Sunday, 21 December 2014

Cyclists vs. Motorists: The Neverending Struggle for Space on the Road

If you drive on a regular basis, chances are you've had negative altercations with unscrupulous cyclists.  And if you cycle on a regular basis, then chances are that you've had plenty of bad run-ins with careless drivers.  Whether you're a regular cyclist or a regular motorist, you've probably also heard the usual complaints from both sides.  From motorists, it's usually something like this: "Cyclists don't obey the traffic signals, they get in your way, you never know when they're going to make a sudden move and maybe cause you to hit them, they want to take our road space to make way for bike lanes," and so forth.  From cyclists, the common complaints about drivers are: "They hog the roads, they don't check to see if there are cyclists around them, they have more than enough space whereas us cyclists don't have enough bike lanes and cycling alongside cars is dangerous," etc.

I myself am a regular driver and I never use a bicycle, so I obviously have my own biases when it comes to the seemingly never-ending struggle for road space between cyclists and motorists.  That doesn't mean, however, that I don't sympathize with cyclists who brave the mean streets of my home city of Toronto every day, because I have enough common sense to know that whenever motorists and cyclists collide, often literally, it's usually the cyclist that gets the worst of it.  You can get a sense of this simply by looking at the website,, which catalogs reports of cyclists getting the so-called "door prize" whenever a driver opens his door and some unsuspecting cyclists smashes into it, often leading to serious injuries.  It's no surprise to me that most of these reported incidences occur in or near the downtown area where competition between cyclists and motorists is the most fierce.

But on the other side of the coin, I always get the sense that cyclists are rarely held to account for their transgressions.  Those of us that drive often resent the fact that an arrogant cyclist almost always gets away with damaging a person's car.  As little as two weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a picture on her page of a broken mirror on her car, captioned with the sarcastic phrase,"Thank you, cyclist."  As most of you can probably guess, whichever cyclist smashed and broke her mirror was not held to account.  Why?  Because unlike drivers, who must be licensed and have proper license plates to identify their vehicles, there is no such requirement for cyclists - a fact that many drivers, including myself, strongly resent.

The Political Struggle

Most of us who either drive a car or ride a bicycle know that the fight for road space doesn't just take place on our streets, but also in the halls of power, usually at the municipal level.  Just look at what's been going on at City Hall in Toronto lately.  When left-wing mayor David Miller was in power, he and the bicycle-friendly councillors took to making Toronto a more friendly place for cyclists, pushing large-scale transit plans that included bike lanes, and installing new bike lanes that took lanes away from motorists.  Anyone remember the heated debate over the bike lanes on Jarvis?  Those lanes were put in during the Miller administration.  But soon, a new mayor came to power; Rob Ford, who after being elected promptly declared that the war on the car was over.  One of his first acts: getting rid of the recently installed bike lanes on Jarvis.

What is most unfortunate is that the better part of a resolution to the conflict between cyclists and motorists is going to have to come from our politicians - the same politicians who are so polarized on the issue.  On one side are the bicycle-friendly councillors and their supporters, often referred to in the Toronto Sun as the "bicycult", who want to do everything to encourage cycling no matter how much it inconveniences drivers; and on the other side are people like Rob Ford, who live and die by the car, won't give it up for anything, and the cyclists be damned.  There's got to be a happy medium somewhere.  Here are some ideas of my own:

1.  Build More Bike Lanes Without Giving Motorists a Headache

I agree with the cyclist community that there should be more bike lanes, but I am not in favour of creating new bike lanes by taking away lane space from motorists, especially downtown where traffic is already at a standstill.  More bike lanes in place of lanes for motor vehicles downtown will just lead to bigger traffic jams and a lot more idling and pollution.  Bike lanes are more easily built in the city's suburbs.  I've seen plenty of roads, even major roads, where bike lanes could easily be built without taking lanes away from motor vehicle traffic.  As for the downtown core, more innovative solutions are likely required.  One of these innovative solutions involves elevated bike lanes.  Yes, I'm serious.  There are folks who have drawn up plans to build bike lanes above the ground so that they don't take space away from cars.  An example of this can be seen here.  Furthermore, whenever bike lanes are built adjacent to car lanes or pedestrian sidewalks, it is vital that they be separated, either by building them at a different grade or placing a physical barrier between them and the car lanes.  Most of the few designated bicycle lanes that do exist in Toronto are haphazard, consisting of paths that are at the same grade as the motor vehicle lanes next to them, separated only by painted white lines.  Motorists routinely take advantage of this by standing in bike lanes or using the extra space provided by them to make turns.  This endangers cyclists significantly and ironically can lead to more conflicts between them and motorists as they violate each others' space.  But this would not happen if there was a significant physical barrier separating the motor vehicles from the cyclists.

