Scarborough Cycles: building a culture of cycling in the suburbs
On October 8, City Council voted to install bike lanes on Woodbine Avenue. As the first separated bike lanes east of the Don Valley Parkway, they’ll soon provide a safer cycling route connecting the edge of Scarborough with downtown Toronto.
According to Dr. Marvin Macaraig, Project Coordinator at Scarborough Cycles, investments like these often prompt people to swap their car keys for bike helmets. Last year his organization launched two community hubs that offer access to bikes, tools, cycling mentorship, and civic engagement activities, and they’ve consistently filled up with first-time riders. Scarborough Cycles was founded by Metcalf grantee Toronto Centre for Active Transportation and partners Cycle Toronto, CultureLink, and U of T’s Cycling Think & Do Tank.
After Council’s vote, we spoke to Macaraig on the value of cycling infrastructure, promoting local leadership, and other opportunities for building bike culture in the suburbs.
You’re a Scarborough resident who gets around by bike. What’s your experience been like cycling in your community?
Scarborough covers a very large area, so cycling conditions vary between different communities. Some roads in south Scarborough certainly feel and look like downtown streets, and others in the north are wider, straighter, and the traffic moves much faster. Cycling in these areas requires thoughtful route planning, as the route you’d take driving your car may not be the most ideal route for riding your bike.
Rates of cycling in the suburbs used to be closer to those of the downtown core. Why has this changed?
What’s really changed over the past 15 years or so is the explosion of cycling in the downtown core. While cycling in Toronto’s outer wards — including Scarborough — declined slightly between 1996 and 2011, in that same period cycling increased significantly in the central Toronto wards. So we know there is uneven growth in cycling, but we don’t fully know why that is yet. Our partner Dr. Beth Savan at the University of Toronto is currently looking at 10 sites across Canada that have experienced cycling growth to identify which factors are contributing to the increase.
Are there barriers to cycling that are unique to Scarborough?
They’re not particularly unique when compared to other suburban areas in Toronto, Durham, or Peel Region. Communities that lack good cycling infrastructure will always find it challenging to get people to take up cycling for their daily trips. Scarborough also has fairly low density, as do most outer areas of the city. Land use and urban form greatly impact the likelihood that people will consider cycling as a viable option.
However, there is a lack of places in Scarborough where residents can get their bikes repaired, or learn how to fix their own bikes. There are also very few options for people to learn how to ride a bike in a supportive environment, or learn about cycling advocacy. To address these issues, our bike hubs offer DIY drop-in bike repair clinics, hands-on maintenance and repair classes, safe cycling workshops, and regular group rides for all experience and fitness levels. It’s about creating a culture, and a community around cycling.
What are some of your other strategies for removing barriers?
Achieving political support for cycling infrastructure is absolutely critical. That’s why one of our key partners on the project is Cycle Toronto, who does a fantastic job of advocating for a safe, cycling-friendly city for all. But we also know that there are other barriers to cycling beyond infrastructure that we can help to address through our programming. Our strategy is to use evidence, create knowledge, and to implement proven interventions to build capacity among local agencies to support cycling.
Part of Scarborough Cycle’s mission is to develop local leadership to promote cycling in the community. Can you explain what this looks like in practice?
Developing local leadership and capacity is a key component to our overall strategy and success. For example, at our bike hub at AccessPoint on Danforth we’ve successfully launched a monthly “lunch and ride” for the organization’s staff. With our support, staff are also beginning to ride their bikes for local work trips instead of taking the company car. Some have even begun to commute to work.
Through our project partner CultureLink we offer a mentorship program called Bike Host. It matches newcomers to Canada with experienced cyclists. The learners receive in-class training, and they can also participate in small group rides to build their confidence. Meanwhile, the mentors improve their leadership skills while passing along important local knowledge of cycling in Toronto. We’re hopeful that participants in the program will also become future mentors and leaders in other ways.
Are there any emerging opportunities that you’ve recently observed?
There’s a definite need and appetite for increased cycling programming in Scarborough. In the span of less than a year, we’ve been able to form partnerships and collaborate with nearly 40 different community organizations. Groups like the Toronto Arts Foundation, Toronto Police Service 41 Division, and the Crossroads of the Danforth BIA. More importantly, these connections have enabled Scarborough Cycles to extend our impact both at the neighbourhood scale, and across the city.
Scarborough Cycles will be organizing a group ride on November 12. Meet at 10am at the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre for the “Tour de Central Scarborough.”