Views / Opinion

Tour de Mississauga a glimpse of burbs’ potential for a bicycle friendly future: Micallef

When you ride the tour, the transportation potential of the GTA’s suburban communities seems a bit brighter.

Fifteen hundred cyclists gather in Mississauga's Celebration Square by city hall before setting out to ride through the city on Sept. 17, 2017.

For Torstar News Service

Fifteen hundred cyclists gather in Mississauga's Celebration Square by city hall before setting out to ride through the city on Sept. 17, 2017.

Nobody rides bicycles in the suburbs.

You’ve likely heard variations of this statement, a truism that gets thrown around a lot. However, nobody told the 1,500 bike riders who converged on Mississauga’s Celebration Square last Sunday morning for the 10th annual Tour de Mississauga ride.

The sight of all those bikes in front of Mississauga’s city hall was something to behold, especially when they rang their bells in unison. It was also a strong statement about the potential of cycling in places that were originally designed around car-centric lifestyles.

The tour is billed as one of Ontario’s largest community cycling events and had 5k, 10k, 25k and 50k routes through Canada’s sixth-largest city. Like many bike races, marathons and other sporting events that take over city streets, it starts at an ungodly hour of the morning for those of us who are not early risers, with staggered start times beginning at 7:30 a.m. for the 50k riders.

While some streets around the city centre area were closed to traffic, most of the route was on city streets, sometimes with bike lanes, sometimes not, with motor vehicle traffic still flowing by. At some of the busier intersections there was a Peel Region police officer directing traffic. But mostly we were on city streets as Mississauga riders would be on any day, just with more friends.

Though riders spread out over time, they often collected back up in groups at the traffic lights with long cycles, so there was often a critical mass of dozens of riders at once. Whether riding in Toronto, Mississauga or elsewhere, there’s a real feeling of security when around other riders. For purely recreational riders on the tour, this feeling would certainly embolden them to try bike commuting on other days, though they won’t have as many fellow riders nearby, dominating the wide roads.

Many of the arterial roads we travelled are scaled quite large, something that encourages faster driving and highway-like conditions, making the lone bike rider feel rather small and vulnerable. To correct this, Mississauga has an ambitious cycling master plan that aims to develop 900 kilometres of on- and off-road cycling routes in the city over the next 20 years that will put 95 per cent of city residents within one kilometre of a primary cycling route.

However, even the residential streets we travelled on could accommodate a bike lane in at least one direction. An advantage of oversized roads and wide right-of-ways is they can always be more fairly divided up for all modes of traffic, an advantage that urban centres don’t have.

Mississauga’s current cycling route map, like Toronto’s, is a largely disconnected jumble of routes across the city, though the proposed primary cycling route map knits them together nicely.

Toronto’s ambitions to do the same have been excruciatingly slow to happen: last week, after the Woodbine bike lanes had recently opened, there were already complaints from Beach residents who want them removed. There is always a fight in Toronto for equitable infrastructure.

Perhaps in Mississauga where, at least from outside, the political environment often seems more positive and less baggage-laden than Toronto’s, they will have more success in implementing this and turning recreational riders into commuters.

The Tour de Mississauga isn’t a race, though some probably treat it as such, and the gentle two-hour ride on the 25k route revealed some of Mississauga’s varied landscape. There’s a lot of variation too, considering that just a little over 40 years ago Celebration Square and the Mississauga City Centre neighbourhood around it were farm fields.

After passing through the new tall buildings of City Centre, there were residential buildings from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, a kind of exhibition of Canadian mass-housing styles. Mississauga doesn’t get enough credit for its many areas of density. There are warrens of leafy and cozy town house complexes from various eras in between the single family home neighbourhoods.

Of course there’s a lot of those single family homes too, many with driveway three-cars wide, often stuffed with even more cars, a sign every family member old enough to drive has a car, turning some streets into carscapes.

These too are interesting though: an enterprising photographer could make a rather interesting coffee table book or photo blog of all the different typologies and styles of Mississauga homes. Some are exuberantly mid-century expressionist or embrace 1980s post-modernism, others are baroque McMansions, caught up in a fever dream of Doric pillars. Mississauga’s all the same? Not true either.

There’s also a gentle but insistent topography to Mississauga, something you may overlook when in a car or even when walking: when cycling, you feel every incline and decline, no matter how mild. Creek valleys, high plateaus and the occasional vista all reveal themselves while riding through the city’s neighbourhoods. The 25k route was all on-road, but it would have been nice to have taken some of the off-road trails as well.

Many riders returning to Celebration Square were met by Mayor Bonnie Crombie who posed for pictures at the finish line. Later she took the stage along with an enthusiastic Mississauga Ward 3 Councillor Chris Fonseca, a cycling and active transit advocate, to congratulate the riders and cheer on the city’s bike-friendly future.

The challenge with all those cars is that even with big, wide roads, there are too many of them still and traffic is routinely clogged. Mississauga has an equally bold transportation plan though, with the Hurontario LRT coming soon and the Dundas Connects project in the planning stages to complement the existing Mississauga Transitway. But transit can’t reach every house. This is the “last mile” problem, as transportation planners call it, but a bike-friendly Mississauga could help overcome that last bit to home.

If it seems implausible, consider the Netherlands but ignore Amsterdam or Rotterdam, the cycling utopias often talked about, but rather look at that country’s incredible network of cycling trails in rural areas. People think nothing of cycling from town to town, let alone within those towns.

Too fanciful a dream for Mississauga? Ride the tour next year and the transportation potential of GTA suburbs might seem a bit brighter. It just needs people to get behind it.

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