The diplomacy and politics of biking in Toronto

The following is a reprint of my recent psychogeography column in Eye Weekly on cycling in Toronto. As columns go, it was near the top in terms of the number of responses I received regarding it (via Twitter, in person, etc) and by far (20 to 1, thereabouts) they were supportive remarks. I mention this only because it supports my feeling that for a long time people who cycled felt they weren’t allowed to talk about bad cyclist behavior or object to bad cycling politics publicly. Ignoring both of those things undermines all efforts towards better cycling conditions in Toronto.

If you, bicyclist, have ever given thought to bike culture in Toronto and perhaps wished for more bike lanes or bike infrastructure, a safer ride or just more respect on the street, you are political and should behave in a manner that will further your political aims. If you don’t care about any of that, keep riding happily into oblivion. But if you care, everything you do on a bike is a political move, whether you like it or not, and whether it seems fair or not.

Cycling culture in Toronto is in what another columnist in this magazine might call a “quarterlife crisis.” It’s rich and robust, sure, but it’s still got an often-awkward  relationship with the rest of the city and isn’t 100 per cent grown up. Cycling for anything other than recreation is still a fairly radical and foreign idea for a big chunk of the city’s population: it’s something people do in China or Amsterdam, not Toronto.

Every time I see a cyclist roll past an open streetcar door, sometimes weaving in among people getting on and off (with what I read as a sense of moral entitlement), I see cycling’s political capital erode a little bit more. Same with the bikes that roll through busy stop signs and red traffic lights. You are not light and invisible and harmless; you are kind of a jerk.

What to do? It’s up to the rest of us to call them out. Shame them publicly. Call them names and make it known you object to such behaviour. (It’s unTorontonian to do this, but worth it.) When riding in the middle of the night or during the 2pm quiet, you can use your common sense when you come up to a stop sign and probably roll through slowly (as cars generally do). It may not be legal to do, but people practice it every day, in cars and on bikes. Cops even see it and, unless they’re on a blitz (as they often are at, say, the Beverley and Baldwin four-way stop), they look the other way. But out there on the busy streets, everything you do reflects on every other cyclist and how cycling is perceived by everybody else.

One of the most contentious issues in Toronto is helmets. On a dry January night I was riding home and, a block from my house, hit a patch of black ice and was instantly horizontal and falling hard to the ground. My body hit the cold concrete first and then the back of my head slammed into it a split second later and the bike slid into the curb. Everything hurt, except my head. Anti-helmet folks will point to both statistics (they can prove everything) and that cycling-mad Europeans don’t wear them (Canada was, in part, founded by people escaping European culture, so let’s not revert), but my head would be cracked open without that helmet. As it was well below zero and nobody was around, the blood and skull fragments would have frozen to the concrete and they’d have had a hard time peeling me off. So, I like helmets.

Politically, though, helmetless riders appear frivolous and reckless. So even if you think it’s a personal choice, there is (like it or not) a wider responsibility. And fundamentally, I couldn’t personally argue for more bike lanes and safer infrastructure while not practicing helmet-wearing. If you’re tough enough to ride without a helmet, you don’t need bike lanes either.

While I do love the bike-exclusive lanes, a worry is that they lull riders into a false sense of safety. So many riders, when in mixed traffic (and cyclists will always have to be in traffic at some point), seem oblivious to how cars operate, and so many near-misses suggest many riders don’t have a sense of how streets work. Councillor Adam Vaughan once said that he worried that if kids aren’t allowed to ride their bikes on the road, they’ll never understand the language of the street and never develop the skills needed to fly through the city with ease and confidence and in relative safety.

A recent addition to the streets here are the “sharrows,” those almost–bike lanes where a bike and some chevrons are painted in a traffic lane. They tell drivers that bikes also share this lane with them. At first I was skeptical — I wanted my own lane — but since they were installed on parts of Wellesley last year, I’ve found they work: there is usually a wide space on the right hand side of the road for bikes to pass as the motorists have moved over naturally. Though Toronto still needs bike lanes, sharrows can work. What I like most about them is there is a kind of conversation between drivers and cyclists, an acknowledgement of each other’s existence. When that happens, the language of the street is known, and the ride is smooth.

Photo by laurie.mcgregor.


  1. Here’s how you advocate cycling to the car drivers:
    – more cyclists means fewer drivers; a car takes more space from ‘your’ road than a cyclist
    – safer cycling means you don’t have to ferry your child everywhere by car
    – more traffic policing, better focused on the behaviours that most often lead to harm, makes you safer in your car, and your children safer throughout the city
    – bike sharing makes it possible for you to sometimes save money on driving, parking and taxis, and takes more people out of cars ‘in your way’.

    Gone are the days of ‘civil society’ in Canada. You can only rely upon appealing to people’s self-interest. Unless the cycling advocates get this, they’ll achieve nothing. They have to understand that nobody else cares about us, and our righteousness.

  2. Shawn, while I was nodding reading the 4 paragraphs, I knew where you were heading. You are right about all those other behaviours, they are fundamentally different from “not wearing helmet”. For one thing, those other behaviours endanger others in addition to the cyclist, while no helmet only put him or herself in danger; more importantly, those other behaviours do violate traffic rules, while “not wearing helmet” is clearly legal.

    So, Shawn, please, do not try to force your personal preference upon other cyclists with this kind of grand-standing.

    (For one thing, I do wear my helmet most of the times, and did suffer injury from an accident without helmet once, I will still defend my right to “not wearing it”).

  3. Your black ice analogy and quarter-life crisis status seem to be about slightly different things. Do you think helmets are necessary until utilitarian cycling becomes familiar and mainstream or would you still wear a helmet even if Toronto were like Amsterdam?

    Obviously this is a short article and not a dissertation or anything, but having laughed off statistics and case studies (the latter sort of poorly) your only response is the aforementioned analogy. At the risk of turning this into a what-if contest, should nighttime joggers also wear helmets?

    On the issue of cyclist bad behaviour, however, I completely agree. I generally don’t go for the public shaming approach (because I’m sometimes guilty of bad behaviour myself) but I do try to set a good example. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come to a stop at a 4-way intersection only to have another cyclist behind me sail right through it.

