Monday, August 28, 2017

Division and finger-pointing between drivers and cyclists

Recently, radio talk show host Mike Farwell penned a column on cycling, or rather cyclists, that has a lot of people all a-twitter. Farwell's main thrust was that cyclists need to behave better on the road, and take responsibility for each other's behaviour. And this has rubbed a lot of people with two-wheeled experience the wrong way.

Myself included.

But let's start with what was good about Farwell's column. He hit a number of solid points I agree with:
  • Lower speed limits would reduce accident severity,
  • We should support better active transportation infrastructure,
  • There are people who are biking like idiots.
Yes, there are people biking like idiots. I agree! But after this point is where, for me, Farwell's line of reasoning takes a dangerous blind turn.

Later in the column, he rattled off a list of incidents where someone on two wheels did something stupid and unnecessarily risky. And these people are making him see cyclists in a less courteous light, calling for cyclists to take ownership of these yahoos, and implying that cyclists' place on the road was morally at stake.

But who are these cyclists, anyway?

We're all just people trying to get where we're going.

Am I a cyclist? I drove to work today, so probably no. But I've spent years biking to work and around town multiple times a week, so probably yes. But I have a neck injury and don't know when I'll be able to get on my bike again, so, have I stopped being a cyclist? It's an identity crisis in the making!

I was walking Spur Line Trail the other day, and I was passed by several people on bikes. Are they the cyclists Farwell expects to police each other? How about this older couple who were clearly out experimenting with two wheels and marvelling at how lovely the trail was: how many more pedals until they're held culpable for the actions of others? Do they get membership cards in the mail, or possibly by bike courier?

That's the problem here. When it comes down to this, there is no such thing as a cyclist, except when you're talking about someone on a bike right now. The same thing goes for drivers. The rest of the time, we are just people. The term "cyclist" and "driver" are convenient, but sometimes we tend to mistake what is a temporary state for a permanent, exclusive identity, and I believe Mike Farwell is guilty of just that.

Because if that isn't the case, then I am a cyclist, I am a driver, and I am a pedestrian (an impressive feat since I'm sitting in a desk chair at the moment!) But I don't understand why as a cyclist I should be held responsible for all cyclists, when we clearly don't put a similar burden of responsibility on car users or walkers. The idea that as a driver, I would be responsible for every idjit behind the wheel, is laughable. Also impractical, given how many people in cars seem willing to communicate with just their middle finger. So what makes it OK to impose this moral burden on me for my predilection to pedal?

Nonetheless, this column is strongly insinuating that my right to respect on the road, while on two wheels, depends on my policing others. That is... chilling.

No matter what happens, the person on the bike loses.

When I'm on a bike, I'm already dealing with an uncomfortable power imbalance. If I screw up near a vehicle, the likely result is my death or injury. If someone in a vehicle screws up near me, the likely result is still my death or injury. Even minor accidents I might experience while driving could leave me with a broken collarbone, or broken neck, if they happen when I'm on a bicycle.

As a motorcycle enthusiast, I would have thought Mike Farwell might understand the condition of being a vulnerable road user. Still, while riding a motorcycle Mike does enjoy the ability to keep up with the speed of motorized traffic. (In my experience, motorcycle riders certainly show no problem keeping up with the speed of traffic!)

But it takes a strong stomach to claim your place on the road while being passed by vehicle after vehicle. Every once in a while, someone is having a bad day and I get to experience that incautious, incourteous close pass, the kind where my life hangs in the balance of a few inches. After an incident like this a couple of years ago, I got to talk to just such a driver.

He had passed me so close that I still don't know how his mirror didn't clip my handlebars. But he was also so close to home (which made his inability to wait 20 seconds for a safe pass even more galling) that I came upon him at his driveway. And he had absolutely zero willingness to accept any fault, and I guess he felt the need to put me in my place: the conversation ended in a threat that made me go to the police and had me nervously looking over my shoulder for months afterward.

The law says that I can ride my bike on the road, and I seek to do so as safely as possible. As the police officer explained to me with a cop's world-weary pragmatism, there are people out there who just don't believe I should be in their way and I need to watch out.

Tribalism and finger pointing

While cycling, I accept responsibility for my own safety, and I strive to use the road in a safe and predictable manner. After all, I already have plenty of incentive to do so. But that does not exclusively identify me as a cyclist.

I have worked hard, even within this blog, to avoid the "cyclist vs. driver vs. pedestrian" tribalism, and not always successfully. What I keep reminding myself is we are just people trying to get around. Sometimes, some of us bike.

The ugly truth is that there are really nasty, careless, thoughtless people on the road. The ones on two wheels, Farwell would have me reach out and police. As for the ones behind the wheel, well, my track record dealing with them is not so good. Neither group will listen to me if I confront them, and some of them might attack me for calling them out, so once again, I only stand to lose. But that's not all.

Farwell's column promotes the idea that there is a cycling "tribe" who needs to earn their place on the road from the driving "tribe"-- and you had better bet that his audience is listening. In doing this, he gives a few hot-headed and irresponsible people more license to treat me with disdain and reckless endangerment, by providing a justification their antisocial behaviour. I would have preferred that he used his platform to remind everyone that sharing the road starts with you, not the other guy.

I can't ask Farwell to take responsibility for these dangerous drivers any more than he should ask me to take responsibility for reckless cyclists.

