Encouraging cycling tourism in Ontario

Ontario released its new Cycling Strategy on Friday. One of the areas that caught my interest — partly because I sent in comments on the first draft — is intercity tourism.

Cycling is a great form of staycation, ie a way to encourage Ontarians to vacation near home. It could also be an economic way for frugalistas like myself to vacate. Of course, it also has a function of encouraging non-Ontarians to vacation (and spend their money) here.

I was therefore quite disappointed to see no mention of actually building much infrastructure to accomplish these tourism goals. In fact, the first step is to advertise we are cycling friendly, before actually building additional facilities. And then we are going to figure out a network, tying together various bits of widened shoulders on highways or other trails. Some new infrastructure would probably be required.

I fear this approach might be doomed to failure. After researching cycling opportunities in Canada, I ended up cycling along the Loire. And in Austria. But not here. Why?

First, the Europeans have lots of nice packages at all price points and exciting routes, well marked and rated. Both European cycling holidays were excellent value for the money. I stayed in better accommodation for much less than a Comfort Inn here. And the routes were astonishingly safe.

Last year I made a point of finding bits of the Lake Ontario trail in the Toronto-Port Hope area. All the bits I found were shoulders on high speed highways. On roads with slopes and grades designed for motor vehicles, not cycling. Too many of the vehicles in the Port Hope area were souped up cars and huge black pickup trucks roaring around noisily. It was a turn off.

At the Ontario Cycling conference held here in Ottawa, the Bruce Peninsula area promoted cycling holidays. Mostly on-road. Mostly on highways. I met some residents from the area cycling on bixi bikes here in Ottawa — yes, this is anecdotal evidence — who were thrilled with Ottawa’s facilities (thank you Douglas Fullerton). On questioning, they were familiar with their areas tourism brochures, yes they did some cycling near home, but their principle problem was “mirror tag”. Apparently this is the amusement of persons in large pickups trying sneek up then rev the engine as close as possible to the cyclist to see their reaction. Such amusement. I hope your experiences differ.

For my part, I headed off to safer pastures. Europe’s gain; our loss.

One of the areas I was interested in cycling was the Romantic Road in Germany (south of Frankfurt). I could find no info on cycling routes there. Once there, though, driving my rental Golf VW, I discovered tons of dedicated off-road cycling infrastructure under construction. I asked at a tourist office why there were no brochures. The answer: we won’t encourage cycling until the intercity network is complete enough to make it an enjoyable and safe experience. Despite that, there were already lots of cycle tourists, mostly in their 50’s to 70’s.

Compare that to Ontario’s strategy of advertise first, then over come the disappointment later.

Here are some pictures of cycling infrastructure in Germany and Austria:.

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(above) Start with the towns and villages. Many had low-traffic or auto-free zones that welcomed bike traffic mixed with pedestrians. Does downtown Perth, Smith’s Falls, Arnprior or Cornwall feel particularly cycle friendly? I hope they become so.

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(above) This German path is built in difficult terrain (ie, expensive) but cyclists probably want to see the same sights that have attracted motorists and their fine roads. No need to play “share the road” with high speed cars or big trucks.

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(above) At this intersection, the cycle path dekes off to the left to cross the side road at right angles a few car lengths away from the major intersection, a practice universally derided by vehicular cyclists and our traffic engineers, but employed throughout European countries that have the highest cycling rates.

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(above) In farmland areas, the bike path often doubled as a farm road for slow-moving tractors, providing safer access to fields than tractors on the highway.

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(above) Most paths I was on were paved, even in “remote” areas. But some were not:

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(above) Oh that we could cycle from Ottawa to Kingston along the Rideau waterway on a path like this. Sign me up !

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(above) Only rarely were farm fields fenced off from cycle paths or local roads. I can’t imagine such a relaxed and calm attitude here.

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(above) The Germans and Austrians were willing to spend money to build proper infrastructure in difficult places. This rubberized “boardwalk” went on, and on, and on … and the route attracted lots of cycle tourists:

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So yes, let’s promote cycle tourism here in Ontario. But promote it on safe, off-road or specifically cycle-safe local streets (not rural highways shared with 100 kmh trucks). Our cycle tourism numbers are low because there are few facilities, not because we haven’t shiny brochures with the Minister’s name on them. Build the facilities, and the cyclists will find them.

It will take years to build these facilities. Until they are in place, I will (a bit regretfully) take my tourism dollars to where I feel I can get an interesting, economical, and safe cycling holiday.

