Categories
Cycling Travels

Biking off to Buffalo

IMG_6241Tondawanda Rail Trail

Back on Victoria Day weekend, I biked down to Toronto’s Union Station, loaded by wheels onto a GO train, and headed for Niagara. I have biked through Niagara before, and it is a very pleasant place for cycling, with many paved paths, quiet roads, and paved shoulders and bike lanes along many busier roads. Charming towns such as Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne offer many places for cyclists to eat, drink, and stay. If you haven’t yet done so, GO Transit’s bike train is worth checking out this year.

It is also possible to cross the border by bike as well, where there are many great bike routes and parks worth exploring. On my last trip, this is exactly what I did.

IMG_6143.jpg
GO Transit’s bike train at Union Station

Officially, cyclists may cross at three of the four bridges over the Niagara River. To the north, cyclists may cross at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, which connects Ontario Highway 405 with Interstate 190. However, cyclists must cross with traffic (there’s no sidewalk, and pedestrians are prohibited), an unappealing option.

The Rainbow Bridge allows both pedestrians and cyclists, though cyclists can not use the sidewalk (which offers great view of the nearby falls),but must also ride with traffic. But the Rainbow Bridge prohibits trucks; it is easy to access from city streets in both Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York.

The Peace Bridge, at the end of the Queen Elizabeth Way in Fort Erie, also permits pedestrians and cyclists, though cyclists must walk their bikes on the sidewalk. A multi-year rehabilitation project closed the sidewalk, but work was recently completed and the sidewalk will open shortly. In the meantime, the Peace Bridge offers a shuttle van (I called on July 1 2019 to confirm its operation, the representative I spoke to advises to call the Peace Bridge office to request a pick up). The Peace Bridge’s website offers detailed instructions on how to access the crossing on both sides.

The Peace Bridge is free to pedestrians and cyclists in both directions, though cyclists on the Rainbow Bridge are charged $1 (US or Canadian) to travel to Canada.

I chose to take the Rainbow Bridge both ways. It being a long weekend, I had to wait in traffic both ways, but at least the views are decent, and it’s a flat bridge deck.

IMG_6166Crossing the Rainbow Bridge by bike means waiting in traffic…

IMG_6169…though at least the view is nice

Once across in Niagara Falls, New York, it is easy to access Niagara Falls State Park, which offers great views of the Falls, and is free to enter (though there are charges for parking and for accessing the viewing tower and lower gorge trails). Cyclists are asked to dismount and walk in sections of the park, though it is a reasonable request due to the crowds.

I then biked along the Niagara Scenic Parkway upriver towards Tondawanda. The parkway was formerly named the Robert Moses State Parkway, but it has since been tamed to improve pedestrian and cycling facilities along the Niagara River, with the road closed completely at the Rainbow Bridge, and narrowed elsewhere. I doubt the Power Broker would have approved.

1-IMG_1624.JPGAbandoned section of the Robert Moses State Parkway under the Rainbow Bridge

South of Tonawanda, I chose to follow a new rail trail that followed an old interurban line that connected Buffalo with Tonawanda and Niagara Falls. The International Railway Company once operated a large network of street railways in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, as well as rural lines leading as far as Hamburg and Lockport. It also once operated a tourist trolley along both sides of the Niagara River tourist trolley along both sides of the Niagara River, making it a truly international operation. Interurban service ended in 1937, while the last streetcars ran in 1950.

IMG_6244
Tonawanda Rail Trail guide sign

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the public successor to the IRC, retained ownership of the Tonawanda corridor, planning a spur line of the new Buffalo Metro LRT. But local opposition and a lack of funds derailed those plans; happily, it is now a wonderful trail with safe, signalized crossings at every major cross street.

Once in Buffalo, there are many bike lanes, and lower levels of traffic. Not once was I honked at or felt threatened by motorists. The city is mostly flat, and there are many neighbourhoods and landmarks worth checking out, with great restaurants, bars, and breweries. There are many hotels and bed and breakfasts in Downtown Buffalo and in the Allentown area.

1-IMG_1528
Bike Lanes on tree-lined Richmond Avenue

1-IMG_1525-001
Symphony Circle, one of many traffic circles as part of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s parkway system developed for Buffalo

Visiting Buffalo on a Sunday/Monday of a Canadian long weekend also meant being in town on normal working day on Monday, where commercial and institutional buildings are open to the public. The view from the observation deck at Buffalo City Hall is fantastic, while the Council Chamber is an art deco masterpiece.

1-IMG_1594
I had lunch in the Ellicott Square Building, which, when completed in 1896, was the largest office building in the world. The building was designed by Charles Atwood of Chicago’s D.H. Burham & Company, and its interior courtyard is spectacular. Several food vendors operate weekdays.

