"Sir. Sir," Astrid Idlewild says to the man in the car, calmly but firmly. "You're talking to a fucking consultant."
The driver - who minutes earlier had zipped headlong down a snowy street, coming dangerously close to brushing Idlewild's bike - had made the mistake of trying to lecture her on the adequacy of her vehicle. But Idlewild knows what she's doing and doesn't take kindly to factually incorrect condescension. Plus, she's recording the whole incident on video.
Since late December, Idlewild has been riding with an ION Air Pro high-definition camera strapped to her helmet and posting her more notable experiences online.
Earlier in the month, she was allegedly assaulted by a motorist at Bloor and Concord, and then waited three hours for police to arrive after she called 911. "And then a couple weeks later," she says, "another SUV tried to run me off the road multiple times willfully, and he knew what he was doing. My best friend was like, 'Well, I know what I'm going to get you for a winter gift, a holiday gift, so...'"
On her velo tastic YouTube channel, Idlewild has thus far posted videos of: two extended arguments with misbehaving motorists; an e-bike driving at night without its lights on; an e-bike unsafely weaving in and out of traffic; a dangerously unlit railway crossing that caused her to fall a number of times; and a cyclist running a red light on St. Clair West. She has also shared a couple instances of exemplary motorist behaviour, as well as a 15-minute, unedited ride to show that her travels are generally more pleasant and uneventful than a cursory look at her channel might suggest.
Some may have drawn conclusions about her based on unflattering stereotypes of hectoring cyclists. But to reduce Idlewild to a self-righteous cartoon only serves to trivialize the conditions that cyclists face every single day, as well as her efforts to do something about it.
Idlewild got her first bicycle at the age of 4, and her first ten-speed by the age of 14. By 15, she was riding on major streets in Texas, where she grew up. She owned a car until the early 2000s and makes a point of mentioning that she "was aware of what obligations you have when you're behind a different mode of transportation."
Idlewild arrived in Toronto in 2005 to study Urban and Canadian Studies at U of T, during which years she worked as a courier. That's when she "learned how to yell."
"I learned how to actually get loud vocal chords from being a courier," she says in an extended interview at the NOW offices late last week. "I'd never had that problem before, in all the years of cycling previous. I'd never actually ever found myself having much, if any, kind of interaction with drivers. There'd be close calls, and my heart would be going, and there'd be adrenaline. But it wasn't really until I moved to Toronto and I was working as a courier that I started to learn how to defend myself and speak up for myself." Yelling isn't "a failsafe," she says, but she does believe it's helped her avoid some impacts involving near-doorings, likely sideswipes, and other close calls.
In 2009, she had just started a Masters in Urban Planning at McGill when, "en route to a morning seminar, there was a car that went through a red light and struck me from the side, and I was in hospital for 10 days" with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. She had been accustomed to riding in terrible conditions in Toronto, but this made her want to stop cycling in Montreal. "And it also provoked me, as a planning student, to look at how things had been deployed in Montreal differently and why things were arguably more dangerous for multi-modal travel."
Throughout our conversation, Idlewild frequently drifts back to topics of planning and policy, outlining in detail how our current provincial regulations fail to balance the needs of all road users, and suggesting best practices from other jurisdictions. (Variable speed limit signs are one thing she mentions; the European custom of drivers using their right hand to open their car doors is another.) She's not about creating change through shouting; she's about creating change through legislation. The videos aren't just acts of showmanship; they're examples of day-to-day survival tactics.
Following the death of Jenna Morrison in November 2011, Idlewild stamped buttons with the slogan "Ride Occupy Survive." She also began studying Ontario's Highway Traffic Act - which she's taken to citing during encounters with motorists who have misconceptions about her rights and their obligations on the road. "I looked into just specifically how Ontario's [laws] varied from the Quebec ones that I had been studying there, and looking at specific mechanics of what is a cyclist allowed to do, how is a cyclist allowed to be seen. So the day [Morrison] was killed, I wrote a piece that got a lot of attention, because I was trying to advance the idea that as a cyclist, you do have a right to the space around you - and that is a safety space, and that's something that needs to be respected by other motorists and whatnot."
And when she feels that motorists are not respecting that space, she's not shy about letting them know. "I wouldn't call it aggressive. I would call it defensive cycling, I would call it asserting my space as a commuter, legally."
Nor is she under any particular illusion that her actions succeed at converting obstinate drivers. "Most of the time, it's basically 'Fuck you, stupid cyclist,'" she says, when asked what she imagines motorists are thinking as they depart from an encounter with her.
"And it was evident last Friday with the woman who, you know, buzzed me very close and almost hit me, just so she could jump in front of me at a light. I mean, it was kind of like, 'Are you that impatient, that you're going to actually jeopardize your child's life and hit another car head-on just so you can get in front of a bicyclist that you don't think should be there?' I'm not really expecting that I'm going to have a positive impact on someone like that. There have been occasions where people genuinely do make a mistake, and they will profusely apologize, and I'm like, 'No, it's okay, just please look through your side-view mirror, before you make a move like that.' And those go over fairly okay, but I would say those are far in the minority of the kind of interactions I've had with drivers who almost hit me, for example. And sometimes I think if you explain to them patiently, maybe they'll be steamy about it, but then maybe it'll come around, like 'Okay, maybe this makes some sense.' But I don't expect that. I'm not trying to assume that if every cyclist started doing this, that everybody would slowly start to change. But I feel like if I don't say anything, that they're just gonna walk over me anyway. And I have to pick which confrontations to deal with or not."
The ION Air Pro weighs 4.5 oz and shoots high-definition video at 720 and 1080p. It has a wifi option that allows you to wirelessly transmit recordings to a phone or a laptop.
Although Idlewild delights in showing off the device and its features, she is unable to consider it a toy. The product's website advertises it as a gadget for recording extreme-sports escapades, but for Idlewild, it's more for insurance than adventure. She hopes the camera will put an end to he-said she-said situations in which police give more credence to the motorist's side of a story by default.
By serving to "explain what words cannot," she says the camera "helps to illustrate the conditions, it helps illustrate what actually did happen, so that when you're in a first-person perspective, you can see just how close things came. In that sense, it's sort of a sense of comfort...knowing that if something were to happen to me - or if I were to be killed..."
Her cautiousness turns to fear. "I'll be straight up, it could happen. It could happen next week, it could happen 20 years from now. And it almost did happen. That the evidence would be there, in that little SD card that's buried in there. Even if the thing got crushed, I'm sure the SD card would be still in there somewhere, and they could actually use that to see what happened."
It doesn't make her feel any safer on the roads. But it does serve as a security camera and "also a kind of cover-your-ass" feature.
Now that it's winter, Idlewild finds herself getting in at least one confrontation a week. She acknowledges this is probably more than the average cyclist, because she's "taken to heart the structure of what the Highway Traffic Act mandates."
But she is intent on not letting what happened to her in Montreal ever happen to her again. "And so," she says, "I'd rather be alive and get yelled at, than be back in hospital again, or be dead - and I'm sick of seeing people dying, of all walks of life."