Cyclists are NOT the Enemy

People who bike hate cars. People who drive hate bikes. You’re both wrong.

I personally take issue with anybody who doesn’t follow the rules of the road, or who (through apathy, or ignorance) puts others in danger.

The Ottawa Citizen has published a few pieces in the last couple of weeks about cycling, bike lanes, the driving/cycling dynamic, and a whole lot of other stuff pitting bikes against cars on the capital’s streets.

This kind of article is hurting a relationship that could be harmonious and mutually beneficial, if everybody could just agree to follow simple rules that already exist, and not presume they are special. Let me address a few points from the latest op-ed piece in the Citizen now:

I’ve never really understood just what it is that makes riding a bicycle so special. Sure, riding a bike is good exercise and an inexpensive way to get around, but that’s all it is.

This is such an incredibly shortsighted point. Isn’t this a very valuable and noteworthy goal, especially as cost of living rises in cities and obesity skyrockets around the world? Not to mention global climate change, to which any motor vehicles (including electric cars powered by coal) still contribute.

…[T]hey claim a right to ride on sidewalks as required and to ignore the laws that apply to bicycles. All while complaining about drivers and claiming that cyclists are subsidizing motorists.

Riding a vehicle on the sidewalk is illegal. You can get a fine for doing it, whether you’re in a car, or on a bike. Yes, people do it, but it’s because they don’t feel safe on streets. We live in a car-first culture, where many people are deterred from riding bikes when they hear almost daily about collisions between cars and bikes (which bikes always seem to lose). And like I said, bikes hate cars and cars hate bikes (in general). We all pay taxes and cars use roads much more than bikes do (more on that later).

…[C]ycling makes up about 2.7 per cent of the morning commute and two per cent over the whole day. As a means of practical transportation, it is close to irrelevant.

Considering how many people either have long commutes, poor health, or any number of other reasons (the feeling of danger notwithstanding) not to bike, this number would definitely be higher if cycling wasn’t an afterthought, and I’m sure we’d all be better for it.

You’d never know it from watching Ottawa’s cyclists, but a bicycle is classified as a vehicle under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. That means cyclists must obey all traffic laws and have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers, but who hasn’t seen cyclists drive up on sidewalks, sail through stop signs, ride the wrong way on one-way streets and make unsignalled turns?

This one is almost too easy. Yes, a car and a bicycle are both vehicles. Cyclists need to obey traffic laws, and need to be responsible drivers and pay attention to their surroundings. However, on bike, on foot, and by car, I see cyclists and drivers up on sidewalks (check out #ottbike on Twitter), rolling through stop signs, driving the wrong way on one-way streets, and making turns and lane changes without signalling. Surprise, drivers do this just as often as cyclists.

I actually want to yell at cyclists who are in full gear, with racing bikes, when they roll through red lights to save a few seconds (both when I’m driving and when biking). Bad cyclists who refuse to wait their turn and follow the rules are just making the relationship between bikes and cars worse. We’re not all perfect, but we can be a lot better.

Without endorsing the practice, [Reevely] explains that cyclists make a habit of gliding through stop signs because bike routes off major roads are often on streets with stop signs every 50 feet. Actually stopping would take away all of a cyclist’s momentum. Similarly, cyclists ride on sidewalks because the city has refused to make major roads like Bank Street safe.

Clearly, these things happen, but who really thinks it’s safe to ride a bike on a sidewalk meant for pedestrians? One can easily imagine the sympathy a driver would get if he rolled through a series of stop signs, citing reluctance to wear out his brakes, or a desire to burn less fuel.

This practice of rolling through stop signs is not unique to bikes. Most drivers and cyclists don’t travel through stop signs without looking or slowing down (though I see the behaviour more often than I’d like in both).

However, the reason I think bikes and cars need to be treated a little differently when it comes to rolling through stop signs without coming to a full stop is as follows (spoiler – it’s all about momentum):

A bike and rider, weighing about 150-250 pounds together, moving at 5-10 kph, has a total momentum of 100-300 kg m/s. This means they can see if a car is coming and easily stop by lightly braking.

An average car, in 2010, weighed a little over 4,000 pounds. Even moving at only 2 kph, that’s still over 900 kg m/s, or more than 3 times as much momentum. Those of you who ride and bike will know that it’s much easier to stop a bike than it is a car over a short distance. In terms of safety for vehicles and pedestrians, a cyclist slowing right down as they approach a stop sign and looking both ways, is much better than the typical driving stop, which sees cars slow down and come to a nearly complete stop before heading off again. [editors note: if you come to a complete stop at every stop sign, you’re a beautiful snowflake, and an upstanding citizen, and also you’re probably lying to yourself.]

