies candidate at York University, Bike Share Toronto does not serve the needs of a diverse city. “The current model is not for people who speak different languages, and the bikes aren’t made for families with children – who are the ones riding bikes in suburbs,” says Ismail. “The bike share stations are far apart from one another and intended for tourists and the cost is also inaccessible.” 

While cycling is often perceived as a leisure or recreational activity, Ismail stresses that — for many — it’s also an essential way of getting around. “Bicycling is framed as though it’s a choice, but a lot of people don’t have a choice when it comes to using cycling as a mode of transportation.”

Mirusha after a ride from Toronto to Oakville.

Toronto’s existing Bike Share program reflects another reality. Until this month, the system allowed for 30-minute trips that cost $3.25, with users also able to purchase an annual pass for $99. There is a $7 pass for 24 hours of 30-minute rides, and a $15 pass that allows for 72 hours of 30-minute rides. Why the 30-minute rides? In between each 30 minutes of riding, riders must dock their bikes to a station. This causes confusion for new cyclists, who then incur overage fees that amount to $4 for every additional 30 minutes. Further, the half-hour bike sharing option is not viable for individuals with longer commutes outside of the urban core. As Ismail notes, bike sharing favours riders in concentrated areas of Toronto. Fortunately, the time limit was recently revised to 45 minutes, accommodating longer commutes.

Critics have suggested integrating Toronto’s Presto transit payment service with Bike Share to allow for a more streamlined transit network and ease for the customer — especially as riders already receive a 10 per cent discount from an annual membership pass if they enter their 17-digit Presto card. 

In May 2021, the Toronto Parking Authority — which oversees the city’s bike share program —  recommended “a review of the rates and rate structure of the Bike Share Toronto program, including feasibility of including a program for low-income residents.” 

Tearing Out Bike Lines in Scarborough

According to Canada’s 2016 census, 54,420 residents of Scarborough – more than half of respondents – spoke non-official languages. Situated in Toronto’s east end, the district is home to a vibrant populace, including large groups of immigrants, refugees and young families. The media has long depicted the community as an epicentre of violence and gang involvement, but there is culture, there is hope, and there are dreams that make up what Scarborough is. The majority of its residents, however, are left out of the cycling discourse – and this has resulted in their underrepresentation when it comes to making decisions about bike lanes. 

In 2011, bike lanes that were installed on two major thoroughfares — Birchmount Road and Pharmacy Avenue — only the previous year were removed. It was argued that the routes caused congestion (even though City of Toronto staff found no substantial impact), that they slowed traffic, and that residents wanted them gone. Supporters of the removal argued that cyclists should use side streets. 

The controversy marked an era defined by former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s declaration that there was a “war on the car.” “Every year we have dozens of people that get hit by cars or trucks,” Ford said in 2007, three years prior to becoming mayor. “Well, no wonder: roads are built for buses, cars and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.” It was — and remains — an entirely misguided diagnosis. As more folks use bicycles, they open up more space on public transit and sidewalks and, ultimately, ease dangerous and environmentally destructive congestion on roads. 

For Shuaib Alam, program coordinator at CultureLink’s Bike Hub, a program that matches newcomers to cycling mentors, the lack of infrastructure is a catch-22. “The Jane and Finch community barely has the kind of infrastructure that you see downtown,” says Alam. “There is more demand for bike lanes downtown because more people bike in downtown, but if you don’t build the lanes, then people don’t cycle. Saying that we don’t have a clamouring for them is not an excuse. We didn’t have the Richmond/Adelaide bike lanes or Bloor/Danforth but after we put them in they were heavily used.” It is the duty of the City to take the initiative to make cyclists feel safe. 

It’s a lesson still not learned. In July of 2020, the City of Toronto installed four kilometres of bike lanes on Scarborough’s Brimley Avenue at a cost of $160,000. The new bike infrastructure formed part of ActiveTO, a pandemic-era program to ensure that people have “space to get around while respecting physical distancing.” Just five months later, however, the City spent $80,000 to remove the whole installation after drivers complained of increased congestion and limited usage. How did it all go wrong?

According to Marvin Macaraig, health promoter and Scarborough Cycles coordinator at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, the project was flawed from the start, beginning with the public consultation, or lack thereof. “There was a meeting to tell residents the bike lanes were going to be put in and a meeting to tell residents that they were coming out,” says Macaraig. What’s more, the structure of public consultations tend to prioritize the interests of those who can attend the meetings and speak English. It doesn’t favour those working gig economy jobs or essential workers with evening shifts, who might need childcare, or are unfamiliar with the technology required to participate. In some ways, racialized and low-income people may not feel that they have a voice. 

Then came the misguided metrics for success. For starters, the much-vaunted increase in congestion and traffic presents a skewed view of impacts: the travel delay for drivers was negligible, at one minute. Plus, as Macaraig says, “The transportation services measured delays for drivers but not the safety improvements for people not in cars,” he says. He believes that such projects should be evaluated with a focus on equity and safety first – and as pieces in a much larger network. A new bike lane in Scarborough is great, but how can it connect riders to other parts of Toronto?

Towards Equitable Cycling Infrastructure

Cycle Toronto’s Kevin Rupasinghe argues that we need to invest more in cycling infrastructure if we want to see significant returns. “Toronto is carved out in pockets and separated by ravines, rivers and the 401,” says Rupasinghe. “The only ways to make it across to major destinations — like Highland Creek, Rouge River, the Don Valley, the Stouffville GO Line — are through major arterial streets. For people to go grocery shopping or to get around, they need to use these major roads.

It’s on arterial roads that people on bikes are most likely to get into accidents. They compose 20 per cent of the road network, yet are where 80 per cent of bike-related fatalities occur.

While drivers are occupied with their commute time, not everyone can afford a car. In Scarborough, more than a quarter of households don’t own one. Instead, many resort to carpooling, taking transit — including the soon-to-be decommissioned Scarborough RT — or walking and cycling. If public streets are truly for the public good, then our current considerations for street parking, deliveries and vehicle access must also be balanced with the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. 

In March 2021, a proposal for 15 new bike lanes was presented to the city’s infrastructure and environment committee. Not one is located in Scarborough. For Rupasinghe, it means “that the entire part of the city is shut out of the conversation. There needs to be a shift in discourse among politicians at City Hall, a bold enough vision to provide safe mobility choices for people in a high-quality connected network. That’s what Scarborough is missing.” A month later, Cycle Toronto recommended that the Toronto Parking Authority should consider expanding the Bike Share Program in Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York and across the city.

Streets can be modified to be safe for all of those who use them. We need to assess the human cost of a fatal bicycle accident against the frivolous cost of sitting in a car for a minute longer. A baseline respect for human life should dictate the way that we build road infrastructure in Toronto. Transit infrastructure needs to be coordinated so that safety is prioritized when people are journeying from one place to the next with the help of bike lanes on arterial roads and time and funding must be committed to these plans. For people to move freely on the roads, their essential well-being must be prioritized. 

Lead Image: Mirusha’s cousin and sister, Yasietha and Nirusha, near the Humber Bay Arch Bridge.

Mirusha Yogarajah is a filmmaker and writer from Toronto, Ontario. 

How Toronto Fails its Racialized and Low-Income Cyclists

Policy researcher Mirusha Yogarajah argues for a more egalitarian approach to building cycling infrastructure.

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