June 11, 2024

Reviewing Albert Koehl’s “Wheeling Through Toronto”

While Toronto has had a magazine dedicated to cycling called Dandyhorse as well as books such as Yvonne Bambrick’s “The Urban Cycling Survival Guide” and Shawn Smith’s “Happy Trails”, there hadn’t been a book that gave an appreciation of Toronto’s cycling history. Albert Koehl’s book “Wheeling Through Toronto” was published last month and explores cycling in Toronto over the past 130 years starting with the bicycle craze of the 1890’s. Having finished reading the book this past weekend, let’s review it to see what parallels can be drawn to cycling in the present day.

The first thing that struck my mind was how many things back in the 1890’s are relevant today. Cycling was initially seen as an upper-class sport with its own cycling clubs which still have such clubs today where spending $10,000 on a road bike is not unheard of. Of course, its utilitarian value has applied to all income groups including commercial uses over the years. Politicians such as Ontario Premier Sir James Whitney got around by bicycle in 1910 as does Toronto’s Mayor Olivia Chow today. Both eras saw High Park and the Waterfront as Toronto’s top two “cycling meccas”, as well as the combining cycling with transit and the value of cycle tourism. The use of bicycle storage lockers was popular back then, though it was only relatively recently that they have been returning to Toronto including at Union Station, other transit stations, businesses, and condo towers. A membership-based group called Canadian Wheelmen’s Association was a forerunner to today’s Cycle Toronto, though the former focused more on sport and the latter on utilitarian cycling. There was even a poster about how cycling can help avoid getting the Spanish Flu of 1918 which rang true during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Albert Koehl and his wife Emily at a book launch on May 27. You can read Jun N's post about the launch here.

There were of course some notable differences. Advocating for infrastructure in the 1890’s was more focused on paving roads (with some attention to bicycle paths), while some cyclists used the smooth surfaces between streetcar rails known as the “devil’s strip”. Something cyclists avoid today given streetcars are a common cause of injuries. Today’s focus has shifted towards protected bike lanes, though both eras have seen counter arguments not unlike John Forester’s vehicular cycling approach of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The book lamented about how railway and streetcar services were a lot more abundant back then – including the difficulty of getting to Jackson’s Point today – but it didn’t mention how some of the railways in the Greater Toronto Area were since converted to rail trails.

One peculiar observation the book made was how many of the early adopters of the bicycle – including Dr. Perry Doolittle who served as the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association – became early adopters of the motorcar. In a cruel twist of irony, Doolittle ended up in court in 1929 over a crash in which he injured three women waiting for a streetcar. In another unfortunate parallel to today, motorists during the 1920’s automobile boom were subject to minimal penalties when injuring or killing those who walk or bike, while they were also subject to victim blaming.

The book looked at the evolving role of women in cycling which started with the safety bicycle and even the existence of women-run cycling clubs; a precursor to today’s Saddle Sisters of High Park and the GyalDem Cycling Collective. There were women-owned courier businesses in the 1970’s such as Hilda Tiessen’s Sunwheel Couriers and stories about several different women advocates. One such advocate – Winona Gallop – called for a bike trail along the Waterfront starting at Balmy Beach in the east in response to a law forbidding cycling on the boardwalk in the late 1960’s. That trail was completed in 2019 with the short gap on Unwin Avenue being filled in.

Overall, the amount of research Albert Koehl put into “Wheeling Through Toronto” is admirable with lots of facts you probably weren’t previously aware of and is presented in a way that captivates your attention. It helps put the long history of cycling (and overall road safety) advocacy in Toronto into perspective as the journey continues to unfold. If you are looking to do some reading over the summer, you can’t go wrong with this book.

Last, but not least, I would like to thank Albert for including this photo from Bikestock in 2014 which saw 1500 people bike towards Toronto City Hall ahead of the municipal elections.

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