Vincent Lam is an emergency room doctor and a lecturer at the University of Toronto. His book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His latest book, The Headmaster’s Wager, has just been shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Literary Award in fiction. He will be speaking at Calgary Wordfest on Oct. 9, the Vancouver International Writers Festival on Oct. 15 and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 18-28.
Are you a Toronto cyclist?
Yes, but I must say that I am also a driver and I am also a TTC user and I am also a pedestrian. I think that to compartmentalize people by one mode of transport, that’s making them combatants on one side or the other of “bikers versus motorists.” That’s all too easy.
What do you ride?
Well, I have seven bikes …
What do you drive?
I have a 1988 BMW M3.
I love my bikes and I love my car. They can co-exist and are completely compatible and not mutually exclusive.
What about situations when bikes and cars don’t co-exist compatibly? Have you ever been knocked down or had a bicycle mishap?
Yeah, sure. I’ve absolutely fallen off and been knocked off. I remember, when I was a teenager, I actually went under a truck that happened to be stopped. As a driver, I’m very aware of cyclists. And I’m a better cyclist because I drive as well.
To get more urbanites cycling would involve a huge mentality change. To many, bike riding is something they leave behind with childhood.
I think that, if we’re in touch with some of the things we found so pleasurable as children, we would be happier in general. These wonderful, beautiful childhood pleasures, I don’t think they should be restricted.
Can you equate such childhood idylls with dodging traffic on a bike, downtown, in rush hour?
There’s a reason we have a city infrastructure that is very oriented toward cars. It’s the default mode of transportation. If lots of people were to make a choice to use bicycles as a frequent mode of transportation, it would become common and the infrastructure would simply have to exist.
You can always talk about “what comes first.” Do you implement infrastructure before need? Or do we say we’re not going to build more bike lanes unless we see more people riding bicycles on the roads? I would like my city infrastructure to reflect my wish to transport myself from A to B, from time to time, on my bicycle.
We need to be forward-thinking as a city. Over the 21st century, the price of carbon-based fuels will increase. I don’t think there’s any value in waiting and have that hit us over the head. It’s far wiser to get ahead of the curve and to figure out how we can do things and have great transit and great cycling infrastructure that the future will have written for us. We can choose to write it in advance if we want to.
If you stand at the corner of any major downtown intersection, you would be hard-pressed to stand there for 15 minutes and not see a regular stream of bicycle traffic as well as cars and not think, “Wow, these people would be much better served if there were safe, separated, dedicated bike lanes.” You can clearly make that argument right now.
Unless Toronto’s infrastructure is completely redone, we’re going to have cars and bikes together on the same roadways.
I don’t think it’s necessary to redo the city, this notion that every street has got to be changed. To posit that sets up this “to do” list that feels impossible. “We’d love it, but we just can’t afford it.” That’s not necessary.
I’d suggest that, on most residential streets in Toronto, people feel relatively safe and comfortable. There are other streets where people experience heavier traffic, thoroughfare streets … these busy traffic situations where there isn’t a very clear sense sometimes of who should be where. Lots of streets that certainly warrant dedicated bike lanes, like Bloor for instance. Like a lot of downtown arteries where there are no bike lanes. It’s also a problem that a lot of the existing bicycle lanes end up used not as bicycle lanes but as parking of convenience, creating dangerous situations and a lot of chaos.
Instead of awaiting a mentality change, should we be proactive and start educating kids in schools to get on bikes as exercise and as eco-friendly commuters and citizens-to-be?
Absolutely. It’s not unheard of. At the school my kids go to, they have an annual [bike] trip. It’s fantastic and I’m fully in agreement that it would be a unique benefit if schools’ physical education programs wanted to incorporate bicycle safety and cycle-related activities. It would be tremendously beneficial in workplaces as well.
I would say, though, because cycling is such an individual choice, I don’t think we have to wait to make the choice to jump on a bike once in a while.