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Wente/Motorist vs. Valpy/Cyclist

J

JoeyCuppa

Guest
(from Saturday's Globe)

Road warriors
Online photos of a driver scuffling with a cyclist sparked a heated debate between MICHAEL VALPY and MARGARET WENTE this week. Two wheels good, four wheels bad? Or is it the other way around?

MICHAEL VALPY AND MARGARET WENTE

Peggy,

I'll begin with the intellectual honesty Globe readers demand of us: This event we're riffing off -- the much-talked-about Kensington Market altercation -- has nothing to do with motorist vs. cyclist hostility. It's a dispute over littering between two people (the skirmish was sparked by the driver throwing a sandwich out his window), one of whom appears to get off on hitting women and both of whom would benefit from anger-management therapy. The bike courier wasn't even riding her bike when it began.

That said, there is an issue out there between motorists and cyclists. I ride a bike pretty much year-round; you drive an SUV (one of the reasons my shirts are filthy after a single day's round trip between my home and The Globe; I empathize with Toronto cyclists who wear face masks, but that's digressing). Our commutes couldn't be more different. I set off every morning on my eight kilograms of steel and rubber with the thought that I could get killed. You get into your two-tonne vehicle fretting -- perhaps -- about being slowed down by all the other two-tonne vehicles on the roads.

We're dealing with a fact of life in Toronto: It's a bike-unfriendly city, and there are too many motorists who see cyclists as merely an impediment in their stop-and-go progress from one traffic snarl to the next. Every day -- every day -- I experience being cut off by drivers who race to beat me to intersections so they can turn right in front of me, who park in bike lanes, who open their car doors without looking in their side mirrors, who speed up when I try to pass them in dense traffic so that I can't get back to the relative safety of the curb lane. This morning, on my 10-minute ride from where I live in the University of Toronto area to The Globe's offices on Front Street West, vehicles twice pulled into my path on the St. George Street bike lane.

Do I get car rage? You bet! I've pounded on the windshield of a guy who suddenly veered in front of me into the bike lane on College Street so he could talk on his cellphone. I asked another guy on Adelaide Street, after he nearly ran into me trying to close the gap between his car and the car in front so I couldn't get through, if he wanted to re-enact the scene so that he could successfully hit me. I got ticketed by a police sergeant (for not having my front light on, I acknowledge this) after I yelled at him for swerving into a bike lane in front of me on Spadina. I've become accustomed to being sworn at by drivers, increasing numbers of them women. I could go on . . . and on. It's time for a values change about cyclists in our city. David Miller, are you reading this?

-- Michael

Hi, Michael,

I can see why the Kensington Market story has been such a hit. It's a great urban morality tale. It turns on a serious social crime (littering) and direct citizen action (she throws the litter back in the jerk's face). But the reason it has legs is that it pits a plucky little girl on a bike against a hulking male moron in an SUV. No wonder bikers love this story! It confirms all your prejudices about those awful people who drive cars, 95 per cent of whom, by the way, do not have the luxury of living in a high-priced leafy old downtown neighbourhood, as you do, and riding their bikes to work just a few miles away.

Toronto is biker-unfriendly all right. In fact, I sometimes wonder if cyclists who insist on navigating through rush-hour traffic have a death wish. I used to ride a bike to work from time to time myself, and I was always terrified that I would wind up as roadkill. I didn't blame the cars, though. I just figured that this city has an awful lot of traffic, and drivers are occasionally distracted (duh), and sometimes they're not paying attention, and it's not an equal contest. They can't hear you coming and they don't always check their mirrors. This does not mean that they're out to get you. The truth is, they're just not thinking about you at all. Does that make them evil? No, just human.

I've noticed that the only trait that rivals a cyclist's self-righteousness is his persecution complex. As for road rage, you bet it goes both ways. There's nothing like getting a hood-pounding and a good curse-out for some offence you have no idea you've committed. And cyclists have a habit of inventing their very own rules of the road.

They behave like pedestrians when that suits them, and drivers when that suits them better. They ride in between lanes, and weave in and out of traffic so that you can't possibly tell what they're up to, and try to beat the lights, and coast through the red ones when they think they can get away with it. My philosophy is to mellow out in traffic (it's a survival strategy), and so I do not swear at cyclists. How I wish they would return the favour.

-- Peggy

Peggy,

Let me try to reply by clearing away some of the flotsam around this issue. I'm not championing sociopathic anarchists on two wheels (I've come close to being whacked myself as a pedestrian by some of them) and I know you're not defending testosterone-burdened motorists who view cyclists as swattable flies.

Nonetheless, I have difficulty with your defence of drivers who pose an omnipresent threat to cyclists as being merely human because they're "occasionally distracted" and "not paying attention." This is where we get into the need for a values change.

The police who train cyclists to ride in Toronto traffic under the Can-Bike program (www.toronto.ca/cycling) -- I've taken the course; it's excellent -- tell pupils that their best chance of not getting hit is to behave on the street like a car and dominate their traffic lane, which legally they're permitted to do. The police further recommend to cyclists that they stay one metre out from the curb or parked cars to avoid glass and other crud and to avoid being door-prized. If I'm going to follow police advice, then I'm not going to accept getting hit or run off the road by a motorist because she or he is "occasionally distracted" or "not paying attention."