  4. And btw, I’ll ride any way I please, so long as the car drivers of this city do. My only priority is to get across the city exposing myself to as little harm and inconvenience as I can, while exposing nobody else to any extra. If they don’t understand that I lead off the light so they won’t run me into the gutter, don’t always signal through a left turn across streetcar tracks because I’ve fallen enough, make ‘L turns’ at intersections since they won’t let me make a left safely, aim a helmet light into their eyes to make sure I am seen, ride carefully up one-way streets where the suicidal option is University Ave, and many more, they have never considered what it is like to ride in this city. They won’t begin to respect my point of view even if I ride like a pussy.

  5. The fact that “helmetless riders appear frivolous and reckless” is exactly the reason why I don’t wear one. My personal experience with helmets has been that cars take greater liberties with their proximity to me when I am wearing one. I’d rather they kept their distance…

  6. WRT “sharrows”, I agree it works to a certain degree. But somehow I feel a bit more comfortable riding along Spadina with its “mini-bikelane” than on streets with sharrows. I assume most streets with sharrows have curb lanes wide enough for such a mini-bikelane, and I wouldn’t mind seeing those sharrows replaced with mini-bikelanes.

  7. The argument that cyclists (to paraphrase) can ride the way they want because some drivers drive the way they want (i.e. badly) is weak. It sounds silly to say this, but two wrongs don’t make a right. If you dislike how someone acts in the public realm, why emulate it?

    The key for me is courtesy, respect, awareness, and consideration. This is sorely lacking across our city in every mode of transportation (yes, even on sidewalks).

    Sticking to cycling, I agree with Shawn in that it really bothers me to see my fellow cyclists riding through people getting off and on the streetcar, weaving past people on the sidewalk, assuming that drivers always see them and will accommodate them – no matter how wily their riding – and zipping through parks and playgrounds as if strollers and children where just another speed bump. Maybe a full stop at every stop sign, especially at 2:00 a.m. on a side street, is unnecessary. Regardless, I would like to think that courtesy and respect have no limit on time or place. We live in a city. The city is filled with people. People deserve respect. I hate to sound didactic or self righteous but a day riding around Toronto will remind one how much this is lacking.

    If you want to ride like a demon and pass people in tight spaces, great. It’s fun! But please just do it in a velodome, or at least not in a bike lane when your fellow cyclist is hemmed in between parked cars and moving traffic.

  8. I often wonder if anti-helmet activists are funded by a large and powerful secret hair-dressers union.

    I used to think yes, of course if cyclists follow the rules better than anybody else they will win the hearts and minds of drivers. I followed those rules to a T for years. Oh how naive I was. One just has to step back and think about what the finger pointing is about. It isn’t about rolling stop signs or some cyclist in a rush shooting past open streetcar doors. Those are just red herrings. We have all seen motorists do these things where is the outcry from the motoring community? What these “politics” have todo with is more deeply embedded in group psychology. Just like other politics. A fascinating topic but quite divorced from the physical reality of our roadways. One just has to look at the stats if they want to get a simple idea of what is really going on – motorists are still killing everybody around them and their own occupants.

  9. OMFG Shawn. What a ridiculous suggestion to say “If you’re tough enough to ride without a helmet, you don’t need bike lanes either”.

    You said it yourself in the next paragraph “While I do love the bike-exclusive lanes, a worry is that they lull riders into a false sense of safety.”

    I repeat “a false sense of safety”

    That is exactly what a helmet gives you. A bicycle helmet is not designed to save your life – it’s not a motorcycle helmet. It is a piece of foam and plastic that might prevent you from a concussion (if you are lucky).

    It gives drivers a false sense of your safety. Drivers feel they can pass closer to you, because you are more “protected”.

    Cycling in itself is not a dangerous activity. The safest countries in the world for cycling also happen to be countries where virtually nobody wears helmets. The line about being “tough” enough to ride without a helmet: Tell that to an 85-year-old Dutch woman, or a 10 year old Dutch kid. They have lowest fatality rate in the world – WITHOUT HELMETS.

    So your argument is completely ridiculous.

    It’s analogous to saying that pedestrians shouldn’t have sidewalks because they are “tough” enough to walk around without helmets. You are more likely to fall while walking than biking, so why do we give all these scofflaw pedestrians safe walking facilities when they don’t care about their own safety? They should wear helmets to really show that they care about their safety, and then we should give them their sidewalks back.

    I had a lot of respect for Spacing before I read your article. If you really wanted more people cycling, you wouldn’t be trying to guilt people into wearing one. I ride slow, and safe, and I don’t wear a helmet. I have nothing against people who choose to wear one, but I’m not going to sit here and let you tell me that I should wear a helmet for political reasons. That’s messed up.

  10. It would help the debate if Amsterdam was not always the go-to city in terms of framing the story. I was recently shooting in Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga and was surprised to find bike lanes, nice ones, around town. Those cities form the buckle of the “Bible Belt” and if they have bike lanes then God must want it to be so.

  11. Drivers (trolls) who comment on newspaper articles about scofflaw cyclists will always be there – no matter how “well behaved” cyclists are.

    If you start entering the intersection a few seconds before the light goes green to make room for the motorists, you are running a red light and the driver will be angry at you. If you wait for the green and start moving the driver will be angry at you for slowing him down.

    If you roll through a stop sign, the drivers will be pissed because you don’t “obey” the laws. If you make a complete stop a stop sign, the driver behind you will be pissed for slowing him down.

    If you “obey” the law, and make a left hand turn from the left lane on a busy road, drivers will beep at you for holding them up. If you make a left turn through the pedestrian crossing, drivers will be angry that you are “impeding” pedestrians.

    When bike lanes are built, but they happen to be empty, drivers will be angry because it’s “wasted space”. But when there are no bike lanes, and cars have to slow down for you, drivers want you to get off the fucking road and ride on the sidewalk. 

    When you ride on the sidewalk, drivers complain that cyclists have no rights to the road because they ride on the sidewalk.

    The point here is that no matter what we do, drivers WILL ALWAYS find a way to say cyclists shouldn’t be on the road….

