Over the last year I’ve heard from quite a few cyclists who say they won’t ride on Queen Street in Toronto. A lot of less experienced riders (and some very experienced cyclists) are afraid to ride on Queen. It’s a busy street with all kinds of vehicles, pedestrians, street parking and other hazards to bicycles, not to mention the world’s longest continuous streetcar route. For the recreational cyclist or timid commuter, there are painted bike lanes and off-street paths for a lot of its length. But what makes Queen Street an effective route for cars and streetcars also makes it a convenient route for bicycles. The road is straight and the terrain is flat, and the street stretches from the far east and west ends of old Toronto (not counting Scarborough) and bisects the downtown core. It can be intimidating at first, but once you’ve biked Queen Street a few times, it becomes a very enjoyable ride crossing through many of Toronto’s diverse neighbourhoods, and might even save you a bunch of time on your ride.
Riding on Queen Street, and other streets in Toronto without bike lanes, can be a bit of a challenge, but once you do it a few times you’ll see just how easy it is. Here are some tips to get you started.
First, if you’re not comfortable on your bike, you should stick to the trails and marked bicycle routes while you build your skills, or at the very least you should ride with someone more experienced when you’re on the busy streets. Likewise, if you’re the sort of rider who thinks that bicycles don’t need to stop for traffic signals, please stay off of the roads. And you must have a bell, you’ll see why further down the page. Cycling on the streets of Toronto is fun, convenient, enjoyable and relatively safe, but it’s also a serious responsibility. You are traffic and you could be hurt or hurt someone else if you don’t take it seriously.
Part of what makes Queen Street an effective thoroughfare is its consistent character across the city. From Roncesvalles Avenue in the west to Victoria Park Avenue in the east, Queen is a four-lane roadway (two in each direction) with center streetcar lanes and curbside parking, with very few exceptions. The city’s major intersections are signalized (there are no stop signs), no level heavy rail crossings, and only one grade-separated intersection at the Don Valley Parkway, with only one onramp and no offramps. Although the roadway is consistent, the neighbourhoods it passes through are very diverse, from the affluent Beaches, hipster Queen West, (what is a nice synonym for sketchy?) Moss Park, up-and-coming Parkdale, and the bustling downtown core. Duncan’s City Ride has a great series on Queen’s varied neighbourhoods, although I think he only got as far east as Bathurst.
Along most of the route, you’ll be riding in a fairly narrow lane between the streetcar lane and a line of parked cars. I call this the “bicycle space”, but be aware that cyclists have no more or less right to use that space than anyone else on the street. These are the bigger things you’ll have to deal with in your ride on Queen Street. Pay attention and watch for them.
Parked cars: The parked cars are the biggest hazard on the street – be careful around them. If you see a car pull in to a parking spot down the road ahead of you, be aware that the driver will be getting out, and often they won’t check their rearview before they swing their door open right in front of you. Don’t ride so fast that you don’t have time to stop if a door suddenly opens in front of you. You can use cars’ side mirrors to see if there are people in the cars in front of you, and plan accordingly. If you see someone getting out of their car or loading their trunk in front of you, ring your bell to let them know you’re coming, but don’t expect that they’re going to get out of your way (they usually don’t).
Pedestrians: People aimlessly walking around are another big hazard, not so much for you but for themselves. Much of Queen Street is a shopping district, and pedestrians are often not from the area and aren’t necessarily watching for cyclists. Don’t be afraid to ring your bell if you see people starting to wander into your path. This is especially true for people walking between parked cars as they’re crossing the street – they’re looking for cars but not for cyclists, and many will stand in that bicycle space while waiting for a gap in traffic. Use your bell to make sure they’re aware of you, but don’t expect them to move. Stop if you have to. This is Rob Ford’s Toronto, and people are being conditioned to see cyclists as the enemy.
Parked trucks & tour buses: Any large vehicle that you can’t see in front of is a hazard, because people might appear in front, standing in that bicycle space again. You may have noticed that streetcars ring their gong when they pass these large vehicles, and you should too. Make sure that anyone who might be about to cross in front of you knows that you’re there.
Streetcars: A 55-tonne hulk of glass and metal rumbling along a couple feet from your side is incredibly nerve-racking, and the 501 Queen streetcars run very frequently. However, streetcars are the only vehicle on the street that physically cannot swerve in front of you, so as long as you can ride in a straight line, streetcars are no threat at all. However, do not pass stopped and loading streetcars! If any of the streetcar’s doors are open, it is illegal to pass the streetcar’s back bumper. If you ride up on people getting on and off the streetcar, they will be hostile, and rightly so, because you’re being an ass.
Vehicles passing streetcars: Outside of the core, drivers will often try to pass streetcars just after they load and before they start moving again, in the short space where cars are not allowed to park. This requires swerving to the right lane, accelerating rapidly to pass the streetcar at high speed, and swerving back in front of the streetcar before it gets up to speed again. If you’re riding beside the streetcar when this happens, the driver might not even see you as they’re watching for the gap between the front of the streetcar and the back of the next parked car to close, and you could be hit and seriously injured. Prevent drivers from doing this beside you by riding in the centre of the lane next to the streetcar, or pull aside and wait. Don’t hug the curb, you could run out of room quickly.
Cars: I left this one to last, because if you’re not being an idiot, cars are actually not much of a hazard. Since Queen Street is already heavily used by cyclists, most drivers on Queen have seen and driven around bicycles already, and most are watching for you. Use your hand signals so that drivers know what you’re doing, and you’ll avoid most of the problems you might otherwise have with cars. Don’t try to pass a car on the right at an intersection – either wait for them to move, or if they’re signalling a right turn and you have space you can pass on the left, but if you pass on the right you might have an unpleasant experience with their front fender. And it’s your own fault if you do.
Be courteous to drivers and they’ll generally be courteous to you. If you come across a driver who’s being an ass, just stay out of their way, seriously. Don’t be arrogant and confrontational, you’ll lose. Drivers already have an unreasonable sense of power behind the wheel, and they’re driving vehicles that can kill you easily. Again, Rob Ford is our mayor, and his heart bleeds when a cyclist is killed, but he believes it’s their own fault, and you can rest assured at least some of the drivers who voted for him think that way too. Adjust your attitude accordingly.
If you take the responsibility of riding on the street seriously, you’ll have a great time riding on Queen Street to get where you’re going. Follow these few guidelines to get you started, and for more tips, see the great collection of How-to articles on the fantastic BikingToronto website. The more bikes there are on the street, the better for cyclists everywhere in the city. So get out there and ride!