Most Canadians believe that bicycling is a good thing. They want more bike infrastructure and they want to see more bikes on the road.
A recent study from Share the Road Cycling Coalition found that 71 per cent of Ontarians want more funding for bicycle lanes and infrastructure in Metrolinx’s proposed $30-billion “Big Move” project. They believe in bicycling.
They just don’t seem willing to do any. It’s a paradox.
I ponder this irony every year at this time because spring is the season I annually ask the question: “Why don’t I bicycle?” There’s no reason I shouldn’t. Why be stuck in traffic? I like bicycles and I believe in cycling as a form of transportation. I see people on bikes. They look happy, healthy, in tune with the world around them; at least those who are biking responsibly and not running red lights or on the sidewalk.
So what’s my problem?
History, I suppose. As a kid, I biked everywhere, but I was not always the luckiest of riders. At age 10, I was in a serious accident and required knee surgery. But I didn’t stop bicycling. I was back on as soon as I could be and all the cycling I did probably helped the knee heal – a 1970s form of physiotherapy by banana seat bike.
I cycled through my teens. I biked to football practice wearing my helmet and pads. I biked on dates. I biked to parties from which I biked home in various states of intoxication (which probably saved me from drunk driving). I had a few close calls, including almost being whacked by a car that had blazed through a yield sign, but I kept biking.
Then, in 1985, a friend of mine was struck by an 18-wheeler while cycling. He died. That was it for me.
I did not immediately swear off biking. It was not a dramatic reaction to trauma. My withdrawal happened unconsciously. Gradually. One day I woke up and realized that I had not ridden a bicycle in almost a decade. I’d ceased to engage in one of my primary modes of transportation. I wasn’t afraid of bicycles. I wasn’t cyclophobic. After my friend’s death, it had just never occurred to me to ride one. I was done.
There was one final attempt at reconciliation years later when I turned 30.
This was the moment, I decided, to start riding again and celebrated the big day by buying a new bicycle and taking it for a spin. Soon I would become a cyclist and whiz around the city freed of parking fees and traffic tickets. Not long into my first ride, my front tire caught in some streetcar tracks and I flipped over. That was it. I walked the thing home and later donated it to a charity auction. I got in my car and I’ve been there ever since – luckily I love cars and driving, so it’s not an entirely unhappy ending.
The challenge for cycling enthusiasts is to reach out to those who can still be salvaged. After all, the more people bike, the safer it becomes. There are many pent-up cyclists out there. People who want to exchange their cars keys for a bike lock but won’t. For instance, the Share the Road poll found that 68 per cent of Ontarians would prefer to cycle more often.
And yet – they’re frightened. Cyclists are hit every day. We all know a cyclist who has been in an accident of some kind. Yet statistically, you’re more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a bicycle accident and the health benefits far outweigh the risks. The fear, like all fear, is not rational; it’s visceral.
A car feels like an extension of your home. You go from one room to the next. It’s an agoraphobic sanctuary. When you are on a bike, you are exposed and you know it. You feel it. Encouragingly, every year more potential riders overcome their resistance and take to the roads. It’s progress.
I will never be among them. Each year, I wonder about getting back on that bike but never do.
I’m destined to be a cycling voyeur. I approve of it and I’d like to see more of it, I just don’t want to do any of it.
I have the same feeling about cycling that I get whenever I’m watching a movie from the 1940s and somebody gives some kid a horse for his birthday. You just know something terrible is going to happen. Ten minutes later, the kid is going over a jump crying, “Look at me, daddy!” and, well, you know the rest.
Still, sometimes when I’m stuck in traffic I look out my window and see a cyclist glide by with the wind at his back and the sun on his face. I think of my friend – his name was Chris, he was 17 – and I remember the joy he took in moving through the world. I see a glimmer of his hope and freedom on a stranger’s face and I watch it pass me by.
Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy