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Cars vs. bikes: Can't we all just get along?

Bike riders have to realize that they are invisible to many drivers.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this year, I attended a conference called Changing Lanes. Organized by the Canadian Automobile Association, its goal was "Improving the Bike-Car Relationship on Canada's Roads." We don't normally associate the CAA with anything that has two wheels, but even this organization is recognizing that bicycles are increasingly becoming a part of the urban landscape.

So why not bring cyclists, motorists, decision-makers, and anyone else that's interested together in an effort to ameliorate the growing popularity of bicycles and all that goes with it? The talk was about revamping infrastructure, changing attitudes, discussing commercial opportunities, and attempting to bring motorists and cyclists to some sort of reciprocity.

Speakers at the event included law enforcement personnel – did you know that it's illegal for groups of cyclists in Canada to ride peloton-style? (That's when riders clump together and take up the entire road; according to Canadian law, they are supposed to ride single file at all times).

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There were also cycling advocates at the conference who think bicycle-friendly Holland and Denmark are the greatest things since sliced bread, and various politicians and stake-holders, each of whom had their own agenda.

As someone that has been on the receiving end of a careless driver's mistake, I have my own take on the relationship between cars, motorcycles and bicycles, and came away from the conference with a few thoughts of my own.

First and foremost, bike riders – motorized and otherwise – have to realize that they are invisible to many drivers.

According to a study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, motorists simply do not "see" motorcycles and bicycles in the same way they see cars. Because of their smaller size and different rates of speed, bikes simply do not register in the brains of many drivers. A neglectful driver may see a bike, but somehow, the message is lost along the way before his or her brain can do the right thing. This is especially true with older and younger drivers, and I have the scars to prove it.

So riders – both motorcyclists and cyclists – need to keep this in mind when they ride. One may be slower than the other, but in the eyes of motorists, they do not carry the same weight as a car. Ignore this at your peril.

Which leads me to my first suggestion for drivers: how about giving cyclists a break here? How about checking twice before you pull out into traffic, turn left, or open your car door? How about waiting for that extra half a second before you make your move? Not to mention giving cyclists a little elbow room.

And if you see a bike – human-powered or otherwise – think about the situation. The consequences of your neglect for riders are severe. In a nutshell, readjust your thinking. Bikes are here to stay, and there are going to be more of them as time goes by.

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If I had my way, every motorist in the world would have to spend at least a week on a bicycle and a motorcycle before they could get their driver's licence. Maybe then they'd see how dangerous it is out there.

As far as you hard-core cyclists are concerned, the best thing you can do is lose the attitude. Stop demonizing automobiles and acting like you have the moral high ground here. Riding a bike isn't class warfare, and it doesn't mean you're special, cooler than motorists, holier than thou, or above the rules that apply to the rest of us. Canada seems to have more than its share of in-your-face, militant cyclists who will only be happy when every single automobile in the world is vaporized. As far as they're concerned, automobiles are the source of all evil, and the sooner we get rid of them, the better.

But what about the single mom who has to drop off and pick up her kids at daycare every day, or the senior who relies on a car just to get the necessities of life, or the student who has to commute across town every day, or the tradesman that has to get to the job with a full load of tools and equipment?

In one form or another, cars are also here to stay and having bicyclists stage Critical Mass events – getting in everybody's way, giving motorists the finger, and stifling main routes of traffic downtown – doesn't help anybody.

I ride a bicycle as often as I can, but that doesn't mean I feel compelled to paint myself silver, wear funny clothes and block traffic.

That's right, Critical Massers, I'm talking to you. You've made your point; the authorities are listening and things are changing. Toronto and Vancouver have both installed bicycle lanes, with more to come, and things are better for riders than they used to be. Nonetheless, for the vast majority of people, bicycles remain discretionary transport and mainly enjoyed by young urbanites. In the depths of a Canadian winter, you can count the number of cyclists downtown on one hand, but cars are a constant.

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Just look at the numbers. How many people ride bikes and how many drive cars? By all means, build as many bike paths and rights of way as you can, but don't do it at the expense of motorists. The tail is wagging the dog in Canada these days, and commuters have to suffer because of the whining of a small group of zealots.

Which leads me to my final observation, and this is for the people who make decisions about cars and bikes. Try to remember that a car is not a luxury or an unnecessary evil. It is a necessity.

The vast majority of people can't get by without their cars and continually hassling motorists with punitive traffic fines, higher taxes, escalating gas prices, heightened law enforcement and convoluted city planning just makes things worse.

Enough already.

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