With racing-style inline skates rolling lazily underneath him, Andrew Zysk sits on a park bench beside the Humber River, just downstream from where it flows under Highway 427 and into Toronto at Finch Avenue West.
Mr. Zysk gets into the Humber Valley to inline skate or bicycle a few times a week. “I’m 50 now. I have to stay fit,” he says. He scoffs when asked about indoor gyms. “You need nature,” he says. “It calms your nerves.”
Encircling the bench is a three-metre wide strip of asphalt. It’s an off-road trail, which heads south and – if all goes to plan – will soon run 85 kilometres, to Lake Ontario near the Pickering border. The Pan Am Path will be a ribbon that wraps Toronto, leading more or less from the airport to the zoo.
That’s the plan, anyway. But it’s one that will come closer to reality if Toronto city council votes Tuesday to approve $1.9-million to support the path. The route would flow down the Humber Valley, across the waterfront, up the Lower Don Valley, across Scarborough on the Gatineau hydro corridor and down Highland Creek to Lake Ontario’s Waterfront Trail.
As ambitious as the plan sounds – a pan-Toronto off-road path in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games – the trail is already mostly in place. You can ride it today, switching to roads for about eight kilometres of the route. The motion at council on Tuesday would put in place plans to move it all off-road, though not all work will be complete by 2015.
But beyond the construction, there is work to do in building the path into the city’s consciousness. Devon Ostrom, 33, is an arts curator when he’s not busy as a co-founder of Friends of Pan Am Path. He stresses that this won’t be just a biking and walking trail, but a cultural path, enlivened along the way with 12 cultural “hotspots” where local artists are given space for exhibitions that will give people in adjacent neighbourhoods another reason to get down in the valley.
The Weston-St. Dennis neighbourhood is set to receive the first major path upgrade. Marlene McKintosh, the executive director of Urban Arts, an agency that runs arts programs for youth in the area, puts an emphasis on collaborative, local art – just the type proposed for the path. “People like to be part of things. They know what the key ingredients of their area are and they don’t want things parachuted in for them,” she says. “When they create things like murals, it sends a message. ‘This is our community and we did this.’”
While the trail passes five of the six major Pan Am Games venues in Toronto, inter-event traffic is not the main intent here. The path will be a showpiece for a city dressing itself up for the biggest date it’s ever had. It will better connect people to their own communities, by improving and promoting shared public space within neighbourhoods, and it will connect disparate neighbourhoods to each other and to the wider city.
If the trail connections are made and the art installations built out, then after the athletes and tourists go home, the path will be the Games’ legacy, an accessible green space touching the whole city.
It also seems likely that the path will become both a commuter’s throughway and an instant classic cycling tour, urban but off-road, lengthy but easy to get to.
With an underused road bike in my garage, and with the Tour de France currently dishing out its annual dose of inspiration, Mr. Ostrom and I have decided the best way to get a comprehensive view of the city and the path’s potential would be to cycle its length in a day.
We start pedalling south from Finch at 11 a.m. The paved trail is smooth and mostly shaded, on a day that is set to hit a humidex of 37 degrees. The easy rolling is only broken up south of Highway 401 where steep valley walls and private property force a detour up onto Weston Road. Construction, bumper-to-bumper traffic and a glaring sun make for a jarring contrast from the quiet and cool ravine below.
Mr. Ostrom explains that prospective path users include walkers, bird watchers, dog walkers and casual cyclists who want no part of busy streets. To better capture the imagination of these people and lure them onto the path, it’s important no limits are placed on their retreat, he says. Work will soon begin on a connection to make this Weston Road detour unnecessary.
In the early afternoon, 33-year-old James Gen Meers, another co-founder of Friends of the Pan Am Path is waiting to join us below the bridge at Bloor Street West. He is one of six young Torontonians undertaking a Diverse City Fellowship who have spearheaded the path project.
I remark on how few joggers and dog walkers we've had to artfully dodge on this Monday morning.
“Toronto has one of the most extensive ravine systems of any city in the world, but it’s underutilized,” responds Mr. Meers. “This project will send the message that they are safe, healthy, exciting places to be.”
We breeze along the waterfront, past construction where separated bike lanes are being built along Queen’s Quay, and are soon turning north into the Don Valley. The lower valley passes quickly – quicker for us than those in cars on the Parkway – and soon we are through Taylor Creek. After an on-road detour, we hook up with the hydro corridor at Pharmacy Avenue, and glide past a semi-industrial area that backs onto the wide swath of grass. Near Ellesmere and Neilson Roads we drop into the rugged Highland Creek ravine near Morningside Park. From here it’s a rolling, twisting downhill run to the lake beside a creek that does its best to distract as it tumbles toward Lake Ontario.
Waiting for the GO Train at Rouge Hill at 7 p.m., Mr. Ostrom and Mr. Meers have satisfied looks on their faces. I do a quick calculation. Eight hours to cycle 85 smooth and scenic kilometres across Toronto, for about $10 in TTC and GO Transit fares – a solid payoff for a modest investment. My pan-Toronto riding partners are hoping city council will agree.
To and from:
To cycle the whole route, take the TTC's 191 bus north to Finch Avenue West and Humber College Boulevard. The trail starts one kilometre west along Finch.
At the east end, the Rouge Hill Go station is 1.8 kilometres east of the point where the Highland Creek Trail meets the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail.
Find a map at panampath.org.
Special to The Globe and Mail