This post by Benvenuto Triolo is part of Spacing‘s partnership with the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank at the University of Toronto. Find out more about the think tank, and the series, here.
As a new cyclist in Toronto, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to enjoy riding in the city. Over the past month, I’ve transitioned to this fast, efficient and inexpensive lifestyle. Like most people, I had a huge barrier to my first bike ride in the city: the perceived dangers associated with riding a bicycle in a world of massive, speeding cars, aggressive taxis, and poor cycling infrastructure. Cycling next to cars on busy streets is definitely a far cry from my childhood experience of riding a mountain bike on the sidewalks of Brampton’s suburbs. Frankly, taking that first step onto a bike in nearly a decade (and in Toronto nonetheless), was scary. The good news is my fear was easily conquered. I’d like to share with you what made my experience so unexpectedly pleasant.
If not for a friend, I would have settled for the slower option of walking or the more expensive (and often slower) option of taking transit for as long as I lived in Toronto. I would have been stymied by my initial apprehension, if I hadn’t had an experienced cyclist to mimic during my first downtown cycling excursion. An anxious ride through busy streets quickly turned into a casual jaunt down residential roads. When you can rely on a veteran cyclist to plan a relaxing, bike-friendly cycling route to reduce many of the risks associated with cycling, your view of the city changes and the experience is much more relaxing. Interestingly, I found that my confidence on a bike (unlike that of driving a car), dramatically increased after only a few minutes of riding. Following a practiced rider let me overcome my initial dread of cycling as well as learn the basics of city riding. There is no better way than to ride with a friend.
While both cyclists and those who don’t cycle are quick to point at poor cycling infrastructure (e.g. lack of separated bike lanes) as the largest cause of people not willing to jump on a bike, this may not to be the entire story. Emotional barriers such as culturally constructed fear create a perception of risk far greater than the actual (im)probability of injury. Specifically in Toronto, although cycling infrastructure is relatively poor and perception of risk is high, cycling is safe and getting safer. Certainly the risks associated with inactivity are far greater than the risks associated with cycling.
With regards to my own experience, I would say this is spot on. The initial fear of not knowing the proper road rules, getting caught on a streetcar track, hitting a pedestrian, or any other cycling risk suffered by a new cyclist, weighed as much on my decision not to ride as the concern about poor physical infrastructure..
Although I am a collegiate male (part of the demographic most likely to overcome fears and begin city cycling), I am by no means an intimidating specimen. This leads me to believe that other barriers to cycling, such as gender and age, are further manifestations of a deeply misconstrued reality of urban cycling risks. Fortunately, ‘social infrastructure’ can help ease these newcomer anxieties and is available to anyone who looks or has a friend who cycles. For many Canadian cities like Toronto, where physical cycling infrastructures are few and far between, these social infrastructures become essential in changing the attitude towards cycling and increasing its adoption. So grab your bike, find a friend, take a deep breath, and shatter that initial fear – you might find yourself loving, not fearing, your first ride.