I was almost hit recently on my bicycle. I’d be more unsettled if it wasn’t a regular thing to have a near-miss while cycling in my car-centric city. It’s becoming the norm now, almost white noise, for me. What’s more upsetting was that my two little boys, 1½ and four years old, were riding innocently on the back of the bicycle. How life can change in an instant.
As an emergency physician who has been practising for almost a decade, half of that in a downtown Toronto trauma hospital, I’ve seen what happens when 6,000 pounds of metal have a showdown with 200 pounds of human and bicycle. Spoiler alert: The car always wins.
If the cyclist is lucky, maybe they just fall off, fracture their radius and smash their face, with resultant lacerations and bruising. Without the protection of a bike lane, another common occurrence is getting “doored” – when a motorist opens their car door on a passing cyclist. The cyclist smashing into the door goes from 30 kilometres an hour to zero in milliseconds. Brain or spinal cord injuries are not rare, lifelong disability a possibility. Oops.
But the worst ones I see are the direct collisions, often as motorists turn into a cyclist’s path without seeing them. That tremendous force can cause femurs or tibia to fracture and stick out of skin, collapse lungs, rupture spleens, perforate gut. Sometimes the cyclist can be dragged for blocks without the motorist even noticing.
How horrific the injuries I have seen and treated, often as part of an expert trauma team, in the ER. The tragic thing is that almost all of these injuries are completely preventable with government action and modern transportation infrastructure.
Since 2019, my family has lived in Oak Bay, a municipality adjacent to the city of Victoria to the west. It has been exciting to see Victoria rapidly expand its cycling infrastructure, known as an AAA system (All Ages and Activities, developed in Vancouver to encourage cycling, walking, wheelchairs, etc). The combination of protected bike lanes and traffic-calmed bike ways has made the B.C. capital the premier cycling city in Canada and has immeasurably increased our quality of life. Contrast this with Oak Bay, one of Canada’s richest communities: Other than a few painted lines for 600 metres on one of their busiest car routes, the local council has done virtually nothing. It’s both comical and depressing to look at Google Maps and see the black hole of nothingness that is the Oak Bay bike system while the surrounding area is teeming with glorious routes.
The local government, like those of so many cities, has resisted building a biking system for a myriad of convenience issues, such as losing extra street parking. Other strawman arguments, such as decreasing local business traffic or hampering pedestrian safety, are often espoused. In fact, businesses on bike routes have been shown to thrive in the majority of cases, and an AAA network specifically targets increased access and safety for pedestrians in addition to alternative modes of transport, including those for persons with disabilities.
Bicycle advocates are commonly labelled a “loud minority,” a term that as a premise should be rejected. Should we only protect these people if they reach a 51-per-cent majority? A healthy democracy does not need majority rule to protect its vulnerable citizens. As with many issues, behind every “loud” advocate there stands a silent faction that amplifies the numbers. In 2017, Victoria found that 10 per cent of people transit via bicycle (likely much higher now). How many more people would choose to cycle if the proper infrastructure were there to support it?
Why does my family choose to cycle? It’s a quality-of-life issue for us. Firstly, it’s healthy. The physical benefits are obvious. Mentally, it just makes us happier to cycle rather than drive. I arrive at work with a smile on my face, having cycled on a trail and avoided the bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic on the highway at 5 p.m. On top of that, it can be faster! Factoring in traffic and parking, we can often cycle to our destination more quickly than a car. We have a rule, though: Any cool diggers, work sites or animals (e.g., our neighbourhood owl) pointed out by our little boys must be immediately investigated up close. That isn’t easy to do with a car. Our baby boomer parents have even jumped on the bandwagon; all three of them – in their 60s and 70s – have started commuting via e-bike.
And finally, you’d be a hermit not to notice the country literally being on fire. We’ve taken four cars off the road in our family alone. We notice more and more young families commuting via cargo bike in our neighbourhood. Government incentive programs are being rolled out to get people out of cars and onto bikes. Every bit counts. With population behavioural change, this is what will help us as a society fight climate change.
What frustrates me are governments that give inconvenience arguments the same weight as the need to prevent injury and death and to transition to clean modes of transportation. How many preventable tragedies have to happen before governments take action and protect their citizens? How many more record-breaking summers do we need to experience before we take serious climate action? Of course, there is an opportunity cost to any action, but surely protecting my cycling family is a good trade-off for losing the extra street parking for your party. In the meantime, every ER shift, I fear the prospect of treating the broken bodies of my partner or two little boys after being struck by a car.
I am not an infrastructure expert or a city planner. But I am a medical expert and can attest that physical barriers for bike lanes (instead of a line painted on the shoulder of a busy road) or traffic-calmed bicycle ways will prevent injury and death. Every time a cyclist lands in the ER with a smashed face, gets dragged underneath a car or is struck and killed by a truck, I want our politicians to look themselves in the mirror and swallow that guilty pill: This is not poor luck or bad drivers, it’s bad infrastructure. Save your thoughts and prayers – and do something about it.
Brian Wall is an emergency physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at UBC. He lives with his partner, two boys and dog in Victoria.
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