Photo by Lex in the City.
With Bike Month on the horizon and a newly launched advocacy group, cycling in Toronto is undergoing a renaissance (as Val Dodge put it earlier this week). The attention is well-deserved: cycling is one of the most healthy and environmentally conscious methods of commuting. The joys are eloquently captured by Ryerson prof Bill Reynolds in the most recent issue of The Walrus. By listing the hazards of urban cycling as well—streetcar tracks, “door prizes,” “right hooks,” near-fatal and fatal collisions with cars—Reynolds strikes the right emotional chord to make clear the absolute necessity of creating safe conditions for riders. In a recent Toronto Life article, Philip Preville treads similar territory in the confrontational relationship between cyclists and motorists, and debates the merits of adding more dedicated bike lanes versus the “naked streets” concept—where the lack of rules, barriers, or lanes on a street “rob all commuters of their margin of safety”—that is gaining popularity in Europe.
In a city that still averages between 1,000 and 1,200 car-cyclist collisions per year [PDF], a change in motorist attitude towards cyclists and an increase in bike-friendly infrastructure are issues everyone should engage with to ensure the commute is safe for all. Yet, even as Reynolds praises the freedom of cycling vis-à-vis commuting by car, he’s far too casual about flaunting the rules of the road: “Each decision creates the possibility of finding the next secret route, riding the wrong way, negotiating a sidewalk, or slithering between cars jammed in like sardines, waiting for the go signal.” This may be a reaction against inattentive motorists, but it reveals a fundamental question that consistently goes unanswered in the cycling debate: What about the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians?
The concern certainly isn’t with all cyclists. The vast majority are cautious and attentive. Even daredevil bicycle couriers, perhaps the most derided class of cyclists, are pretty predictable. They can be deeply annoying if they ignore traffic signals, chart wrong-way paths down one-way streets, or force illegal turns through packed crosswalks. They can be among the most vocally militant—as a matter of self-preservation—while dodging traffic. Yet, like taxicabs, they can always be trusted to act in their self-interest—reaching the destination as quickly and efficient as possible—so pedestrians know what to expect. The big issue is with those cyclists who—whether through inexperience or lack of comfort with traffic—rely on the sidewalk as a safety blanket. They do so without realizing that it shows as little courtesy to pedestrians as cyclists complain about receiving from motorists. Sidewalks are not shortcuts, as Reynolds casually suggests. They are the only means for pedestrians to reach their destination safely.
But anyone who travels by foot in this city can attest to the hazards of cyclists buzzing along downtown sidewalks. Even the most attentive pedestrians are surprised by cyclists silently sneaking up from behind, barreling around blind corners at top speed, refusing to yield until walkers get squeezed to the edge of the curb, or forcing people to jump out of their way because they didn’t expect someone to exit a store. Sidewalks are already enough of an obstacle course with street furniture, curbside patios, and sandwich boards, to say nothing of the pedestrians themselves. Danger is only added if a pedestrian has a visual or hearing impairment. For many, especially seniors, simply being startled—let alone hit—can cause a fall.
Unsafe roadway conditions, especially on high-speed arterial roads outside the city core, may make sidewalks the only safe, practical route, even for experienced cyclists. Point taken. But too many people jump the curb in busy shopping districts, on quiet residential streets, and even those with dedicated bike lanes. According to bylaw, only children, with wheel diameters of 24 inches or less, are encouraged to ride on sidewalks as they learn to ride. The city offers CAN-BIKE courses so both youngsters and adults can master the rules of the road and become comfortable with safely navigating downtown roadways.
One early lesson might be that riding on the sidewalk puts cyclists themselves at risk for a collision with a car. It seems counter-intuitive, but that was one surprising conclusion reached by the Toronto Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision Study (2003), the same report cited extensively in The Walrus. In fact, the study discovered that the practice is a contributing factor in 30 percent of car and bike collisions, because motorists can be surprised by riders emerging quickly from unexpected places.
Unfortunately, the same report doesn’t offer any statistics on the relative frequency of pedestrian/cyclist collisions. Nor has research conducted by staff in the office of Councillor Adrian Heaps, who chairs the City Cycling Committee, turned up any records regarding the scope of the problem. Accurate statistical measurement of pedestrian/cyclist incidents is probably impossible, and the vast majority would probably be minor or without injury. Some would certainly be caused by pedestrians themselves by darting out into bike lanes without looking. The relative gravity of pedestrian injuries should be beside the point, just as a spree of cyclist fatalities shouldn’t be required in order to spur bike-friendly policies.
Maybe if cycling on the street were made safer, there’d be no reason to jump the curb. With insane drivers and sometimes unsafe roadway conditions, maybe it’s inevitable that a “passive Toronto cyclist turns into a cycle terrorist,” driven to lash out by yelling and keying cars. But as you’re jumping the curb to escape the “Bay Street boobs,” “sanctimonious twerps,” and “pin-headed Hummer drivers,” here’s one simple question: where do pedestrians go to escape the cyclist?
There is a growing emphasis on shifting the focus of road design to take greater account of bikes. Naturally, advocates and planners are looking to across the ocean for bike-friendly inspiration. Europe is more progressive with dedicated bike lanes—although Preville notes Toronto aims for 500 kilometres of lanes by 2012—but cyclists there aren’t any more attentive to pedestrians. Reynolds recounts a trip to bike-dominated Amsterdam, where pedestrians have to fight through crossings while getting catcalled by cyclists, and locals castigate tourist riders for not knowing the subtleties of local convention. That city, he notes, “is on the verge of becoming a bike dystopia.” “Maybe,” Reynolds concedes, “there is something in wheeled motion itself that induces aggressive behaviour.”
A change in motorist attitudes is essential to safely accommodate the growing number of bicycling commuters in Toronto. But cyclists must also remember to be respectful of pedestrians in the push to make city streets less car-oriented.
Bottom two photos by Jay Morrison from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.