Wars on Wheels

I’m a very careful cyclist.  I obey traffic laws, ring my bell often, and keep as much distance from parked cars as I can.  But all these precautions meant nothing when a taxi driver cut me off with a sudden u-turn last weekend.  I swerved and came to a squealing stop in front of the cab, only to look back and realize that the driver was completely unfazed by the fact that he nearly killed me.

The experience left me shaken and scared, but also pissed off.  Not just because the driver showed no remorse for his aggressive broadside, but because I live in a city where a lack of infrastructure ensures that my safety as a cyclist is less important than the safety of someone in a car.

The city of Toronto has promised to expand the current cycling “network” to include 495 bike lanes, 260 shared roadways, and 249 off-road paths.  Currently, fewer than half of these projects have been completed, and the ones that have been are plagued with potholes and safety issues.

Many existing bike lanes, like those on St. George Street, often run parallel to parked cars that put cyclists at risk of being “doored” every time they use the lanes.  On Gerrard Street, bike lanes simply end 20 feet on either side of the intersection.  Other routes disappear without connecting to another route.  The Beverly street bike lane ends at Queen Street West – an area so congested with cars, parking, streetcars and pedestrians that trying to bike on that street would be potential suicide.

But the real problem isn’t just the state of bicycle lanes in this city, the problem is this: drivers get preferential treatment in North America and any attempt to even the playing field is considered an attack on cars.

This becomes clear when a simple thing like removing a lane of traffic on Jarvis Street to accommodate bike lanes and overall beautification gets spun into some sort of insidious plot to banish cars from the world. Conservative city councillor Case Ootes called the move a “guerrilla war.”  Councillor Rob Ford simply stated that “bikers are a pain in the ass”.

Mayor Miller and many other councillors are strong supporters of sharing Toronto’s roads, but they lose sight of their goals when they waste their time defining their positions as anything but a war on cars.  What Toronto has now is not even close to a war.  It is all just polite negotiations.

We see this in the newest effort by the Toronto Cyclists Union.  They’ve started a campaign to applaud drivers for being courteous to cyclists in an attempt to establish goodwill.  Cyclists can now hand out a thank you card to any driver who doesn’t run them down or squeeze them off the road – as long as they can somehow manage to make the exchange in traffic without being run over.

I applaud the effort because I really like it when vehicles respect my right to exist on the road.  But just like I don’t thank my partner for washing dishes in our home, I don’t need to thank drivers for something that is a shared responsibility to begin with.

This debate as it stands now is ridiculous.  Arguments against ceding driving road space to public transit range from simplistic statements like “I need by car” to concerns that businesses will suffer if people can’t park immediately in front of their destination.  The most common argument against reducing driving lanes is that it will add to congestion.  But drivers rarely see themselves as complicit in this congestion, only victims of circumstance and poor city planning.

What Torontonians need is a shift in thinking. If there is a problem with congestion caused by cars, then drivers should consider what they can do to avoid this problem in the first place.  Torontonians need only consider what other cities are doing to see that progress is possible.

London, England has instituted a “congestion charge” for driving in the busiest parts of the city.  An £8 (roughly $15 CAD) fee is charged for a daily commute in the designated zone.  The consequence for ignoring the charge?  A whopping £120 (about $210 CAD) fine.

Copenhagen’s bicycle program manager, Andreas Rohl, has a simple strategy to increase the number of cyclists on the road: make driving more difficult.  By timing traffic lights to accommodate a cyclist’s average speed instead of a car’s, narrowing roads to increase the number of bike lanes, and building bridges exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians, driving a car in Copenhagen is far less efficient than biking.  These actions have created a cycling haven in which 55% of people commute by bike.

Just like in those cities, cars just don’t make sense anymore as the only “reasonable” mode of transportation in Toronto.  Challenging the city to create alternatives to car travel is not an attack on cars, nor is it special treatment for cyclists and pedestrians.  The fact is cycling is good for everyone.  It helps the environment; it is good for our health in a time when North Americans clearly need it. But most of all, cyclists are citizens of Toronto too. For that reason alone, cyclists deserve to the right to exist, be safe, and use the roads that their tax dollars pay for.

Toronto needs politicians with the tenacity to get stuff done.  Mayor Miller’s decision not to run for re-election has created an opportunity for the next mayor to show real leadership on this problem.  Toronto’s mayor and council need to make a firm commitment to doing the right thing for all Torontonians, and stick with.

Until then, no more apologizing, no more appeasing statements suggesting that there is no war on cars.  This isn’t a war; it isn’t even a fight on the playground.

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