Riding high: how cyclists can make peace with motorists

While we’re waiting to get to a place where there’s room for all of us on the road, we have to find ways of not killing each other. Here’s a crash course on the art of riding as political resistance.



There’s a retrospective on the history of cycling in Toronto at the Market Gallery through November. Bike City: How Industry, Advocacy & Infrastructure Shaped Toronto’s Cycling Culture documents our evolution from muddy outpost to international hub for cycling.

From its beginnings as a manufacturing centre of the Comet High-Wheel in the 1890s to the ubiquitous CCM bicycle, Toronto is a cycling success story, although that’s not always easy to see, especially after another summer of road rage following the death of four cyclists in the span of a few weeks earlier this year.

Before the automobile took over and set in motion a 100-year war of words in the car-versus-bike debate, riding a bike was not only seen as the fastest way to get around the city but also the most fashionable. 

Then the car took over and Toronto, like other North American cities, paid homage to the new kings of the road by building massive highways. 

Toronto had its fair share of big-boss city fathers with aspirations to turn our city into another Los Angeles, where streetcars were literally dumped in the Pacific to make way for the auto revolution. Here, endless ribbons of concrete were being poured to herald the arrival of the car age, with the building of the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Expressway in short order.

Thankfully, city fathers didn’t completely get their way. Plans to build an expressway down Spadina were upended in 1971, thanks to urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs (who’d seen how car-centric planning was killing American cities) and the arrival of a growing consciousness around city planning on a human scale. Other schemes to criss-cross Toronto with four expressways, including one to Scarborough, never got off the ground.

But Toronto’s embrace of the car continues (billions are being spent to keep the Gardiner from crumbling), and cities we once emulated are now miles ahead of us when it comes to building bike infrastructure that will pave the way for a more sustainable future. 

The angst that gripped the city after the spate of cyclist deaths earlier this summer has subsided, but the car-versus-bike battle continues with Doug Ford’s cancellation of the province’s cap-and-trade program, which would have poured millions into bike infrastructure in cities across the province. 

It’s still a jungle out there. And competition for precious pavement is only getting hairier with more bikes and cars – not to mention bigger and more powerful e-bikes and motorized longboards – entering the fray. 

In many ways, roads users are continuing to be held hostage by bad planning decisions of the past. This year’s municipal election may change that, with the city’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat running for mayor on a city-building agenda against John Tory.

But while we’re waiting to get to a place where there’s room for all of us on the road, we have to find ways of not killing each other. 

The following is offered as a practical (and philosophical) guide to cyclists on how to make peace with motorists. Don’t take it as gospel. Others more expert than I have written books on the subject. Consider it a crash course from a life-long cyclist who has experienced his fair share of run-ins with motorists and learned a few lessons on the art of riding as political resistance. 

Head case 

I’m going to get flak for saying this, but never get on your bike without your lid on. 

Many cycling advocates will disagree. They think that wearing a helmet sends the wrong message that cycling is dangerous and may therefore discourage others from riding. I’ve never understood the logic since wearing a bike helmet is required by law if you’re under 18 years of age. You’d never drive a car, for example, without wearing a seat belt and bikes are considered vehicles, too, under the Highway Traffic Act (HTA).

The harsh truth is, Toronto is no Amsterdam, where separated bike lanes are the rule, not the exception. And while wearing a helmet is not always going to save you, it does send a strong message to motorists that you’re serious about road safety. 

One good turn 

Conflict between cyclists and motorists grabs all the headlines, but there are thousands of positive interactions every day on the mean streets of Toronto that we never hear about. 

Acknowledgement goes a long way to encouraging good behaviour and building positive relations with motorists. I like to give a thumbs-up to those who do me a good turn. A thank-you helps amp the good vibes, too. 

I may be delusional, but the idea is that every good deed is repaid to someone else down the road, and hopefully changes the conversation

Sign language

Nothing pisses off cyclists more than motorists who don’t signal. Same is true the other way around. On the road, the last thing you want are surprises. Many motorists are much more willing to cut you some slack when you signal. 

