Most of us, when we think about cycling as a means of transportation, picture a thirty-something guy riding a fixed-gear, drop-handlebar Bianchi, zipping past cars stuck in the stop-and-go traffic of Toronto, on the way from his Bloor Street condo to his King Street office, making for a commute that takes ten minutes, at most.

But outside the city, in the suburbs of Scarborough, Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington, and even Milton, research shows that more and more residents are riding their bikes to get to work or school, go to the gym, pick up groceries, run other errands, and visit friends and family. Some are cycling as their only method of transportation, some are cycling in combination with public transit, and others use cycling as an alternative to driving their car.

Graphic designer, Kyle, bikes from his home in Hamilton to his job in Burlington. He starts near Buchanan Park, rides up Garth Street, Dundurn Street South and Dundurn Street North, crosses York Boulevard into Burlington and turns onto Plains Road. He then takes North Shore Boulevard West, and, eventually, North Shore Boulevard East, all the way to Lakeshore Road, before finally turning onto Brant Street, where he works. This is the route Kyle takes to work but he also rides his bike around his neighbourhood, Buchanan, and other parts of West Hamilton, as well as the areas of Ancaster and Dundas.

“I’m trying to be a better citizen and improve my mental and physical health,” Kyle says.

The reasons that Kyle cites for choosing to ride a bike are pretty consistent with most cyclists. Riding a bike burns more calories, builds more muscle and supports a stronger heart and lungs than sitting a car. Also, compared to cars, which have had a devastating impact on our environment, bikes require fewer materials and less energy to build and produce little to no pollution of their own. Cycling can even save you some serious cash. Even if you choose to buy both a car and a bike, cycling will reduce how much you spend on gas, lower the amount you pay for care insurance and slow the accumulation of “wear and tear” on your car. The slogan “burn calories, not fossil fuels” sums up the benefits of riding a bike quite well.

So, why don’t more suburban residents cycle to get around town? Kyle, and just about anyone that cycles as a method of transportation, will tell you—biking in the suburbs looks a lot different from cycling in the city.

When it come to cycling in a city, there are obvious dangers. Thin bike tires can easily become stuck in streetcar tracks. Narrow city streets make cyclists more likely to be clipped by the side mirrors on a car. The abundance of street parking, make being “doored”—when a cyclist crashes into a car door that a driver has quickly opened without checking for oncoming bike traffic—a rite of passage for city cyclists. The stress of city traffic tends to cause more aggressive driving in general.

But cycling in the suburbs comes with perils of it’s own. While the traffic on city streets tends to be slow, the speed of traffic can move much more quickly in suburban areas, which can be deadly for cyclists when an accident does occur. Also, because there are fewer cyclists in the suburbs than there are in cities, drivers often forget to keep an eye out for them on the roads.

If cycling in the city looks like bikes weaving through gridlock, then cycling in the suburbs looks like one white-knuckled cyclist on the shoulder of some two-lane road with a torrent of SUVs speeding past. If cycling in the city feels empowering, cycling in the suburbs feels demoralizing and dangerous.

Having spent so much time on his bike and so much of it in suburban areas, Kyle has strong opinions on cycling infrastructure. The issue, he says, is that there aren’t enough protected or separated bike lanes—or even shared bike lanes with painted markings, for that matter.

“Many roads that are designated bike routes, don’t have even the minimal shared lane markings,” he says. “And even when there are bike lanes, cyclists often have to merge into traffic to go around parked cars, delivery vans and construction trucks.”

Not to mention, suburbs are far less convenient for cycling than cities. Most cities are set up like a grid, which makes for more direct transportation routes. Most suburbs, on the other hand, are more like mazes and transportation routes are far less direct, which can add to your total time, distance and effort. In a city like Toronto, most residents can bike to a grocery store in just a couple minutes. In a suburb, it can take closer to ten or 15 minutes to bike to the nearest grocery store, navigate the network of shopping centre intersections and cross the expanse of oversized parking lot. It might not seem like much but riding your bike to the grocery store to pick up something that you forgot to grab on your way home loses its appeal quickly when you know it’s going to be a half-hour journey.

People often assume that suburbs are all the same but there are a number of factors that can make a suburban neighbourhood more or less suitable for cycling. The distance between residential and commercial areas, the way the streets and roads in a neighbourhood are laid out and the connectivity between trails, streets and roads can be quite different from suburb to suburb and can be deciding factor in how suitable a community is for cycling.

In new communities, more and more emphasis is being put on creating this connectivity to ensure that suburban bike routes are more like a network and less like a patchwork. But, in communities that weren’t planned with cyclists in mind, infrastructure improvements can go a long way. In recent years, many communities, such as the suburban areas of Mississuaga and Scarborough, have conducted surveys on cycling and the results are clear—residents are interested in cycling as a method of transportation but don’t feel safe enough to cycle in their communities.

Kyle agrees that to get people cycling in the suburbs, they need to feel safe on the roads, and the only way to do that is better cycling infrastructure, such as a protected or separated bike lanes. With so many drivers parked illegally in bike lanes, failing to checking their mirrors and taking up more than their share of the road, shared lanes with painted markings aren’t enough to protect cyclists and support a culture of cycling in the suburbs.

“The suburbs present an opportunity,” Marvin Macaraig, Bike Hub Co-ordinator for Scarborough Cycles, said in a recent interview. “The cities and the communities that can transform their streets quicker are the ones that are going to benefit.”

By promoting a culture of cycling, suburban communities have the potential to manifest happier, healthier residents, cleaner, greener communities and faster, more efficient roadway but, for that to happen, we need to shift away from our current car culture and incubate cycling culture in the suburbs—not just cities.

“Cars are seen as a symbol status, success and freedom in our culture,” Kyle says. “Only once people start to understand that cars are actually a burden on our wallets, our environment and our physical and mental health, will this start to change.

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Last modified: October 11, 2018

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