    Until riding bikes becomes so mainstream that even drivers ride bikes when they aren’t in their car. Then they will be able to relate, and then we will have respect, and then they will give us space, and then they won’t be demanding we pay for insurance/licensing.

    So drop the ridiculous rhetoric that somehow wearing a stupid fucking helmet is going to win over the motorists. This has nothing to do with helmets.

  12. How does the non-helmet crowd weigh in on seatbelt use when in a car?

    As for the cars (and cyclists) that blast past open-doored TTC vehicles, I still don’t get why the cameras installed for safety don’t cover the doors from the outside. Seems like an spot where passenger safety is routinely threatened, though perhaps not by the ‘thugs’ that motivated the camera project.

    Streetcar drivers typically lean on the horn but I think most people, drivers included, are kinda numb to that sound. Video evidence of that potentially life-threatening situation could modify behaviour with appropriate fines and a temporary licence suspension. I think it worked with the redlight cameras.

    Cyclists are trickier with lack of identification but posting stills and video online, to say, might shame us to change as well.

  13. I think some people (ie James above) take this post a little too far. The main point is that wearing a helmet is not a bad thing. Is never a bad thing. And in many ways shows to drivers you are concerned about your safety. And it gives the anti-bike people less to argue against.

    For the same reason I chastise friend who do not wear seatbelts I chastise friends who refuse to wear a helmet. It makes sense — we do not have a culture like Amsterdam or Copenhagen where the relationship between drivers and cyclists is more mature and understood. Until we get there donning a helmet ain’t a bad thing in any way. There are more negatives to not wearing one.

    Wearing helmet, despite what James says above, WILL save your life. Shawn gave an example of it and I can too — truck cut me off, I jammed on my brakes and flew over the handlebars. Shoulder and helmet took much of the blow and saved a cracked skull or concussion. This was on a residential road.

    I take issue with one point: Bike lanes are not a false sense of security as some argue. THEY ARE SAFE. They are safer than riding beside a car on your left and another parked car on the right. With bike lanes there is constant infrastructure around, even if its only a painted line, that reminds drivers of who they are sharing the road with. Without any lanes they forget.

  14. I bike all the time and you know what? Most cyclist aren’t radical anti-helmet zealots. It bugs me so much they are so loud and over-represented.

  15. all i can say is, i really loved this article when i came across it in eye. i’m not going to get into the debate here because i don’t feel like it, but i really really truly feel that this is a super important article and i’ve been sharing it and recommending it all over the place. in fact, even at lunch today, before i saw this, i was talking about it with a co-worker. i truly believe that if cyclists start behaving themselves in this city, then maybe we’ll actually get the respect we deserve, and, in due course, some real action on bike issues at city hall. so thank you, shawn, for writing it.

    thank you, too, for using my photo 🙂

  16. I would add something here but James schwartz summed it up perfectly. If you ride in this city on a regular basis you would know all of these points to be true.

  17. When they learn that I enjoy cycling around the city, the first question asked by anyone who would never consider biking, who considers it foolhardy and dangerous, is “Oh, do you wear a helmet?”. I don’t, and for me that decision is partly political. When I put a helmet on it makes me feel that I’m engaging in something dangerous, and I don’t feel that cycling should be a dangerous activity. I hope for a network of separated lanes, because I feel that some separation from vehicles would make cycling safer and more accessible for a greater range of people. I admire the biking culture of Copenhagen, where people wear their work clothes and ride utilitarian bicycles. I do try to cycle in ways that are co-operative with both vehicles and pedestrians, because I do feel that is important politically. For me, that means waiting for lights, not sneaking up beside cars at intersections, being visible at night, not riding on sidewalks, not riding on the wrong side of the street, not crossing intersections as if I was a pedestrian, not racing along crowded recreational paths ringing my bell at walkers. But I consider whether or not to wear a helmet to be a personal choice. For safely riding on city streets, I ride an upright bike with thicker tires, one that won’t travel as fast as some other styles of bicycle, and I move cautiously in areas where the traffic is congested and confused. If I chose to ride a racing bike, trying to maintain my cadence alongside parked cars while bent over the drop-down handlebars, bouncing skinny tires over potholes and streetcar tracks, it would probably be advisable to wear a helmet. But that’s not the way I chose to ride safely in the city.

    Last year, when I was seriously considering wearing one – not because I felt unsafe, but because I wondered if maybe it would bring me into the more responsible riding community – I stood watching cyclists riding the St. George bike path. And when I did that, I realized that those who chose to wear helmets didn’t seem any more responsible than those who didn’t. Some clearly were wearing their helmets in ways that wouldn’t protect them if they did have an accident, and the helmeted were almost as likely to go through the red light or run a stop sign or cut a pedestrian too close. I decided then that the helmet wasn’t necessary for me to regard myself as a responsible cyclist, and as someone who takes the political fortune of cyclists in Toronto seriously.

  18. I like the sharrows on College Street. They’re positioned in the middle of the lane and that encourages cyclists to occupy the whole lane. I hope to see crowds of cyclists riding on the sharrow lanes in much higher capacity than full car lanes (and that may involve riding 2+ abreast).

  19. Maybe the Toronto Cyclists Union, with or without Spacing’s help, could put out a line of shirts, stickers, and buttons that read:

    Helmets Are A No-Brainer

    Passersby could interpret according to their personal position and TCU gets some additional funds.

    Other options in the line could include:

    “I Am Traffic”

    “Gimme a lane and I’ll get out of ‘yours'”

  20. I wear a helmet. But that doesn’t give me the right to be respected on the road. The fact that I’m a human being riding a bike as I’m legally entitled to gives me that right.

    You’re arguing for tolerance and accommodation from drivers when what’s needed is infrastructure and respect. You’ve got your cart before your horse; you’ve got your foot in your mouth; you’ve got a really dumb article here.

  21. Jason Schwartz is exactly right, drivers hate cyclists no matter what we do: it’s a middle-American city of no consequence thing. He’s also right that drivers who are occasional cyclists aren’t like that: Japanese drivers usually commute to their commuter train station by bike, and give you more room on busier roads than Toronto drivers bother. I ride with courtesy to cyclists and pedestrians everywhere; I ride with courtesy to drivers in Tokyo because it’s returned; I don’t in Toronto, because it would get me killed.

