Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bike Rant


image via The Commons on Flickr

I've been saving up this rant for awhile. Last Fall, Toronto cyclists who failed to follow the rules of the road, were fined. Anecdotal stories arouse of $85 fines for such infractions as rolling through stop signs or not having a bell on your bike. Mind you, this didn't make me draw up a sign and picket city hall but to be honest, I was seething.

For the first half of my life, I never really rode my bike for anything other than for fun, on holiday. Riding a bicycle in St. John's was (and apparently still is) an offence reserved for justifiable homicide. When I lived there, drivers really either had no idea how to pass you or vehemently wanted to kill you. Let's not discuss the hills. I didn't really ride for transportation until I lived in Ottawa, where an expensive transit system exists but doesn't seem to stop or go anywhere I needed to go. That said, Ottawa is a good town for cyclists. For the most part, so is Toronto (as opposed to say, L.A. where no one rides, probably from embarrassment or status).

The rules of the road as the Police see it, are that a bicycle is a vehicle and must follow the same rules as an automobile. Or as this Youtube video demonstrates, cyclists are objects of derision to be run over. My contention is simple enough. A bicycle is not a car. I will not obey the same rules as motor vehicles. I treat stop signs as a "yield", stopping when it is reasonable, and I obey traffic lights coming to a full stop. Guess what, I also occasionally ride on the sidewalk for the safety of myself and others. Oh and sometimes I ride against the flow on one-way side streets. Why? Because I'm on a bicycle that's why.

What really gets my ire up is that Toronto's most visible bicycle advocate, The Toronto Cyclists Union basically goes along with the Police view and advises respecting traffic laws. I'd much rather say that reasonable allowances should be made for bicycles travelling on city streets. There is a natural law most cyclists will follow, the law of survival (I'm not talking about old drunks, riding a stolen niece's bike to get their smokes because they've lost their license, or the junkies riding stoned for the thrill or any other idiot who happens to be on a bike). Of course, cyclists shouldn't go through red lights or ride the wrong way on major streets, but rolling through a stop sign when there are no other vehicles or pedestrians has to be a "gimme" for a cyclist. My bike and I together weigh less than 200 lbs (around 180 lbs to be more accurate). Thus, I can stop on a dime. Really. On a penny. Something no automobile can do. I also have 360 degree clear vision. Not even a convertible is without blind spots. If I see a pedestrian, I can say, "Hello" or "Excuse me" or "Go ahead". Most times drivers can't even make eye contact with pedestrians through the glare of their windshield. Don't get me started on the uselessness of a bell. Can a driver, listening to the radio hear a bell outside their vehicle? No. Pedestrians can. I know because if you ring a bell behind a pedestrian it scares the crap out of them and they jump into your path. It's much easier to slow down and say "Excuse me" or the more succinct and business-like, "On your left". It's a little hard to get used to but it's much more effective (not to mention less lady-like) than ringing your little bell.

If, of course, I present these arguments, some drivers would say, "But I don't drive the wrong way on a one-way street, or go up on the sidewalk or fail to signal or roll through stop signs or stoplights." Really? Maybe you don't, but a lot, and by "a lot" I really mean "most" drivers do all of those things. In a brief ten minute ride over 2.5 km I see all of those things. All the time. Every morning. Multiple times. Most common infractions in order of appearance: rolling through stop signs; rolling through red lights while making a right hand turn; no use of signal lights while turning; driving while using a mobile phone; driving on the sidewalk. Less common but still enough that I see it a few times a week (and this one really takes the cake), driving backwards, the wrong way on a one-way street. I'm not talking about "Oops, I missed my turn" or "Oh there was a good parking spot back there." Nope, I mean reversing at least a block in the opposite direction of a one-way street. I won't mention how many pedestrians jay-walk (which is essentially epidemic in any city), mostly because I do that too. Everyone breaks the rules, but focussing on cyclists has a slight sting of "vendetta" to it.

Ah, but here's the kicker. I take a variety of side streets to work every morning and my office is located not far from the Police Stables where the mounted unit's horses are kept, so I often see mounted policemen riding on the streets. What do I see? Heading South on Gwynne Avenue, a one-way Southbound street, I see a cop, on a horse, using a cell phone and riding Northbound towards me. Hey, it's all right. He's not in a car. A horse isn't a car. Well, neither is a bicycle.

Update Friday June 18, 2010: Perhaps this post on Eye Weekly by Todd Irvine is a better summation of the Toronto's transportation problems.

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