…[C]yclists are responsible for their own safety. Anticipating hazards when riding in urban traffic would seem to be a basic survival skill. A bicycle lane isn’t an autobahn for cyclists.

Totally agree with this point. Though I’m not sure you want to have to worry about your survival every time you hit the road, being aware of your surroundings, and the rules, are vital for drivers and cyclists. A bike lane doesn’t give you free rein to do whatever you please, but these lanes are also often disrespected by drivers too (see the bollards recently put up on Laurier on the bridge near City Hall). We all bear responsibility to get everybody home safe at the end of the day.

Of all the claims that are made about cycling, the idea that cyclists are subsidizing motorists is the most dubious. Cyclists use the roads, just like car drivers do. Unlike car drivers, they don’t pay licence fees and gas taxes to contribute to their upkeep. Everyone benefits from roads.

This is a fine point, but sort of misses the fact that bike-only infrastructure requires almost no upkeep, as the effect of bikes on roads is negligible compared to cars/trucks/semis. Add that to the fact that cyclists also drive on these roads at least occasionally, and likely pay for their construction and upkeep with taxes, and that argument loses a lot of its power.

Cyclists would get a lot more respect if they were willing to follow the rules of the road. This is not just because drivers like rules. It’s a safety issue. Unpredictable moves lead to accidents. Despite what some cyclists seem to think, drivers actually do not want to run them over.

Absolutely. Everybody needs to follow the rules of the road, and I have no doubt that cyclist unpredictability has a lot to do with accidents/injuries/collisions/fatalities where bikes are involved. Just like what happens when cars break laws or behave unpredictably. The only difference in this case is that when a car and bike collide, the driver of the car will never be hurt (physically) by the collision. This is where compassion comes in, and a little training, and learning the rules of the road, can go a long way towards bikes and cars sharing the road more safely.

Bikes are supposed to take about a meter from the curb, but are legally entitled to take a lane if they deem it necessary for safety or if the roadway is impeded in some way. If you’ve ever tried to bike in the one meter closest to a gutter, you will know it’s a VERY narrow swath of road, and one that is often full of potholes, construction equipment, drains, and other detritus that makes a ride perilous. Consider these facts as you commute by car.

Cyclists want to share the road too, and no cyclist wants to cause an accident (and on that last line from the quote above, I have heard drivers muttering or yelling about running over cyclists, and whether it’s in jest or not, I’m not laughing). We all want to get home safe at the end of the day.

Too many of our major streets are tough to drive on in a car, much less a bike. Fixing those roads, not more bike lanes, would be the best thing the city could do for cyclists and drivers.

I half agree with this. Some of our roads REALLY need a revamp, but I would argue the value of lanes for bicycles is pretty high in most places. Study after study shows the more car lanes you add to roads, the more traffic you get. More people end up buying cars, and you’re left with no less congestion. More space for cars isn’t helping anybody, whereas more space for bikes has great benefits for public safety, the environment, public health, noise pollution, traffic, and lots more.

Here’s what it actually takes to #BikeToWork

There are lots of great reasons to bike to work. Health, including fresh air, exercise, and heightened mental awareness are just a few of the obvious benefits of the self-powered commute. As Twitter celebrates Bike to Work Day today, a few of the difficulties many people face in actually planning to bike to work every day should be considered.

Riding a bike to work is not something anybody in a professional environment can do on a whim. If you are going to pedal in to work without a real plan, you’re gonna have a bad time. Sweat, wind, dirt, and many other factors complicate this process, and even if you live close to your place of work, there’s a lot to consider.

If you make the decision that you want to ride to work, here is a list of things you should think about before even hitting the road:

  1. Do you have a bike? If yes, is it tuned up? You need to check tire pressure, gear lubrication, brakes, lights, your bell, and any other accoutrements you might need or want.
  2. There’s a lot of bike gear. What about your helmet, bike shorts, layers in case it’s cold in the morning, proper shoes that can get a little beat up, sunglasses for glare and dust protection, gloves (for warmth and bumpy rides), water bottles, and anything else you can think of.
  3. Can you wear your work attire on the bike? If you work in a business with a uniform or dress code, will you be able to ride without getting your work clothes dirty? If not, you’ll need to bring a change of clothes, and preferably not have them get wrinkled.
  4. Does your place of business have bike parking nearby? Is it safe? Do you have a proper lock or bike storage facility?
  5. How long is the ride, and does your place of work have showers or facilities where it would be easy to clean up for work if you’re sweaty on the other end? Can you leave toiletries, a towel, or any clothing at work, in a place where it will stay safe and clean?
  6. Is the weather cooperating with you today? If it’s raining, that’s a whole other consideration, and if you live in a place with unpredictable weather, a flash rainfall while biking can really ruin your morning.

