On the car-versus-bikes rhetoric it’s our civic leaders who have blood on their hands

While it’s easy to blame motorists for bad behaviour it’s really our civic leaders who have failed to protect cyclists and pedestrians from the dangers on the road

It all started on St. George just north of Bloor, coincidentally right across the street from where Dalia Chako, 58, was killed by a truck while riding her bike June 12, unleashing the latest car-versus-bike war of words.

The middle-aged man who just blew by me in his T-bird convertible seemed in a hurry, but morning rush being what it is in Toronto, there was nowhere to go when he reached the red light. I rolled up to him on my bike. He floored it as soon as the signal turned green.

When I caught up to him at the next red, I turned to him and smiled. “Vroom,” I said. It was my way of acknowledging his cool ride – and delivering an implicit message to, like, slow the fuck down, buddy. It went right over his head. He gunned it again on the green, this time driving dangerously into oncoming traffic to get around the car in front of him. Presumably, he wanted to be sure to shake me by the next traffic signal. 

Not all drivers feel the need, of course, to assert their authority over cyclists on the road. But those who do demonstrate how far we still have to go to change attitudes when it comes to sharing the pavement. For many motorists, the fact you may choose to ride a bike to work leads to all kinds of assumptions, including about your social status. 

Then I opened my email to this media advisory last week: “Bike lane divide: Canadians more likely to blame cyclists than drivers for conflict on the roads.”

That was the headline of an online survey released by Angus Reid on attitudes among Canadians toward conflicts between cyclists and drivers on the road. I haven’t trusted Angus Reid surveys since this one, but that’s another story.

Polls in general are a hoax. These days, their aim is to push a certain narrative more than reflect reality. Get enough of them out there purporting to draw a set conclusion and pretty soon people will start believing it. Angus Reid’s latest finger-pointing at cyclists in confrontations with motorists is just another example of how public opinion polls can be used to twist the truth.

Of course, changing the narrative wouldn’t be possible without media sharing the results. Enter the CBC, which was quick to use the poll to provide its readers with online fodder for its social media feeds.  

But take a closer look at Angus Reid’s survey and you will discover that what was measured is the perceptions of respondents when it comes to bike-car collisions. In other words, the views of the 5,400 people surveyed were not based on statistics or facts, but their impressions of the reality out there on the road.

So, not surprisingly, Angus Reid found that most Canadians, close to two-thirds, are of the view that cyclists are more often than not to blame for collisions with motorists. 

But statistics on actual collisions in Toronto reflect a different reality. The fact is that motorists are at fault in two-thirds of the roughly 1,200 car-bike collisions that are reported each year. Their single biggest cause: drivers failing to yield the right of way to cyclists. The most common types of collisions: motorists sideswiping cyclists, motorists door-prizing cyclists, motorists turning into cyclists’ path.

This is not to say that all cyclists are angels and all drivers devils. But the truth is, drivers are the culprits most of the time in bike-car collisions. And there are a few simple reasons for that. One is that there are a lot of distracted drivers out there – distracted driving is the number one cause of accidents these days. The other is that cyclists can ill-afford not to play it safe when they’re on the road. That’s because they know that if an accident were to occur, odds are they’d be the one who ends up dead. It’s a basic truism about cycling that motorists fail to understand. 

But while it’s easy to blame motorists for bad behaviour it’s really our civic leaders who have failed to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

There are as many cyclists and pedestrians killed by motorists as there are murdered by gun violence in Toronto every year. In other cities, politicians would be turfed from office or sued for neglect. In the Big Smoke, they get a pass.

Easy solutions like lowering the speed limit on main thoroughfares to 30 km/h to reduce the potential of death are given short shrift. And enforcement of existing laws – there have been plenty of videos recently showing drivers willy-nilly running red lights, for example – is practically non-existent.

So, every year it’s the same story: the warm weather arrives and a number of cyclists and pedestrians are killed by motorists on the increasingly mean streets of Toronto. Die-ins are staged at City Hall. And politicians who have otherwise been paying lip service to safety declare the need to do more. But nothing happens and we do it all over again. The road to hell (or death, in the case of cyclists) is paved with good intentions but little in the way of money.

After a spike in bike-related fatalities in June, city officials actually announced funding for a number of bike infrastructure and safety initiatives, some of which were approved months ago by council but for which there was no money allocated. At council last week, efforts to fast-track a number of safety measures were passed.  

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Toronto drafted a plan three years ago, Vision Zero, aimed at ending the bloodshed. But the councillor in charge of that file, Jaye Robinson, has been M.I.A.

Truth is, Robinson has been talking out of both sides on her mouth on road safety.

While other conservative councillors on the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Robinson chairs (most notably Giorgio Mammoliti and Etobicoke’s Stephen Holyday) have made a habit of being contemptuous of cycling advocates and getting in the way of building more bike infrastructure, Robinson has been more calculating.

Perhaps it’s that long-rumoured run for mayor that’s responsible for her ambivalence. Either way, the facts speak for themselves. More people are dying on Toronto’s streets than were three years ago when the Vision Zero plan was adopted, with last year being the highest since 2005, and this year on pace to surpass that. Red light cameras promised in school zones, a major piece of the plan, have yet to materialize.

The bike network envisioned decades ago is less than half realized. A pared-down version, promoted by cycling activists and approved by the city in 2015, has stalled. The divide between car-loving suburban councillors and those representing the downtown core seems wider than ever.

And then there’s Mayor John Tory, who has never been big on bike lanes. Sure, he supports them, but only “where they make sense,” is the way he has put it in the past, which is to say as long as they don’t mess with parking spaces.

It’s true that Tory threw some political weight behind the Bloor bike lane pilot project. But that’s only because it was the politically expedient thing to do. Which is to say, opposing the lanes risked trouble for him in downtown Toronto ridings come this fall’s election.

A big part of Tory’s election platform in 2014 was built around improving public transit and fighting congestion. On the former, we’ve gotten little, save for re-establishment of bus routes cancelled under Rob Ford. Tory’s vaunted Smart Track proposal, meanwhile, which piggybacked on the former Liberal  government’s GO Transit expansion plans, is going nowhere fast.

On Tory’s fight against congestion, we’ve gotten PR campaigns and symbolic gestures – namely, cops towing and ticketing cars in no-parking zones or blocking bike lanes. But the real money has flowed not to building safer streets, but to keeping up a two-kilometre stretch of the Gardiner at a cost of billions to Toronto taxpayers just so motorists from the burbs can save a few minutes on their commute.

The car remains king in Toronto, even though in the core, most people (some 75 per cent) choose to get around using transit, walking or riding a bike because, if you really want to beat congestion, it’s the smart way to go.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem. And that is that what drivers really need is not just an attitude adjustment, but to find alternative modes of transportation, like public transit, for example. The problem is that too many don’t want to sacrifice the convenience of jumping into their cars to get around, even if it means sitting in traffic jams for hours.  

Toronto’s streets are not getting any wider. And the number of cars on them is only increasing. So, until those who continue to rely on the car decide to make a lifestyle change, people will continue to get killed, politicians will continue to spin their wheels when it comes to finding lasting solutions, and specious public opinion polls will continue to blame cyclists for all of it. 

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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