  22. True, most cyclists are not anti-helmet zealots, myself included, and I do CHOOSE to wear helmet most of the time. But you know what, they are not pro-helmet zealots either, who feel it is their self-righteous right to pick on others who make different, yet perfectly legal choice.

    To the question about not wearing helmet vs. not wearing seat belt, the answer is simple, one is legal, the other is NOT.

    And I am tired of the argument because wearing helmet reduces risk (which is true), then every cyclist must wear it (which is faulty logic). By the same logic, stop riding on rainy or snowy days reduce your risk too, riding only on secondary streets or streets with bike lanes will reduce your risk as well, and I bet wearing a full body armour will also improve safety… So all cyclists should do those things too? I don’t where this logic ends… Hmmm, I think I know, to achieve ultimate safety and show ultra respect to motorists, all cyclists should ride … a car! Before you do that, you cannot argue for more bike lanes and safer infrastructure… Oh, wait a minute… something is wrong here…

  23. Head injuries are responsible for most pedestrian fatalities (World report on road traffic injury prevention, p. 89). Over the last six years, 11 times more pedestrians (168) have been killed than cyclists (15) on Toronto streets. When will pedestrians start being more responsible?  No new sidewalks until more pedestrians wear helmets. 

  24. If anyone’s interested in learning more about cycling, or confirming what they already know, the Canadian Cycling Association’s CAN-BIKE course is excellent.  They note the importance of maneuverability, visibility, predictability, and communication on the road, all of which lead directly to safety.

  25. Thanks for opening up the debate, Shawn. I agree with you about the “mutual respect” argument, but I also think that following the rules of the road serves another purpose. The point of much of the Highway Traffic Act is not so much to define safety (though some things, like speed limits and seat belts clearly help), but rather to codify a consistent set of behaviours to prevent the kind of misunderstandings that lead to accidents. I have always advocated cyclists following the rules (and do my best to, as well) so that drivers (and cyclists, and pedestrians) will know that I am NOT going to run into them, or that I AM going to turn when I stick my arm out.

    Frankly, I have always suspected that most of the arguments by cyclists against following the rules of the road to be a cheap mask for laziness, seasoned with a bit of self-righteousness. The amount of extra time and “inconvenience” of stopping at lights or riding the right way up a one-way is negligible, and earns the respect of the others out on the street. Sure, the 2am “California Roll” is no big deal, but riding diagonally across the intersection on red in order to go West on Adelaide is just asking for it.

    Finally, helmets. Yes, it’s a free country, and it’s not illegal for adults to go “naked” – I just think it’s stupid. The human skull is pretty tough (and clearly some are thicker than others), but it really isn’t designed to hit concrete at 20+ km/h and adequately protect what’s inside. I remember the same arguments from motorcyclists over 70s helmet laws (“we have rights!”), but my friend the trauma nurse quietly thanked the province at the time, since it meant she stood a chance of having living patients. Why anyone would ride in traffic (no matter how slowly THEY go) with no helmet, is beyond me. Really, your hair will be fine. And unbloodied.

  26. I think the big gap in understanding between drivers and cyclists is that nobody really knows what to expect of each other. We need to agree on a set of rules, publicize them widely, and stick by them. If the current ones make no sense for cyclists, let’s change them. But make sure everyone knows what to expect.

  27. (NOTE: I’m not trying to point fingers at any of the commenters specifically, just the general attitude)

    The big problem I always tend to see any time something to do with cycling comes up is that everyone is so polarized in their opinion and take those of others as an offence (welcome to the world of internet commenting, I know).

    Everyone seems to have different ideas of what’s acceptable behaviour when riding down a busy street, and are anywhere from flabbergasted to downright militant when someone else (usually drivers, but often enough other cyclists) doesn’t adhere to that same attitude. You’re first in the line of cyclists and stop at a red light even though there are no cars going through the intersection? It’s likely enough someone is going to go around you usually, at the least, in a passive-aggressive, dramatic swerve like stopping was the LAST thing they’d expect you to do at a red.

    Shawn’s comparison to the “quarter-life crisis” is perfect. The average “beyond-occasional” cyclist here has the near fundamentalist–fervour of a post-secondary student who just took their first philosophy course, has a Vonnegut book in their logo-free messenger bag a disdain for anything thats doesn’t fit their moral code. Not that that is generally a bad thing, but the reason our overly stereotyped friend never “makes a difference” like his kitten-themed motivational poster says he can is because those beliefs, passions, and want for change is never focused into anything constructive.

    Any sort of honest “let’s talk about cycling in Toronto” themed forum seems to turn into blame games or name calling. I don’t think the point of Shawn’s post is to say “Hey you, the guy reading this who doesn’t (your choice of something contradictory to what Shawn says), yeahhhhhhhh you! It’s YOUR fault we don’t get to have nice bike things in Toronto”. I think he is trying to put across the message that we need to operate in some sort of an organized fashion.

    You want to cite that the reason you admittedly ignore the general rules of the road is because of cars? Face it, MOST drivers operate their cars the same way as each other, adhere to the same rules as each other and all break some of the other rules the same way. This goes for pedestrians and transit users too (except for walk left stand right!!!!!). But watch a line of cyclists going down the street and it’s ridiculous. Some will stop for a red, others will go around them. Some cyclists signal, or make SOME kind of sign that they are turning or randomly stopping, others just slam their brakes without even seeing if someone is behind. The “oh but cars…” excuse is ridiculous. Some drivers are capable enough to share the road, and others aren’t. Just because you are/are not wearing a helmet/in a bike lane/riding aggressively doesn’t mean you have more/less influence on how a driver is going to drive. The only way to influence our commute to be safe is by the way we use and act with our own vehicles.

