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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Pedal-car Not Guilty!

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A judge ruled yesterday that pedal-powered cars are safe to be driven down the streets of Toronto.

A case redolent with irony and absurdity saw the driver of a 1986 Buick Regal taken to court for allegedly operating an unsafe car. But, this is no ordinary jalopy. Michel de Broin’s art piece “Shared Propulsion Car” is essentially the shell of a onetime gas powered vehicle, except that its motor and upholstered seats have been replaced with plastic bucket seats, four sets of pedals and a levered hand-brake system. On October 25, 2007, while on its first leisurely roll down Queen St. West the pedal-powered car was pulled over by a Toronto Police Officer, tagged as an unsafe vehicle and towed off the street (see this Spacing post and the many comments, and watch the video here).

Yesterday’s hearing saw the art project fight for the privilege to drive, albeit slowly — the vehicle cannot go faster than 15 km/hr — through Toronto Streets.

The prosecution argued that the Shared Propulsion Car was an unsafe vehicle due to its flawed braking system that requires both the driver and passenger to pull on levers to successfully stop the car. There was also the issue with the potentially combustible headlights: the exposed and lit candles that served as headlights could spark a fire if the vehicle got into a collision.

The defence responded that the gutted Buick Regal is just as, if not less, dangerous than bicycles, rickshaws or horse-drawn buggies. The braking system, although flawed, does in fact exist and work — didn’t the car successfully pull over and stop at the police officer’s bidding? — the same cannot be said of a rickshaw.

This was then followed by a line of questioning by the defence that saw the car compared to a variety of slow-moving street vehicles that are also propelled by human or animal power, and/or don’t have brakes but are rarely if ever pulled over by cops and charged as unsafe vehicles. At this point, the defence made a special point of asking the police officer if he had ever stopped a rickshaw or a horse and buggy. To which the officer sheepishly replied that he had never seen a horse-drawn carriage in Toronto.

After a short moments pause the judge came to a decision. He began by stating that the vehicle in question “looks like a Buick Regal” but is in fact a Buick turned into a bicycle. The braking system in his estimation was able to stop the car. As to whether the candles posed the threat of combustion, he determined that since candles haven’t been a problem for the Amish, they certainly will not pose a problem in a gas-less car.

And with that, the case was thrown out. The Shared Propulsion Car was deemed nothing more than a glorified bike with a roof.

Photo by Benny Zenga



  1. A flawed breaking system is my friend Corey in 1984 with a Grandmaster Flash tape on the boom box, a piece of corrugated cardboard on the driveway and no ability to speak of.

  2. What a perfect alternative to a bike during rainy weather such as today. I’ll admit I’m a fair-weather cyclist, but I’d definately ride a bike-car to work on a day like today!

  3. Since the judge ruled this is a bicycle, if I get one can I drive it on the sidewalk?

  4. Nice.

    Caveat: the pedal Buick should really be required to have a big sticker saying that it can’t go fast, or else flashing hazard lights, or something.

    When you see a bike or a rickshaw or, hey, a horse and carriage, upon seeing it you immediately have a sense of how fast it is likely to go and what the means to you as a driver.

    When you see a pedal Buick, you don’t — the point of the art is to play on the cognitive dissonance of what looks like a car but what moves along like, well, a bicycle.

    Which is fine, but cognitive dissonance and driving safety don’t mix so good. Hence the big sticker, or flashing lights, or something.

  5. Aren’t larger bikes banned from sidewalks? (Also, the article in the Star says a justice of the peace dismissed the charge for lack of evidence; that’s not the same as a judge ruling that all pedal cars are bikes.)

    Disparishun, I think what you’re asking for is a slow-moving vehicle sign.

  6. Riding on the sidewalk is illegal as it’s dangerous.

  7. Officers have likely seen all sorts of stupid humans doing stupid things – and I’d side with concerns about how well bike hand brakes (note correct spelling) will do at halting all that momentum, especially downhill.
    Putting feet through floorboards doesn’t count either.

  8. Disparishun: your comments horrify me. Determining a given vehicle’s speed by vehicle type and not by rate of motion is prejudiced to an extreme and very likely to result in an “accident” or in your case it should me more properly termed an “ignorance”. Wake up before you mutilate or kill someone! Bicyclists are not obligated to curb crawl and some routinely exceed 30, 40 and even 50 kph routinely. Better yet turn in your licence as you appear incapable of operating a motor vehicle.

  9. I’m sorry you are horrified, Geoffrey. But buck up, there’s good news! Your assumptions are mistaken.

    Determining a given vehicle’s speed is always a split-second decision based on the totality of cues available. Most of us manage it pretty well. In my case — since you personalise this — that’s why I’ve never been in a motor vehicle accident.

    Making more cues available improves safety. Creating a cue on what looks like a car, to alert other cars that it doesn’t drive like a car, is one of the ways in which to do that. You’ve heard of stalled cars getting rear ended at traffic lights by impatient drivers who just assume they’ll follow traffic? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Geoffrey, but that actually happens. A lot. It’s a jungle out there.

    And it gets worse. I know you’d like to believe that I’m the one doing the rear-ending — your feigned horror and enthusiastic invitation to turn in my licence bear witness to that — but I’ve got bad news for you. The people you need to be horrified about, and who are doing the rear-ending, aren’t posting on Spacing. They aren’t part of this dialogue. They haven’t ever even heard of a pedal-powered Buick. They’re just sitting at a red light, revving to go, with another car sitting in front of them. And one of them, sooner or later, is going to screw up.

    Oh, one last thing. You change the subject to bicycles and whether they are “obligated to curb crawl”. I guess I should respond: um, yup — but I very much doubt that that is relevant. If you are trying to argue that motorists should expect bicycles to routinely exceed 30, 40 and even 50 kph routinely and treat it as an aberration when they don’t, I’m afraid you are wrong. If you are trying to argue something else then, by all means, try and use your words to say it.

  10. Okay, who want to get on the bandwagon with me and mass produce these as bike cars? It’ll be just like the Bricklin all over again. 🙂

  11. I think if his next one is not a “statement against gas guslers”
    If he put pedals in say a geo metro he could probably get up to road speed or city speed anyway 30 to 40 of course then he may definatly want to consider keeping the barakes intact (he can have my car) Free Candle Catalog