Cycling on Toronto streetcar streets: the typical scenario

Where do you ride on a streetcar street? Do you ride next to the parked cars, or do you truck along between the tracks of the centre lane? If you're like the vast majority of people you ride like in the image above, in the left part of the curb lane. I recently took a video on Dundas West to see how cyclists act in the wild (apologies for the sloppy phone video).

Toronto, unusual for North America, has a lot of streets with streetcar tracks. It's hard to avoid them or ride them safely. I taught Can-Bike cycling courses and took participants on downtown routes for years. I would show diagrams of a "regular" width lane where a bike and a car could easily share side-by-side (keeping 1 metre from curb), and a "narrow" width lane, too narrow to share. I taught the participants to take the lane but reality was more complicated. The theory didn't translate so well to streetcar streets.

In theory cyclists should ride in the centre of the centre lane on a streetcar street because the curb lane was usually blocked with parked cars and the centre lane is too narrow to share. As a group we would ride down the centre of the streetcar tracks. It looked impressive, but it wasn't very practical, especially when impatient motorists felt we were blocking them. We would do our best to ignore the yelling and honking but some would closely pass the entire group given half a chance.

Instead of encouraging participants to take the lane, it did the reverse. Numerous participants would tell me that on their own they would never take the lane on these streets. I couldn't blame them since I didn't ride like that myself except when making a left or if I had no choice and then only for a short stretch. It is too stressful. There are times when taking the lane does make sense such as when I wait behind the turning car in the video.

Comfort and Stress
Comfort and stress are mostly ignored in the theory. When it comes down to it, taking the lane can be very stressful and very few people would feel comfortable doing it on a streetcar street with parked cars. And it's not just the cars but also the streetcars breathing down your neck. Given the choice between being constantly under stress from cars approaching from behind and an elevation of risk of opening car doors, most people choose the risk they can't directly experience over the first-hand stress. People don't experience risk, we aren't good at assessing the riskiness of a situation, but we do experience discomfort.

Taking the lane is often impractical on these streets. Bicycles have the advantage of being much narrower than cars and trucks. When approaching a long line of backed-up traffic the majority of cyclists will filter up to the front, much like I do at the end of the video. This can be done in a safe manner so long as the traffic is stopped. It's not practical to teach people to take the lane when filtering would get them further ahead. The trick is to give some pointers on when it's a good idea to filter and when it's not.

Minimize risk
We don't really know all the relative risks when riding on a streetcar street, nor how to rank them. There's the risk of opening car doors; the risk of being sideswiped; of a car turning in front of you; and the risk of being rear-ended. We also don't know the risk of being side swiped by an angry driver who passes as closely as possible, or threatens a cyclist. We have very little data, to help us decide if sharing the lane or taking the lane increases danger (I covered this in my previous post). In the moment you can only rely on your judgement and your skills.

How I try to reduce my stress and risk

  • When there are parked cars on the right, I try to stay far enough away to avoid any opening car doors.
  • I try to be vigilant for any people in cars and keep my hands on my brakes in case they open their doors.
  • By riding near the white line I try to avoid stressful conflicts with drivers. That will typically provide enough space for drivers to pass. It also reduces the number of unpredictable and potentially dangerous conflicts with drivers.
  • When there are gaps between parked cars I ride predictably in a straight line instead of swerving towards the curb. This helps me keep my place in the flow of traffic.

I wish some more practicality ended up in these cycling courses instead of sticking to dogma. If you agree, you may appreciate The Art of Urban Cycling, which takes a much less dogmatic approach to the business of safer cycling.


Oh no, now you've done it! Out come in the 'vehicular cycling' fundies in 1... 2... 3...

I think riding just to the right of the white line (as in the photo) is key: even if drivers on your left have to move over in their lane a bit more than they would otherwise, they see that you're in a separate lane, and this will diminish the rage.

Regarding going straight when there are gaps in the right lane, though: a few too many drivers -- cabbies, I'm looking in your direction -- use any and all opportunities to pass on the right. Ideally, I go straight (like you) in this situation, but I often veer to the right of the lane if I anticipate this move or (more recently) take the middle of that lane to preempt it. The last thing I need is to be sandwiched between two active lanes of traffic yet again.

Otherwise, if I'm keeping pace with traffic, I just ride between the tracks. The only danger this presents (aside from crossing the tracks) is the brain trusts who seem to think, "omg... this cyclist who is keeping perfect pace with traffic is somehow slowing me down to an absurd degree. Laying on the horn will surely fix this situation and get me no further ahead than I would've otherwise gotten." I've even had idiots try to pass me on the left in this situation. The yellow line meant nothing.

I'm all for riding as far out of the door zone as possible. However SOME TTC operators are of the opinion bicyclists quote MUST get the FUCK out of their WAY endquote and TTC complaints doesn't seem overly concerned about safety as opposed to convenience. I've tried nailing down TTTC on policy wrt safe passing of bicyclists and pedestrians and there doesn't seem to be any. I've been clipped more than once and complaints go nowhere. WTF!

