The Myth of the Cyclist as Urban Warrior

Hell hath no fury like a biker scorned. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy learned this the hard way after his blog post, “Battle of the Bike Lanes“, criticized the recent proliferation of New York bike lanes under the city’s current Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Kahn. This initial post sparked a flurry of comments and rebuttals from such heavy weights as The Economist, and prompted Cassidy to follow-up with a second and then a third post.

Of course, hell hath no fury like a motorist scorned, too. Here in Toronto we’ve witnessed Rob Ford proclaim that streets are for cars, trucks, and buses, while Don Cherry gleefully gave the verbal middle-finger to all those bike riding pinkos. In Vancouver, the construction of the Hornby Street separated bike lane in October 2010 prompted a flurry of media that opined the beleaguered driver, which continues even as the City releases information stating that traffic remains unchanged along Hornby except for a one-minute delay during rush hour. In New York, the bike lane debate has even concerned the courts.

The rhetoric around the bike has reached untenable heights. Not only is it completely unproductive, but it works to make both motorists and bicyclists unsafe by stoking anger and fear. By positioning it as a war between two clear sides, we reduce our ability to compromise, to work together. Spittle flies from both sides of the debate, as cyclists rush to label car drivers as gas-guzzling, suburban, earth-pigs and motorists respond by calling cyclists pretentious, militant, holier-than-thous (albeit with great calf muscles). Just reading the comments on blog posts and newspaper articles on the subject is enough to turn my hair white.

How did we get to this point? But, more importantly, how do we get away from it?

First, let’s ditch the war metaphors. Between Cassidy’s bike lane “battles” and the omnipresent “war on the car”, I feel like we might have lost some important perspective. A recent letter sent by Councillor Adam Vaughan to BIAs and resident associations in his ward, used the word “barricaded” in place of “curbed” to describe Denzil Minnan-Wong’s separated bike lane proposal, going on to say a bike path would “carve” through Grange Park. While respecting Councillor Vaughan’s work  to increase bicycle infrastructure in the city, it’s this kind of unnecessarily value-laden language that contributes to an antagonistic atmosphere through positioning the cyclist as the urban warrior vs. the rest of the city. We would hardly refer to the curb on the sidewalk as a barricade for pedestrians.

And let’s also remember that if we insist on calling this a war, then most of us are constantly switching sides. An interesting thing happens when we walk, bike, or drive around the city. We seem to forget that we ever use any other form of transportation other than the one we are currently using. I’ve been in cars with people who impatiently drum their fingers at pedestrians taking too long to cross the street, while witnessing those same people deplore the lack of patience drivers have while they are crossing the street themselves. Drivers are bikers are pedestrians are transit users. We do not exist in easily separated categories, pitted against each other in travel statistics. Most of us use at least more than one way to get around, even if it’s just walking from the car to the restaurant. Splitting the debate into an Us vs. Them dichotomy is too coarse, a point which Dave Meslin picks up on in his recent Toronto Star editorial where he argues that Rob Ford may not be the be the harbinger of the bicyclepocalypse as originally thought.

Cyclists, let’s tone down the environmental angle. Arguments about the environmental and economic benefits of cycling are all well and good, but by over-focusing on these elements we run the risk of alienating a lot of people while missing out on the greater point. Increased bicycle infrastructure should ultimately be about safety and allowing everyone to feel comfortable riding their bike, including the timid. This is, after all, mostly who bike lanes are for. There are plenty of us out there now, with the bicycle network as pitiful as it is, pedaling away everyday. While I would love to ride in a bike lane along Spadina, the absence of one is not enough to keep me off the street. As do many others in this city, I feel confident enough to — as Rob Ford says — swim with the sharks. The important point, however, is that you shouldn’t have to possess nerves of steel just to get to work. Cassidy writes about how in the 1980s when he biked around New York he would frequently arrive shaking with fear — if that’s not a good argument for increased bicycle infrastructure, I’m not sure what is.

Let’s stop demonizing everyone based on the actions of a few. There are certainly bad cyclists out there, and I’ve almost been hit on the sidewalk several times by a few of them. But I’ve also almost been hit crossing the street by terrible drivers talking on cell phones and running stop signs. This doesn’t mean that every motorist is a negligent jerk, just as every cyclist isn’t a law-breaking hooligan. Taking every opportunity to point an indignant finger and proclaim “Aha! See?” gets us nowhere fast.

As StreetsblogNYC pointed out in a handy pie chart, even in a city that has taken a very proactive stance toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the allocation of road space in New York has barely budged. I’m sure a similar pie chart of Toronto or Vancouver road space allocation would show a similar trend.

It’s time both sides put away their swords and focused their energy on implementing “complete streets” that provide space for cars, transit, pedestrian and bikes. Let’s tell a different story.

photo by Hey Paul


  1. i disagree
    theres limited space and limited resources

    you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  2. Very well said, sir. Not a hair on my head turned white while I read your post 😉

    “Drivers are bikers are pedestrians are transit users. We do not exist in easily separated categories, pitted against each other in travel statistics.”

    This common sense perspective needs to be made again and again and again and again…

  3. Indeed. All this haranguing and debate can go fly a kite, for all I care; I just want to be able to get around on my bike safely and conscientiously without being prejudged or pigeonholed. I try to do the same of others, no matter their mode of transportation.

  4. Maybe it’s just me, but the image on the sign at the top of the article sure looks like the motorist is trying to gun down the cyclist as best as she can. The driver seems to almost be leaning forward in anticipation of the impact, even.

