Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Problems with Cycling in Toronto, a Manifesto of Sorts

As I start to write this I feel like letting out a sigh of relief and release: finally. I've been trying to write something, anything on here for what feels like weeks, though I suppose it's only been a few days. After a few geeky and not particularly invigorating posts and then a whole slew of video embeddings, I'm finally getting back to my ramblings and ravings.
I've been super busy at work promoting an event my organization is putting on this week, the international premiere of a documentary called "So Far From Home." It captures the stories of five journalists from conflict regions who put themselves at risk in order to do their jobs. If you're in the Toronto area you should come out and see the film. There's also going to be a panel discussion with the featured journalists after the screening, moderated by CBC's Carol Off. For more info, here are two links to the Facebook event listing and the press release. Anyways, that's why I've been so busy and unable to write.

Now that I'm done with that lengthy preamble, on to the meat of what's been on my mind lately...

I'm what you might call an avid cyclist. I ride my bike throughout most of the year, in all weather conditions, both for recreational purposes and as my main mode of transportation. I just recently moved back to my hometown Toronto after spending a few years living in Montréal. Just as I arrived and started thinking about biking around town there was an incident that has gotten a lot of attention in local and national media over the last few weeks: the case of the former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant and the late bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard.

The details vary somewhat depending on who you ask, but what's certain is that on September 1 Bryant and Sheppard got into a heated altercation on Bloor Street. Bryant was in his car and Sheppard was riding his bike. Things escalated, the disagreement got physical, and then Bryant's car began to move into the oncoming traffic lane with Sheppard attached to the driver’s side of the vehicle. The cyclist collided with a number of objects before falling to the pavement where he was run over by the car. Sheppard died from his injuries shortly thereafter.

I don't want to discuss the specific incident, it's still hard to say exactly what happened and the specifics don't really help with what I want to say. You can Google Sheppard to get more information on the continuing investigation and the charges against Bryant. I only mention the case because it speaks to the antagonistic relationship between motorists and cyclists that is so prevalent in Toronto. It is an extremely typical opposition in many ways but it is unique in how vitriolic the situation has become. There is such an intense hatred shared between drivers and cyclists that incidents like the one between Bryant and Sheppard happen every day, they just don't usually lead to such extreme conclusions.

Toronto motorists hate cyclists, and with good reason. While there are lots of riders who are cautious and respectful of traffic laws, the ones who get noticed are the many reckless cyclists who ride with an apparent sense of entitlement to the road. They zip in and out of traffic as if they have a death wish, they alternate at will between acting like drivers and pedestrians, and they are obnoxious to anyone who questions them or gets in their way. Toronto bikers are assholes.

By the same token, Toronto cyclists hate drivers, and with good reason. Motorists seem to treat us bikers like scum as a general rule, and get angry with us for simply being in the road space we justly inhabit. It often feels like we are completely disregarded by drivers until the moment when they have to consider us, at which point we are always at fault. Motorists act as if they own the road and the onus is on us to work around them if we insist on using it, and that includes ensuring that we simply survive the ride. Toronto drivers are assholes, and they put our lives at risk everyday by being the way they are.
Clearly both sides have valid concerns. Drivers want cyclists to act properly on the road and cyclists want drivers to care enough not to endanger them. What makes this problem complex is the fact that the hatred is self-sustaining; that is to say that the problems the motorists have with the cyclists fuel the problems the cyclists have with the motorists and vice versa.