    Shawn’s point doesn’t mean to necessarily to promote his own specific way of interpreting the rules of cycling, he’s providing a forum to promote everyone using A specific way of interpreting the rules of cycling. Do you think motorists would get any positive political attention if they drove up on curbs to avoid someone parking, drove in the oncoming lane because they’re “just turning at the next road”, or weaving through pedestrians when they run a red because they “thought there was enough room”.
    Just because most politicians and decision makers operate just slightly above “loud disorganized rabble”, doesn’t mean they’re expected to take any group acting the same way seriously.

    Like I said, everyone with an opinion about cycling is so polarized. Anti-car, anti-helmet, anti-defencive cycling, anti-aggressive cycling, everyone is so adherent to their own belief that they’ll listen to someone UNTIL that person says one thing that contradicts their own edicts then it’s message board flame time, which is one of the least constructive things to do.

    Hell, even if we all rode like the guy I was behind a couple days ago who ran into a woman with a stroller crossing at College and Augusta, at least that’s a uniform attitude that can be used by everyone from policy makers to motorists to judge how a cyclist is going to react in a given situation and how to provide cyclists with what they need. But if all our passion towards better cycling conditions goes into this person or that person they’re wrong,

    I swear, those kids in the mall whose parents have to drag them around because they laying passive aggressively prone on the ground because they couldn’t get a toy can be more open to seeing the other side and compromise than cyclists sometimes.

  28. I’m not going to touch the helmet debate, which I consider a distraction to the real issue, which is building separated bike lanes. Bikes and cars and pedestrians cannot get along and never will and need to be separated.

    Years from now, we’ll be amazed this was ever even debated, as it’s such common sense. The trick is to get a few pilot examples built, so that the powers that be see it, get used to it, and forget all about why they ever didn’t like it.

    Look at what has happened in New York — it took a decade to get a tiny 8 block stretch of protected bike lane installed on 9th Ave, and there was lots of controversy when it opened in 2008. But then a funny thing happened — drivers got used to the new traffic patterns, the bike lane was extended up and down and spread to other nearby streets, and now NYC is steadily installing these all over town. Three more arterial streets are under construction (, adding up to about 300 blocks of new protected lanes in 2010 and 2011. Whoa. Did you ever think you would see the day when driving a bike IN MANHATTAN would be a safe and easy experience? That New York would have miles and miles of waterfront bike pathways? Wasn’t what I would have guessed in, say, 1984, when the City that Works had bike paths in the Don and along Martin Goodman and that alone was more than most other places. Toronto, you’ve lost ground, big time.

    Toronto needs to focus on getting a segment of protected lane built on a typical street, no matter how small a segment. Without such a pilot, nothing will ever get built. Find a suitable street and advocate for this and the rest will fall into place.

  29. Muse + iSkyscraper> Am for bikelanes – the false sense of security I mention is not the bikelane itself though, but rather the feeling of invincibility they afford (or some other word) – at some point on every ride, you will be in mixed traffic (bike lanes will never — at least in our lifetimes — connect you door to door to whatever destinations you’re going to) and if you’re only used to bikelanes, you’ll lack the skills needed to ride in traffic (the language of the streets, etc).

    Isky, I’d disagree with you on the point of bikes and cars – when both are piloted by smart people, it works fine.

  30. James Schwartz: ‘The line about being “tough” enough to ride without a helmet: Tell that to an 85-year-old Dutch woman, or a 10 year old Dutch kid. They have lowest fatality rate in the world – WITHOUT HELMETS’

    That’s because they live in a country with enough separate bike infrastructure that interaction with motorized traffic is minimal and governed by a dedicated structural system of rules and facilities (traffic signals, signs, paths). A country that provides more bike parking than car parking at train stations. A country where employers will co-finance bike ownership. A country where cycling is not considered merely recreation or child’s play but transportation. A country where cycling is so entrenched in society that the national equivalent of the CAA began as, and is still known as, the cyclists’ union. Clearly a society that is different from Toronto in many ways.

  31. As a privileged white male, I’m not used to people viewing me as a stereotype. Apparently I’m lumped in with a mentally disturbed person riding on the sidewalk, a bike messenger cutting seconds off their deliveries, or some clueless high school kid riding through a crosswalk. We’re all “Cyclists”.

    Any visible minorities will laugh at my whining, but it’s still a shock to experience it first hand.

  32. While I agree 100% with Shawn’s points about cyclists needing to start behaving more responsibly on the whole, I firmly believe that helmets should have nothing to do with the politics of cycling advocacy.

    The Toronto Cyclists Union lists the following position regarding helmets on our website:

    We support and encourage the use of helmets by cyclists of all ages, but also recognize an adult’s right to make their own choice. By law in Ontario, only those 17 years of age or younger are required to wear a helmet while cycling. We are opposed to making helmet use mandatory for adults because it discourages bicycle use, invites antagonism towards law enforcement and is not justified by the level of risk associated with head injuries.

    Regarding cyclists education in particular, we have just launched the Toronto Cyclists Handbook through our Partnership for Integration and Sustainable Transportation with CultureLink Settlement Services –

    This handbook offers safety tips, rights and responsibilities for urban cyclists, and is now available in the top 17 languages spoken in Toronto; English and Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Hindi, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil, Tagalog, Urdu and Vietnamese.

  33. I was totally with you until you got into the helmet thing. It’s just too divisive. And it plays into the “cycling is dangerous” myth (driving a car is dangerous, as is sitting still while your arteries harden–cycling, on the other hand, is safer).

    I do agree that cycling is a political act and that cycling advocates should politic accordingly. For that reason I emphasize the simple fun of riding by riding often and with a minimum of specialized “cycling gear,” by not violating the right-of-way of other road users, and by being polite and friendly. Frightening people with unprovable claims involving “blood and skull fragments” is neither polite nor friendly. Nevertheless, thank you for a thought-provoking posting.

  34. Unfortunately this worthy debate got (mostly) sidetracked by the helmet issue. The real point of the article, as I took it, was the current lack of civility amongst us Toronto cyclists.

    For many years I was a very strong believer in dedicated bike lanes, but I’m wavering now days and the reason for my doubts is that I don’t think we’re mature enough to handle them.