But as a media personality, whose words have reach and influence people, I can ask Mike Farwell to take responsibility for his message.

Postscript: There's more I could have touched on here, such as sharrows and the evidence that shows them being worse than nothing, or the fact that we could use more education for riding bikes, or the fact that the thing that would have the most effect is just what cycling advocates keep asking for, better infrastructure. Perhaps a second blog post?

There's also the ugliness I saw on Twitter, that I chose not to take part in. Mike Farwell certainly didn't deserve the treatment he got at the hands of some respondents. I would have expected better of people, but once again I saw evidence of a "community" being held responsible for the actions of a few.

The more we reinforce the idea that we are separate camps or tribes, the more this kind of ugliness will surface. I am sorry Farwell got to see the worst side of these "cyclists", but I'll be even sorrier to see the worst side of any "drivers" who take Farwell's message to heart.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Getting priorities right in Uptown

The latest iteration of plans for reconstructing King Street in Uptown into a walking and cycling friendly place are up for your perusal and feedback. Take a look and provide your comments soon!

There's a lot to like here. King as a two-lane street allows for improvements across the board:
  • Safer lane widths and lower traffic speeds
  • More room for pedestrians, shorter crossing distances
  • Protected bike lanes providing destination access to all levels of cyclists.
There's other great features in here too: some protected intersection features at Erb and at Bridgeport, and positioning of bus pads and parking on the street side of the bike lanes, which limits dooring and blocking potential.

It's encouraging to see this plan, particularly as evidence mounts of the positive safety impacts and economic benefits that come from humanizing our downtown spaces.

Walking up. Cycling up. Business up. Collisions down.

Still, there are some valid criticisms and concerns. I spoke with one well-spoken gentleman, and he aired a number of complaints:
  • Truck unloading for businesses is less convenient
  • Corners are tighter (again affecting trucks)
His word for this plan was "myopic". He claimed that King needed to be an arterial road in order to maintain heavy truck access for these businesses to function, and he talked at length about a situation in Cambridge where a semi got stuck in a bad turn and couldn't reverse due to backed up traffic.

It's not that he doesn't have a point. But he was trying to paint these points as deal killers or catastrophes, and they are not. They are simply inconveniences that are worth bearing for the benefits we'll gain. Here's why.

Arterial roads are for through traffic, our downtowns are destinations


King was built as a four-lane arterial, which (along with Bridgeport and Erb) has resulted in a tremendous amount of through traffic passing through Uptown. Some business owners have seen this as their lifeblood, but through traffic doesn't tend to stop.

Crushing the pedestrian realm to move cars faster.

Instead, the traffic volumes make Uptown an unsafe location for people on foot or bike. I'm recalling the death of a student in the heart of Uptown in 2012, but there have been numerous other fatalities along King St. (edit: including, tragically, one today.) In these cases, blame gets apportioned to one party or the other but the cause of death is the same: speed.

Speed comes from wide roadways, and wide roadways come from this myth that we need to route cross-town traffic through our dense cores at the expense of all other road users.

Which makes these places more dangerous, less pleasant places to be, which in turn hampers their economic potential.

King street is a city street. Its job isn't through traffic, it's destination traffic. Drive it if you want to go to Uptown. If you're travelling a long way by car, then use Weber, or Westmount, or the expressway.

Loading and unloading can still happen, it just might take a little more thought.


Firstly, most of Uptown's King St. businesses have rear access. Laneways and rear parking exist for everything between William and Erb.

There's some additional lane width built into the street (3.8m per lane, which is more generous than the regional standard of 3.35m, which is still wider than the existing lanes which are too narrow for buses to occupy safely, hence the current practice of "straddling.")

That room should allow for most traffic to filter around the occasional unloading vehicle.

But if not, there are other steps that can be taken. Early or late deliveries can take advantage of available on-street parking. And smaller delivery vehicles can be used. Does Tim Hortons need to be serviced by a semitrailer? If downtown Toronto Tims can get their supplies, so can Uptown Waterloo's.

These are inconveniences, but if Uptown becomes a more attractive destination for people to visit, then businesses will find ways to overcome obstacles to better serve a growing customer base.

We can't keep up with traffic demand, but we can build an accessible city

There are a lot of new homes being built along the central corridor, and with the arrival of LRT, Uptown Waterloo is well positioned to serve the needs of these residents arriving on foot, transit, or bicycle.

And those residents will need to be able to rely on those modes of travel. We're learning that sprawl and car dependence results in a massively expensive and unsolvable traffic problem: you just can't build enough road and parking to satisfy demand without inducing even more, and the very act of trying will kill any human-friendly space as well as our municipal budget.

So instead, intensification needs to support walkability, and good transit and cycling options provide excellent access for people to the destinations they seek.

The Uptown plan shows how to do just this. An improved, safer pedestrian realm. Regional transit improvements enabling frictionless travel along the corridor and improved cross-town travel. Bike lanes to allow for "a little too far to walk" trips in speed and comfort.

It's the kind of city I want to live in, and I hope you see the value of it too. If that value appears to introduce some automotive inconveniences, it's only because we're used to planners trying to make driving easier at the cost of absolutely everything else in our lives: walkability, our safety, cost, and even our health.

This plan is what getting priorities right looks like.

"When you build for people and places, you get people and places."