Dear Council, I’m confused

In listening to the infuriating debate in City Council today, I have a number of questions related to the debate.  If only they’d answer me.

1. Councillors arguing in favour of removing Jarvis lanes have said that bike lanes were never in the plan. They argue that the original plan was about increasing the pedestrian streetscape. And yet they want the bike lanes removed in order to restore the 5th lane of traffic which also is contrary to the original plan of returning Jarvis street to a pedestrian-friendly cultural corridor.

Contradiction much? If you agree that the street should be better for pedestrians, surely it is better to have 1 less lane of traffic than it is to have a highway that allows for high-speed vehicle travel.

2. Many councillors agree that cycling downtown is “dangerous” and that is why they support the separated bike lanes. Councillor Minnan-Wong said that “a painted line doesn’t make it safer.” So doesn’t it follow that the reason cycling is dangerous is BECAUSE of cars, not because of a lack of separated lanes? And as such, there should be fewer cars on the streets to keep cyclists safer?


Biking for Life: A Profile

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

– Lance Armstrong

Long-distance cycling is not for the faint of heart. It takes training, endurance and drive.

Every July, more than 400 cyclists prove they have what it takes when they participate in the Friends for Life Bike Rally – a 660km trek from Toronto to Montreal in support of the Toronto People with Aids Foundation (PWA). Last year, Todd Tyrtle was one of them.

Tyrtle, a 39 year old cyclist and cycling advocate from Toronto, completed the trip for the first time on his foldable Dahon Cadenza bike. Tyrtle hadn’t undertaken a ride like this before — he had the desire and sense of adventure for a long distance bike trip but nowhere to focus his energy. Once he discovered the rally existed, he was sold.

“I realized that to do a long ride and not help someone would almost be selfish.  Here I was with the interest in a long ride, the bike to do it, and if not the physical condition to do it right then, the ability to get into that condition.”

Though he refers to himself as a “year round cyclist”, Tyrtle began serious training for the rally in December 2009. He attended spin classes three to four days a week, and after the weather warmed up, biked the 40km round trip to work every day. Beginning in April, he participated in weekend training rides organized and run by rally volunteers.

That’s not all the bike rally volunteers offered in advance of the ride.  Seminars on fundraising, proper riding gear, physical strength preparation, nutrition counselling and bike repair were offered to participants to ensure they were able to complete the journey.

The fundraising seminar is particularly important because each rider must raise at least $2,200 in order to participate – a task Tyrtle originally considered off-putting despite raising $2600 by race day: “this was the most daunting thing for me and what kept me from doing it for several years. As it turned out, while it took a fair bit of effort to raise the minimum $2,200, it was not as difficult as I thought it would be.”

Though the fundraising goal is much higher for this event than other charity cycling events such as the Ride for Heart, so too is the physical effort, time commitment and dedication required by participants.

The money goes to the Toronto People with Aids Foundation, the largest direct service provider in Canada for people living with HIV/AIDS.  The organization provides meal delivery service for people who cannot shop and prepare their own food, financial assistance for medical and supplemental therapies, counselling that offers crucial information about accessing treatment, and food bank services that address the special dietary requirements of HIV positive Canadians.

But a five-day bike trip across provincial lines would make even the most benevolent person nervous.

When I asked Tyrtle if he would recommend the rally to a less experienced cyclist, he responded with a confident “Absolutely, and without hesitation.”

Unlike cycling in Toronto, the route to Montreal is mostly on rural roads where drivers allow cyclists more space.  In high-traffic areas, the group was funnelled into a dedicated lane to ensure their safety, and once they arrived in Montreal they were given a police escort.

After 12 years of running the event, the bike rally volunteers and organizers have figured things out.  “Road safety” vans escort riders along the route, and volunteers in a variety of lively costumes are always present to ensure cyclists stayed the course.

If safety isn’t enough, other perks include three meals a day plus snacks along the route, skilled mechanics to care for bikes, and massage therapists and chiropractors available at camp to comfort sore muscles and spines.

Tyrtle described the ride as an “overwhelmingly positive” experience because of the organization, the people, and in one case, the fans: “At one point, on the last day of the ride, a group of us stopped in to a McDonald’s for a snack.  When we went in, a woman came up to me and said she’d seen all of us riding earlier in the day and wondered what we were doing. . . A few minutes later, though, she came back and tracked me down to give a donation.”

