October 28, 2023

Scarborough Cycles with Marvin Macaraig

During my conversation with Nancy Smith Lea in late August, she brought up TCAT’s push for community bike hubs to expand cycling culture beyond downtown. One of these programs – Scarborough Cycles – was established in 2015 and now operates three bike hubs at AccessPoint on Danforth, Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre, and at 3939 Lawrence Ave E in partnership with Toronto Community Housing. I spoke with Marvin Macaraig to learn more about Scarborough Cycles and some of the advocacy happening in Scarborough.

RZ: For those who don’t know what a bike hub is, walk me through some of the day-to-day operations of Scarborough Cycles.
MM: Our bike hubs are a place to gather and bring people together where they can learn skills, get connected, and find answers to common everyday things they may be missing. If you noticed I didn’t use the word “bike” at all, this is a community hub. I think of the community first and bikes are at the backdrop. They are central to what we do, but the bike hub really is a place where people can come together first and foremost. What we do is we program, and Scarborough Cycles is a program of Access Alliance which is a Community Health Centre.

If you're not familiar with what a Community Health Centre (CHC) is, a CHC is just another way of administering healthcare in Ontario The only difference with CHC’s is our model of care focuses on the social determinants of health; meaning there is more to one person’s (or community’s) health than getting a prescription and having a doctor follow up in six months. Some determinants include poverty, systemic racism, inequality, built form, and environment; and that’s where Scarborough Cycles comes in. It’s one thing to say you should be riding and there are a lot of health benefits to riding, but the built form in some communities in Toronto doesn’t let you do that. Instead, it actively suppresses you from riding a bike or taking a stroll. At Scarborough Cycles we focus on identifying and removing these barriers to participation and then try to build our community bike culture that way. There are many ways to build bike culture in the inner suburbs, but I really believe that linking it to public health, community health, and taking a data-driven approach to programming is a good way to do it.

RZ: I remember hearing about the determinants of health from Ryan Meili’s “A Healthy Society.” What programming does Scarborough Cycles currently offer?
MM: At the very beginning, we have our drop-in bike repair on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Our Tuesdays are more DIY focused for those who want to learn more about their bikes, learn some hands-on skills, and get their hands dirty. For our other drop-in days (on Thursdays and Fridays), our staff or volunteers will take the lead in getting repairs or tune ups done. If you want to do it yourself, you can do it. If you’re a busy parent and don’t have time to learn at this moment how to fix a flat, we’ll gladly help you with that.

There are other things we always do such as the group rides which are very important and bring people together. We run a wide variety of hands-on workshops such as how to fix a flat, maintain your bike, do a safety check, and others. During the summer months, the workshops are more popular during the day because kids are out of school, while we would do them in the evenings or afternoons in the winter. We partner with other agencies and experts such as Cycle Toronto for their “Safe Cycling 101” workshop and Dave Shellnutt (a.k.a. The Biking Lawyer) for his “Know Your Rights” workshop.

We run other programs within our agency such as “Hijabs and Helmets” which has been running for three years now and the focus is on empowering women to ride more and do more on their bikes. We do internal workshops with our dieticians and other recreational staff since we already have a captive audience and can refer them to our programs.

RZ: I heard Scarborough has their version of Cycling Without Age. Is that also done through Scarborough Cycles?
MM: Our “Take Our Seniors Out (TOSO)” program is our newest barrier-free cycling initiative, which utilizes a 3-wheeled e-cargo bike that seats two adult passengers at the front. It's a recreational seniors’ program, or for people who have limited ability or who would not be able to ride a bike on city streets. The reason why it's not Cycling Without Age – we have a really good relationship with their Toronto chapter – is because as an agency, we have the ability to run it ourselves. We have the expertise, storage, personnel, and funding to make it happen ourselves. The seniors in our community love the rides so much! It brings them so much joy, it addresses social isolation, and it helps aging in place. The success of our TOSO program is directly linked to the availability and access to safe cycling routes in our community, so we need to build more!

One of the TOSO bikes used by Scarborough Cycles

RZ: You started Scarborough Cycles out of AccessPoint on Danforth. How did you determine where to set up shop in new locations?
MM: We have three locations; AccessPoint on Danforth where I’m based, Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre, and at Lawrence-Orton which is in partnership with Toronto Community Housing. Scarborough Cycles started as a project of The Centre for Active Transportation through a three-year grant in 2015. The project was to help build bike culture by establishing community bike hubs which – while numerous and successful in downtown – didn’t exist in the suburbs. For my role, I used to work at TCAT as the first co-ordinator for this project. Part of the sustainability plan was to embed my position into one of the partner agencies, so my position was moved to Access Alliance which is the bigger of the two agencies we formed a partnership with.

RZ: I recall there used to be a bike hub in Agincourt. What happened to that one?
MM: For a short while, we received provincial funding to create another bike hub in Agincourt and we partnered with Agincourt Community Services Association. They were a terrific partner, and we were one year into that project before a new provincial government was elected in 2018. Sadly, they cancelled that funding so we could not move forward with that project.

