The Toronto Bicycle Wars
May 28, 2000
A version of this article first appeared in The Toronto Star on May 20, 1997, under the title, “Time To Call A Truce Between Bikes And Cars.” It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Last autumn, I’d just returned from India –a land boasting one of the world’s highest per capita rates of traffic casualties and bicycle usage– and discovered, with great dismay, that my beloved Toronto was poised on the brink of war between its motorists and cyclists. As we suffer from neither India’s overpopulation nor its great poverty, we truly have no excuse for our ineptitude in this matter.
And as the cycling season is once more upon us, it is my most earnest desire that a resumption of this war be avoided.
One of the joys of Toronto has always been its relative ease of navigation, given its size and complexity. Gradually, but steadily, the city has become more cycle friendly, and is generally considered one of the best places in North America to own a bike. Compared with India and other older nations, whose road conditions are horrific and whose traffic rules are variable at best, the harmony of vehicles on Toronto roads is truly inspiring.
But last summer, three senseless cyclist deaths sparked an unpredicted powderkeg of consternation among cyclists, and just a few days of pedaling my knobby-tired machine through the downtown core was sufficient to show me why. There is a decided lack of empathy between the two groups, exacerbated by the preponderance of cyclists who have never driven a car, and of motorists who’ve never cycled for more than just recreational reasons.
As a result, sadly, rhetoric and vitriol tend to prevail. When armed with frightening tonnes of automotive glass and steel hurtling down a street, one cannot let emotion guide one’s actions. I am reminded of a comment made by a disgruntled motorist on one of those television phone-in shows: “Cycling is a privilege, not a right! They should make way for the cars!” In truth, the caller must realize, all legal vehicles have a right to be used, but all individuals pilot their vehicles –car or cycle– by reason of privilege. The problem is not the supercedence of one vehicle’s rights over the other, but a lack of empathy by both parties, and an ignorance of the law.
Motorists must realize that even when they are in the right lane about to make a right turn, there still might be another vehicle in their right blindspot –a bicycle! So check that blindspot! Cyclists, on the other hand, must remember to try to stay out of that blindspot if possible. Countless accidents and fistfights have erupted from such a scenario, one easily avoided by a touch of common sense.
Motorists must also remember that, as a legal vehicle, a bicycle is often entitled to an entire lane. Don’t be surprised, then, when that bicycle in front of you refuses to brush alongside the dangerous parked cars! And cyclists must bear in mind that they usually don’t need an entire lane. A little courtesy goes a long way. Most importantly, both parties must realize that an adult bicycle is not a toy or a hybrid between a car and a pedestrian, but a vehicle that, in most parts of the world, is used to efficiently transport passengers and freight over great distances.
A bit of perspective goes a long way. When automobile meets cycle, the car driver is risking his paint job. The cyclist, on the other hand, is risking his life. It’s not just incumbent upon the cyclist to protect his health –that comes naturally!– but upon the motorist to avoid being a killer. And when this little war is finally put to bed, we can tackle the next level of conflict: the roller-bladers!