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Bicycle lanes are suddenly the concept du jour in many Canadian cities, and most certainly, in Toronto, especially in the downtown core, where I live.
I approve. I applaud. It’s a darn good idea – good for the environment, a good way to commute, a good way to get some exercise and a breath of fresh air, and an excellent way to reduce pressure on the public transportation system. I am happy to see my tax dollars used for this laudable purpose.
But there is one key element missing: taming cyclists. Insisting on their understanding that bicycle lanes are for them, but the sidewalk (a.k.a. the “S” lane) is not.
To be fair, there are some cyclists who pay attention, who use the lanes built just for them, who signal right and left, who give right-of-way to pedestrians on crosswalks, who do not whip on and off sidewalks with abandon. I thank them. Sadly, they are few in number in my neighbourhood, which, by the way, has several busy hospitals.
I no longer own a car. In fact, I no longer even have a driver’s licence. Mostly, I walk because I enjoy it and because I can. I’m a runner, too. (Thirteen marathons, one 50 K Ultra, and the medals to prove it.) Well, running is what I call it, but since it’s barely above walking pace, most would not. Still, I digress.
When I run, I pay close attention to the rules. I stick to the sidewalks. I stop at red lights. I look left and right and left again before crossing any street. I pause when I see a moving vehicle coming in my direction. I often wave drivers through. I don’t jaywalk. I give right-of-way to people with assistive devices and lively little children who are playing superhero or chasing pigeons.
Nor do I step into the bicycle lanes unless I see some sharp object that’s bound to bring a cyclist to grief. Then I look carefully, move quickly, retrieve and safely dispose of that jagged metal or large shard of broken glass. Like my mother, I just can’t help but tidy up.
None of this impresses the hordes of cyclists who regard sidewalks as just another racing lane. Might be held up for 10 seconds by a streetcar? Looking for a street address? Just going two doors down? Or, horrors, have to cross the street on foot to reach the cycling lane going in your direction? Hell, no! So many cyclists just whiz past those foot-bound nuisances (like me) cluttering up the sidewalk landscape.
And when one of those foot-bound nuisances (like me) points to the lovely, purpose-built, empty cycling lane running parallel to the sidewalk and says something like, “Young man, please walk on the sidewalk, ride on the road,” I receive one of the following: a blank look, the middle finger or, more commonly, a verbal riposte. The favourite? “Shut up, you f-----g fat-a---d b---h.” (For help decoding, ask any woman.)
I’ve been threatened verbally and physically. Yes, actually pinned with a bicycle against the wall of a building on Parliament Street in Toronto by a strong young man who demanded to know who I thought I was to tell him he couldn’t ride on the sidewalk. After all, there were cars on the road!
My greatest defender (and best defence) was my husband, especially as he aged and began to use a walker. Even better were those rare excursions when he would consent to a transport wheelchair. Then even the most self-absorbed sidewalk cyclist would eventually notice, pause in mid-insult and depart.
Sometimes, the encounters are amusing.
One expressed shock. “But I’m a senior!” she cried. So? That means you’re not a child under 14 and, in my city, allowed to be on the sidewalk. Helpful hint: Stick to cycling lanes. You’ll find them free and clear.
Another man scolded me: “You’re just an [expletive] Karen!” That one made me laugh. Let’s get this straight: I’m selfish, self-entitled and self-absorbed because I expect to walk in safety on a sidewalk as legally mandated, and I object to a cyclist who nearly knocks me down when breaking the law by riding on that sidewalk. The logic – and the value judgment – escape me.
Something else remarkable is how few other pedestrians notice. Many don’t because they’ve got their noses glued to their Twitter feeds. Those who do generally give me a look of alarm and scuttle away as if I’m the problem. This is especially likely if I’m pushing my grocery cart (which is often).
Rarely, and I treasure these moments, someone will say, “Good for you!” or signal thanks with a nod and a wave. I feel slightly less like a voice in the wilderness. On occasion, we’ll have a brief, commiseratory conversation.
So, what are the options, really? Keep building bicycle lanes, but accept that just building them isn’t enough. You can build them, but they still won’t come. Why can’t we add a dollop of public shaming? Social media has to be good for something other than just idle gossip. And why not insist on licences and licence plates for cyclists? What about mandatory, livestream webcams on every bicycle or using traffic-flow cameras to catch the offenders? Let’s issue really big tickets. Eventually these silly, selfish cyclists will grow up inside as well as out and perhaps, finally, grasp the point.
I admit this cri de coeur is likely to fail. But perhaps the next time someone you really care about, such as your child or your grandmother, is scared silly by one of the swooshing sidewalk bullies, you’ll understand and take up the pledge:
“Walk on the sidewalk! Ride on the road!”
Marion E. Raycheba lives in Toronto.