How a Toronto police officer 'changed the conversation' on cycling
Constable was riding the road long before cycling infrastructure developed in the city.
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Const. Hugh Smith’s first bike was a purple beater that he pulled out of the trash as a young kid in Toronto.
“It had one of those banana seats and only one wheel,” he said. “I had to wait until I found another bike with a front tire before I could fix it up.”
Things weren’t all that different when he helped found Toronto’s first bicycle policing unit in 1989. Sure, the bikes had two wheels, but he and the 11 other officers on the squad weren’t exactly well equipped.
They even had to cut off their standard issue police pants to make shorts.
“They weren’t exactly comfortable,” Smith said.
Despite the lack of resources, the bike unit was a success. The officers could cover more ground and have more of the “positive interactions” with the public that Smith feels are at the heart of police work.
“We’d be stopped at an intersection and people would just come up and talk to us,” he said. “We weren’t this big blue machine stuck inside a car.”
Over three decades with the force, Smith – slated to retire at the end of 2016 – has been a passionate advocate for cyclists. He’s trained more than 1,000 officers on bike safety, constantly reminded drivers that cyclists are entitled to the whole lane and was instrumental in getting the city to rescind a bylaw banning side-by-side cycling in 2012.
For his efforts, Smith is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award at Wednesday’s Toronto Bike Awards – hosted by the city and Cycle Toronto.
“Hugh’s work, especially when he was a media spokesperson for the police, really helped change the conversation about cycling in Toronto,” said Cycle Toronto director Jared Kolb. “He moved the discourse away from victim blaming and focused on the safety issues that address how and why our streets should be safer.”
Smith said he’s just proud to have played a role in making Toronto a better city for cycling.
“Watching us go from having no bike lanes and having to fight to be recognized to seeing something like the Richmond and Adelaide lanes go in feels good,” he said. “I think we’re on the right track.”
The Toronto Bike Awards are happening Wednesday at Steam Whistle Brewing Hall (255 Bremner Blvd.), starting at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $5 for Cycle Toronto members and $10 for non-members.
The annual event honours businesses, organizations and individuals that encourage cycling.