The cyclists’ reckless and lawless attitudes encourage drivers to treat them with increased disregard. This in turn pushes cyclists to ignore anything but their own survival instincts, and to lash out at anyone who challenges them. Trust me, I’m someone who’s still just recovering from the phase where I was proud to describe myself as being “that cyclist you hate.” I know what it’s like to feel anger towards drivers for putting your life at risk and not caring.
At the same time I’m also a driver and while I identify more as a cyclist I can understand the complaints of motorists. I know that when I’m in my car Toronto cyclists seem, for the most part, like complete psychopaths. They disregard any traffic laws or general courtesy or conventional wisdom, and they act like they have a right to do so. That reality has played a huge part in the turn of public opinion towards Michael Bryant, but as I said this post isn’t about that.
In order to solve the complaints of both cyclists and drivers we need to make both more accountable. We need to hold cyclists responsible for their actions in a legal sense as well as a mortal one. At the same time we must begin to truly hold motorists liable for their treatment of cyclists as equal users of the road space.
Both things need to happen before any kind of significant change can occur. By doing so we will transform cycling into a recognized and legitimate form of transportation. In a city the size of Toronto this isn’t a progressive and contentious choice as much as it is a necessary evolution.
So how do we do it?
We don't let people drive without insurance, we shouldn't treat helmets any differently. It is irresponsible and flat out stupid to ride without the extra protection they afford, especially given the riding climate in Toronto. We don't treat motorists with a laissez-faire attitude because we recognize that there are responsibilities that one takes on when one gets behind the wheel of a car. We shouldn't act as though riding a bike is any less serious of an agreement between the rider and everyone else on the road. It's not fair to motorists or pedestrians, and more often than not it's the cyclist who pays the price for this irreverence.

The fewer "ghost bike" memorials the better

The same goes for having a bell and reflectors and lights, which thankfully there are already rigid laws enforcing. In order to be granted the privilege of using the road cyclists should be expected to have a common means of communication between themselves and all other parties, beyond simply yelling. Likewise we cyclists carry the responsibility to make ourselves visible to the other vehicles using the road. These laws exist and are enforced, and that is a step we have thankfully already taken in the right direction.
Licensing riders is a good idea. It creates a common ground between drivers cyclists as citizens who have been granted the privilege of using the road space, and thus makes riders a more legitimate group. It will also make drivers more aware of the laws surrounding cycling, the rights riders have and the consequences for violations of those rights, either by us or them.
A bicycling license is not without its fair share of problems, however, and it is far from a solution. It will be incredibly problematic to institute and enforce this kind of policy, and by its nature the plan only attempts to address one side of the issue. As much as a license increases cyclists’ visibility as equal users of the road space, it does nothing to change the consequences faced by drivers if they infringe upon our rights or expand those rights.
Christie Blatchford said it best in her article on September 2 when she said that "The mismatch between car and bicycle is sufficiently enormous that the cyclist is inherently always right." There are laws that protect pedestrians by giving them the authority in most disputes with motorists, legally recognizing their increased vulnerability. While cyclists are protected by some of the same laws, it begins to get fuzzy when you try to start drawing the line between cyclists and pedestrians. In terms of road use it really is imperative that rules be created with cyclists specifically in mind. One good example of the need for this is the laws surrounding the “door prize.”

The same day that Blatchford posted that article, the day after Sheppard was killed, two cyclists were reported in separate serious accidents. The Globe and Mail details how one of these incidents resulted from a driver simply opening their door, thereby forcing a passing cyclist to swerve into traffic. This is one of more prevalent dangers of cycling in a city like Toronto, and it is known as the “door prize” by cyclists.
Whenever I am riding next to cars, both parked and in motion, I am constantly on the lookout for careless drivers or passengers who might open their door into my path and door prize me (yes, it can be a verb). Taxis are especially bad for this as their drivers are notorious for their attitude (much like bicycle couriers), and their passengers are often barely aware they are in/exiting a motor vehicle.

The danger of the door prize, however, is one that the cyclists not only bear full responsibility for but also face alone. Chris Doucette's 2008 article on the Toronto Bike Union website details how giving out the door prize is punished with a $110 fine that is often only enforced when the consequences are fatal. To put it plainly, motorists are fined the same amount for potentially ending a cyclist's life that riders are fined for not having a bell on their bike. With this kind of imbalance it is no wonder that we have an antagonistic and dangerous climate on the road, for drivers and riders alike.
I will admit that I’m not aware of whether or not circumstances have changed with regards to the laws surrounding door prizes. I don’t believe the situation has been addressed, but even if it has it’s safe to say that events that occurred in 2008 are recent enough to effect the present climate of hatred and fear on the road. I also understand that this kind of thing is an easy mistake to make. Hell, I’ve almost made it myself. The problem is that there is no legal measure to force people to stop and think before they fling their door open and potentially kill a biker, and that is simply unacceptable.