  5. I could not agree more with this article.

    Economic and environmental arguments for riding a bike have always sounded hollow and forced.  They seem to reinforce the holier-than-thou attitude that many people associate with cyclists.

    We could get a lot more people to ride bikes if we can make them feel safe on the roads and get them to enjoy cycling for cycling’s sake.  Biking should not be framed as a sacrifice that we are making in order to save money or to ‘be green’ (both of which are very positive side-effects).

  6. I ride a bike around the city, mostly walk and take transit sometimes. I’ve owned many cars in other cities, but never owned one here.

    I find it quite interesting how much hate in Toronto there is for people who ride bikes. I’d suggest that the debate about ‘cyclists vs. cars’ has nothing to do with cyclists or cars. That so much emotional investment goes into it, it must be a symptom of something else. For car drivers, it’s more likely that they’re annoyed with the broken promise of being able to freely drive around, and I wonder if this has a lot to do with being able to freely drive once outside of the city/suburbs. I mean, once you’re into the 519 or the 705 (and beyond), there’s considerably less traffic or people and that sense/myth of freedom of driving a car has much more reality. Maybe people bring that sense of freedom with them into the city.

    As for cycling culture, I think far too much of it is caught up in some form of morality. Part of it has to do with environmentalism, but much of it has to do with a sense of self-satisfaction that (rightly) annoys people. It reminds me of that South Park episode (“Smug Alert”) where everyone bought hybrid cars. Cyclists are in many ways caught by this – either you’re a jack-ass with spandex, a hipster jack-ass on a fixie, or some jack-ass stylish guy or gal on a Dutch-style bike. Of course these identifiers aren’t much different for car-drivers (truck, BMW, Volvo, minivan etc.) but the identities are much more heightened on a bike for some reason.

    One of the things rarely spoken that appears to be central is jealousy. It seems like a cliche, but it must be really irritating for someone stuck in a car in traffic to see a cyclist squeeze by. This relates to the common complaint that cyclists ‘blow through’ stop-signs. That cyclists slow down, look for cars and glide through a stop-sign or stop-light without incident is completely normal, just as are pedestrians who cross on a red when no cars are around. What’s unbelievably weird are people in cars who wait until the light turns green to go through the intersection when there’s nothing around. Think of that car out in the middle of nowhere stopped at a red light with nothing for miles waiting minutes for the light – that’s the result of conditioned behaviour, and that it’s the “right thing to do” demonstrates it’s internalized ideology. So, when a cyclist treats a stop-sign as a yield-sign, which is completely reasonable, it exposes the idiocy of car-driver’s behaviour – not surprising that it’s infuriating! Another way to think of this is that it’s completely normal to buy and drive a car around, whereas buying and riding a bicycle becomes some “lifestyle” choice in which you have to situate yourself; riding a bike is overtly a political act, whereas driving a car is a disguised political act.

  7. I don’t know, Kevin – I think cars and bikes and everyone else have to get along when they are all actually on the road, but as far as policy and advocacy and indignation go, I am heavily pro-bike. Cars already have all kinds of well-funded groups looking out for them, so there’s no reason to say we should all just forget about complaining and get around in our own chosen way. That just favours cars.

    One way to helpfully advocate for bikes is to put aside the more moral arguments for a moment (health, environment, etc.) and say – as I do, truthfully, when people ask me why I bike all winter – that it is actually a better experience. Sitting in a car trying to get downtown is head-rattling, and I can’t stand taking the subway on a weekday. And a bike ride from home to work always takes the same amount of time, rain or shine.

    I drive to work about once a month when it can’t be avoided, and every time I do, I fantasize about cars being banned from the area from Bloor to Front, University to Church (or a London-style congestion charge). It’s a nice thing to think about as I crawl east along Wellesley.

  8. This is more or less what I have been saying on the matter for a decade. The toxic, endless squabbling boils down to “We’re not gonna behave ourselves until they do”, which is asinine in both directions. Roadway safety is the primary task of every traffic participant, whether s/he be on foot, on two wheels, on four, or on 18.

    Mr. Garrett comes close, but stops just short of raising a crucial and difficult point: there is very little legal incentive for a bicyclist to behave himself as a coöperative traffic participant. He faces only the slim prospect that a copcycle will stop him for running a red light or a stop sign or some other infraction. He’s not required to carry identification or proof of competence, and his bicycle needn’t be inspected, registered, or insured. I’m not entirely sure that licensure of bicyclists and registration of bicycles is necessarily a good idea (though neither am I entirely sure it’s a bad one); I have difficulty coming up with a good answer to this. What is to be done about those cyclists—and there are many—who insist on riding dark bikes stripped of all reflectors, without any lights, while wearing dark clothing, the wrong way, at night?

  9. I see this as merely as our media’s love for creating debate, and we just go along with it.

    Here in Montréal, there are over 500kms of bike paths on the island with more in the suburbs, and we’ve got Bixi bikes, and put in lots of summer bike racks, all eating up parking spots and lanes… and yet, with a larger bike infrastructure than New York or Toronto and even more planned, there has been no bike vs. car debate here.

    Are we all bicycle-loving pinko commies? I don’t think so. It just never became a contentious issue, that’s all.

  10. “What is to be done about those cyclists who insist on riding dark bikes stripped of all reflectors, without any lights, while wearing dark clothing, the wrong way, at night?”

    Well, Daniel, the good news is that they’re just taking their own lives in their hands, and nothing needs to be done – they’ll end up in hospital on their own. Just like people that choose to jaywalk late at night without wearing reflective vests.

    People do stupid things all the time, many of them rude and inconsiderate. It’s kind of human nature.

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