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.