What Blatchford says in her article should go without saying. It should be common sense and policy that cyclists fall in between pedestrians and motorists in the hierarchy of responsibility on the road, but this is not the case. In order to create safe road conditions we need to account for all the users of the road in relation to one another. The greater one's dominance of the space the greater the responsibility one takes in using that space around others. We need to make laws that recognize and enforce that basic principle and extend its application to cyclists.
In addition to everything I’ve listed above there are also two obvious and practical steps to be taken: we need to increase the police awareness of cyclists (including how motorists treat them) and we must make more bike lanes.

In order for any what I’ve suggested above to have any effect we need law officers to help enforce it. Cyclists will not suddenly stop being assholes if we change the law on them, and we shouldn’t wait for any more of them to get hurt before we start letting motorists know that the onus is on them not to kill anybody.
Giving cyclists their fair share of space is simply not a choice. We need more bike lanes in order to keep congestion down so that we can continue to bike safely. The number of lanes we have is insufficient, especially when you consider how many of them are little more than the gutter at the side of the road.
I’m not touching on these practical points in detail because the police one is intrinsic to any change in policy, and because so much attention has gone to the bike lanes issue already. The Bike Lane on Bloor movement, for example, is a great cause and a good approach to solving tangible needs, but it is not a solution. At best it treats the symptoms of the problem I’m addressing, which is the relationship between cyclists and drivers. That requires something more profound than a mere allocation of road space.
Cyclists and motorists are at fault alike in creating the dangerous conditions on Toronto roads, but until we change the ground rules that both operate under neither group will change its ways. We need to recognize the root factors responsible for creating the situation so we can make fundamental changes to how the roads operate.
It’s a no-brainer when you put it in simple terms: cyclists use the roads but aren’t treated/recognized as authorized users. That’s what lies behind the abundance of asshole riders and drivers alike. If we make changes to that reality we will be taking dramatic steps towards making those people the minority, and making Toronto a safer place to own a bike.

(Append 9/24) Marcus Gee has written an interesting article in the Globe and Mail on why licensing cyclists wont work. His points are sound, and mostly he considers the same things I did before I started my rant on cycling in Toronto. I agreed with him until I really started to consider what the problem at the root of the motorists vs cyclists debate was, but I think he fails to follow the logic all the way through.

As he correctly points out, "The hassle of getting [a bicycle license] might easily discourage many cyclists from commuting on their bikes, a setback for a city that is spending millions trying to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home and bike instead." So, if the city is truly trying to turn cycling into a viable alternative for driving then why is it treating cyclists like second rate pedestrians? Why aren't there more spaces specifically for cyclists, and why aren't there more laws crafted specifically around cycling?

Gee also makes the same point as me that there is blame to lay on both sides. If this is the case then yes, a license isn't the solution, but Gee gives no reason for why it can't be part of one. Furthermore, one of his main points is the fact that enforcing tickets upon licensed cyclists would be no more simple than doing so on unlicensed ones. If that's the case then why aren't there more police enforcing cycling laws more proactively right now? The issue here is not just the paper, it's the multitude of issues surrounding cycling, including police enforcement of traffic laws.

Both Gee and city councilor Michael Walker, the main proponent of bicycle licensing, are treating the piece of paper like a solution when it clearly cannot be one. I don't think that should be the issue of debate. What is required, as I've argued, is a more widespread plan to completely change the nature of cycling in Toronto from the ground up. That is the only way to truly solve the issues of the cyclists and the motorists and make riding your bike a viable alternative to driving.

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