Biking advocates and city leaders are hoping to put the brakes on an “alarming” conflict between cyclists, police, and park lovers in Toronto’s west end.
Disputes between riders and other residents who frequent High Park are nothing new, but this year they’ve kicked into high gear. Some blame the pandemic-era bike boom that’s put more riders on Toronto’s limited road space, while others point the finger at fitness apps that push cyclists to speed.
But regardless of the root cause, a recent police crackdown on cyclists in the park hasn’t turned down the temperature, and instead has prompted accusations of harassment from cyclists. With advocates planning a protest in the park this week, the spat has also taken on political dimensions and looks set to become an issue in the upcoming municipal election.
Gayle Duchene is one park user who has welcomed the police presence. The retiree lives across from High Park, and during the pandemic her regular walks there have been a source of solace. But she says these days her strolls are disrupted by “flocks” of cyclists treating the park as “their own personal Tour de France.”
“They tear around the park like crazy,” she said, adding that she’s seen riders shout at pedestrians who get in their way and nearly collide with children and others on the road.
“You just have to be really, really alert,” she said. “And you can’t expect a stop sign to save your neck … these guys don’t stop.”
The primary targets of Duchene and other residents’ frustrations are so-called “MAMILs,” a playful acronym for “middle-aged men in Lycra,” the speedy road bike riders who use High Park’s relatively car-free roads and steep inclines to do training laps.
But the police crackdown has prompted backlash from Toronto’s wider cycling community. David Shellnutt, a local attorney who bills himself as “the Biking Lawyer,” is helping organize the protest this Thursday, when riders will meet at the park to demand an end to “police targeting cyclists.”
Shellnutt and others note that police data show cyclists haven’t seriously injured anyone in the park for at least 15 years. He says ticketing cyclists for minor infractions there is “an affront” to riders who have long called on police to do more to tackle dangerous driving that injures dozens of cyclists each year.
“Every day that we cycle we see a car parked in a bike lane, someone cut us off at a right turn. None of this is enforced,” Shellnutt said.
He argues the police presence in High Park is only heightening the conflict. Not only are riders avoiding the park for fear of being ticketed, he says, but on Aug. 2 an officer in a cruiser in the park collided with a cyclist.
Shellnutt isn’t the only one concerned. On Friday, the CycleTO advocacy group issued an open letter asking for an urgent meeting with Mayor John Tory and Chief James Ramer, saying advocates “have grown increasingly alarmed by the recent and escalating tensions between” riders and police.
Toronto Police spokesperson Const. Laura Brabant confirmed there was “a minor collision” between a police vehicle and a cyclist at Colborne Lodge Dr. and Centre Rd. on Aug. 2 but said no injuries were reported and an investigation is ongoing.
Brabant said officers were deployed to High Park “to help keep the community safe” after receiving complaints about riders and other road users speeding. She said their approach has been “to educate and caution cyclists” who go above the posted 20 km/h limit or commit other offences like failing to stop at a stop sign, and to issue tickets “when necessary.”
She said she couldn’t provide data on how many tickets have been issued to riders in the park this year, and that information was only available through a freedom of information request.
According to Brabant, the force’s cycling-focused activities in High Park are “a small part” of the service’s overall traffic enforcement, and the initiative has “been welcomed by the local community as well as those visiting the park.”
Challengers in the Oct. 24 municipal election have seized on the cycling spat as evidence that the current crop of leaders at City Hall have mismanaged the park.
In a news release Thursday Siri Agrell, a council candidate in what’s expected to be a hard-fought race in Ward 4, Parkdale—High Park, blamed “a failure of local leadership” by four-term incumbent Gord Perks.
Agrell, a former adviser to Mayor Tory, said the police response wouldn’t have happened if Perks “had responded to residents, park users and cyclists and better managed issues in and around the area.”
She’s calling on the city to trial designated times for cyclists to use the park between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and to explore options for cycling space at other west-end locations like Exhibition Place.
Perks, a vocal critic of Tory’s, said he has already initiated conversations between cycling groups and city staff about designated cycling times. He has also pushed to advance the High Park Movement Strategy, a review intended to reshape the area’s transportation network and reduce conflicts.
“I’m not really all that concerned about what other candidates are saying,” he said of Agrell’s accusations that he hadn’t been proactive. “My task is to get High Park redesigned so that there’s no need for enforcement and everyone can enjoy it.”
Gil Penalosa, who is challenging Tory in the mayor’s race, is calling for designated road cycling times before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. He also wants to permanently close the northern loop of West Rd. and Colborne Lodge Dr. to car traffic.
Penalosa suggested Tory has been moving too slowly on the issue, and the solution he proposes could be implemented immediately. In a tweet, Penalosa asked “why wait (three) years for a study??”
Last month Tory defended police ticketing cyclists in the park. In a statement Friday his spokesperson Lawvin Hadisi said the mayor “wants everyone to be safe in High Park” and that “involves everyone respecting the law and accommodating each other.” She said his office is working to set up a meeting with CycleTO.
Tory’s re-election campaign declined to weigh in on Penalosa’s proposal for changes to the park. “We’re not going to rule out any idea but the mayor also won’t impose something on the community without proper public consultation,” it said in a statement.
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