1-IMG_1570-001Courtyard, Ellicott Square Building

Buffalo is an attractive cycling destination because a back-up option exists. The NFTA buses are all equipped with bike racks; the Route 40 bus runs direct from Downtown Buffalo to Downtown Niagara Falls, New York. The Monday was cool, wet, and windy, and I was tired (I later found out I was coming down with a bad cold), so I opted to spend the extra time cycling around downtown and the Erie Canal Harbour area and take advantage of the bus service back.

The GO Niagara bike train operates every weekend until Labour Day, and again during Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. The Buffalo-Niagara region has a lot to offer cyclists, and it is worth your consideration.

Categories
Cycling Ontario Travels Urban Planning

Brantford’s downtown was the “worst in Canada” – but has it bounced back?

IMG_7684-001
Interior of former Eaton Market Square, 2018

On Labour Day weekend, I paid a visit to Brantford. I brought my bike on GO Transit, taking a train to Aldershot and a bus from there to the Telephone City. I then biked from Brantford to Hamilton on one of Ontario’s best rail trails.

Over a decade ago, Mayor Chris Friel called Brantford “the worst downtown in Canada.” It was not hard to understand why. Colborne Street, Brantford’s main street, was lined with neglected commercial buildings, many with boarded up streetfronts. In the 1990s, many of the plywood hoardings had been decorated with pretend business names and silhouettes of customers, either as an attempt at beautifying the street or recalling the variety of businesses that had once occupied the strip. Only a few stores and restaurants remained open.

4360965559_d1aa044078_o.jpgBoarded up storefront, Colborne Street, 2010

There were several reasons for Downtown Brantford’s decline. In the 1980s, Brantford’s major industries, including the once-mighty Massey-Ferguson, had shut down local operations. Other industries like Cockshutt (later White Farm Equipment) had also departed Brantford. By the early 1990s, the unemployment rate hit 24 per cent.

Cockshutt plant offices in 2004, and the remains in 2018

The city also made some questionable urban renewal decisions. The old open-air marketplace at Colborne and Market Street, along with a whole city block was cleared for Eaton Market Square, which opened in 1986. The city also built a new parking structure to the south, as well as a new office building across the street from the new mall. Like most downtown malls built in Ontario, Eaton Market Square was a commercial failure. Brantford already had two suburban malls — Lyndon Park Mall, anchored by Sears, and Brantford Mall, anchored by the Right House, a Hamilton-based department store, Woolco and Loblaws.

While parking at the suburban malls was free and plentiful, customers had to pay to park downtown, and Eaton’s in the 1980s was too upmarket for a smaller, blue collar city. Brantford’s downtown parking garage, built by the municipality, was to be paid for with parking fees.

IMG_7686-001
Eaton Market Place dropped the Eaton name after its anchor closed, but the mall’s past has since revealed itself

While Eaton Market Square brought in many of the remaining retailers that were left on Colborne Street when the mall opened, as the mall floundered, most major tenants left as soon as their leases were due for renewal. By 1997, when Eaton’s entered bankrupcy and closed the Brantford store, many of the other shops had already closed.

But the mall wasn’t the only thing Brantford officials did to try to revitalize its city centre.

Like Flint, Michigan’s efforts to attract tourists and shoppers downtown coincident with the decline of its manufacturing base (described in Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me), Brantford pursued other projects along with the new mall to revitalize its downtown core. The provincial government planned a new electronic processing centre, but was cancelled by the NDP-led government in the early 1990s due to budget pressures.

Icomm was to be a new telecommunications museum, science centre, and research hub, built on an old industrial site just south of downtown. While the building was completed in the early 1990s, it was left vacant after Bell Canada pulled its funding for the venture. Though city officials hoped for a post secondary educational institution, the Icomm building became a casino. Next to the casino, a commercial plaza, including a supermarket, fast food restaurants and a LCBO store was built, along with free surface parking.

IMG_7676-001.JPGMarket Square

Eventually, Brantford found a viable solution for revitalizing its downtown core. In 1999, Wilfrid Laurier University opened a satellite campus, starting out in the old Carnegie Library sold by the city for $1. By 2002, there were 340 students; today, enrollment is  about 3,000. Laurier now owns dozens of building downtown, including a previously abandoned movie theatre, and even the old old Eaton Market Square building. Hundreds of students live in local residences.

IMG_7664-001The old Carnegie Library, Brantford

Yet, there is still little retail downtown, though there are now several newer restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

It hasn’t been all good news. Nipissing University, based in North Bay, also established a satellite campus in Brantford. In December 2014 it announced that it would be winding down its presence there, including its joint programs with Laurier. The Ministry of Education had capped the number of funded spaces for Bachelor of Education students and reduced funding for the program. The joint programs were one of Brantford-Laurier’s main draws.

