By Ted Laturnus, July 27, 2011
In May, I attended a conference in Vancouver called Changing Lanes. Organized by the Canadian Automobile Association, it was intended to bring cyclists, motorists, decision makers, and anyone else interested together in an effort to address the growing popularity of bicycles and all that goes with it: revamping infrastructure, changing attitudes, attempting to bring motorists and cyclists to some sort of reciprocity, and that sort of thing.
The conference had a particular relevance for me because three years ago, I was knocked off my bike by a teenager in an SUV, was hospitalized, and spent some time in a wheelchair. It was completely her fault, but I’m the one who got banged up. As it happened, I was on my motorcycle, but my comments apply just as well to bicycles.
After listening to speakers representing the cycling community, law enforcement, and special-interest groups—and as someone who is equally enthusiastic about cars, motorcycles, and bicycles—I have a few observations of my own to pass along.
According to a recent study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, motorists simply do not “see” motorcycles and bicycles. Because of their smaller size and different rates of speed, bikes do not register in the brains of many drivers in the same way automobiles do. A neglectful driver may see a bike, but somehow the message is lost along the way before his or her brain can do the right thing. This is especially true with older drivers. The phrase “I just didn’t see him” is one that’s well-known to medical and law-enforcement personnel. The fact is many motorists do not see bikes; I have the scars to prove it.
So it behooves riders to keep this uppermost in their minds when they ride, and this applies to both motorcycles and bicycles. One may be slower than the other, but in the eyes of motorists, they do not carry the same weight as a car. Ignore this at your peril.
Which leads me to those who drive an automobile: how about giving cyclists a break? How about checking twice before you pull out into traffic, turn left, or open your car door? How about waiting for that extra half-second before you make your move? And if you see a bike—human-powered or otherwise—stop and think about the situation. The consequences of your neglect are severe. In a nutshell, readjust your thinking. Bikes are here to stay, and there are going to be more of them on the roads as time goes by. If I had my way, every motorist in the world would have to spend at least a week on a bicycle and a motorcycle before they could get their driver’s licence. Maybe then they’d see how dangerous it is out there.
And for you hard-core cyclists, lose the attitude. Stop demonizing automobiles and acting like you have the high moral ground here. It’s annoying. Riding a bike doesn’t make you special or cooler than motorists, or mean you’re above the rules that apply to the rest of us. For reasons I’m not clear on, Vancouver in particular seems to have more than its share of in-your-face, militant cyclists who will only be happy when every single automobile in the world goes away. As far as they’re concerned, automobiles are tools of the devil and the sooner we get rid of them, the better.
But what about the single mom who has to drop off and pick up her kids at daycare every day, the senior who relies on a car to get the necessities of life, or the tradesman who has to commute with a full load of tools and equipment? In one form or another, cars are also here to stay, and staging Critical Mass events, giving motorists the finger, and stifling main routes of traffic downtown doesn’t help anybody. I ride a bicycle as often as I can, but that doesn’t mean I feel compelled to paint myself silver, wear funny clothes, and block traffic.
That’s right, Critical Massers, I’m talking to you. You’ve made your point; the authorities are listening and things are changing. Vancouver has installed two significant downtown bicycle lanes, with plans for more to come, and things are better for riders than they used to be. But for most people, bicycles remain a discretionary form of transportation, primarily enjoyed by young urbanites.
Which leads me to my final observation, and this is for the people who make decisions about cars and bikes: try to remember that a car is not a luxury or an unnecessary evil. Most people can’t get by without their cars, and continually hassling motorists with punitive traffic fines, higher taxes, escalating gas prices, heightened law enforcement, and convoluted city planning just makes things worse. I was born and raised in Vancouver, but conditions for motorists in the downtown area are becoming intolerable, and it’s not fair.
Look at the numbers. How many people ride bikes and how many drive cars? By all means, build as many bike paths and rights-of-way as you can, but don’t do it at the expense of motorists. The tail is wagging the dog in Vancouver these days, and the majority of commuters suffer because of the whining of a small group of zealots.
The Burrard Street Bridge is a case in point. Even at the height of rush hour on a nice sunny day, few riders are using the bike lane. The bike path on this bridge only happened because militant cyclists intimidated city council and Geoff Meggs got knocked off his bike last year. The Burrard Bridge is a major artery to the downtown area, and there’s plenty of room for cyclists on either sidewalk. How about some sort of a compromise here? How about giving the bridge back to motorists in the winter and utilizing the sidewalks properly? West side for bikes, east side for pedestrians.
Sooner or later, bike riders and motorists are going to have to coexist. There’s plenty of room for everyone. Just think things through before you start yapping, and show a little respect for the other guy.