Toronto’s infamous Gardiner Expressway is an unwelcome wall between the city and its Lake Ontario waterfront. But at the far edge of the Toronto metroplex, Highway 401 acts as a similar barrier separating local residents from the recreational facilities along the lake.
While the 401 runs along the north edge of historic Toronto, far from the lake, this is not true in the eastern reaches of the Greater Toronto Area. There the 401 runs close to the lake, and most residential development is north of the 401. This is particularly true at the east end of Durham Region in the Municipality of Clarington, the amalgamated governing region which includes Bowmanville.
A google satellite map of Toronto and its eastern suburbs.
Here the lakeshore and the 401 are in close proximity. Furthermore, from Oshawa east to Bowmanville most of the land between the 401 and the shoreline is marshland, farmland, or occupied by major industries, although there are recreational areas including a provincial park, several beaches, and the Waterfront Trail.
Google satellite map of shoreline from Oshawa in the west to Bowmanville in the east. (click map for larger version)
In Bowmanville there are well-used multi-purpose trails in the two valleys that run predominantly north-south through that town. These trails would be even more attractive if they linked up with the Waterfront Trail and the newly-developed East Beach Park. But the 401 is a daunting hurdle.
As shown on this Waterfront Trail map, there is no good linkage between the recreational trails in residential Bowmanville and the Waterfront Trail. (click map for larger version)
The Municipality’s Active Transportation Plan recognizes the importance of establishing better linkages:
The Clarington Active Transportation Plan includes among its goals to establish new linkages, for cyclists, walkers and runners, between the creek valley paths and the Waterfront Trail. (Graphic adapted from map at www.clarington.net.)
Such linkages are a worthy goal, because the current 401 crossings discourage or intimidate many would-be recreational cyclists, and few parents would be happy seeing their children bike south to the beach given the current access options.
Biking past the 401
There are two ways to get from the major residential areas of Bowmanville to the 401: using the Liberty Street underpass or the Waverley Road overpass.
Cyclists going from residential Bowmanville to the Waterfront Trail or East Beach Park need to cross the 401 at Waverley Rd or Liberty St.
Both options are busy roads which also serve as entrance/exit routes to/from the 401, so they carry heavy commuter and truck traffic.
Here’s what the Liberty Street underpass looks like to a cyclist traveling north:
Not only is the tunnel narrow and dark, but the noise of traffic bouncing off the walls makes it difficult to tell how close cars or trucks really are.
Below is a view of the same tunnel going southbound. If heading south to the Waterfront Trail, you need to turn left immediately after exiting the tunnel, so getting into left-turn position while inside the tunnel is part of the challenge.
One kilometer west of Liberty Street is the Waverley Road/Durham Rd 57 interchange with the 401. This route has a bridge instead of the dark claustrophia-inducing tunnel of Liberty Street. But because it is much more open, four lanes, and a regional road, traffic tends to be much faster.
For inexperienced cyclists, a key problem when going south is to get past the right-hand lane which becomes a turn-only entrance ramp to the 401. Should you move from the right-hand lane into the left lane early? Or do you stay in the right-hand lane as long as possible, and then turn through traffic which may have accelerated to near-highway-speed at this point?
Once past this obstacle you come up to the shoulder-less bridge over the 401. This carries traffic heading for the 401-east entrance ramp, as well as heavy truck traffic bound for St. Mary’s Cement. Just over the bridge, the 401-eastbound turn-off results in lots of turning vehicles, and drivers who often appear surprised to see a cyclist continuing straight south past this point.
Going north on Waverley Rd from the Waterfront Trail, you must share the narrow bridge with the same commuter and truck traffic:
By the time you’ve ridden north past another 401-westbound entrance ramp, Waverley Road morphs into an multi-lane arterial road at its intersection with Baseline Road, with two northbound through lanes plus a left-turn lane.
After the peace and quiet of a family-friendly ride on the Waterfront Trail, coping with this burst of big-city traffic may come as quite a shock – which is perhaps why so few cyclists are seen making this crossing.
Although I’ve ridden these routes about 50 times each over the past 18 months, I’ve yet to meet another cyclist on the Waverley Road crossing, and only a few times have I seen other cyclists making the Liberty Street crossing.
Clearly the Municipality’s goal of linking the in-town bike paths to the Waterfront Trail will meet an important need. But the 401 is an imposing physical barrier, and we must hope the Municipality will find the resources for this project in the near future.