Bike bells are mandatory for cyclists and they’re good for letting those around you know you’re coming, but you should also never be afraid to communicate verbally with both motorists and other cyclists, like when you’re passing or have to take evasive action. It’s a good habit to get into.

Sidewalk scuffle 

Riding on sidewalks is another no-no for cyclists eager not to alienate pedestrians in their mutual battle with motorists – the perceived real enemies on the road.

Advocates advise against it, but it’s the only option in many parts of the suburbs where there are no bike lanes and traffic on major streets can be intimidating. In the core, the ebb and flow of traffic being what it is in the big city, sometimes getting from point A to point B safely requires taking refuge among pedestrians. 

Contrary to popular belief, riding your bike on the sidewalk is not illegal. There is no stipulation against it under the HTA. But city bylaws restrict bikes on sidewalks to those who are 14 or younger. 

The point is that there’s a right way and wrong way to navigate sidewalks when you absolutely have to. Rule number one: do not ride like a bat out of hell. Rule number two: slow to walking speed when in the vicinity of pedestrians, especially older folks. Rule number three: dismount in tight spots. 

When the music’s over

There’s nothing that can get you juiced for the ride home after a long day than some good tunes, especially if your ride includes a steep hill or two that require some inspiration to get over. 

But hearing is just as important as seeing when it comes to operating your bike.

If you can’t hear the whoosh of the wind behind your ears, then your tunes are cranked too high. 

Idaho rules 

Torontonians can be a little uptight about rules. There are no shortage of people all too ready to point out when cyclists have broken them. In Idaho, they’ve adopted a more laissez-faire approach, allowing cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs and red lights like stop signs: cyclists can proceed when the coast is clear even if the light hasn’t yet changed to green. Cyclists in Idaho are also allowed to ride on sidewalks. It’s all in the interests of optimizing traffic flow – and safety. 

It’s also in recognition of the fact that there’s an inherent freedom that attracts people to riding in the first place, and that as long as we’re not messing with other people’s safety, then taking a little latitude here and there is fair game. Toronto, we need an attitude adjustment.

Advice for beginners 

There are a lot of bad drivers on the road. And they only seem to be getting worse. According to a recent U of T study, most drivers don’t even bother to check their blindspot for cyclists.

But it’s also true that riding on main streets with no bike lanes can be challenging even for seasoned cyclists. It doesn’t have to be. 

Good drivers will look in their side and rear view mirrors every few seconds to keep tabs on where they are in relation to everyone else. Cyclists should do the same. Taking evasive action is easier when you don’t have to look to your left, right or behind you to know what’s there.

If you’re still not feeling that confident in the saddle, it’s a good idea to map your ride. 

We may be short on bike lanes, but the city does boast an extensive network of blue-signed routes through residential neighbourhoods that will get you where you are going. 

For the more adventurous, Toronto’s ravine system can provide a scenic – albeit less direct – way to work, as well as a respite from the all-consuming hustle on the streets. The Don Valley, for example, has developed into a thoroughfare of sorts for those navigating from parts of North York.

If you’re new to cycling, group rides are a great way to get acquainted with riding on main streets. There are also a number of courses offered through various organizations to acquaint you with the finer points of getting around on two wheels. 

Go with the contraflow

Gloria Steinem famously said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Fish don’t ride bikes. But cyclists have been known to make like a fish and ride “upstream” against traffic. And while the practice is frowned upon in Toronto, people in the country do it all the time because it’s safer than to have your back turned to traffic. 

In Toronto, it’s hard not to find yourself going against the flow in the downtown core where one-way streets are everywhere. The city is recognizing this and taking steps to build more contraflow lanes. Shaw, for example, has become an integral part of the city’s bike network in the west end.

Contraflow lanes also reduce the risk of road hazards, like being sideswiped or door-prized, since motorists can see you coming. 

Let it ride

Consider every encounter you have with a motorist a teachable moment. Gentle persuasion usually works better than verbal confrontation. But you’re never going to change everyone’s mind. Many motorists still view cyclists as the enemy, or underclass. Learn to give way. It’s not worth the aggravation or risk not to. And slow down. Speed kills more than anything. 

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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