I am interested in European-quality cycling routes in North America. I will get to PEI in the next few years, but a call to Newfoundland replaced PEI this year. And I have cycled some of the rail-to-trail near Mont Tremblant. My list is open …

9 thoughts on “Encouraging cycling tourism in Ontario

  1. I certainly agree central point here (build infrastructure before promoting it), but I feel you have misrepresented the infrastructure that currently exists in Ontario. The section of the Waterfront Trail between Port Hope and Toronto that you highlighted is in my opinion the least pleasant stretch. That said, it is still quite manageable and some parts are downright great. There are much nicer sections from Kingston to Port Hope, and again west of Toronto.

    I think the model of the Waterfront Trail is one that could be followed elsewhere in rural Ontario with minimal need for additional infrastructure. Simply having designated and well-signed routes that you can follow along low-traffic roads connecting interesting towns is enough for many cycle tourists. I certainly don’t want or need to ride on a segregated bike path for hundreds of kilometers. Wide paved shoulders are definitely handy if/when travelling on a busier road is necessary though.

    Lastly, I wanted to point out a community that can really make cycle touring great anywhere you go: http://www.warmshowers.org. It is basically like couch surfing, but specifically for cycle tourists. My few experiences with it have been absolutely wonderful, and I would recommend it to anyone thinking about a tour.

    I’m at least happy Ontario is talking about cycle tourism. And you too, Eric. Great to read.


  2. Some years ago I went on a “boat and bike” tour in Holland. A company had converted some canal barges by building small bedrooms with two double bunks each, a dining room, and a salon for people to socialize in. At night you slept in a bed, got up in the morning and had a shower in the en-suite 2-piece b/r, had a breakfast buffet (which included lots of stuff for making sandwiches to take along for lunch, fruit, etc). Then with the aid of a tour guide everybody set out into the country-side, biking through the Dutch countryside. At night the tour ended up somewhere close to a canal and there was your boat! It was an excellent 10 days. You’re right about the cycling infrastructure – there were paths everywhere, including rural and remote areas, not just near towns. We very rarely had to go on roads. And the cost for all this was quite reasonable ~2K for 2 people IIRC.

    Imagine, as you suggest, if you could do that all the way along the Rideau canal, and then up the Trent-Severn waterway? We have the canals, all we need is the biking infrastructure.

    1. Your Netherlands trip sounds pretty much dead on for the same trip we did in France along the Loire Valley, but I recall the price as cheaper. My young son wrote a travelogue about it on my website EricDarwin.ca (with some parental editing). There are lots of these trips available, and I fully intend to take some more. Tourism is a competitive market, and the Ontario (and Canadian, and US)market just doesn’t compare.

  3. You might be interested in (if not already familiar with) SUSTRANS – http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ . Their primary task is, as I describe it, the care and feeding of the bike path network in the UK, both intra- and inter-urban, working with local councils and communities to create and maintain bike routes for both recreation and commuting. They also have a significant sideline promoting and developing ped- and cycle-centred communities though zoning, traffic-calming, safe-streets, public transport, etc.

    OK, OK! It’s true – my daughter has been working there (in Bristol) the past 10 years, so I’m not an entirely unbiased fan, but they really do excellent work and have some wonderful weirdos on staff.

  4. I wonder if the ads will feature how many days it has been since days a highway cycling fatality…

  5. If Europe is the only worthwhile cycle touring destination you could find you didnt look hard enough. While not Ontario, the 132 in Quebec from Levis just south of Quebec City through to Rivière du Loup (route verte) is a nice, scenic and well supported trip with B&Bs, etc. and is friendly to cyclists. It is also relatively flat. It could be extended around Gaspesie but that would be much more challenging but not unlike the Alps, though without the switchbacks on the hills… though I’ve never cycled it, you could start in MTL and take the 132 through Trois-Rivière to QC as well, all along the St Lawrence. Or take the 138 from MTL on the north shore and cross to the 132 at QC. I’d use the Levis ferry vs Pont Pierre Laporte and youd get to do Vieux Quebec and Old Porte of QC as well. Beautiful cycling and perhaps only my own perception but Quebecers seem to appreciate and respect the velo more than people here in Ontario, so less likely to get idiots hitting you with the mirror!

    1. Rte 132 along the Gaspé peninsula is great (most of the route verte is on the road, some is off road, but generally well signed). If you’re up for a few hills that is..

      Ottawa to Montreal on the 148 via route verte is also a good (very flat) route to do from home. Just be careful going into Montreal.

      Next on my list is taking it up to Tremblant..

      An initiative like La Route Verte is definitely something we need in Ontario. It seems like most of their efforts are as simple as paving the shoulder.. and Ontario definitely has a network of secondary low traffic roads (and most of highway 17) to create a provincial cycling network.

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