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Cyclists and motorists must learn to get along

The Globe and Mail: Cyclists and motorists must learn to get along

MARCUS GEE | Columnist profile | E-mail
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 14, 2011 

Since the death of Jenna Morrison, crushed by a truck as she rode her bike last week, cycling advocates have been pushing hard for practical measures to make life safe for cyclists. NDP MPs Olivia Chow and Peggy Nash are introducing a bill in Parliament to force truckers to install side guards that would keep cyclists from falling under the wheels. Cycling advocates are stepping up their campaign to get more bike lanes installed around the city and to overturn city council’s decision to pull out the new bike lanes on Jarvis Street.

But if cyclists are to be safe, the change that’s needed is one of attitude as much as infrastructure. Relations between motorists and cyclists are tense.

As more and more people take to the streets on two wheels, some drivers are reacting with outright hostility. “I’ve had way more people honking and yelling at me,” says cycling activist Yvonne Bambrick, who joined a memorial ride for Ms. Morrison on Monday morning.

They seem to feel that roads are for cars, not bikes, and that people who presume to cycle in traffic have what’s coming to them – an attitude famously enunciated by Rob Ford before he was mayor when he said that cyclists are “swimming with the sharks” when they join traffic and that if they get hurt “it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

Others are simply oblivious. These motorists are just as dangerous, if not more so. They are the ones who blithely turn right at an intersection without checking the right-side mirror for cyclists, who give bikes the “door prize” by opening their car doors without looking, who pull out of parking spots without bothering to check, who squeeze almost against the curb so that cyclists can’t pass.

To them, cyclists seem to be invisible, or at least so far beneath notice that they might well as be. Heading to work after the Morrison memorial ride, I almost collided with a guy who turned directly in front of me onto Dundas from a side street. It wasn’t that he didn’t see me. He was looking right at me. It was that he simply didn’t acknowledge me.

You see this sort of thing all the time when riding the streets of Toronto. Pedestrians are as guilty as motorists. They step off the curb right in front you, as if you are not even there. I have taken to ringing my bike bell like some crazed popcorn vendor to warn them off. It’s not an angry gesture. It’s a plea. “Hey, I’m here. Please take notice.”

The cycling movement is trying to make a similar point when it stages mass rides like the one held for Ms. Morrison. They are a cry for respect and acceptance.

Separating bikes from traffic throughout the city is not on. While the city is promising to experiment with separated bike lanes, many downtown streets – like Dundas, Queen or King – are simply too narrow to accommodate cars, streetcars and bike lanes. On those thoroughfares, and many others, bikes and cars must find a modus vivendi. That means motorists having more tolerance for, and awareness of, the cyclists around them.

On the other side, it means cyclists learning more respect for the rules of the road. Every cyclist who bolts through a red light, dodges madly through traffic or slams his fist against a driver’s door is performing an act of sabotage against the cycling movement.

These road warriors give a bad name to every law-abiding cyclist. They drive motorists mad to boot. Why should I respect your right to the road, asks the angry guy behind the wheel, if you spit on the rules? It is a fair question.

Cyclists are right to demand more respect and attention from motorists. Motorists are right to demand more predictable, law-abiding conduct from cyclists. Each side has to give. Nobody wins in a war of the roads.