It’s the worst-case scenario of Toronto cycling, or at least one of them. After a late night spent welcoming spring from a Spadina patio, you walk your bike back to a TTC station, locking it up on the street alongside dozens of others for the night before taking the subway home. Maybe one pint led to nine; it’s only prudent to play it safe, after all.
But, the following morning, a bleary-eyed stumble back to the ring-and-posts reveals the worst imaginable results of your foresight.
Where your ride once sat, proud and (presumably) secured in place, there now sits nothing but a maimed, severed lock. Or, at best, there’s a quick-release wheel hanging from the post, its spokes bent and brutally warped from the effort of wrenching it free. Your bike, your chariot, was prey for the wolves of Toronto’s streets, and its eviscerated carcass is its last, sad testament—as so many rusting junk piles across the city can attest.
In some cases, local cyclists mark their years traversing the GTA in tallies of such tragedy, accounting for the handfuls, often worse, of bike theft personally encountered. “A few years ago, I lost a bike that I had locked to a curb-facing sign post, with what I thought was a heavy-duty cable,” says Douglas Yardley, a local rider since 1973. “In broad daylight. At Bloor and Yonge. My guess is that someone came by in a van, cut the cable, and was gone in a minute. I had gotten a bit careless.”
Arguably, everything that’s wrong with bike security in Toronto can be gleaned from that one story.
In 2011, Toronto Police reported 2,323 bicycles stolen throughout each Central Field Command (CFC) division—which includes downtown. Fourteen, 51, and 52 divisions—the area roughly bordered by Bloor to the north, Dufferin to the west, and the Don River to the east—topped the list of hot spots, with 412, 323, and 593 reported thefts, respectively, and accounted for over half the bike thefts in the nine-division CFC.
But in spite of those numbers, bike infrastructure, cyclists say, remains in a critically poor state of disrepair—and that’s when it’s even available.
”There are far too few city posts near TTC stations,” says Tamara Salpeter, cyclist and co-owner of Of a Kind, a boutique on College Street. “Lansdowne Station literally has two posts, both of which are across the street!”
The result: an increase in use-per-post, with several bikes locked to a single station at once. With the added density and impact, the posts quickly deterioriate, becoming weaker. Throughout the city, rings barely cling to the posts themselves.
Now, multiply the instances of this by the pedestrian volume common along the Bloor/Danforth line, for example. Given the cumulative impact, it’s all too typical to hear about cyclists locking to street signs by default, ignoring City bike stations altogether. At best, thoroughly checking a post’s structural integrity becomes a part of the daily cycling routine for many.
“I always yank on the city posts before I lock to them,” says cyclist Angela Sweeting. “I have once pulled one up.”
But, in the same year that police reported the discouraging numbers on bike theft, Public Works and Infrastructure received an executive report, recommending ways to “enhance [the] enforcement of the current by-laws regarding illegal cycling on sidewalks.” Across the board, the proposed amendments would punish cyclists for locking to anything but official municipal property expressly intended for that purpose—in other words, those same decaying ring-and-posts, already too scant to accommodate even half the bikes that need them.
After a less-than-favourable public response, the motion was referred to committee, then de-fanged—it would only apply to bikes in poor condition—before its eventual adoption in July, 2012.
To local cyclists, however, the initial motion was as telling as the against-all-logic removal of the Jarvis bike lane, or the wholesale crackdown on cyclists in summer 2011.
Rob Ford, these cyclists say, simply wants bikes off his streets. And he’s willing to make it happen—either by proactively paving over lanes, or simply ignoring bikes and their range of required facilities entirely, until they simply vanish. After all, City Hall itself is in division 52, with those 593 reported thefts in 2011. Open, inviting, and highly visible, it’s exactly the sort of place that could benefit from greater bike security.
Still, when it was recently proposed, Doug Ford predictably maligned the idea as “gravy.”
But the problem isn’t just Rob Ford, says Yvonne Bambrick, cycling consultant and former head of the Toronto Cyclists Union. In terms of urban psychology and city space, he’s only part of a greater theme of indifference.
“I think people aren’t watching out for bikes—that’s the problem,” she says. “It’s a nice idea [to think Ford is the enemy]—you can tell yourself that—but you can look at any number of videos online of people stealing bikes in broad daylight.”
Like Yardley, Bambrick herself can recall personal instances of bike-theft apathy, in places one would think benefit from greater neighbourly vigilance.
“I’ve had my bike seat stolen at Bay and Bloor, and there’s lots of eyes on the street there,” she recalls. “People have done [bike-theft] experiments on purpose to see if anything would happen, if anyone would interfere. If you were black, they interfered. If you’re just some random white guy, or girl, nope.”
Cycling, she suggests, remains at the margins of not only Ford’s executive-level policies, but even public consideration. And the effect of both together, it seems, is what ultimately strips downtown bike racks of their tenants. Going back to the example of Douglas Yardley, it was arguably the absence of city resources—or their solidity, at least—that compelled him to lock his bike to an exposed, curb-facing sign to begin with. But it was the response—or lack thereof—of other Torontonians to the theft in such a highly visible area that actually cost him his ride.
“It’s a false sense of security to think that people are looking out for you and your bike,” Bambrick says. “I hate to say that, but it’s really up to the individual to do everything they can to secure their property.”
Until 2014, however, the political elephant in the room remains. “I mean, if you look at the City management and our elected representatives that are part of the Mayor’s executive, broadly speaking, their whole approach to transportation has been ineffective,” Bambrick says. “If they can’t even handle the broader public transportation concerns that we have, I’m not sure how they can deal with things like cycling transportation.
“They barely understand cycling as transportation, so the notion that they would ever address it effectively at this point seems unrealistic. That’s being generous, I think.”
In short: You’re on your own out there, Toronto.