Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the On-Going, Never-Ending Regional Bike/Car Conflict

On Friday, I had a conversation in class about cyclists being hit so much in the region because of our culture around cycling here relative to other cities, and then I saw Luisa D'Amato's article in The Record suggesting cyclists should be licensed to be on the road.  This continues to be an issue in the region.  Seriously, I've been writing about it periodically for 25 years!

First, on the article, I don't have any problem with getting a license to ride my bicycle, but I do wonder how this can possibly be enforced.  And at what age do we enforce it?  Should 6-year-olds be licensed?  What if they can't read yet?  Should there be a graduated licensing scheme like there is for driving - maybe one at 6, then 12, then 18?

Actually, the average 6-year-old doesn't have to ride on the road, like big people do, because they typically have bike tires less than 20" in diameter (or 50 cm), which is the cut-off for sidewalk cycling - something that IS legal in Waterloo if the tires are that small.  (By-law 08-077, which also says it's illegal for anyone to use a skateboard on a sidewalk.  Who knew?)  So maybe once kids graduate to a 20" tire they should have to get a license to drive it legally.

But, even if we figure out how to do it, a bigger issue with licensing is that it won't solve anything.  I have a driver's license, and I know the rules of the road especially concerning cyclists, but I openly admit that I sometimes bike on the sidewalk with my big tires.  Like D'Amato suggests, it makes sense in places where it really is too dangerous to do otherwise.  I avoid King Street whenever possible, but if I'm hitting a store there, I - carefully and slowly - take the sidewalk.  I'm making an informed choice between getting a ticket for breaking the law and dying.  What licensed cyclist wouldn't make that same choice?

It's not quite clear what D'Amato sees as the best plan of action because she writes that she almost hit a cyclist on a sidewalk because it was unexpected to have something moving so fast on a walkway, but then she suggests allowing cyclists on half of some sidewalks.  Curious.  Maybe she means that if it's allowed, then more motorists will start to look for them.  And maybe that would work.  (A commenter here thinks she was actually partly at fault - and check out that crazy cycling video!)

Back to the conversation in class.  It started with a discussion of a fund being set up to help with legal costs for cyclists charged after being hit by a car.  When cyclists are hit by cars here, the media and police seem to lean towards focusing on cyclists at fault rather than motorists.  I know of a few accidents that were entirely the motorist's fault, and the motorists were charged, but they didn't make the newspaper at all.  But if someone's hit, and the cyclist was passing another cyclist (presenting the appearance of riding two abreast, which is illegal - although passing is perfectly legal), then it's front page news.  Curious.  And the police seem to scrutinize the cyclist's behaviour while ignoring some rules for motorists.  Now that's just my perception, and I'd have to do a Chomsky-style check of column inches given to both side to prove my point, but I think I'm not far off.

I suggested in class that we need enforcement of the law to be biased against motorists in order to reduce fatalities.  One student replied that's not fair - if someone breaks the law, they should be charged.  But, first of all, is it more important that rules of the road be the same for every type of traveller, or that the rules do the most to prevent fatalities?  And secondly, if we change the focus of police to favour the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, then we can still charge anyone breaking the law and save lives.

In some cities that are more pedestrian/cyclist-friendly, if there's an accident between a car and a cyclist or pedestrian, the car driver is automatically charged.  That might not be fair to them, but it has the hugely beneficial effect of altering motorist behaviour such that they stop on a dime around other people.  If the law, and enforcement of the law, even slightly appears to be in the car-driver's favour, then motorists relax a little.  It's just a subtle thing, but it's enough.  Of course they don't want to hit someone, but if they do, they likely won't get in trouble for it.  That perception changes driving habits - seriously.  So they drive insanely close to cyclists.

And then some cyclists die.

And the big news is always whether or not s/he had a helmet on - as if wearing one will help when you're crunched by a car or will make you a better follower of the rules.  I wear one always (well - almost always) primarily to garner some respect from motorists in hopes they'll give me a bit more room.  But what I've noticed is that the papers rarely report if the motorist was passing a meter away from the cyclist just before the collision occurred.  If a motorist is travelling around a bike, and the bike swerves suddenly, then it's clearly the cyclist's fault.  But if the motorist doesn't think s/he should have to change lanes to pass a cyclist passing another cyclist, then the motorist needs to learn the rules of the road.

I wrote a similar post last summer, in which the focus was a look at the rules of the road rarely enforced by the local traffic cops,
The Ontario Driver’s Handbook suggests, “You must wait for pedestrians to cross if they are in or approaching your path” (43, also HTA144-7). Trying to cross a nearby three-way intersection as a pedestrian, I often have a lengthy wait as many drivers zip right in front of me, oblivious to the rules. Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian has a set fine of three demerit points and $180 (or $365 in a community safety zone). But it seems that nobody is ever stopped and charged for this in our city. Imagine every car stopping in its tracks and waiting for you as you approach an intersection because they're afraid of a ticket. It would make for a very different city: people might walk more often and would certainly feel safer when they're walking with little ones.
And then further on...
The Handbook also clarifies how to share the road with cyclists: "Bicycles and mopeds that cannot keep up with traffic are expected to keep to the right of the lane; however, they can use any part of the lane if necessary for safety, such as to avoid potholes and sewer grates. Cyclists need a metre on either side of themselves as a safety zone. When passing a cyclist, allow at least one metre between your car and the cyclist. If the lane is too narrow to share, change lanes to pass the cyclist. When turning right, signal and check your mirrors and the blind spot to your right to make sure you do not cut off a cyclist. When parked on the side of the street, look behind you and check your mirrors and blind spots for a passing cyclist before opening a door" (38).
Maybe I should just re-post that post every May when the city becomes full of cyclists again.

The media uses a lot of ink reminding cyclists that being on the sidewalk is illegal and riding side-by-side is illegal, but I'd really like to see a front page reminder that motorists should stop for pedestrians trying to cross a street at a corner and give a full three feet of room to cyclists who are allowed to be - nay supposed to be - three feet from the curb.

Until motorists become wary of getting a hefty ticket for driving too close to a cyclist, cyclists will continue to be in danger on the streets, and they will continue to use the sidewalks in order to prevent their own demise.   We don't have to license cyclists or debate new legislation, we just need police to enforce the rules that are already on the books, and the media to report on this bit of information every time a collision occurs because it's pivotal to the story.  Then, after motorists get over having to actually follow the rules in place, maybe we can all get along.   


Graham said...

Hi Marie, Great article, can I re-post on

Marie Snyder said...

Sure! And I loved the video on that post. At first I thought, 'Who's going to watch this for an hour?' and then I was hooked.