Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,

[URBAN NOTE] "Cycling Through the Seventies"

Over the weekend, Torontoist published Jamie Bradburn's overview of the progress of biking--as an activity, as a movement--in Toronto over the 1970s.

In a 1971 interview with Star columnist Alexander Ross, Metro Parks Commissioner Tommy Thompson observed that local geography made cycling downtown impossible. “If I asked somebody to ride from Front Street to Queen’s Park,” Thompson noted, “do you know what would happen? The average person would be dead—and not from the traffic. The average person would be so tired from the upgrade that he’d end up walking.” Ross disagreed with Thompson`s contention, noting that he rode daily from Bloor to King and “was not even puffing.” We also suspect aldermen like William Kilbourn and John Sewell, who cycled to work at City Hall, might have taken issue.

Thompson’s department was probably happier if people walked anyway—apart from a couple of short trails such as one along Mimico Creek opened in 1965, cyclists were prohibited from riding off-road in all parks across Metro.

One of the first battlegrounds for Toronto’s cycling future was the Belt Line in North Toronto. When Canadian National Railways (CN) put the old railway line on the market in 1970, two opposing visions of its future emerged. Metro parks officials and York Mayor Phil White saw a great opportunity to develop the land into recreational land that could include a bike path. Toronto Mayor William Dennison and his executive committee favoured buying portions of the Belt Line to expand roads and existing parks. Dennison told the Star that he opposed a continuous path along the Belt Line because “people have demonstrated they just won’t use it.”

Dennison also echoed the fears of homeowners along the Belt Line in Forest Hill, who worried about safety issues and vandals salivating over easier access to wreck their homes. Resident William McKay, who belonged to a ratepayers association opposed to any public use of the right-of-way, feared a Belt Line park would attract lusty young lovers. “How can I teach my children morals,” he told the Star, “when there are couples seducing each other a few feet from my house?” Also underlining anti-park sentiment was the possibility, endorsed by Dennison, of selling portions of the Belt Line Toronto didn’t need to residents to expand their backyards. As a Star editorial declared, “there are always people who cannot see past the ends of their noses.”

After two years of talks, Toronto City Council approved a land swap with CN in October 1972. In exchange for the title to Union Station (which CN and Canadian Pacific intended to demolish as part of the never fully realized Metro Centre project) and a parking lot at Lake Shore Boulevard and Yonge Street, the City received the Belt Line and the future site of Roy Thomson Hall. Among the boosters of turning the rail bed into a bike path was alderman David Crombie, whose election as mayor soon after may have raised the hopes of North Toronto cyclists. Though it took a few years, both green space and a path were built and eventually named after park proponent Kay Gardiner.


Apparently one critical turning point came in 1974, when an extended TTC strike made bikes an option for the masses.

Abundantly illustrated with period photographs and maps, Bradburn's extended essay is a wonderful historical document.
Tags: bicycles, bikes, cycling, history, mass transit, parks, toronto, ttc, urban note
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