There is a rather good solution: Motorists who hit cyclists in most European countries are automatically assumed to be at fault and held liable for damages. I think Canadian laws like that might go a distance in addressing "not paying attention." My expectation is that I and my bike have as much right to the road as a car. If someone ran you off the road, I doubt your first response would be, "Ah, well, he was momentarily distracted."

Michael,

I'm afraid the real problem is not going to be solved by a values change among the drivers of Toronto. That's because the real problem is a law of physics -- the one that says that if you happen to collide with a moving object 10 times your mass, it's you who will probably emerge the worse for wear. That's just the way it is. No matter who's at fault, it's the cyclist who bears the greater risk. That greater risk won't go away no matter how sensitive we car-driving types become, or how punitive you make the laws. (By the way, China has also been trying to introduce a guilty-until-proven-innocent law. If you think drivers here are crazed lunatics, try cycling in Beijing.)

I suspect that, like many cyclists, you really think the world would be a better place -- more virtuous, more civilized, and altogether higher-minded -- if nobody drove cars at all. Scratch a cyclist, and you'll usually find someone who is deeply anti-automobile. Toronto is full of such people. They invariably belong to a small class of privileged elites who don't need a car to make a living, but sometimes keep one around so they can commute to their cottage at the lake. They are the same people who fight new expressways and high-rise buildings. Their dream is to remake Toronto into Amsterdam, where happy, smiling Dutch people cycle off to work alongside picturesque canals.

To be sure, Amsterdam (where nothing is more than four storeys high) is very nice. But it's not our future. Our future, like it or not, is more cars, not fewer. That's not such a bad thing. It's what goes along with being one of the fastest-growing, most vibrant and dynamic cities in North America.

Peggy,

I've somehow missed reading the data about cyclists "invariably belong[ing] to a small class of privileged elites."

Yes, I am against new expressways, as is any reasonable person who loves this city. No, I'm not against high-rise buildings -- because those are where you accommodate people so that they are close to public transit and their workplaces and don't have to drive to work. No, there's nothing wrong with keeping a car around to go to the country on the weekends -- or renting one, which is what I do. All of which is beside the point.

It's not healthy, and soon it's not going to be physically possible, to keep adding cars to Toronto. I went to a talk on obesity this week by a distinguished University of Toronto medical scientist who linked our urban automobile dependence to our epidemically expanding waistlines. I've seen the public health data on air pollution and asthmatic kids in Toronto (you forgot to mention those as part of my elitist concerns). Our urban thoroughfares are car-choked.

Roughly 8 per cent of core-Toronto residents now use bicycles as their main means of travel to work (that's a lot of privileged elites, Peggy). On the central city portions of Bloor Street West and Queen Street, bike traffic accounts for 14 per cent and 17 per cent respectively of all vehicles (even higher percentages of privileged elites). And every year, 1,200 cyclists in Toronto are either killed or injured by cars -- 8 per cent of all collision-related personal injuries and 5 per cent of all traffic fatalities.

I know you're going to be bothered by those statistics. I know you're going to feel your journalistic anger rising at another statistic: that only 1 per cent of Toronto's 5,000 kilometres of streets have bike lanes. In fact, I know you're saying to yourself right now, "Boy, If I'd had this information, I would never have got into this debate."

Michael,

Well, I do agree cycling is great exercise, and we could all use more of that. But I don't think it's the answer to our obesity problem. The reason we are fat is that calories are cheap and food is everywhere, and we're genetically programmed to stuff ourselves. (Sorry, but when it comes to human nature, I'm on the side of the determinists, not the social engineers.)

Nobody is against more bike lanes, not even me. I just think they need to make some economic sense. One argument for more bike lanes is that if you build them, they will come, reducing car traffic and improving public health in one virtuous step. I don't buy it. In spite of your impressive statistics, there are countless reasons why cycling will always be a minority choice in Toronto. One: climate. Two: practicality. I never did figure out how to change out of my sweaty cycling clothes, find a shower, and change into my office clothes (which I brought with me in my knapsack) when I got to work. Cycling simply doesn't work for anyone who's got to pick up the kids or stop off at the Valu-Mart. And that's why most people stop riding bikes as soon as they can afford to. (You're absolutely right about elites. There are two classes of cyclists, and the other class is students.)

As for cutting down on car congestion in the city, I'm all for it. Do what London does. Charge a stiff user fee for rush-hour traffic. Make it very, very expensive to drive downtown. That would do more to improve the quality of life for cyclists than a hundred miles of new bike lanes.

But, Peggy. . .

Your libertarian ideology's time has passed; there's no room for it any more. Automobiles in dense cities are B-A-D. Urban cycling is G-O-O-D -- and we've got to find ways of encouraging it without more than a thousand cyclists annually getting car-whacked. So . . . automatic liability laws for motorists in car-bike collisions. Big signs posted on city streets saying: "Share the road with cyclists." Stickers on driver's-side mirrors saying "Watch for Bikes" (the city and CAA hand them out now). Many more kilometres of bike lanes. Serious analysis of proposals like architect Chris Hardwicke's idea of a Toronto Velo-City -- suspended glass-and-concrete bike tunnels through the city core. I mean, let's get Margaret Wente into the 21st century.

Michael,

Send me one of those stickers. If the farmer and the cowboy can be friends, then why not libertarians and two-wheeled Utopians? Diversity! It's the Canadian way.


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Yup, Wente rides again. I know her anti-transit rant was popular here, so....

What's that saying...."Know thine enemy"?
 

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