4360965043_88fea24940_o.jpgColborne Street, January 2010

Meanwhile Colborne Street continued to languish. In 2010, the city expropriated and demolished the entire south side of the street, including several commercial blocks still occupied. A new joint Laurier-YMCA athletics and recreation facility was built on the site, which will open by the end of the year. Sadly, the new building contributes very little to Brantford’s main street.

IMG_7674-001The architecture of the new YMCA-Laurier athletic building is sterile compared to the old Colborne Street storefronts

At the least, Laurier’s Brantford campus has brought some life back to a moribund downtown core that suffered through misguided urban renewal schemes, a major restructuring of the local economy, competition from suburban retail developments, and urban neglect.

But a satellite post-secondary institution on its own isn’t necessarily a panacea for other suffering downtowns. As Norma Zminkowska pointed out recently in an article for TVO, satellite campuses aren’t necessarily permanent boosts to the local economy. In Barrie and Bracebridge, small campuses were closed for financial reasons. They weren’t able to attract enough students. Small campuses, especially those with fewer than 3500 students, often struggle to attract students and faculty — and scattering programs can weaken the institution. This is a warning worth considering as Laurier plans another satellite campus in Milton and Ryerson plans its second campus in Downtown Brampton.


As an aside, Brantford is an interesting town, and is well-positioned at the junction of three major cycling trails connecting it to Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo to the north, Simcoe and Port Dover to the south, and Hamilton to the east. The Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail is one of Ontario’s best trails, in excellent condition, and a gentle grade climbing the Niagara Escarpment.

IMG_4333
Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail

Within Brantford itself, there are several interesting sights. The Bell Telephone building features a statue of Alexander Graham Bell, who resided just outside of town for a number of years. The world’s first long-distance telephone call was made between nearby Paris, Ontario and Brantford in 1876. The area surrounding Victoria Square north of Colborne Street and the mall is reminiscent of a New England town square.

IMG_7649.JPGBell Telephone Building

Brantford was named for Joseph Brant, the anglicized name given to Thayendanegea, the Mohawk leader who allied with the British in the American War of Independence. His community, which previously resided in what is now Upstate New York, was given a large land grant on the Grand River. That land grant shrunk to what is now Six Nations. Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks is one of the oldest buildings in Ontario, built in 1785. It is worth a visit. Nearby, the Woodland Cultural Centre is a museum and art gallery housed in a former residential school. The museum is dedicated to the history and future of the province’s First Nations.

IMG_7727.JPGHer Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks

IMG_7709-001.JPGWoodland Cultural Centre. This building formerly housed the Mohawk Institute, one of many residential schools built as part of Canada’s shameful attempts at eradicating Indigenous heritage. It is now a First Nations museum and art gallery. 

 

Categories
Cycling Travels

Cycling the Greater Golden Horseshoe

IMG_4179You never know who you might meet when you ride through Toronto’s ravines

Spring is here!

One of my favourite things to do is go for a ride, either within town, or on a day trip or an overnight excursion. Toronto’s ravines are a treat; and the further away from Lake Ontario you get, the quieter the trails are.

Two years ago, I was riding up the Humber River Trail north of Highway 401 when I saw a deer wandering down the path. I stopped, and the deer passed by, within metres of where I was standing. Not much further north, I saw two deer — a fawn and its mother — fording the Humber. Tommy Thompson Park, better known as the Leslie Street Spit, is another favourite place to go. The Spit was created from clean landfill to create a new outer harbour in anticipation for St. Lawrence Seaway shipping that never came. Instead, it has become an important migratory bird sanctuary. The views of Downtown Toronto are great, and there are no ferry lines to wait in.

For longer distances, GO Transit is especially helpful. All of their buses are equipped with bike racks and their train (outside of rush hour, of course) can handle over 25 bicycles each. (The seasonal Niagara trains have dedicated bike coaches as well.) GO Transit can get you out of the city for more rural rides, or for longer one-way rides to or from Toronto.

At least twice a year, I ride out to Hamilton on the Waterfront Trail, opting to enter that city by going around Burlington Bay and taking Cannon Street in from the east. It’s an 85 kilometre trip that takes the better part of the day. I’ll have dinner and drinks at one of the many Downtown Hamilton establishments before loading my bike on the bus at the Hamilton GO Centre. Other times, I have used GO Transit to get out to rail trails in Peterborough, Uxbridge, Guelph, or Barrie.

I prefer rail trails as they’re more relaxed than rural roads or highways; I’m not able to keep up with roadies, and I’m okay with that. Rail trails are flat, but they’re also usually unpaved, and some sections are very quiet. (I have gone 20 or 30 minutes without meeting another trail user in some rural areas.)

Here is a summary of some of my favourite long-distance rides.