RZ: What does your role as a Health Promoter entail?
MM: As a Health Promoter, I am working to improve both individual and community health. A central focus of my work is harm reduction and disease prevention. This is achieved through programming and advocating for new policies, and working towards systemic change. Community health improves when we address the root causes of the problems that face our communities. Access Alliance employs health promoters to work on issues such as poverty, food security, housing, youth/violence prevention, and active transportation, among many other things. We know today that all of these things can greatly affect a person’s heath so it just makes sense that a program like Scarborough Cycles is part of a community health centre.

Scarborough is an outlier in preventable traffic deaths and injuries based on data over the years showing a lot of people are killed and injured on our streets. We can all look at each other and say that’s the price we must pay if we live in a city. Well, I firmly believe that’s not the case. It’s a slow burning public health crisis. Based on Toronto Police data, there were 50 fatalities and 250 serious injuries in 2022 as a result of car crashes in the Toronto, and examining this issue through a public health lens in important.

RZ: Tell me about some of the barriers Scarborough has faced in making their streets bike friendly, as well as any differences within Scarborough.
MM: Scarborough is a third of Toronto’s land mass and all our bike hubs are located south of Highway 401. There are some parts of Scarborough such as the community where AccessPoint on Danforth is located that are very similar to downtown. The streets have a grid pattern, which helps with finding safer routes, so there is a bit more cycling. Southwest Scarborough is also served by 3 subway stops, unlike other parts, that don’t have higher order transit – especially now with no more Line 3. The arterial roads in north Scarborough are faster, wider, and noisier and there’s a lot less infrastructure. Things are getting better slowly and if you go further northeast to Malvern and near the Zoo, the roads have a rural feel.

As for barriers, the built form is very challenging, and also the communities are very different within Scarborough, What you can prescribe in the south where we work is not easily digestible in the north. However, there are people riding all throughout Scarborough and part of my job is to identify and give some of those communities, populations, and neighbourhoods a chance to be at the table. In north Scarborough, lots of people – usually elderly, Asian men and women – ride every day. I see them, talk to them, and have good connections with some of these communities. They ride on the sidewalk to their grocery store, community centre, and to see friends. They are just doing their thing and would never join a group ride, purchase a Cycle Toronto membership, or come to our workshops. I think this is what is sometimes lost in our narrative of what Scarborough is. The weekend warriors and people riding expensive road bikes are also in Scarborough, but my job is to try and find some of these pockets of cycling and bring them the table so we can help improve the conditions for everyone.

RZ: It would be great to see more action in North Scarborough including Malvern. Which projects are Scarborough Cycles focused on over the next 6-12 months?
MM: That's a good question. Right now, we are facing an important project not just for Scarborough, but for all of Toronto, regarding the connectivity of building out a cycling network plan and that project is the Danforth-Kingston Complete Street Extension. I’m working to bring people together and making sure they are signing up to stay connected so we can complement the work of the city’s public consultation unit. So, when they call those meetings, we can send out those emails and make sure that their voices are going to be heard.

One of Scarborough Cycles' group rides starting at AccessPoint on Danforth

The Danforth Complete Street sadly ends 50 metres from our front door of AccessPoint on Danforth as it crosses Victoria Park which is the border of the old Scarborough and East York. The City has a terrific and ambitious plan to build that out right along Danforth and onto Kingston Road all the way to Scarborough Golf Club Road which already has plans passed by council and improvements are under way for the next couple of years. This project would connect several communities and make the streets so much safer for all people.

There's so much conflict every day on these roads, noise pollution, and road rage; but there’s so much potential to connect and build a complete street along Danforth and Kingston. It will extend the network and connect to some important destinations; some of which are recreational like the Scarborough Bluffs and some of which are everyday stuff like our shops, community centres, libraries, and daycares. The public consultations for this project will happen in early 2024 which has been delayed a few times already because of the by-election happening now in Scarborough Southwest. Hopefully, whoever that new councillor is can help make our roads safer and our communities more resilient and livable.

RZ: What piece of advice would you share with those who want to improve cycling in Scarborough?
MM: Actually, a few people ask me this question about what else can we do. Let’s take a situation where they’re a recreational cyclist who puts their bike on their car rack on a sunny day to drive to the Martin Goodman Trail, Milliken Park, Malvern, or wherever their favourite park is to ride. That’s really good, but I would challenge them to try to pick it up every day. Encourage them to see how much you can do by bike, especially at the local level.

I’m fully aware that not everyone can do it. I hear all the perspectives such as the need to shop for a large family, or visit friends across town, or the requirement to drive for work purposes. I fully understand this. We are facing all sorts of different problems including the climate crisis and bikes are an important solution, but it will take time to get there. I know not everyone is amenable to it, but their neighbour, son or daughter, or family member might be. That’s why we build it. We want our communities to be more equitable, the reality is not everyone can afford a car, or even wants to own a car - so it really is about transportation equity.

If you’re already riding as a recreational cyclist, you can connect with us to see if we can help you get you that bit of information to help you ride more, get some route planning advice, or connect you with the wider cycling community in your neighbourhood to help give you that bit of extra push. It’s nice to build these citywide connections, but not everybody is going to ride downtown to Yonge and Dundas. Many people in Scarborough commute only within Scarborough, so the trips originate and end locally. So, open your eyes a little bit and see if you can do some of those local trips.

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