    It’s a dog eat dog world out there on 2 wheels. I can’t imagine how we would treat each other if we were all crammed into a 2 meter wide space with side curbs. The flotilla that regularly sails along College & down Beverly every morning would be reduced to a continuous slow-moving bicycle train. Like the DVP, but for bikes. The rate of bike-on-bike accidents would skyrocket! There would be fisticuffs at every stoplight! Or the kamikazes would still ride “off-piste” on the road, further infuriating the motorists.

    I took a good look at how things worked on the streets of Paris last year, where huge numbers of clunckers & vélib’bers share the streets with buses & cars. Glamourous women & smartly dressed businessmen rode with confidence (& generally without helmets, but let’s not go there at the moment) amongst the motorized vehicles. The key to this co-existence is the sheer number of cyclists. Motor vehicle drivers there just accept that they must share the road. Also a lot of the motorists probably ride bikes elsewhere in there lives (Spandex Sundays!!) so there is a cultural difference in Europe that I accept. The bottom line for me, though, is that we must proliferate & tire the drivers into acceptance & submission.

    I DO accept that we may never reach the critical mass we need to be without spending money on an improved biking infrastructure so that potential bikers are convinced it’s safe enough to try. I am coming to the personal conclusion though that I would rather see my meager tax dollars spent on completing the missing links in our existing cross-town network and on repairing at least the curb lane pavement of streets designated (or well used) as bike routes than on an infrastructure of dedicated bike lanes carved out of our existing thoroughfares.

    Will we ever become a civil lot? I’m not so sure. But while we wait for the masses to adopt bicycle commuting, thereby forcing motorists into road sharing acceptance, I will continue to dutifully follow the rules & encourage all my fellow cyclists to do the same. It can only help our cause. And if you pull around me & get in front of me at a stop light & then proceed onward at 10km/h, don’t be surprised if I scream something unpleasant as I pass you. My civility has its limits!

  35. At times, it is very hard to advocate for better biking facilities since some of us are less respectful of others, and the laws. But it’s also a question of laws of physics and survival – getting ahead of the mean cartillery at times means being a passhole of some type.
    The City is really slow at providing useful infrastructure in a good and linked network with logical routes and destinations eg. Bloor, or University Ave., or the Richmond/Adelaide route first thought of back in 1992, but with nothing done, except more mentions of study. That is likely where the first physically separated bike lane should go and do not worry about Mr. Vaughan’s desire to change each street into a 2-way road again – we need the bike infrastructure more thanks, and it must include smoother pavement and more east-west links of a direct nature in the west of Bathurst zones.
    Council will sell out cyclists though – eg. Bloor St. in Yorkvile, and what’s worse, they’ve rebuilt that road just 1M too narrow for the easy bike lanes and leaving two lanes of car travel. Shameful, given how badly needed bike travel is for energy and climate reasons..

  36. Earlier this week, the company I do deliveries for had me working out the downtown office rather than the Vaughan one. This meant I was driving right in the heart of the city, rather than the fringes of suburbia. And to be frank, much of this “cars vs bikes” is complete crap made up by the media.
    Allow me to illustrate a downtown street: the right lane is used for parking and right turns, the left lane is for through traffic. This allows bikes to ride comfortably between the edge of the right lane and parked cars.
    As for bike lanes, while there are some controversial plans (Jarvis, Richmond/Adelaide as two way streets), there is no question that cycling IS the best way to get around downtown. With driving, it may take multiple lights to get through an intersection. This is not an issue with cycling. Factor in the lack of a cross-downtown subway, and the generally level terrain and cycling is second to none.
    As long as you are a remotely competent driver and do all your checks, driving downtown is a piece of cake – even with those “evil cyclists”.

  37. Oh, and on the topic of helmets, right now it is legal to ride without one, so if you choose not to wear one then go ahead. Personally, I think it should be illegal to cycle without a helmet on public roads: This means if you are cycling on private property it would not be an issue. And while it would be illegal to ride your bike around the corner without one, the odds of getting caught would be slim to nil.

  38. Never ceases to amaze how the most fervent helmetologists are those who have the least knowledge about the science and research on the subject.

    Spouting fear and ideology is, of course, easier and requires less time spent on independent thought and research. Leaving more time for watching Cartoon Network. Yay!

    Toronto will never reach double-digits in modal share for bicycles if people like this writer are given the soapbox.

  39. As has been alluded to by a couple of other people, there is also the problem of behaviour between cyclists. I commute along a heavily used divided bike path in Montreal and I see poor communication all the time. But I think the biggest problem is speed; not everyone can or wants to travel at the same rate. Unlike cars, it is difficult to arrive at a commonly agreed upon rate of flow. This leads some cyclists to get frustrated and to start passing, but when you are contained in 2 small lanes and there is also the occasional rider going in the other direction – there are a lot of close calls.

    As more and more people are choose to commute by bike I think we need to find solutions that do not involve segregation. Plus cyclists will have to start checking their ego at the curb like drivers are meant to do.

    Personally I think that roads without curbside parking would work better than bike lanes since the cyclist can hug the curb much more than when you have to look out for opening car doors or pedestrians stepping out from between cars.

    But whatever the solution, cyclists need to recognize that we are part of a group that includes other cyclists as well as cars, and not just individuals.

  40. Mikael> Thank you for providing an example (the link to your site) of exactly the kind of bad cycling politics that I was getting at. Advocating helmets = promoting a culture of fear? At some point I think I saw you said Volvo was “attacking” cycling by supporting the use of helmets in the Netherlands.

    You have an extreme libertarian agenda – which is fine, you can have it. But libertarians don’t need bikelanes or other infrastructure either. And there are lots of riders — me included — who are alienated by your kind of rhetoric.

  41. Shawn, Mikael is absolutely right. When you promote helmets in the way they generally are promoted (as a standalone answer to danger), you are promoting fear. You are saying that cycling is dangerous and that you need safety equipment to do it. If you wish to wear a helmet, that is entirely a matter for you but when you start using the law to make it mandatory for everyone, that is when the problem starts.

    Australia, where I live, is one of a tiny handful of countries in the world with mandatory helmet laws. They have been an abject failure. They have without doubt reduced significantly the number of cyclists but have made no difference at all to their safety. Look at the Australian figures particularly the number of head injuries and non-head injuries before and after the introduction of the law. If helmets were as effective as is claimed, you would expect to have seen a clear drop in the number of head injuries. There was none.

