Cycling Gotham

Humber Woods Park

[I'd like to introduce a new blogger to I Bike TO, Ian Slater. Ian is a father, husband and professor at York University. And as a guy on a bike, he'll be providing us with an interesting perspective of the long-distance commuter. Welcome Ian! -- Herb]

I was driving my son home from class one night on a poorly lit side street in Toronto when a cyclist, with no helmet, no lights, no reflectors and in dark clothing flew off the sidewalk and cut me off. I saw him at the last second and braked. He then pulled over to the side up ahead, adjusting something on his belt. I drove by, rolled down my window and told him, “I can’t see you brother, you’re completely invisible in the dark, I almost hit you.”, to which he replied:

“I can see you”, and rode off into the night.

My son asked me, “what did he mean by that?”

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the answer to that question. What did he mean by that? Surely this guy is smart enough to realize that he is hard to see in the dark without any sort of lights and wearing light non-reflective clothing. And no helmet too, what does this tell me? Well, maybe he’s overconfident, that would explain his comment. Or perhaps he thinks that you are just as likely to run him over if he’s visible as when he’s not, so why bother?

The longer I listen to the public dialogue around cars and bikes in Toronto the more I favour the latter explanation. I think many cyclists are both overconfident and convinced that motorists would just as soon run them over as pass them by. I have seen many, many verbal fights break out between cyclists and motorists as I commute. They are rarely pretty. It’s all “war on the bike” and “war on the car”, I want a better model, war is ugly and, to be frank, if we’re at war the bikes are going to lose.

The level of mutual animosity in all this finally pushed me to start blogging. I think it’s time to dive in to the public dialogue.

Toronto occupies a very interesting position, a large metropolitan center with an international population, a strained transit system and an increasing number of cyclists. Or so it seems from what I see on the roads. Toronto has been cited as having the worst commute times from a sample of international cities, 80 min a day (that includes to and from work).

The TTC is strained and expanding, the city is growing. Air quality is impacted by an increased number of cars, I breathe the difference every time I ride. I see the wistful look on motorist’s faces when I wheel by them in a traffic jam.
We are ripe for a cycling revolution, but the mutual animosity makes this difficult.

I’ll be posting here regularly, giving my thoughts on current issues around cycling in TO, and hopefully pointing out some useful information for those who are thinking of long distance urban cycle commuting. What works for the short hop rider doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

I hope I can bring a fresh perspective on things, and possibly get a few people who have been thinking about cycling to give it a go. The weather right now is fantastic for riding, cool and sunny, and everything is in full bloom, giving almost every street in the city a roiling green canopy, there’s never been a better time to be on something moving at a speed that allows you to see what’s all around you. The fresh air on your face, the ability to pass bumper to bumper traffic.

You know you want it.

I have also been taking pictures of Toronto cycling routes for 5 years or so, all on my phone camera and while moving. I’ll post a pic here regularly too, maybe it will inspire you to try out a new trail, with all the focus on bike lanes, we forget that Toronto has a wealth of urban cycling trails.

The pic at the top is from Humber Woods Park in North West Toronto.




Recently I stopped at a traffic light beside a car indicating left. The intersection clearly prohibited left turns. Concerned the driver might not have seen the signs and risked a ticket, I pointed them out. He shrugged and made the left turn anyway.

What does this prove? Nothing much, by itself, except that the rinks of both motorists and cyclists include large numbers of us who will ignore the law when it doesn't make sense to us. Also, whan you challenge the choices made by strangers, you have to prepare for a lot of rebuffs. This holds particularly when your challenge doesn't leave the person an easy way to remedy the situation. When you confront someone riding without a light at night, what do you expect them to do? Walk their bike home? Take a bus that may not be running, and that they may not have the fare for? I carry spare lights so I can offer to help cyclists who don't have lights. That way, I have offered the person riding without a light a way out of a problem, rather than simply given them a piece of my mind.

John G. Spragge
Mariner, cyclist, pilot

John's example needs to include one additional thought: when the cyclist does something dumb or illegal, and a collision results with a car - s/he is the one that is injured, maimed or killed.

If the driver of the car does something dumb or illegal and thus collides with a cyclist - that cyclist is the one that is injured, maimed or killed.

But listen who's whining "all the way to the bank".... ;-)

I agree that speaking to those who break the traffic rules is rarely helpful, I have all but given up on doing so in most cases, in part as I am often upset when it happens (as perhaps their bad decision risked my safety) so I'm not in a consensus forming frame of mind. In this case I didn't "confront" the guy by calling him names or yelling at him, I just told him I couldn't see him. Perhaps he figured the reflectors on his pedals were enough, or that my lights would pick him out, I don't know what he's thinking.

I wasn't expecting the guy to stop cycling, or even walk his bike home, but to rather think about the fact that when he jumped off the sidewalk and in front of me as I was pulling out he was doing so while functionally invisible.

But the point of the example wasn't to get more of us to tell others when they are doing something wrong, but rather to point out how cyclists view motorists. If I would have offered the guy a light I suspect he would have blown me off as well. I really do think that there is a major disconnect between cyclists and motorists in the city, and this particular exchange seemed suggestive.

I was also in a car when this happened, not on a bike. I would be much less likely to say anything when on the bike, as I have rarely, if EVER received a positive response from a motorist if I criticized their driving while on my bike.

Thanks for the comment.



Well, I agree.

However, this line of reasoning leads to the justification of all sorts of bad cycling behavior. Just because the risks to me are greater doesn't diminish my responsibilities on the road, neither does it make a motorist more responsible if I drive badly and get into an accident.

I get the difference. I have had my cycling mirror clipped by a car doing somewhere near 80km/hr on Keele before, it sobers you up real fast. Cars have the advantage, and if you are hit by one you will most likely get the worst of it.

So sure, mistakes by either side are of more consequence for cyclists than motorists, but this doesn't give cyclists a free pass for breaking the rules.

Thanks for the comment,


So sure, mistakes by either side are of more consequence for cyclists than motorists, but this doesn't give cyclists a free pass for breaking the rules.

Of course. But it stops the whining of drivers calling the kettle black. And it opens the door to some real improvements of drivers' attitudes. It will make perfect sense to do something real about sloppy driving...