The fact of the matter is that motorists and cyclists cannot and should not share the same road space, because there will always be conflict.  The overwhelming majority of Toronto's roads were never built to accommodate both motor vehicles and cyclists at the same time.  Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense for a vehicle weighing in at several tons to share the same road space with a mode of transportation powered only by the muscles of the operator and weighing in at less than a hundred pounds.  There's just too much room for accidents, some of which turn out to be fatal for cyclists, because in a collision, the vehicle weighing several tons will always come out on top.

But of course, the only way we're ever going to prevent motorists and cyclists from sharing the same road space and coming into conflict with each other is by building a vast network of separated bike lanes.  And although Toronto has begun to build some of these, there's still an incredibly long way to go, not to mention the fact that what little bike infrastructure is available in this city is poorly maintained.  I can't even count how many times I've driven on streets with bike lanes after a big snowstorm only to find that those bike lanes have not been plowed and are hence unusable for cyclists.  Yes, believe it or not, many folks still ride their bikes in the winter.  Bikes are after all a cost-effective way from getting from point A to point B, which is why more and more people are opting to use them.

2.  Better Regulations for Cycling

I'm not really a fan of regulation because for me regulation usually equals more nanny statism.  But let's face it, sometimes regulation is necessary; and I believe more and better regulations for cycling is warranted.  I believe, for example, that all cyclists should be required to where helmets.  Now I know that there are a lot of cycling advocates out there that will say requiring helmets is unnecessary and that it discourages people from taking up cycling.  I do not buy this argument and quite frankly, I think that the second part of it is a load of crap.  Making helmets mandatory does not discourage cycling any more than making drivers where seat belts discourages driving.  People are not going to be put off of cycling just because they have to wear a helmet.

I also believe that all cyclists should be require to buy license plates for their bikes just as drivers have to buy them for their motor vehicles.  Why?  Because just as car license plates help authorities to identify vehicles involved in driving offenses, so to should license plates on bicycles be used to help authorities identify bikes involved in such offenses.  Right now, unscrupulous cyclists know that they will almost always get away with damaging the vehicle of a driver they don't like.  But once you put a plate on their bike that can identify them, chances are they won't be so quick to try and smash a motorist's mirror whenever they feel like it.

Some people have even called for making cyclists carry licenses the same way drivers do.  This is not something I support, because although I do believe cyclists should be aware of all regulations before they get on the road, I also believe that motor vehicles and bicycles are not in the same league, even if they often share the same road space.  A motor vehicle is a piece of heavy machinery that is capable of causing major property damage and potentially fatal injuries, while a bicycle is a small mode of transport powered only by the muscular capacity of its operator (with the exception of E-bikes, but that is a whole other issue that I don't want to go into right now).  And although it is certainly not unheard of for a bicycle itself to fatally injure someone, the chances of it doing so are astronomically smaller than if a motor vehicle is involved.

3.  Just Obey the Law, Dammit!

Let's face it, there are bad drivers and there are bad cyclists and both are responsible for exacerbating the conflict between motorists and cyclists.  The careless cyclist who rushes past a stop sign is just as guilty as the idiot driver who blows by it.  And in the same respect, the motorist who fails to signal while making a turn is just as much of a moron as the cyclist who suddenly veers into the path of a vehicle without signalling his or her intentions.  So it's vital that until we see the separate bicycle infrastructure I mentioned above built and the current bicycle infrastructure properly maintained, we all do our best to obey the rules of the road.


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