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James Wanless

this is where I write

Why anti-cyclists have it wrong

As someone who both cycles and drives a fair bit, I’ve got no axe to grind with either side of the bicycle-automobile debate. I’m an equal opportunity hater when I see a member of either fraternity doing something stupid. I lament the helmetless nimrod zipping his bike through stop signs with just as much gusto as I do the asshat in the truck who seems to take joy at blasting by a cyclist as fast and as close as possible. Neither one is showing any respect for those around them and they each give a bad name to their respective peeps.

bike lane photo

Dunsmuir bike lane – photo from Vancouver Sun blog

However, I never feel my personal safety is threatened at all when I encounter bad cycling behind the wheel of my Xterra and I cannot say the same thing when I experience dangerous car drivers as I pedal my bike to work or for one of my several weekly training rides. As such, I’ll admit I come firmly down on the side of cyclists when the inevitable us versus them debates erupt once in a while. In Vancouver, where I live, the debate seems to never end. We have a very cycling-friendly city council and, from what I’ve observed, some of the worst car drivers anywhere. So, when council announced recently that they were set to expand dedicated bike lanes in Vancouver with another $3 million in funding, I knew the anti-cycling frothing wouldn’t be far behind. After all the first time they spent $3.2 million for dedicated Hornby and Dunsmuir Street bike lanes, some local talking heads insinuated that the sky was falling. I haven’t seen any follow-up studies, but have heard nothing of the mass business closings predicted at the time, and every time I’m downtown I see pretty heavy bike use on both these arteries.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t need these dedicated bike lanes, but we don’t live in a perfect world. While I prefer to ride on shared roads (bike-only routes tend to be pretty slow and forcing cyclists into their own spaces does nothing to build respect in car drivers) and am pretty confident in my bike skills, not everyone feels this way. Many cyclists are nervous around cars, no matter how well they are being driven, and those people have every right to ride a bike. While I’d prefer we all just treat each other with respect and share the road, I don’t sense that’s going to happen anytime soon. As such, cycling infrastructure needs support and improvement.

As for anti-cycling frothing, a recent poorly written editorial on the subject was published by one of Vancouver’s dailies, calling cyclists idiots. The following passage of unsupported sweeping generalizations, in particular, caught my eye:

They ride in the middle of lanes, something that is illegal under both the Motor Vehicle Act and a city bylaw; they run stop lights and stop signs; cut in and out of traffic; refuse to wear helmets; and block traffic on major routes when bike routes are nearby. When they don’t get their way, they kick vehicles.

As I said in the opening paragraph, I don’t question for one minute that some cyclists do some of these things, but you’d think from reading this that all of us always do this. It’s exactly the kind of slipshod writing that perpetuates the debate and I’d expect much better from a major publication, not to mention that name calling has no place in a newspaper editorial. This is not a letter to the editor. I note the blog editorial doesn’t mention the plethora of things car drivers do to endanger everyone around them. I’m guessing the nameless editorialist from the Province hasn’t been out on his bike much.

Interestingly, when it comes to drivers and pedestrians, it’s pretty clear who comes out on the short end of the stick (and whose fault it seems to be). A just-released study of pedestrian safety at intersections in Vancouver would seem to indicate that there are big problems with driving in Vancouver:

A third of all accidents were caused by vehicles turning left into an intersection and hitting a pedestrian; 21 per cent by vehicles turning right and 15 per cent by vehicles proceeding straight through an intersection when the pedestrian had the right of way. Thirteen per cent of accidents were caused by vehicles hitting pedestrians on sidewalks or mid-block crosswalks, 11 per cent were caused by jaywalkers and seven per cent by pedestrians crossing against a signal.

Yeah, 11% were jaywalking. The issues surrounding cyclists and drivers are a bit more complex since they share the same roadways most of the time, but I feel the logic definitely sides with the bikes.

Cyclists have several disadvantages

The debate can obviously rage endlessly in a place such as Vancouver (and has), so I will just outline a few key issues which I keep coming back to, framing why I feel cyclists are unfairly maligned by certain drivers, and clearly sometimes, the media. However, it’s not only the maligning which I feel is misguided, but why having a hate-on for cycling in general is so wrong-headed.

Taxes

We’ve built cities to be all about cars for so long that many car drivers think no other mode of transport is warranted. And car drivers are often an entitled lot. We’ve poured countless tax dollars into automobile infrastructure for so long that we simply take the cost of roads for granted and many of us only think of roads in terms of cars. However, when a few bucks is suddenly directed toward safer ways to cycle, the anti-cyclists froth at the mouth and begin floating asinine ideas such as levying cyclist-specific taxes to pay for it. For those of you who employ this special kind of logic, think about it a little. All levels of government pay for roads and, according to virtually every act governing roads I’ve ever seen, bicycles are defined as vehicles. Therefore, taxes spent for roads are being spent for the benefit of all vehicles that use them. Given that many roadways are virtually unusable by cyclists for a myriad reasons and we all pay for city roads primarily through property tax, it’s ludicrous to think cyclists should be singled out to pay more. Don Cayo of the Vancouver Sun made a very strong case back in 2010, in fact, that cyclists subsidize car drivers to a significant degree, not the other way around, as the anti-cyclists would have you believe.

