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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Cycling Think & Do Tank: Cyclists, Public Space and Auto-Amnesia

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This post by Trudy Ledsham 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.

Canadians suffer a collective amnesia; we have forgotten that our roads and streets are public spaces. When we talk about public space, we tend to talk about squares and parks and sometime even sidewalks-but rarely do we talk about roads and streets. ‘Google’ images of public space and what comes up are squares and parks and trails and art, but never streets filled with traffic. Academics, and advocates and planners are starting to talk about streets as public space but this is not yet part of the zeitgeist. And yet our streets are our most significant public space-both in terms of the physical space they occupy and in terms of function. They connect us.

While listening to yet another “bikes don’t belong on the road” or “bikes scare me” rant from otherwise reasonable folks, the simple statement that ‘roads are public space’ receives a start of recognition. We may have forgotten, but in our gut, we all know this to be true: roads are public space. I call this forgetting, auto-amnesia.

Auto-amnesia takes many forms. There is something about cars that make people forget-perhaps that is part of their attraction. How often, when sitting in traffic, do we remember the enticing ads of wilderness and nature most automotive companies use? Conversely, how often when we look at those ads do we remember the long snaking lines of commuters? It’s odd but we seem unable to remember-if we did, wouldn’t we be mad? Wouldn’t we talk about false advertising?

How about the tendency to multi-task while driving? How do we forget we are moving in two tonnes of steel that can kill in an instant? How readily we eat and text and groom. How easily we overcome the fear of travelling 120 km an hour, when we feel a little pressed for time.  We seem unable to remember what we are actually hurtling forward at speeds where the slightest error can result in death.  Is this more evidence of auto-amnesia?

The costs of cars are yet another place this crazy amnesia takes hold. For many years, people remembered that roads existed before cars and didn’t run around insisting that cars paid for roads.  It is not uncommon for organizations and people to argue that drivers pay for roads through fuel taxes and license fees and shouldn’t cyclists have to pay too? Yet, the roads cyclists use are municipal roads, which are paid for by property taxes-not fuel taxes or licensing. Cyclists and pedestrians pay far more per kilometer of road used than drivers, yet somehow we forget this. We forget that only 60% of people in Canada own cars-certainly more than 60% of our road space is devoted to cars.

Perhaps the best example of auto amnesia is parking.  Cars created the need for wide spread parking. Using public space to park a car was initially irritating to the public (see Peter Norton, Fighting Traffic and Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking). But, somehow we came to accept that people could occupy the street for private use so long as it was for a car. If anyone tried to use a parking space on the street to set up a street game of ping-pong, or put some sofas out for the neighbours to sit and chat on, or god forbid, a non-motorized street cart sold something-they would quickly be moved along and people would see this as a good thing.  If a cyclist occupied a car length parking spot by using traffic cones to protect her bike there would be outrage. But, people park a car using the same amount of public space and we accept it as normal: auto-amnesia sets in and we forget they are using public space.

And of course, the great swathes of our communities occupied by grim, grey parking lots are perhaps the highest cost of auto amnesia. Every parking spot mandated by law, or driver demand, costs those who don’t drive time, money and aesthetic pain. Walking or riding across a parking lot to get to a store is downright miserable even for drivers. There is no such thing as an attractive parking lot, yet they line our streets and determine the look and feel of our communities. We talk about urban sprawl rather than automotive sprawl. We forget that sprawl is not caused by urbanity, but by cars.

Remembering our roads are public space is an act of reform. People who choose to walk and cycle are not slowing traffic or getting in the way-they are simply occupying public space in a legal way as people have done since time immemorial: roads were not created by cars.  Remember our streets are meant to connect us not divide us.




  1. “While listening to yet another […] “bikes scare me” rant from otherwise reasonable folks, the simple statement that ‘roads are public space’ receives a start of recognition.”

    It’s entirely possible for a non-amnesiac motorist to find bikes worryingly twitchy, wobbly, and squishable-looking compared to cars. (The correct response, of course, is to drive defensively, not to buzz the cyclist with your wing mirror and then complain later about how close it was.)

  2. Over and over again motorists justify their hostility to cyclists or anything else that dares to use or cross roads, by claiming they pay for the roads through their gas taxes. This only indirectly pays a portion for a small minority of roads.
    Governments like to look environmentally friendly and invented the partial gas tax for transit gambit, making it appear that drivers are subsidizing transit. In reality, while municipal roads & highways are built & maintained by all tax payers, transit users are paying 70 to 80% of their operating costs on GO or TTC subways etc. . Also transit police are paid for by fares, while road policing (much of budget) is paid by property taxes, debt etc.
    Because roads are property tax free they monopolize the surface, taking up often a third of all space. Politically powerful drivers block affordable transit expansion by demanding it not inconvenience traffic by going underground at huge cost (capital & operating).
    Gov. announcements of billions for transit are regularly broadcast far and wide before being cut, delayed and altered later. 2 weeks ago money for Ontario roads ($34 billion) was quietly announced & is supported by all parties. As for transit, the government needs more years to (again) study ways to fund transit, and is looking at highly visible driver & special tax surcharges, rather than the general revenues & developer mandates that quietly keep the asphalt flowing.

  3. Our auto-amnesia makes us forget that without cars/trucks we wouldn’t need most if not all traffic laws, or a vast enforcement infrastructure. Commonsense rules and customs were all that was required. Just look at behaviour on trails closed to motorized vehicles, or on the water between boats.