I was cycling recently along Bloor Street, one of Toronto’s major roads, which is currently a Mad Max landscape of construction vehicles, cars, bikes, delivery vans and the odd skateboarder with a death wish.
A woman was cycling ahead of me, travelling at a good clip, when suddenly she slammed on her brakes and nearly went flying over the hood of a car that had turned right into her path. Once she’d righted herself, she inquired after the driver’s intentions, in the way a longshoreman would inquire after a hammer that had dropped on his foot. The driver leaned out his window and offered an elegant riposte, to the effect that if she had been paying ^%$ attention, she would have slowed the ^%$ down.
I cycled past, thankful as always for my helmet and wondering how cyclists and drivers ended up starring in an urban version of The Road Warrior. Actually, I know: the same number of roads but more people on them. A raging sense of entitlement on all sides. A modern-day loathing for being inconvenienced in any way. And, crucially, a reluctance by drivers to realize that the world is changing, and cyclists are not some invasive species akin to purple loosestrife or zebra mussels, but fellow commuters who have every right to be on the road.
The war has heated up as summer arrives, and cyclists shake off their winter wariness. Just this week, a Washington Post columnist, Courtland Milloy, wrote an anti-bike rant suggesting it might be okay to run down pesky riders: “It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.” (Cyclists descended in indignant protest outside the newspaper’s office.)
I’ve heard similar grumblings from drivers: Cyclists are sanctimonious risk-takers who don’t obey the rules of the road, who run stop signs and don’t put lights on their bikes. (These same drivers have never rolled through a stop sign or checked a text message while driving, of course.)
Some cyclists have taken to wearing helmet cameras to document instances of road rage against them, which they upload on YouTube. Even pedestrians now rail against cyclists: One notable case involved a 78-year-old British civil servant who was found guilty of assault after she flung a bag of dog poo at a cyclist who she felt had come too close. It’s an escalating war of four wheels good, two wheels battered.
Are drivers justified in their irritation, or is it just misplaced fear at not knowing how to share the road? The truth is that when the metal hits the pedals, drivers are usually to blame. In a study done in Australia in 2010, cyclists recorded their commutes for 127 hours using helmet cameras. Eighty-seven per cent of the collisions that occurred were found to be motorists’ fault, and contrary to prevailing notions of Evel Knievel riding, the cyclists were abiding by the law 89 per cent of the time. Most accidents, not surprisingly, occurred at intersections.
Nor is it a problem of too many bikes suddenly appearing on roads. The Cycling in Cities research program at the University of British Columbia points out that there’s safety in numbers, and you’re more likely to get in trouble cycling in Canada and the United States, where 1 to 2 per cent of commutes are made by bike, than in Northern Europe, where the figure is closer to 30 per cent. I’m sorry to say this, harried drivers, but the answer is actually more bikes on the road – as well as more bike lanes, better driver instruction and cracking down on illegal behaviour – whether it’s drivers on their phones or cyclists rolling through stop signs and zipping through crosswalks.
On top of that, though, perhaps there has to be a lesson in stomping out our sense of entitlement. We’re not very good at sharing, as a species, which Rodgers and Hammerstein recognized when they wrote The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends. The North American driver has had a sweet, sweet deal these long years, in their mobile castles powered by cheap fuel. I can see why they’ve got a siege mentality, but sieges can last only so long. I love driving (as I wrote several weeks ago) but I also love cycling, and only one of those is a path to a cleaner-lunged future.
I have no idea how to calm the discord between cyclists and drivers. You can’t throw buckets of water on them, like you would with snarling cats. I can only say what works for me: When I ride, I think like a driver. I watch parked cars, thinking “Do I sometimes open my door distractedly because my mind is in four thousand unrelated places?” When I’m driving, I think like a cyclist: “Have I ever snuck up along the curb in order to grab a few seconds’ lead when the light changes, hoping I can outrace this car turning right?”
It’s pretty simple: Instead of getting angry, think like the other dude. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And we might all get to work alive.