December 17, 2023

Documenting Toronto Cycling with Jun Nogami

If you participated in certain cycling events in Toronto, chances are you have seen a blog post about them as soon as an hour after the event finished. This blog called “Biking in a Big City” has been around for thirteen years which covered a fair number of advocacy events, gear reviews, long distance rides, and the World Human Powered Speed Challenge. I spoke with the blog’s author – Jun Nogami – to learn more about what first inspired him to start the bike blog and some of the things he has learned over the years.

RZ: What first inspired you to write the “Biking in a Big City” blog?
JN: I was inspired by Martin Reis because he had a blog called “Bike Lane Diary” which I used to read and around 2010, I could see that it was kind of winding down, so I decided to start a blog. We moved to Toronto in 2004 and the first thing that I did for bike advocacy was in 2005 with Bells on Bloor. That was when I met people like Derek Chadbourne, Angela Bischoff, and Hamish Wilson. I'm not sure if I met Albert at that time, but that's sort of what got me interested in the whole bike advocacy thing.

Of course, my blog isn't just about advocacy like your blog – which is very focused on advocacy and you do a lot of background research – my blog is mainly photos with captions. They sort of complement each other, but there wasn't any serious intent in starting the blog which I thought would be just kind of fun. If I look at the blog, probably the most popular posts are little bike gear reviews, although I haven't done any of those in a while. Then there is some advocacy stuff, particularly around the ghost bikes. And then there is all the coverage of high-speed bicycling at Battle Mountain. So those are the three most popular kinds of things people seem to pay attention to.

RZ: You mentioned you started with the Bloor campaign in 2005. Tell me a bit about the early days of fighting for bike lanes on Bloor.
JN: I think it's really important to understand that people like Angela have been working on bike lanes on Bloor for decades – predating the work of Cycle Toronto – as part of a vision of having a continuous safe way to bicycle east-west across the city. That was the vision of Tooker Gomberg. I don't remember exactly when he passed away, but Angela was his partner. It became a real rallying point to have flags that say, “Take the Tooker”, and the meaning of that was to have Bloor-Danforth as a bike lane all the way across the city. That’s the genesis for the whole Bells on Bloor initiative which was drawing attention to the need for bike lanes on Bloor, and Bells on Bloor would always start at High Park and then go all the way downtown.

2012 Bells on Bloor ride with Angela Bischoff holding the banner (via Jun N)

NOTE: Tooker Gomberg died in 2004.

RZ: What was some of the coolest gear you have reviewed on your blog?
JN: The most popular one is something that I posted a while ago. It has to do with converting a set of road power meter pedals so that they're compatible with SPD. Power meters are something that that are fairly popular among performance cyclists, but for a long time they were only available for road cleats. Only in the last year or two have a few companies started to make SPD compatible power meters and they start at over $1200 USD. There was a hack somebody put on the web about buying a particular SPD pedal body and then matching it with a particular power meter that's produced in Italy. It’s a little bit obscure, but for some reason that by far and away is my most popular gear review.

The SPD pedal power meter hack (via Jun N)

RZ: How does that power meter work?
JN: What it does is it measures the force and your cadence, so it can tell you know how much power you're putting into the bike. I'm the last kind of person that should be really using a power meter, but I use it to track when I'm on my good bike. I know how much power I'm putting out and there was a period of time where I was actually trying to train to ride a speed bike at Battle Mountain. At Battle Mountain, people are all are about power versus the speed that you go for both in terms of efficiency and ultimate speed. And I'm an engineer, so I like measuring things. When I go out on my good bike, I can read my power and my heart rate in additional to the regular kinds of data. But I'm by no means a serious performance cyclist. It's just a hobby.

RZ: What was your favourite long-distance ride for this year, as well as for all time?
JN: This year, I did a gravel ride called the Cannonball 300. It starts in Dundas, goes down the rail trail to Port Dover, across to Port Colborne, up the Welland Canal, and then back to Dundas. About half of it's on gravel and it’s 300 kilometres, so I split it into two days and that was quite a fun ride.

Start of the Cannonball 300 ride (via Jun N)

The other rides that I've really liked over the years and done a couple of times are run by the largest bike club in Washington state called the Cascade Bike Club. They run two major rides; one is called Seattle to Portland and the other one is called RSVP which means Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party. Both of those are about 200 miles (320 kilometres) each and those are a lot of fun. I did both of those on a folding bike and got a lot of double takes from people because it's like, what is that bike and why are you doing this on a folding bike?

RZ: How long have you been officiating at Battle Mountain and what was the fastest ride that has happened so far?
JN: I've become the chief timing official for that event and I've been doing it for over 10 years. The world record is held by a former U of T student named Todd Reichert who went 89.59 miles an hour or just a hair under 145 kilometres per hour and that record stands today. There's no one that has gotten within about three miles (five kilometres) an hour of that, which is a huge margin.

RZ: How different is it to ride those camera bikes which were used in more recent races?
JN: It actually takes a fair amount of practice to ride a camera bike because it's a little bit unnatural and the main thing about those streamliners that you don't realize on a regular bike is that there's so little room that you can't move your body. On a bike, so much of the balance has to do with subtle body movements whereas in a streamliner you can't move at all. So, 100% of your balance is from steering and the amount of steering travel you have is typically about an inch (2.5 centimetres) on either end of the handlebar. These bikes that are raced at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge are not practical machines by any kind of imagination, but at the same time that's what it takes to go really fast.