I keep a straight line when there's a short gap in the parked cars, but when there are longer gaps like those seen in the video I move to the right as far as the middle of the lane to allow faster cyclists to pass me. The cyclist in the video should have been doing shoulder checks every time she moved back in position!

I've also found streetcar drivers to be sometimes impatient with cyclists trying to ride out of the door zone - not all of them, mind you. The jerks are the ones that stand out in my mind. I have found that if it appears as if they won't slow down when I'm riding out by the white line that I will either signal and move further out or I will slow down and give them the room to pass.

It can be frustrating if you're playing "leapfrog" with the streetcar, both for the cyclist and the streetcar driver/passengers. I will try to time it so that I either let the streetcar get ahead or I give it a big push so that I can break the leapfrogging.

Speaking of frustrating, I've even had a female passenger stick her head out of the window to yell at me to move over, or at least that's what I think she was saying. She seemed to be going nuts being stuck in a streetcar which was stuck behind all the car traffic on Queen.

What it comes down to is a wager there are fewer violent psychopathic drivers than inattentive ones. I still feel, or at least hope, there are fewer drivers who will try to commit vehicular murder(ok Bryant is still on the loose somewhere, but don't panic) than manslaughter. Oh they might say they're going to kill you, when they roll down the window, tailgate, honk and scream, but they're likely full of shit. Fact is most people of full of shit. The person who is really going to kill you is the ignorant fuck tweeting about their Starbucks and how hard it is to find parking on a street with bike lanes whist kicking the door of her coupe open. Perhaps even McMayor Rob ford reading the sun sports section on the way to work will make worm's meat of you... It is shark week after all.

Anyways, avoid the door zone and by avoid it i mean place yourself where you're not going to have to swerve, because emergency swerving (if you can actually avoid the door) is already a near-death experience, never-mind on street-car lined tracks.

Hey, I wonder if streetcar tracks are partly responsible for less lane-taking in general? It would seem Toronto isn't so great for cycling compared to, say, Dallas Texas...

Rantwick: How Cyclists See Toronto

I agree that riding between the tracks is mostly a bad idea.

  • You have to cross the tracks to get there
  • You have to cross the tracks again to depart, or to go to an open curb lane
  • The curves at streetcar junctions are much trickier to navigate as the angles are much less than they are further away
  • It's rare to be keeping up with traffic, usually either traffic is considerably faster, or stopped; in either case being to the side is better
  • You will either have a streetcar on your butt, or run up behind the streetcar ahead of you

Keep in mind that the streecar may be carrying lots of people, who otherwise might drive or catch a taxi. If you are a slow rider, please stay out of the way of the streetcars.

Does anyone know what the "right thing to do" in a legal sense in this situation is? I tried to find U.S.A. laws concerning this but was not able to find anything.

Thanks for sharing this information, Ireally appropriate it.
Used Cars Toronto

One of Metrolinx's projects is to upgrade the Dundas West-Bloor Mobility Hub. In phase two, they plan to rebuild the streetcar loop to use Edna Avenue (one block north of Bloor Street West on Dundas Street West).

See for the image.

See for the Dundas West-Bloor Mobility Hub.

Signal lights would be used to allow streetcars to enter and egress from Edna Avenue. However, looking closely at the image, the westbound streetcar tracks seem to be in the right lane, right beside the north side sidewalk. I can see problems with bicycles using the right lane, even if they make it streetcars only.

I think they add a bicycle lane going westbound on Edna Avenue, or put dual bicycle lanes that go in both directions on the south side of Edna Avenue.

For me, the main problem with taking the streetcar lane is the exit part. Ever try crossing the tracks at high speed? This is a recipe for disaster, because the faster you are going, the less able you are to properly angle your wheels perpendicular to the tracks.

If you have been keeping pace with traffic and have cars on your tail who aren't expecting you to significantly slow when exiting, this can be dangerous.

I have no problem crossing/entering the streetcar lane at low speed, and also have no problem taking the lane. But exiting (for example to make a right turn, or because the right lane opens up) is dangerous. The options are either to slow significantly with cars behind you (yes, you can signal, but you must trust drivers understand and are paying attention) or to maintain speed and exit the track lane at an unsafe angle. I have crashed doing the latter while being aggressively tailgated by a motorist in the streetcar lane. I needed to move over to the right, and was afraid of being rear-ended by the tailgater, so I tried to hop the tracks at high speed to move over. It didn't work, my wheel found its way into the track despite a ~45 deg crossing angle, and I went sliding into the right curb on my side.

Now, I will ride on the white line (or slightly right or slightly left of it, depending on where the door zone is) on streetcar streets. Navigating the streetcar lane in stop and go traffic is still something I do, but I feel unsafe attempting to navigate streetcar tracks and cars at normal traffic speeds.