If you’re thinking of giving it a shot but not sure you’re up for the distance, you’ve got plenty of time to train. Says Tyrtle: “I think the most important is that if you’re considering it, just do it. You might not be in shape to do it today but you would be shocked at how quickly you can. We were not a ride filled with road warriors but of regular people from age 18-71 of varying degrees of fitness.”

Motivated by his experience, Tyrtle immediately signed up for the 2011 rally and has pledged to ride as far as Halifax on his own if he meets his fundraising goal of $6000. I asked him if he was simply a glutton for punishment and he told me this:

When I arrived in Montreal part of me was, of course, thrilled to have made it.  But there was a large part of me that felt as if I’d only just started.  I’d only just figured out the routine for setting up and taking down camp, to riding every day. . . [I have] the ability and desire to go further and if I can use that to help [People with Aids] more this year than last, I’m going to do it.

A Letter to Jan Wong

Re: “Get off the Road” by Jan Wong (September 2010)

Share the Road Sign by Hey Paul on flickr

Who decided that roads were only for fast-moving cars? Roads are connections between people and neighbourhoods. They’re public spaces.

It’s only fitting that roads be used for cultural events, fundraisers, or street parties – even if it slows people down. Engaging with each other in the streets fosters community.

Street festivals also bring in revenue and showcase the city to tourists. Pride week is estimated to bring in $100 million to the local economy. Caribana infuses more than $400 million into Ontario.

Supporting that doesn’t make me meek, or a caricature of a Canadian. It makes me proud that I love my city enough to want people to experience it, not drive right through.

Get over yourself, Jan. Take the subway, ride a bike, walk, or simply stay home and weed your own lawn. But don’t tell me that only drivers have a right to use our city.

This letter appeared in the November 2010 issue of Toronto Life Magazine.

The Candidates go for a ride

“People are people and sometimes we change our minds”  –  Taylor Swift

If you’re Rocco Rossi, you change your mind anytime you smell the opportunity for a vote.

This morning, eight mayoral candidates, (including Rossi, but not including Ford or Smitherman) took a ride around town on two wheels.

Toronto Cyclist's Union Candidates' Ride
Toronto Cyclist's Union Candidates' Ride (photo from TCU)

The press release from the Toronto Cyclists’ Union  was positive: “The 30 minute ride, which stayed within the downtown core, allowed candidates to experience almost the full range of scenarios faced on a daily urban commute by bicycle.”

Except it didn’t.  Not even close.  The candidates were riding in a large group escorted by police– hardly representative of what I go through on my way to work every day.

After the ride, Rossi held a press conference and announced that he is suddenly in favour of physically separated bike lanes on arterial roads!

Rob Ford’s a buffoon. But he’s a sincere buffoon.  He hates cyclists, spending, services and parties.  At least I know where he stands.  I thought I knew where Rossi stood.

When he first announced his candidacy, Rossi had a list of campaign promises clearly defined.  Sure, they went against everything I believe in, but he put ’em out there for the world to see.  And though I loathed him, a part of me respected him for telling it like it is (in Rossi land).

Rossi now appears desperate. He was endlessly mocked last week for proposing a giant tunnel to downtown, and tried to convert Rob Ford supporters by echoing plans to cut council in half and clean up city hall.  He’s in last place (of the big 5) and has been left to grasp at straws.

BlogTO alternate Rossi Ad
BlogTO alternate Rossi Ad

Rocco Rossi isn’t a leader.  He’s a panderer. I hate panderers.

I hated it when so many of the candidates were desperately seeking suburban car votes, and I hate it now.

Flip-flopping is one thing.  But this is a vote grab — and proof that Rossi doesn’t get it.

He didn’t come out and say he’d made a mistake, or even admit that his threats to paint over the Jarvis bike lanes were unfair and stupid (there’s no gridlock). Either Rossi didn’t believe what he said in the beginning, or he doesn’t believe what he’s saying now.

