I recently toasted my 50th anniversary as a bicyclist in Toronto with a full measure of self-satisfaction. I might just have easily saluted my persistence as a pedestrian, or equally my long tenure as an English speaker. But these days there seems to be a new moral valence attached to the formerly everyday act of riding a bicycle, and an open invitation to smugness is irresistible to anyone who can count as high as 50.
So here’s to me!
I must say I never anticipated the accolades my fellow citizens suddenly decided to bestow on me so long into my two-wheeled career. At first I was surprised and a little embarrassed when people who saw me toting a helmet in office land would say, “Good for you!” Nothing about me or my lifestyle had changed – I can barely remember not riding a bike – but suddenly I was saving the planet.
And I lapped it up, advancing from unambitious enthusiast to earnest advocate, eagerly swinging a cudgel in the War on the Car.
But now the cars are fighting back, and with firepower the armour of smugness is powerless to resist. Two already notorious events this week have demonstrated the naked vulnerability of cyclists in traffic: the horrific death of young mother Jenna Morrison, five months pregnant, under the wheels of a truck on Dundas Street West; and the bizarre case of a driver, enraged by a cyclist “blocking” his lane while turning onto Harbord Street, who chased her onto the sidewalk in his car and knocked her down.
The sheer volume of online commentary about Ms. Morrison’s death attests to how fraught the confrontation has become. Amid the outcry, sensible suggestions about practical responses – especially the issue of mandating side guards on large trucks – are overwhelmed and enveloped by a toxic atmosphere of recrimination.
“It is very hard to legislate against stupid behaviour,” one commented, rejecting calls for side guards. “The woman caused her own death by trying to beat the truck,” another agreed. “The roads were made for cars and trucks not bicycles,” wrote yet another. “When you bike riders start paying the appropriate road taxes and insurances your [sic]more than welcome to the road,” he added. “Until then stay off.”
Such views could be dismissed as garden-variety Internet evil were they not also expressed so often by members of the ruling majority in Mayor Rob Ford's city hall. Indeed it was former councillor Ford himself who got the whole blame-the-victim backlash going when he notoriously shed crocodile tears for cyclists killed by trucks and cars, adding “but it's their own fault at the end of the day.”
Such are the perils of fighting the good fight. People fight back, and their rage is real. Simple efforts to improve public safety become ideological Armageddons. Cars leap sidewalks to mow down uppity cyclists. And rather than fulfilling long-standing, rational plans to accommodate the number of cyclists in Toronto, council is mulling new ways to repress and punish them.
The more bicycling becomes the “right thing to do,” it seems, the more that doing it becomes a dangerous provocation. Everybody is angry. Half the people who say “Good for you” at the sight of a bike helmet actually mean, “Bully for you, you planet-saving prig.” And once behind the wheel, they get their revenge.
That's one reason I rarely wear a helmet any more, which is bound to be the second thing newscasters will mention in the event that my legs are crushed under the wheels of a 12-tonne truck. When the Toronto Sun begins referring to cyclists as “helmet heads,” de-personalizing individuals to make them easier to hate, the uniform becomes uncomfortable.
Things seemed to be going so well before this War on the Bicycle broke out. Granted, riding a bicycle in Toronto 30 years ago was vastly more dangerous than it is today. Drivers then had no clue. They squeezed, cut off and clipped cyclists heedlessly. But as more people began to cycle, drivers' awareness grew and their behaviour changed. Many of today’s drivers are cyclists as well, far more likely to share the road, yield to bicycles, even to check their mirrors before swinging open their doors while parked.
Back in the pre-Ford golden age, policy and practice marched together. Toronto was a pioneer in accommodating cyclists. Bicycling magazine actually named Toronto North America's best city for cycling 15 years ago – an honour unimaginable today.
Today, Toronto is the cycling collision capital of Canada, according to its own study. Even more distressing is an overall traffic-injury rate – of pedestrians, drivers, passengers and cyclists – that, in 2010, was twice that of Montreal, Calgary or Edmonton, more than three times that of Vancouver. What's remarkable is 21st-century Toronto's willingness to accept traffic carnage in general – an attitude now vigorously justified by the growing legion of bicycle haters.
You could write a book documenting the reasons behind that change: In the process, cyclists became targets in a culture war raging above and beyond ordinary road-level reality, where the hazards are streetcar tracks and cube vans.
And inevitably, many cyclists welcomed the battle, returning fire on the same terms. They paste their bikes with self-congratulatory stickers, brazenly “salmon” against oncoming traffic, flip birds and bang hoods.
Are there more idiots than ever riding bicycles in Toronto? It's undeniable. But God does not distribute His idiots disproportionately, according to their choice of transportation. And idiots on bicycles are largely harmless. The truly dangerous idiots – the ones Toronto is unaccountably willing to tolerate, given its disgraceful traffic safety record – are the ones driving.
As annoying as the proliferation of idiots on bicycles may be – both to motorists and to other cyclists who get lumped together with them – it should be seen for what it is: a simple function of more bicycles. A good thing.
Or not, if you prefer. Because in the end, morality doesn't matter. Bicycles will continue to swarm the city in ever-greater numbers. They are inevitable because they are useful. As for the good of the planet, said orb would probably be better off today if nobody had ever mentioned that bit.