Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Myth of the Cyclist as Urban Warrior

(this article was originally posted on Spacing Toronto's website on March 25, 2011)

Hell hath no fury like a biker scorned. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy learned this the hard way after his blog post, "Battle of the Bike Lanes", criticized the recent proliferation of New York bike lanes under the city’s current Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Kahn. This initial post sparked a flurry of comments and rebuttals from such heavy weights as The Economist, and prompted Cassidy to follow-up with a second and then a third post.

Of course, hell hath no fury like a motorist scorned, too. Here in Toronto we've witnessed Rob Ford proclaim that streets are for cars, trucks, and buses, while Don Cherry gleefully gave the verbal middle-finger to all those bike riding pinkos. In Vancouver, the construction of the Hornby Street separated bike lane in October 2010 prompted a flurry of media that opined the state of the beleaguered driver, which continues even as the City releases information stating that traffic remains unchanged along Hornby except for a one-minute delay during rush hour. In New York, the bike lane debate has even concerned the courts.

The rhetoric around the bike has reached untenable heights. Not only is it completely unproductive, but it works to make both motorists and bicyclists unsafe by stoking anger and fear. By positioning it as a war between two clear sides, we reduce our ability to compromise, to work together. Spittle flies from both sides of the debate, as cyclists rush to label car drivers as gas-guzzling, suburban, earth-pigs and motorists respond by calling cyclists pretentious, militant, holier-than-thous (albeit with great calf muscles). Just reading the comments on blog posts and newspaper articles on the subject is enough to turn my hair white.

How did we get to this point? But, more importantly, how do we get away from it?

First, let's ditch the war metaphors. Between Cassidy’s bike lane “battles” and the omnipresent “war on the car”, I feel like we might have lost some important perspective. A recent letter sent by Councillor Adam Vaughan to BIAs and resident associations in his ward, used the word “barricaded” in place of “curbed” to describe Denzil Minnan-Wong’s separated bike lane proposal, going on to say a bike path would “carve” through Grange Park. While respecting Councillor Vaughan’s work to increase bicycle infrastructure in the city, it’s this kind of unnecessarily value-laden language that contributes to an antagonistic atmosphere through positioning the cyclist as the urban warrior vs. the rest of the city. We would hardly refer to the curb on the sidewalk as a barricade for pedestrians.

And let’s also remember that if we insist on calling this a war, then most of us are constantly switching sides. An interesting thing happens when we walk, bike, or drive around the city. We seem to forget that we ever use any other form of transportation other than the one we are currently using. I've been in cars with people who impatiently drum their fingers at pedestrians taking too long to cross the street, while witnessing those same people deplore the lack of patience drivers have while they are crossing the street themselves. Drivers are bikers are pedestrians are transit users. We do not exist in easily separated categories, pitted against each other in travel statistics. Most of us use at least more than one way to get around, even if it’s just walking from the car to the restaurant. Splitting the debate into an Us vs. Them dichotomy is too coarse, a point which Dave Meslin picks up on in his Toronto Star editorial where he argues that Rob Ford may not be the be the harbinger of the bicyclepocalypse as originally thought.

Cyclists, let’s tone down the environmental angle. Arguments about the environmental and economic benefits of cycling are all well and good, but by over-focusing on these elements we run the risk of alienating a lot of people while missing out on the greater point. Increased bicycle infrastructure should ultimately be about safety and allowing everyone to feel comfortable riding their bike, including the timid. This is, after all, mostly who bike lanes are for. There are plenty of us out there now, with the bicycle network as pitiful as it is, pedaling away everyday. While I would love to ride in a bike lane along Spadina, the absence of one is not enough to keep me off the street. As do many others in this city, I feel confident enough to — as Rob Ford says — swim with the sharks. The important point, however, is that you shouldn’t have to possess nerves of steel just to get to work. Cassidy writes about how in the 1980s when he biked around New York he would frequently arrive shaking with fear — if that’s not a good argument for increased bicycle infrastructure, I’m not sure what is.

Let’s stop demonizing everyone based on the actions of a few. There are certainly bad cyclists out there, and I’ve almost been hit on the sidewalk several times by a few of them. But I’ve also almost been hit crossing the street by terrible drivers talking on cell phones and running stop signs. This doesn’t mean that every motorist is a negligent jerk, just as every cyclist isn’t a law-breaking hooligan. Taking every opportunity to point an indignant finger and proclaim “Aha! See?” gets us nowhere fast.

As StreetsblogNYC pointed out in a handy pie chart, even in a city that has taken a very proactive stance toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the allocation of road space in New York has barely budged. I’m sure a similar pie chart of Toronto or Vancouver road space allocation would show a similar trend.

It's time both sides put away their swords and focused their energy on implementing "complete streets" that provide space for cars, transit, pedestrian and bikes. Let's tell a different story.

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