Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Forcing Unicyclists Onto the Road is a Bad Idea

Open Letter

Attention: Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Chair), Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, Councillor Janet Davis, Councillor Mark Grimes, Councillor Mike Layton, & Councillor John Parker

To the esteemed members of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee:

Don’t force me
to ride on the road!
I am writing with respect to City of Toronto PWIC agenda item PW28.2, Electric Bikes - Proposed Policies and By-laws.

The proposal before the Committee revises the municipal definition of “bicycle” to include unicycles. An unintentional side effect of this change will be to force unicyclists to ride on the road with other vehicles. This is problematic. I strongly recommend that the Public Works Committee remove unicycles from the updated bicycle definition.

Forcing unicycles onto the road is a bad idea

There are two major issues with the proposed revision: 
  1. Unicycles have just one wheel. Bicycles, by any reasonable etymological examination of the term, have two.

    Imprecision and terminological inexactitude are key factors affecting bylaw enforcement, which led to the e-bike policy review in the first place. A self-contradictory definition impedes the goal of bylaw clarity.

  2. More seriously, the relative speed differential between unicycles and regular bicycles is significant—forcing unicycles to operate under the same conventions as bicycles is inconsistent with the policy’s stated aim of promoting safety.

    The average speed of a standard 20 inch unicycle is approximately 7-8km/h (if the rider is in shape) — not much faster than brisk walking speed. By contrast, nearly 90% of bicycle commuters have an average speed of 18-25km/h or greater (per the cyclist speed profile provided in this agenda item’s background file). This represents a material gap in average speeds between the two vehicle types. The speed gap between unicycles and motor vehicles is even larger.

    Speed differentials between e-bikes and regular bicycles were cited as a key factor in shaping the proposed policy changes—why create another instance of the very problem we are trying to solve?

One wheel.

Two wheels. See the difference?

Context and background information

Up to this point, unicycles have mostly existed in an ambiguous discretionary area not particularly subject to strict statutory regulation—with respect to roadways and sidewalks in the City of Toronto. However, the proposed policy revision before the Committee arbitrarily includes unicycles as part of a harmonized definition of “bicycle”:
The General Manager, Transportation Services recommends that: 
City Council amend the City of Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 608, Parks; Municipal Code Chapter 886, Footpaths, Pedestrian Ways, Bicycle Paths, Bicycle Lanes and Cycle Tracks; and Municipal Code Chapter 950, Traffic and Parking to delete the existing definitions of bicycles, as described in Appendix A attached to this report, and replace them with the following harmonized definition of bicycle:
BICYCLE – Includes a bicycle, tricycle, unicycle, and a power-assisted bicycle which weighs less than 40 kg and requires pedalling for propulsion (“pedelec”), or other similar vehicle, but does not include any vehicle or bicycle capable of being propelled or driven solely by any power other than muscular power.
(Recommendation #1, from PW28.2)

The inclusion of unicycles may seem innocuous, but it would have a damaging spillover impact in the context of Municipal Code § 950-201: Regulations for bicycles and mopeds, subsection C(2), where the recommended textual change is that:
No person age 14 and older shall ride a bicycle on a sidewalk of any highway, except for those locations designated in § 886-6, of Municipal Code Chapter 886, Footpaths, Pedestrian Ways, Bicycle Paths, Bicycle Lanes and Cycle Tracks
(Recommendation #5 & Appendix C, from PW28.2)

In other words, according to the proposed changes, persons (age 14 and older) would be prohibited from legally riding unicycles on the sidewalk—if unicycles are included in the definition of bicycle.

Rather than force unicyclists onto the roadways or bike lanes, where potentially dangerous speed differentials and vehicular behavioural expectations are at play, I recommend that unicyclists should continue to be given the leeway to exercise responsible judgment as to where they should ride most safely and appropriately with respect to others, whether that be on the road or the sidewalk.

Importantly, note that unicyclists riding on the sidewalk are already subject to Ch.950, Article III, Subsection 950-300, which states:
No person shall ride upon or operate a bicycle [with a tire size less than or equal to 61.0 centimetres (24 inches)—this provision to be deleted per PW28.2 Rec. #5, Appendix C], skateboard, in-line skates or roller-skates, coaster, scooter, toy vehicle, toboggan, sleigh, or any similar device on a sidewalk recklessly or negligently or at a speed or in a manner dangerous to the public, having regard to circumstances.
To reiterate, unicyclists will continue to be subject to municipal bylaw enforcement if they are riding recklessly or negligently. Further regulation is not required at this time. 


  1. The harmonized municipal definition of ‘bicycle’ should not include unicycles.
  2. Forcing unicyclists to ride on the road is likely to create the very speed differential issues which the proposed revisions are in principle trying to solve.
  3. Unicyclists on the sidewalk are already subject to bylaw enforcement prohibiting reckless or negligent riding, and do not require further regulation.
  4. Number of GTA unicycle-related traffic accidents and infractions in 2013: Zero. Let’s keep it that way.
The unicycle community in Toronto—while diverse and eclectic—is generally well behaved with respect to observance of bylaws and traffic conventions. It would be quite unfortunate for this policy change to unwittingly create scofflaws out of this playful and carefree group of environmentally-friendly citizens. It would be even more unfortunate if the safety of this group and others were to be compromised by careless inclusion in the bylaw.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter. I look forward to your considered response,

Nathan Ng
Toronto One-Wheel Exhibition League

File images of unicycle and bicycle courtesy of Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license [link].