Editor’s Note: Last week we posted an open letter by Emma Woolley about bad cyclist behavior in Toronto. The post generated lots of discussion here, on Twitter and even landed Emma on CBC’s Metro Morning earlier this week to discuss. Below is another open letter responding to all that by Lisan Jutras. Lisan is an editor and former columnist at The Globe and Mail. She learned to ride her bike on the sidewalk of Howland Avenue. Photo by Commodore Gandalf Gunningham.
Emma Woolley recently wrote a guest post about cycling on Spacing, the gist of which was, jerky cyclists, stop being jerks! I get it: There are jerky cyclists and they do deserve to be told off for weaving in and out of traffic, blowing through open streetcar doors, failing to pay attention to what’s around them, or being unnecessarily rude and/or inconsiderate to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists. And they need to be told off. Cyclists can, and sometimes do, inflict terrible bodily harm.
But I’m disappointed by the cyclist-on-cyclist pile-on that’s resulted. Let’s be honest with ourselves — I’ll go first. I frequently break the law whilst bicycling and – unless you’re an exceptionally patient, pedantic or cautious person — so do you. And I am not a jerk. I’m a normal, safety-abiding cyclist and so are the hundreds of others who do commit the same “crimes.” And I don’t wish to be reminded that stop signs are for stopping at and one-way streets are one way, and so on, because there’s a glaring fact that no one seems to be addressing. One: We know this. Two: We break those laws anyway, and for a good reason.
The majority of cyclists who run stop signs, use pedestrian thoroughfares when making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection and go the wrong way up a one-way street – and there are hundreds and hundreds of us – are not, in the main, scofflaws and irresponsible drivers. I believe we represent the majority of cyclists (and the number of confessions to these infractions in the comments on Emma’s post indicate as much). When a law is consistently broken by people who don’t usually indulge in criminal behaviours, it is worth examining that law.
And that is what is oddly absent from this whole conversation. Why are we made to abide by rules that were designed for a completely different physical experience of driving? Laws predicated on the idea that the driver has a mass ten times that of your average cyclist, is shrouded in metal and is easily capable of speeds of 100 km/hr? It makes sense that cars approaching an intersection should stop. If they didn’t, there would be no end of collisions – drivers would not see each other until too late; they would be incapable of manoeuvring around each other, and they’d be going too fast to stop in time to avoid the crash. However, I can recall dozens of occasions on which I was comfortably crossing a quiet intersection while a cyclist crossed perpendicularly to me in complete safety. A good cyclist will watch for a car when approaching an intersection and, seeing one, will slow and wait for a sign from the driver to either proceed or stop.
Years ago, I was dinged for running a stop sign by a cop who tore up my ticket when I pointed out how ridiculous it was. I even saw four bicycle cops coast through a stop sign once.
It bears repeating: The law is simply not designed for cyclists.
This is acknowledged as fact in the state of Idaho, where “bicyclists have been allowed by statute since 1982 to approach stop signs and roll through, after first yielding the right of way. Bicyclists in Idaho are also allowed to turn right at red lights without stopping, so long as the bicyclist first yields to other vehicles. In 2005 the Idaho legislature further changed the law to allow bicyclists to stop, yield to other vehicles and then travel through a red light.”
In Hamburg, I saw bicycle lanes that allowed cyclists to proceed against the flow of traffic on one-way streets when the streets were wide enough to safely allow cyclists’ passage. As Mark Jull points out in a blog post that touches on many of the same points I make, many one-way streets are wide enough to safely let bikes squeak by. We know this instinctively, and that is why we do it.
This essay is not an argument in favour of lawless anarchy. In fact, quite the opposite. We need laws — just better ones.
For cyclists to chew each other out – even with good intentions — over failing to respect laws that most of us implicitly recognize are impractical and unrealistic seems to be apportioning blame to the wrong party and deepening rifts within the cycling community.
The other problem with the status quo is that is has created a cycling culture that disregards the law, because cyclists are already accustomed to committing minor infractions dozens of times a day. If I disregard the stop-sign rule with the implicit approval of dozens of other cyclists who do likewise, is it so far-fetched for me to disregard the stop-light rule? If one traffic law doesn’t apply to me, do any of them?
Increasing numbers of people are choosing to cycle, and, as a result, an increasing number of cyclists will soon be breaking laws that don’t make sense to them. Change the laws to make them easier to obey and you have fewer excuses for people to step outside of them, and real reason to punish those who do.
It’s a tougher battle to fight to get a law changed than it is to warn a fellow cyclist that he or she is breaking the law. Neither battle is unworthy. But if we win the big one, we’ll have so many fewer small ones to fight.