Cycling is becoming ever more popular in Southern Ontario. In the City of London Ontario a multi-use trail system provides safe cycling from three connected prones of trail extending from downtown. One segment, approaching 10 kilometers in length, takes cyclists from downtown, westward along the Thames River to the City’s outer edge at Byron. Another arm travels from downtown eastward, another 10 kilometres, along the south branch of the Thames River to the Pottersburg area and then northward through Kiwanis Park. A third arm leaves downtown and takes the north branch of the Thames River to just past Highbury Avenue, a distance approaching 8 kilometres. The sum of the three arms of the trail system form a sideways “Y”¬† where the junction is the downtown and lower leg of the “Y” in the westward route.

The “sideways Y” of the London Ontario bicycling trail system that generally follows the flow of the Thames River.

Cyclists wanting to ride the complete system of trails in one day have some difficulties. Supposing a starting position in either south-east, north-east, or west London, the inevitable problem occurs as a route must be found in east London that can connect between the end of the trail in Kiwanis Park at Dundas Street and the end of the trail at Highbury Avenue near the bridge over the north branch of the Thames River (i.e. between Pottersburg and Kilally in above map). By travelling through various subdivisions this meandering feat can be completed by those intimately familiar with the local roads. Those wishing some adventure, and the risk of death, may chose to take the straight-line distance of Highbury Ave. This route contains no provisions for cyclists yet offers a sufficiently narrow curb lane to allow various heavy trucks a good opportunity to crush any daring cyclist.

This northward view of Highbury is at the Florence Street intersection. Choosing to cycle along Highbury Ave to connect between the two ends of the multi-use cycling paths in east London means that riders must face narrow lanes, heavy trucks and poor road surface conditions.

Incidentally, just to the north of the Highbury Ave death zone is a newly constructed Fanshawe Park Road which contains wide lanes and a designated cycling lane, but then it connects with virtually nothing and certainly not with the well used multi-use trail system.

View looking east along Fanshawe Park Road approaching Highbury Ave. Although this roadway contains a wide cycling lane it is rarely used because it is not connected to anything.

This view of Fanshawe Park Road in winter conditions shows how the width of the cycling lane is narrowed by snow which is plowed onto it.

Much money in London is being spent piece-meal, creating short lengths of bike lanes along urban streets which do not connect to each other. Cyclists riding these short lengths of bike lanes eventually come to the end of the lane and then they are thrown into a roadway, that is narrow with a high traffic volume, in order to complete the intended journey. The result is that many cyclists give up and do not use these lanes.

In this southward view from July, 2018, on Highbury Ave near the bridge over the north branch of the Thames River, the bike lane simply ends in the background causing cyclists to ride on the busy curb lane where heavy truck traffic is common.

London’s city administration has also not dealt well with the issue of rail trails, unlike other more cycle-friendly cities. A large spiderweb of cycling rail trails has been growing in Southern Ontario that is based on the system of abandoned railway lines. The focal point of this spiderweb would likely be the City of Branford. From Brantford a cyclist need not travel along any roads with motorized traffic. Riding the rail trails cyclists¬† in Downtown Brantford can travel to Cambridge, a one-way distance of about 19 kilometres. They can also take a southerly trail that takes them through Waterford and then Simcoe and finally to the shore of Lake Erie at Port Dover. Meanwhile the same rail trail connects from Simcoe to Delhi. Leaving downtown Brantford in another direction can take cyclists through Jerseyville and into Hamilton Ontario. Thus Brantford is very much the nucleus of southern Ontario’s rail trail system.

Other well established rail trails exist in areas like Elora where cyclists can ride all the way into Mississauga. Here one can also connect with a Caledon trail that runs south from The Forks of the Credit.

This view is an example of a rail trail located near Elora, Ontario, taken in July, 2018.

Another 200- kilometre trail forms a loop in the Niagara region encompassing cities like St Catharines, Thorold, Welland, Port Colborne, Fort Erie, Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Rail trails also exist the the Windsor-Essex area. A trail runs from Leamington into Windsor ( about 42 kilometres one way) and this is intersected with a trail that runs from Essex to Amherstburg (about 27 kilometres one way).

Riding on a rail trail can be a social event. In this example a rider stops to fire up a portable propane cooking stove on the Chrysler trail between Leamington and Windsor.

Meals are easily made on the side of a rail trail and then the riders go on their way.

Further to the north a trail runs from Goderich toward Millbank, Elmira and ends up in Guelph. A one-way distance of about 118 kilometres.

Thus numerous rail trails exist that connect many communities and cities around London, Ontario. Yet London remains as the lonely island with no rail trails that connect it with anything else. An abandoned rail line existed on the west side of the City that travelled to Grand Bend. But the land along that trail has been sold off, no longer leaving an opportunity to form that connection. Even the small community of Grand Bend has a modest length of trail that leads southward into Pinery Provincial Park. A possible rail trail connection could be established between London and St Thomas and possibly leading into Port Stanley but that has never been pursued.

The bottom line is that, although London has a reasonably good trail system within the City that follows the Thames River, it remains a barren island when it comes to connections with other cities and communities in Southern Ontario. Anyone in London wishing to pursue a longer cycling ride must take the risk of riding on roadways leading out of the City that are not designed to accommodate both cyclists and motorized traffic.

Gorski Consulting has conducted numerous collision assignments in the past involving cyclists and the dangers of travelling on such unsupported roadways is well known. A principal problem is that the lower volume roads that cyclists would normally choose are also those with the lowest standard of design. Lanes are narrower. Sight lines of shorter. The road surface is often a tar and chip which is more prone to heaving and changes in friction. Because these roads are less travelled drivers do not expect as many vehicles to exist and they particularly do not expect the presence of cyclists who are even less common.

A northbound cyclist riding on Wonderland Road near Medway Road north of the City of London, Ontario on August 2, 2016. This ride could have been accomplished in safety on a rail trail if an abandoned rail line to Grand Bend had not been sold off.

Knowing the meandering paths of cyclists, it is not uncommon to see cycles moving left and right in a lateral range of half a metre. These motions may occur to avoid various road edge irregularities or simply due to a lack of attention while maintaining their balance. Combining this with similar lateral movements of motorized vehicles it is inevitable that conflicts would occur between the right edges of a motor vehicle and the left side of a cycle and cyclist. When contact occurs it is often that the left edge of a handlebar is the first portion of the cycle that is struck. This causes a very violent, clockwise rotation of the handlebars. Because the cyclist is holding the handlebar this leads to a similar, violent rotation of the upper body of the cyclist and this pulls the cyclist’s head toward the side of the striking motor vehicle. This is why it is so critical that a cyclist wear a proper cycling helmet. While it is true that even the best cycling helmet cannot prevent a cyclist’s death when a head impact is made to one of the motor vehicle’s roof pillars, the benefit, never-the-less, is large and the percentage of cyclists surviving such head impacts is vastly improved versus no helmet. Even so such an impact, although survived, results in major head injuries that are often life-changing. Thus much like the collisions of motorcyclists, the riders of bicycles almost always sustain major injuries when struck by motor vehicles. Therefore the best option is to simply avoid cycling on roadways where there are motor vehicles and riding on rail trails is ideal.

There could be a great benefit to society if we could reduce the number of severe cyclist injuries, and their associated large health costs, by taking cyclists away from highway-speed traffic and putting them on rail trails. For riders in the vicinity of the City of London that prospect is unlikely in the near future.