The place you work can be very supportive of biking to work, but it still won’t be easy to just roll out of bed in the morning without lots of planning. If you drive or take the bus to work, you can probably just get ready at home, and the odds of forgetting an essential piece of clothing or accessory are small. When you bike to work, if you forget a shirt, it’s a big problem. There are ways to reduce these risks if you’re forgetful, but it’s still something to think about.

Now that you’ve thought through your plan and everything is ready to go, you have to actually get on your bike and go. When was the last time you rode your bike? Was it last season? Do you remember how to do it? What about hand signals for turning, are you even comfortable taking your hand(s) off the handlebars?

For many amateur cyclists, biking on the street is a daunting proposition, especially during rush hour. While bike friendly cities can do a lot to support their ridership, the odds are good that you’ll have to interact with a car at some point on your commute. If you’ve biked through a city, you’re well aware of problem areas, especially on older roads. Most drivers aren’t too familiar with the one meter strip on the side of most roadways, but it’s not exactly conducive to a smooth ride on many city streets.

#BikeToWorkDay is a really great initiative, and it goes a long way towards highlighting the reasons getting to work by bicycle is fun and exciting. However, it’s one thing for politicians and people who bike to work one day a year to get through that experience, it’s another thing altogether to consider making it a part of your lifestyle.

Consider pulling your bike out of the garage more often if you can, and please try to show some empathy for commuting cyclists as you pass them in your cars today (and every other day). They are just trying to get home safe, like you.

Shades of Gray

To many folks out there, the world is black and white. Humans, and our descendants, have evolved and survived for millions of years, in part because we can react quickly and make snap judgments that keep us alive.

Today, though, we live in a different kind of environment, one with a lot fewer life-or-death situations. In the modern world, there’s more than enough room for a bit of nuance, but that doesn’t mean our instincts don’t kick in and cause problems from time to time.

One of the easiest situations to think about in these terms is getting scared. The fight or flight reaction is one that is fundamental to all humans, and the accompanying rush of adrenaline comes straight from a time when every day was a fight to stay alive.

Another interesting example of these black and white situations is an allergic reaction. If you have ever suffered through any kind of severe allergy, you know how frustrating it can be to deal with itchy skin, a sore throat, sniffling and red eyes. These reactions are the way your body deals with foreign substances, but in the case of pollen, cat hair, or peanuts, this reaction is incredibly overblown, and can actually cause harm or death.

If our bodies were properly able to understand nuance and context, a scary movie wouldn’t send a rush of adrenaline through our veins, and an allergic reaction wouldn’t cause its potentially deadly symptoms. These reactions saved our ancestors for generations, and they stay in our genes even though the majority of humans don’t live under constant threats.

Take humans’ instinctive reactions as described above, and apply them to a society and world where there is room for interpretation, and time to make judgments. Suddenly, we’re dealing with sexism and racism and discrimination based on categories that make no sense.

For example, transgender people face harassment and judgment every day, in countries around the world. Why? Because large parts of the world believe that either you’re male, or female. Our instincts, which have kept us alive for millions of years, were honed by making quick decisions and placing people and things into groups. Anything that doesn’t fit that categorization has been automatically wrong.

And in most cases, animals (humans included) are male, or female. However, in this instance, the edge cases are pretty important, and not *that* uncommon. This is especially important considering a doctor has a few seconds to determine the biological sex of a child upon delivery, even though that decision will almost certainly impact the child for the rest of their life.

Scientific studies have shown that the standard XX and XY chromosome sets are far from the only genetic combinations humans can have. Not only that, but many genes controlling secondary sexual characteristics, like hair growth and other physical attributes, have little or nothing to do with the sex chromosomes.

And all of this discussion doesn’t even get into the fact that sex and gender have no strong basis in science, especially when it comes to gender roles, personalities, or hobby choices. We set societal expectations based on race and gender as we live our collective lives, these things are not set for us.

The goal of this blog is to explore the gray areas that lie between black and white (and no, there will be no 50 Shades puns).

Leave your preconceived notions and assumptions at the door, they are only relevant once they have been tested and re-tested. It remains a challenge to navigate the modern world without stepping on any toes, but empathy is perhaps the most powerful tool we have. Don’t forget about it.