Urban Highways Could Be Giant Bike Paths in the Sky

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Gardiner Expressway, Toronto

Urbanists and TreeHuggers alike complain about urban highways, how they divide and ruin cities. Elevated highways are even worse, costing huge dollars to maintain and blocking views. From Seoul to San Francisco, we talk about how much better things are when they are removed.

But there may be a better option: Turn them into giant bike paths in the sky. That’s what Toronto does one morning a year for the Ride for the Heart, a charity ride supporting the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

The motorists mostly graciously give up their pavement early on a Sunday morning, when just millions of them would be out doing important things in their cars, so that 15,000 cyclists can enjoy roads that as Toronto taxpayers they have paid millions, no billions, to maintain.


Lloyd Alter/ Pedestrians on highway/CC BY 2.0

Just so nobody can say this is a bike vs car war, this year they let 5,000 runners and walkers join the party.

view wtih canoe

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are a couple of problems with the ride that make it understandable why drivers might want it cancelled. It turns the horrible elevated Gardiner expressway into a thing of wonder; the view of the city is not like any you get on the ground, and when you whizz by at 60MPH you don’t pay a lot of attention.

buildings too close to highway

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Doing it once a year, you see all the construction and wonder "where did that come from?" You wonder "who would want to live so close to a highway?" and "what kind of jerk approved this?" it opens your eyes to the successes and failures of the city and its administration.

ride down the don valley

Lloyd Alter/ Approaching the Bloor Viaduct/CC BY 2.0

As the Gardiner turns north and becomes the Don Valley Parkway, you realize how 50 years ago they really ripped out the lungs of the city to put in this highway, something that probably could never happen today.

sweeping down the DVP

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Anyone who cycles or walks it quickly learns what has been stolen from them and might want it back. It’s too glorious to just be seen in passing at high speed and should be shared more than one morning a year. Even in the rain, it is stunning.

Perhaps to atone for these two highway sins the best approach would be to convert them into a long linear park and bicycle superhighway. With the reduced loads, the Gardiner wouldn’t have to be rebuilt; with the removal of cars, the Don Valley Parkway could again truly be a parkway. There is enough room to put in transit, perhaps rail or electric trolley bus, to move all the people who used to come by car but don’t want to switch to a bike. It is a joy to ride down but a schlep to get back; perhaps they could install the world’s longest Trondheim Cyclocable.

sweeping down highway

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is nothing more glorious than sweeping down this highway from the suburbs, coming round the bend and seeing downtown Toronto spread out before you. I have admired it in a car, but it is so much better on a bike. We have long claimed that streets are for people not cars; perhaps it is true for highways too.