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Marcus Gee

Wake up, cyclists: Canada is no bike-lane utopia Add to ...

At a party the other night, someone I respect more or less said that the bike courier who lost his life on Toronto's Bloor Street this week had it coming. The Michael Bryant incident has exposed the tension between cyclists and motorists on the streets of Canadian cities in a most horrible and shocking way. A long-running, undeclared war has broken into the open.

Cyclists are feeling threatened, vulnerable, angry. They believe they are under attack by heedless, arrogant drivers who think they own the streets. Motorists are just as mad. They think they are being demonized by a militant minority of hard-core cyclists with no respect for the rules of the road.

In Toronto the cyclists call for more bike paths, more sanctions on negligent drivers, a Toronto made safe and secure for what they consider a superior mode of transport. The motorists want an end to the so-called War on the Car, an imaginary conspiracy by bike-loving city officials.

Neither side is going to get its way. There are no winners in this war. The idea that Toronto can be transformed into a kind of Scandinavian paradise for cyclists - Copenhagen by the lake - is a fantasy. Toronto's crowded main streets, where much of the jostling between bikes and cars happens, already have to accommodate car traffic, bikes, buses, streetcars, parked cars and crossing pedestrians. Even with the fortune it would cost, creating a whole network of dedicated, segregated paths with their own rules and traffic lights is not practical in this city.

It's equally deluded to think, as many motorists seem to, that cyclists are going to dry up, blow away and leave the roads to their rightful owners. More and more people are discovering the convenience and freedom of commuting by bike. The cycle-to-work movement is a boon to the environment. The city is right to support it with sheltered bike-parking stations and more bike lanes where feasible, if not the dreamy Danish kind.

No, cyclists and motorists are just going to have to face it: they are stuck with each other and they have to make it work. That is not as impossible as it seems.

I ride my bike to work year round in downtown Toronto and, for the most part, it is easy and safe as long as you watch what you are doing. Scores of others ride along with me, right up against the traffic streaming into downtown.

Where bike traffic is heaviest, most motorists are used to cyclists and have learned to cope. Most cyclists have learned how to stay out of their way.

What threatens it for both sides is a tiny minority.

On the biking side, they are the hell-for-leather types who weave in and out of traffic, blast through red lights and bang their fists on cars that get in their way. They give civilized cyclists a bad name.

On the driving side, they are the clueless ones who park in bike lanes, swing open their doors without looking, travel along with their tires almost hugging the curb and honk or holler at you for daring to block their sacred progress for a millisecond.

But most of us have found a modus vivendi . All it takes is a little mutual respect. Motorists need to look in their side mirror when they turn right, check before they open their doors and keep in mind that they are sitting in a ton of hurtling metal. Cyclists need to ride sensibly instead of recklessly, wear lights after dark and try not to break every traffic law on the books.

This is a real test of our civic character. In the same way that the flood of immigrants to Canadian cities tests the forbearance of those who already live in them, the flood of bikes and cars along urban streets tests our capacity to coexist safely and peacefully at close quarters.

If that sounds naive or idealistic - why can't we all just get along? - then let's remember that a city is an idealistic enterprise. Millions of people with different backgrounds, jobs, temperaments and modes of transport are thrown together in a crowded space. To survive, they need common rules, a code of etiquette, a sense of tolerance.

That is what we are lacking in the fraught interaction between two wheels and four. Though they travel side by side, cyclists and motorists seem to inhabit separate, hostile, uncomprehending worlds. In city streets, they almost literally bump up against each other. Somehow, we have learn to bump along together.

 

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