No dice, Mr. Rossi.  You don’t deserve the cyclist vote. I want safe cycling infrastructure and good policy.  But mostly I want a mayor who can lead.  If you can’t do that, you might as well just be another angry, bald man yelling on the street corner.

The Great Helmet Debate


Courtesy of
Courtesy of SFB579 on flickr

The great helmet debate just won’t end.

When a 40-year old Toronto cyclist died last week after falling from his bike and hitting his head, people noticed – at least they noticed he wasn’t wearing a helmet. And so began the most recent battle of “should we” or “shouldn’t we” legislate helmets for adult cyclists.

The local media outlets covered the story. Toronto Police Services issued a press release. Opinions ran wild in the Twitterverse, the loudest screaming “personal choice.”

A CBC Metro Morning debate occurring days later between Yvonne Bambrick, communications director of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union (TCU), and Sgt. Tim Burrows of Traffic Services, made it clear that “choice” is the lynchpin of this argument.

The official position of the TCU is that it “supports and encourages helmet use, but [it] also supports the current laws that allow adults to make that choice.”

The same day, the cycling website hosted a forum on helmet use. Site founder Joe Travers had this to say “Helmets save lives, as do safe infrastructure & higher numbers of cyclists. I personally wear one, but don’t fault people who don’t.”

That’s where I get lost.

Lots of things in life should be based on personal choice: who we love, where we live, Team Edward or Team Jacob. But choosing safety is not something we, as a society, have allowed individuals to do for a long time.

Employers are required to abide by WSIB rules to protect workers. We have Canadian Aviation Regulations for flight, and the Highway Traffic Act to rule the road.  We have life jackets in boats, seatbelts in cars, and motorcyclists and e-bike riders (who reach a maximum speed of only 35kmph) must wear helmets.

We are a regulated society and we’ve collectively given the government permission to make these rules. So why are we letting cyclists off the hook?

Maybe it’s because cyclists aren’t taken seriously enough. Maybe it’s because, despite the evidence, not everyone believes that helmets protect cyclists.  But I think it is because people are so busy arguing that helmets aren’t the cure to cycling fatalities that few prominent advocates are willing to stand up and say that helmets are a step in the right direction.

Any advocacy is good for cyclists.  But refusing to actively encourage safety equipment, particularly for inexperienced cyclists, in the name of “choice” is just dumb.

Helmets work. They’re not perfect, but they work.  In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that “riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury … and an 88 percent reduction in their risk of brain injury.”

They’re easy, and other than ruining your hairdo, helmets don’t cause harm.

Some people criticize helmets because they won’t do enough if a cyclist is hit by a car, or because they may give some cyclists and drivers a false sense of security.  But I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me that having an extra layer between one’s head and the sidewalk in the event of a fall is not a good idea.

Arguments against legislation often assume helmet laws will deter cycling in the city and, as Bambrick puts it, “make cycling look less safe than it is,” but I don’t buy it.  The automobile industry survived seatbelts and airbags. People still build pools even where they’re required to put a fence up. Our history of regulation shows us that people adapt.

The reality is that cycling isn’t completely safe.  Better infrastructure and education would go a long way in making it better, but we’re not there yet.

So in the meantime, why not protect your head?  If the government believes in consistency, soon you may not have a choice.

Ask a Candidate

The following is a question I’ll be sending to the candidates at tonight’s CP24 Mayoral debate.  If you think we deserve an answer, you should send it in too.

A complete streets policy ensures planning for entire roadway keeps all users in mind – including cyclists, public transportation vehicles and pedestrians. Will you commit to keeping all Torontonians safe with policies proper infrastructure even if it slows drivers down? If no, why aren’t all Torontonians equally entitled to safety and enjoyment of their city in your mind?

Torontonians are invited to participate by emailing their questions to and please include the subject “Your Vote”. You can also tweet your questions and comments to @CP24 with the hashtag #CP24mayor.

Fundraising for a great cause

Hey everyone,

My pal Todd just rode 660km in support of the Toronto People with Aids Foundations. Impressive, huh?

It gets better.  Next year Todd will do the whole trek over again, only he won’t stop in Montreal if you help him.

Todd’s goal is to raise $6000 . If he’s successful he’ll ride all the way to Halifax – almost 2000km.

Click here to support him and to help a great cause.