One of the streamliner bikes used during this year's WHPSC event at Battle Mountain (via Jun N)

RZ: As the captain of the Parkdale High Park Bikes group – and of the former Ward 13 Bikes – are there any road safety issues in the ward right now that are unique to this city?
JN: I think one of the big pluses recently has been the extension of the Bloor bike lane all the way through our ward to eventually to Kipling, but the little segment through our ward all the way to the Humber River has been a long time coming. The bike lanes as you know ended at Runnymede and it's been very nice to see those extended.

The other big continuing issue in our ward right now is safety on Parkside which has a lot of extremely high-speed traffic. There were two people that got killed two years ago and promises have been made to make some kinds of improvements. A stop light was put in, but you could argue about whether that stoplight is in the right location because it's very close to the bridge where the Queensway is – right at the end of Parkside – and that doesn't do very much to slow down traffic. There are some additions of parking spaces, but it’s a continuing problem not just for road safety, but for the residents that live along there and park their cars on the east side. Their cars often get run into or side swiped by high-speed traffic.

October 2021 safe streets protest on Parkside Drive (via Jun N)

The problem with Parkside is it's an extension of Keele (and Weston) which is basically like a highway where they have three lanes of traffic going in each direction and you can see that in the subway bridge which is extremely wide to accommodate the excessive road width. All that high-speed traffic gets funneled into Parkside which is narrower, and something needs to be done. If we can narrow Keele, that would be great. There's a public school a little bit north of Bloor on Keele on the west side where traffic needs to be slowed down. I think those are the two major issues in our ward. Bloor seems to be much better and now we must do something to fix Parkside.

RZ: Aside from ARC, Parkdale High Park Bikes, and Bells on Bloor, are there other road safety matters you have been advocating for?
JN: No. I think the main thing that I've been doing is helping out ARC. The heavy lifting is mainly done by Joey and of course Geoffrey, and I basically just document and get the word out there. The ARC work is very important to me. It’s difficult work and what we're seeing is that there are fewer cyclist deaths in the City of Toronto itself, but more and more, there are deaths in the suburbs and the territory that ARC covers has been expanding. We’ve been placing a lot of ghost bikes in Brampton, Mississauga, and even a couple of them in Hamilton which was a bit unusual. Most of the fatalities as far as cyclists are concerned are moving out into the suburbs. That's not to say that the streets are safe in Toronto because, as you know, there continue to be of the order of about 50 pedestrian deaths a year in the City of Toronto – one a week – and that situation is certainly not getting any better.

Memorial ride in Hamilton in October 2023 (via Jun N)

We’ve just heard about a fatality in Vaughan in October that we never knew about, and the families requested a ghost bike, so we're still trying to figure that one. Just because the number of cyclist fatalities in the City of Toronto have gone down doesn't mean we're getting better. It's the law of small numbers, right? We could have two this year and could easily have six the next year. If we take the GTA as a whole, the numbers are not going down.

RZ: How did you find the cycling scene to have evolved in Toronto during your time in this city?
JN: I think there's no question that in the downtown area, it is much safer than before. Things like the Richmond-Adelaide and Simcoe bike lanes have been total game changers, so as long as you're on those parts of the network that are connected to other things, things are pretty good. Of course, there isn't a connected network as you travel further away from downtown and there's next to no network in places like Scarborough which is probably the most underserved suburb in terms of bike infrastructure. I know that a lot of younger people are very impatient about having more bike lanes built faster, but I will say that from my perspective, bike lanes are going in at a much more rapid pace than they ever have been in the past and city staff have been doing a fantastic job. They've figured out how to do quick build and that can be followed up with more permanent installations including the recent upgrades to the Bloor bike lanes downtown and the College bike lanes as very good examples. They were originally quick build and now, I would put up the College bike lane against pretty much any bike lane you can find in any city.

RZ: Given some of your blog posts talked about Japan, what was cycling like there?
JN: My experience riding in Japan has been pretty limited. This last trip that I went down there, I deliberately took my folding bike because I am part of a biennial workshop that takes place at two different campuses of the University of Tokyo, and I've always wanted to bike all the way across central Tokyo to get between one and the other. I did that this past summer and the bike infrastructure really sucks. At most, there are painted bike lanes or sharrows and the great majority of peoples bike on the sidewalk. But having said that, even during rush hour it was OK because the drivers are not out to kill you. There aren't very many cyclists that are taking the road or taking the lane in Japan, but I didn't feel particularly in danger at any point, like I might do in Toronto in a place where there aren't any bike lanes. I am hopefully going to spend a month in Japan next spring and will bring my bike. At that time, I think I'm going to try and bike more rural areas and then I'd be able to tell you much more about what it's actually like to bike in Japan.

Jun riding a narrow painted bike lane in Tokyo

RZ: Aside from possibly go to Japan again, do you have any big bike adventures planned for 2024?
JN: I haven't really thought about it. There are a couple of rides around here that I would like to do. I’ve never done the G2G (Guelph to Goderich) Trail all the way – I've only gone halfway – and would like to do that. There are some very nice rides as you have done around the Cambridge and Kitchener area that I would like to do and then I might want to try and explore a little bit more of the Trans Canada Trail including biking from Toronto to Kingston, but not along the lake. So, there are no fixed plans yet, but I've got a gravel bike and I want to take the opportunity to explore some of the gravel riding in Ontario.

RZ: What final message would you like to give to the advocates of this city?
JN: Well, I would say keep pushing. We have made a lot of progress and things are getting better. I've spent a lot of time biking in Vancouver and would like to spend some time biking in in Montréal, but compared to those cities, we still have a long way to go. Ultimately, we need to put the infrastructure in place so that anyone at any level of ability can feel safer, and that's the only way that we can get more people out of their cars and onto bicycles which is our ultimate aim.


  1. Thoughtful and impressive post! Thanks to both, for all you do to make biking in the city so much safer and pleasant!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Midori. Merry Christmas!