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Province’s Cycling Report Makes Big Promises, But Must Go Bigger

Talking about beefing up protections for cyclists is helpful. But the time for talk is over.

They’re called “door prizes,” those occasionally fatal meetings between errant car doors and oncoming bikes. In 2008, to use just one example, a 57-year-old cyclist was traveling east on Eglinton Avenue—a road that can be a veritable shooting gallery at the best of times. During the lunch-hour rush, a Volvo sedan stopped near the intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Avenue Road, where the density of cars constricts the shared vehicle space even further. Perhaps without looking, the driver stepped out into the street.

It took barely seconds for the two vehicles to meet, and the event was over just as quickly. First, the collision of cyclist with the door; then, the collision with pavement. Then the Ford cube van.

Sometimes, the presumption about cycling is that bikes are recreational, an afterthought to the more serious business of cars, trucks or buses. The lack of legal protection for cyclists reflects this.

That tragedy on Eglinton Avenue? Instead of legal proceedings commensurate with the incident’s severity, the driver in that case—a 43-year-old woman whose name was withheld from the press—was hit with a $110 fine. A cyclist would be fined that much for not having a working bell.

$110 is the fine for improperly opening a car door under the Highway Traffic Act, which doesn’t take into account the possible ramifications of such carelessness. What’s needed, some say, is for cycling to be elevated to the same level as other modes of transportation, not relegated to the back pages of provincial consideration.

Among other things, that’s the apparent goal of the province’s new cycling strategy, released late last month.

“CycleON is a strong and integrated made-in-Ontario strategy,” said Glen Murray, Ontario’s minister of transportation, announcing the document on August 30. “It has been developed with input from the public, cyclists and advocates.”

The idea, Murray says, is to make Ontario the number-one cycling province in Canada: “a place that promotes safe and healthy travel alternatives connecting people to their jobs, schools, parks, and places of interest right across the province.”

By spring 2014, if all goes well, the strategies put forward in the CycleON report will be implemented. It lists five major “strategic directions”: Healthy, Active and Prosperous Communities; Cycling Infrastructure; Safer Highways and Streets; Awareness and Behavioural Shift; and lastly, Cycling Tourism.

When it comes to the “door prize,” something that’s been creeping more regularly into public discussion these days, that third direction is what many cyclists might find most encouraging.

“Road safety training and education can be constantly improved,” the report says, “sometimes by learning from the experience of other jurisdictions.” In places like Denmark, it says, drivers are taught to open their door only with their right hand, forcing them to look over their shoulder and check for approaching vehicles—including bikes. Already, these provisions are starting to trickle into the province’s official documentation for drivers. “The new edition of MTO’s Driver’s Handbook,” the report says, “includes this recommendation, which could reduce the incidence of drivers ‘dooring’ cyclists.”

But some organizations say the report, while welcome, needs to do more. “Minister Murray and [the Ministry of Transportation] have provided important leadership on this issue,” reads a statement from Nancy Smith Lea, director of the Toronto Center for Active Transportation, “but transformational change must be coordinated with other Ministries and stakeholders.” A greater funding commitment is a particular priority, she adds. Formal cycling education in Ontario schools is another. But Lea argues that addressing the miscarriages of justice experienced by cyclists who have collided with vehicle doors is also critical.

“The Cycling Strategy notes that the new edition of MTO’s Driver’s Handbook includes the excellent recommendation for drivers to open their door with their right hand,” she says. Beyond that, though, Lea calls for more to be done, including a hike in the associated fine for the driver. She also wants the province to adopt a new definition of “collision” that would include a collision with a car door.

With police at least talking about door collisions and a general shift in public consciousness regarding transportation, the CycleON report is encouraging indeed. But in Toronto, the year after one of the deadliest on record for local cyclists, the government’s direction needs to go beyond mere promises.

The Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, it seems, agrees.

“With a strong strategy in place, the time to act is now,” Lea concludes. “We are collectively committed to continue our work with the provincial government to take this important document from policy to practice.”

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