    Mandatory helmet laws also encourage the attitude, particularly among motorists, that cycling is dangerous and that the cyclist has to wear a helmet and dayglo jacket. It also encourages the belief, among motorists, that safety is entirely the responsibility of the cyclists and they can carry on speeding through town with impunity. It is the cars that are dangerous, made more so by the appalling attitude of motorists that seems to be prevalent in English speaking countries. If you genuinely wish to increase the modal share of cycling, just encouraging cyclists to “behave” won’t achieve it. You look at the successful places, like Denmark, and see how they did it. It has nothing to do with a different “culture”. They are regular people just like us.

  42. Edward> I’ve never said anything about a mandatory law and don’t support such a thing — I just want an acknowledgment from any body that says they are “for cyclists” or tries to represent cyclists in anyway that there are inherent risks in cycling, and wearing a helmet is encouraged. To not encourage helmets because you are “promoting fear” is the worst kind of ostrich syndrome and it comes from that libertarian, radical view.

    Ostriches are nice but dumb birds. If you don’t like helmets, be honest and say “I don’t like helmets.” Let your inner Gary Busey come out, but leave the bad and radical politics elsewhere.

  43. What happened to my post? I didn’t swear at Shawn…

    By the way, women MUST wear hijab to be taken seriously. If not, they are just asking for it.

    Shawn’s post makes me deeply sad. Who is Gary Busey? Sorry, this is not part of my culture. Et j’en suis ravie!!!

    I hate helmets for the same reason I hate hijabs. I don’t mean I hate hijabis or helmet-wearers, but I hate internalised victim-blaming. Cars kill. Stop ignoring the elephant in the room and blaming its victims. Silly little boy.

  44. I don’t like helmets.

    I agree with you that there are inherent risks in cycling. In certain circumstances, a helmet may limit some of those risks. But there are inherent risks in so many activities (not least of which is motoring which itself would benefit from encouraging helmet use): climbing ladders, jogging, crossing the road, etc.

    My problem with helmets, and encouraging them, is that they distract from genuinely effective ways of making it safer for people who choose to get around by bicycle. When helmet laws were introduced here, they were one of three recommendations. The others were to build cycleways for safer cycling and to educate motorists for safer cycling. Helmet laws were the easiest and cheapest and that is all we got. No infrastructure and no real education. I would have no problem with promoting helmets if we had the other things in place, especially the infrastructure, but we don’t. When I am exposed to heavy goods vehicles travelling at 60km/h, a helmet simply won’t protect me. The focus on them, at least in this country, seems to assume that they will protect me.

    I am glad you do not support a law to make them mandatory. If it is ever proposed, use us as an example and oppose them vigorously. The small benefit they provide is far outweighed by the negatives of making them mandatory.

    Having said that, I have to recognise that helmets were not the subject of your article at all. You see how they distract from the issue?

    All the best. 🙂

  45. Edward, I agree wholeheartedly with everything else Shawn said (except his anti-European bigotry, which made me bless the fact that I live here in Montréal). Decades ago, ardent cycling partisan and peaceful ecowarrior Claire Morrissette was very clear about cyclists respecting not only laws but above all courtesy – especially to pedestrians, and Bicycle Bob Silverman was actually proud of getting a ticket for a minor traffic offense as evidence that cyclists were being taken seriously. But Claire was also very much an advocate of cycling in urban – indeed urbane – clothing.

    I hate helmets because I hate feeling strangled (one notices many people wearing them with the straps dangling, which is worse than useless) but above all because they are detrimental to the development of an urban, urbane, voire cycle-chic culture. Normal to cite Amsterdam and Copenhagen as they are the major western cities with the highest cycling share among road users, and have admirable infrastructure.

    Obviously here in Montréal we also look carefully at Paris because their achievement in terms of increasing cycling share – and civilising road behaviour – would have been unthinkable as little as 20 years ago. There was a cultural shift from the major public sector strike of 1995; so many Parisians started cycling to work and kept on doing so afterwards, but this was also facilitated by political will. Turning the autocentric development advocated by Pompidou on its head, Paris has gone away with bus lanes, bicycle lanes, new tramlines and other initiatives to encourage collective and active transport – Vél’ib, mother of Bixi, is but one example.

    And obviously, most cycling Parisians don’t wear helmets.

    I’m not a libertarian, extreme or otherwise. (Neither is Mikael of Copenhagenize, by the way) I advocate for cycle lanes, for restrictions on the car, for the development of public transport and walkable neighbourhoods, and have done so for decades. On my old Raleigh Sprite girly bike, usually in a skirt. The upright bicycle is better protection against hitting one’s head than any foam hat.

    I’m very much anti-car, but I know that urban planning is so woeful that unfortunately many people have to drive the earth-destroying things, and I certainly don’t hate them, but I do wish them consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. From the Gulf Wars to the current Gulf ecodisaster, I don’t have to spell out the reasons, and the ills caused by sprawl are an equally compelling case against car-centred development.

  46. Shawn – how is Mikael espousing libertaian rhetoric when Copenhagenize has tonnes of stats demonstrating the unintended consequences of helmets, while your column is full of anecdotes and sweeping statements, without any facts or figures?

    Usually I find your columns insightful, but this piece really misses the mark. If you can substantiate your arguments for why advocating helmets = political respect = improved cycling infrastructure, I’m all ears. Are there other cities in the world where this has worked? Because otherwise you shooting down Mikael as having an “extreme libertarian agenda” leaves me to believe you can’t actually refute his arguments.

  47. Oh dear, my pronouns are messy. Too early in the morning. I mean I certainly don’t hate motorists, but I do wish to have CARS consigned to that old dustbin in the sky.

  48. Dan> Helmets protect heads. That’s more than enough. Rhetoric like “Volvo attacking cycling” by encouraging helmets exposes a radical libertarian view.

  49. I’m guessing Shawn’s knee-jerk response means he doesn’t have examples of how advocating helmets = political respect = improved cycling infrastructure, which I believe is the entire point of his column. Hmmm, kinda points to who’s relying more on rhetoric….