Cell phones

Cell phone use while driving, in particular, is probably just about the most loathsome car issue I can think of. It’s bad enough that we’ve come to believe we have to be checking our phones constantly for a new email message or tweet, or that we have to respond to that IM or text message immediately or the world will end. If we’re walking while doing this, we probably put ourselves at the most danger when crossing the street, or perhaps we’ll bonk into a signpost while walking. In fact, I’d guess that it’s a contributory behaviour to the outcome of the pedestrian safety study I cited earlier. However, move that behaviour to the car and it’s a whole different ballgame. The minute a driver is distracted while driving a ton of steel, glass and plastic down the road, anyone on two legs or two wheels is in danger.

I almost came to blows with a co-worker a couple weeks ago over this very issue. Despite the fact that drivers using cellphones are 4 to 6 times more likely to get in an accident, his indication was that he’d never text while driving but had no plans to stop talking on his phone. I was glad to see several co-workers jump into the conversation (all on my side), but I was most frustrated by this encounter. An otherwise rational, logical person who I get along with well, was determined to continue bad, dangerous behaviour because it suited him. Effectively, this was a slap in the face to me as a co-worker/friend because what he was really saying was, “Regardless of you telling me that you’ve nearly been hit by drivers like me, I’m going to keep on being this way. Your safety is secondary to my convenience.” I sense that this issue is largely a case of drivers who use phones never thinking it will happen to them.

In fact, when I am out on a ride and am cut off at a corner (which happens very frequently), I’d say that the driver is distracted with a phone at least 75-80% of the time. If it wasn’t for driver arrogance such as my co-worker’s, this would be a simple thing to fix. It’s pretty clear to me that the $167 fine currently handed out in B.C. is not doing much to dissuade this behaviour.

Size matters

Perhaps the biggest inequity for cyclists is simply a matter of weight. The heaviest bike you’re likely to see on the road is about 25 pounds, and when a cyclist is riding there’s usually nothing other than a helmet and a rain shell protecting them from the elements. Drivers are ensconced in massive, safety enhanced projectiles. No matter what kind of bike I’m riding, if I hit the side of a car (which I did in 2005) I’ll end up doing an endo over the hood, trunk or roof and the bare minimum I’ll come out of that with is pain, scrapes and blood. If a car runs into me, you can add broken bones, dislocated joints and a very real possibility of death. In either case, the most the driver will sustain is shock and a damaged quarter panel or bumper. It’s a very one-sided equation with the cyclist always losing.

Bikes benefit us all

The risk of being hit notwithstanding, cycling actually benefits society in many ways, but anti-cyclists clearly aren’t taking this into account.

Health

I don’t think I need to cite any studies or references to make the health connections. As a cardiovascular activity, first and foremost, cycling improves health. This effects everything from helping people get to healthier body weights, to lowering blood pressure, to reducing the risk of ailments such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. In other words, the only health risks cyclists get from riding their bikes are from cars and drivers in the form of injury and breathing in pollution. A little Googling about health and cycling gives you lots of resources to check out.

Environment

Riding a bike at any given time often means one less car on the road. When you multiply that into commutes and other errands, it means many cars off the road more often. Since cars pollute, again it doesn’t take a study to realize that more bikes and fewer cars means less pollution. It’s easy to do the research about pollution and cycling and decide for yourself. Surely no one thinks more pollution is a good thing.

Economic

Aside from just reducing the pollution from cars, cycling helps save gas use and ultimately, helps insulate the economy from external factors affecting petroleum prices. As well, not everyone can afford to drive and buses are not always convenient or pleasant modes of transport. While this piece comes from the U.S. and is clearly pro-cyclist, the fact sheet it links to contains some well-sourced information. Ultimately, it claims U.S. cyclists save $4.6 billion annually by riding instead of driving. Read and draw your own conclusions, but the key point it makes is that, due to the economic benefits, cyclists should have access to safe cycling infrastructure.

Not complaining

I love living in one of the most cycling-friendly cities in Canada, if not the world, and the climate is conducive to riding year-round, provided you’re willing to get wet. I’m pleased that my city is spending some of the tax dollars I pay to continually improve cycling here. What I fear, though, is that without more education and stiffer penalties for inexcusable behaviour (by both drivers and cyclists), we’ll end up remaining at odds with each other. As I said earlier, without exception there’s one loser in that face-off and all the bike lanes in the world won’t fix it.

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