Categories
Cycling Travels

A ride from Caledon to Guelph via the Elora-Cataract Trailway

IMG_5393-001

On Friday, September 2, I went for an 80 kilometre ride between Caledon and Guelph on what turned out to be a spectacular day: sunny, a high of 23 Celsius and without too much humidity. The summer of 2016 has been exceptionally hot and muggy for long-distance rides, so I’ve done fewer of them. I was lucky to have that Friday off.

I started my trip in Caledon Village, after taking a GO train to Brampton and transferring to GO Transit’s Route 37 Orangeville bus, which only runs on weekdays. This made the trip very difficult to do on a weekend (I would have to ride 20 kilometres up from Brampton, on busy roads, and up the Niagara Escarpment, otherwise). The racks at the front of GO buses are wonderful for getting out of town (I used GO’s bike racks on similar rides this year), but they tie you to a schedule.

Map of my ride

The Elora-Cataract Trailway, owned and managed by Credit Valley Conservation (Cataract to Hillsburgh), and the Grand River Conservation Authority (Hillsburgh to Elora) is one of the best rail trails that I have ever rode. The surface was in near perfect condition along the entire stretch. Wayfinding, including through a gap at Fergus, was great. Barriers at crossings keep motor vehicles out, but are not too difficult to get around for cyclists. And it’s easy enough to get to and from Guelph. But it’s not so easy to get to from Brampton/Caledon.

After getting off the Route 37 bus in Caledon Village, and after a quick stop there for refreshments, I rode west along Charleston Sideroad for four kilometres to Cataract Road, the only possible route without very lengthy and hilly detours.. That was the most aggravating and dangerous bike ride in a very long time. There’s no paved shoulder, so I rode on the white line demarcating the far right side of the lane. There are several quarries nearby, and Charleston Sideroad was once known as Highway 24. There were many quarry trucks and other large vehicles, most who refused to provide the mandatory 1-metre space that the Highway Traffic Act now mandates. One quarry truck driver blared his multiple times at me, angry and unwilling to share the road.

image1Westbound on Charleston Sideroad

The dirt shoulder, filled with large stones and debris, is not suitable for cycling. The Region of Peel, responsible for this road, should pave the shoulders as soon as possible. Improved connections to Brampton and the Caledon Trailway should also be identified and built. But once off Charleston Sideroad, the ride quickly became one of my favourites. 

Categories
Cycling Travels

A ride from Peterborough to Uxbridge (Day 2)

IMG_4092-001Looking west on Doube’s Trestle, between Peterborough and Omemee

After riding the Lang-Hastings trail on Sunday July 30, I cycled from Peterborough to Uxbridge on Monday, August 1, stopping at Trent University. This is one of my favourite rides in Ontario, having done this route twice before. But this was the first time I rode west towards Uxbridge, rather than east to Peterborough.

In total, I rode 99 kilometres that day, and given the heat (and the lack of shade), I ended up ending up a little bit dehydrated — and quite tired — at the end of the trip. There are no places to rest or buy snacks or beverages between Lindsay and Uxbridge, so it’s best to plan ahead. Bring lots of water; Lindsay is an excellent place to take a break and have a light meal. At Uxbridge, I had dinner at a local pub before loading my bike on a GO Transit bus back to Toronto.

There are a number of great rail trails in Southern Ontario, but except in the Lindsay-Peterborough and  Kitchener-Brantford-Hamilton regions, rail trails in Ontario, where they exist, are usually disconnected from each other and difficult to access from Toronto without a car. It makes me long for Québec s Route Verte network of trails and cyclist-friendly roadways.

Categories
Cycling Travels

A ride between Peterborough and Hastings (Day 1)

IMG_4015-001The Trans-Canada Trail crosses the Otonabee River near downtown Peterborough, next to the Canadian Pacific Railway

During the Civic Holiday long weekend, I spent two days cycling around Peterborough and two of the rail trails that radiate out of it. Peterborough is one of my favourite places to cycle; it is my third time there on two wheels.

On Sunday July 31, I started by taking the GO Lakeshore East Train, then transferring to the 88 Peterborough GO bus. Every GO bus is equipped with a rack that can accommodate two bicycles, and all non-peak GO trains can take two or four bicycles per coach (there are special bike coaches as well on the Niagara summer weekend service). After getting off the bus in Downtown Peterborough, and getting coffee at one of that city’s many downtown cafes, I biked out to Hastings, on the Lang-Hastings Trail, returning via (mostly) the same route, a 40 kilometre one-way trip.

I stayed overnight in Downtown Peterborough and biked to Uxbridge via Lindsay the following day (more on that in a subsequent post), making a diversion via Trent University. That one-way trip was almost 100 kilometres in length. At Uxbridge, I had dinner and took a GO bus back to Toronto.