  50. Shawn> If, as per your statement above, this is all you want…

    “I just want an acknowledgment from any body that says they are “for cyclists” or tries to represent cyclists in anyway that there are inherent risks in cycling, and wearing a helmet is encouraged.”

    … will our position statement, as per below, do? May I ask if you bothered to check our position statements on our Toronto Cyclists Union website, specifically about helmets, prior to writing this piece?

    “We support and encourage the use of helmets by cyclists of all ages, but also recognize an adult’s right to make their own choice. By law in Ontario, only those 17 years of age or younger are required to wear a helmet while cycling. We are opposed to making helmet use mandatory for adults because it discourages bicycle use, invites antagonism towards law enforcement and is not justified by the level of risk associated with head injuries.”

    It is plain as day that there are inherent risks in cycling – that’d be why I, along with our many volunteers at the Toronto Cyclists Union (some helmet wearers, and others not), have been working tirelessly for over two years advocating on behalf of our city’s cyclists for better infrastructure and education about road sharing for all road users.

    If you are interested in the safety of Toronto cyclists, and want some of them to behave better, then may I suggest that you become a member of the Toronto Cyclists Union and help out once or twice a year as a volunteer? The more infrastructure and education we can implement, the more normalised and integrated cycling transportation becomes, and the higher the rate of compliance with rules of the road will be. We could use a hand getting there, what do you say?

  51. Neat article, although too bad the emphasis on helmets seems to have created a big divide among the cyclists.

    Recently, I started giving drivers a little wave when they give me priority on a stopsign or wait for me to cross a street before turning. We have to remind drivers that we’re human beings, not unpredictable moving obstacles on the road! Many drivers ARE considerate (or just really nervous about bikes?), at least here in Montreal.

    I have also recently taken to using hand-turning signals as a courtesy to fellow cyclists and drivers. At first it felt weird, but now I like the sense of being in communication with other road users.

  52. Dan. I pointed out in the column (and if you disagree that’s fine) that in my opinion, any organization that wants bike lanes and improved infrastructure, must be a helmet advocate as well. You don’t get to pick which items you want in cycling safety because “you don’t like wearing helmets”. It’s across the board.

    Yvonne> Until every image the bike union uses and every representative is seen wearing a helmet when “on duty” or in the media, I cannot support it. I’m aware of the Union’s policy though, and this article was not about the Toronto Bike Union.

    Alanah> The little wave is a huge amount of currency when on bike.

  53. Hey folks,

    Just to clairfy, the bike union website is out of date (to be fixed shortly!). Our current position on helmets, as approved by the board, is:

    “We support and encourage the use of helmets by cyclists of all ages, but also recognize an adult’s right to make their own choice. By law in Ontario, only those 17 years of age or younger are required to wear a helmet while cycling. We are opposed to making helmet use mandatory for adults.”

    This sentence was deleted in April: “We are opposed to making helmet use mandatory for adults because it discourages bicycle use, invites antagonism towards law enforcement and is not justified by the level of risk associated with head injuries.”

    The bike union has not endorsed those statements.

    Helmet use is a complicate subject, especially in the context of advocacy, perception and politics. I personally wear one almost every time I ride, and I encourage all my friends to as well. But I also respect people’s right to choose not to, including Yvonne’s.

    The bike union’s position on helmet use is concise and clear. The words were chosen quite carefully, and take a strong stand in favour of helmet use. “We support and encourage the use of helmets by cyclists of all ages”.

    I encourage everyone to join the bike union. Together we can advocate for a safer city that reduces injuries for everyone (helmet or not).

    ~ dave

    (current board member)

  54. Shawn, you really are a fundamentalist about this issue. The Volvo push was in the Netherlands (if I recall correctly) which already has both about the lowest rate of helmet use and the lowest rate of serious accidents among cyclists on Earth. The reason being that the rate of cyclists among road users and the total number of cyclists are by far the greatest factor in safety among utilitarian riders, and that coercive helmet policies cut deeply into this rate and discourage utilitarian cycling. One extreme example is Australia.

    I am no less favourable to safety than you are, but I advocate a radically different approach to achieving that goal.

    I do both waves and hand signals. This is very important both in terms of communicating intent and reminding people in their polluting machines (and yes, I know many have no choice, alas) that we are human beings too.

    Mikael is not a libertarian. A liberatrian would oppose dedicated cycle lanes and other “nanny state” infrastructure, for one thing. There aren’t a hell of a lot of libertarians in Denmark.

  55. It’s pointless to compare helmet use between here and Copenhagen. The infrastructure is completely different. And they don’t have “cycle chic” or “bike culture” over there – it’s just a means of getting around.

  56. It’s not pointless, Zeffer. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are benchmarks to which your society or mine should aspire. Yes, of course “cycle chic” just refers to people going to work or play in normal clothing, but it is a clever strategy to counter the ghastly spandex “culture”.

  57. I can only suggest that the author do himself – and urban cycling – a favour by actually spending some serious time on research.

    After two years of looking into the subject my conclusions are the same as those of cycling organisations across Europe. The British CTC, French FUBICY, the a href=”″>European Cyclists Federation, the Dutch Fietsersbond and many more.

    Even the European Union has warned member states about the negative effects of promoting helmets:
    “…from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use, and that to prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion of helmet wear to manufacturers and shopkeepers.”

    Libertarian? How amusing. Rational? Indeed.

    I suggest reading Frank Furedi’s Culture of Fear to understand these fearmongerers and why they do what they do. And the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation has a page dedicated to these “Dude! A helmet saved my life” tall tales.

  58. we’re all responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. this diatribe is nothing but a defense of illegal, immoral, and dangerous driver behavior. this spirited defense will be part of the reason tens of thousands of Torontonian cyclists will be harassed, terrorized, maimed, killed, and denied justice this year. Keep up the good work.

  59. This article and it’s comments are a fascinating look into the psychology and attitudes of the various cycling cliques in downtown Toronto. It is also reflective of the power and ability of journalists and citizens to voice their opinion without reference to academic studies or accurate statistics.

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