Mean Streets

My daily bike ride from Bathurst and the 401 to NOW’s offices at Church and Shuter is a 25-kilometre round trip, long enough to encounter the good, the bad and the ugly of city cycling. Most of the time it’s the ugly. 

Toronto’s streets have never been meaner. The deaths of four cyclists since the end of May is evidence enough. 

And I don’t mind saying I find myself retreating to the sidewalk more than ever to avoid confrontations with motorists or getting run off the road. (Here’s looking at you, licence number BDTP 562.) Pedestrians don’t seem to mind if you give them the right of way. They’re getting mowed down at a steady clip, too (51 last year alone, almost as many as Toronto’s 57 homicides). We both belong to that group now known as “vulnerable road users.” I can’t trust motorists to respect my space. And I don’t want to get killed.

If that sounds melodramatic, you’ve probably never experienced how small you feel when a 10-ton cement truck is barrelling up behind you, the roar of its engine so loud you wonder if you and your bike will get caught up in the turbulence. When’s the last time four cops were killed in the line of duty in the span of a few weeks? It’s sad, and terrifying, how little regard people seem to have for each other. This is not a sob story. It’s the reality. 

If I wore a sign on my back – “Father of three boys” or “Please don’t kill me, I’m trying to get where I’m going, just like you” – would I be seen as less of a cipher? Cycling here can be so dehumanizing. Seventy-three per cent of Torontonians say it’s lack of bike infrastructure that keeps them from cycling. 

For every act of kindness, or just consideration, there are two to make you lose faith in humankind. Which is why I now avoid the major arterials if I can. 

Lately, I’ve been drawn to David Balfour Park, down the big hill that runs from the top of the Rosehill Reservoir south of St. Clair through the ravine to Mount Pleasant, and from there to Roxborough and Wrentham, where in mid-May cyclist Roger du Toit was hit by a Toyota 4Runner, dying from his injuries two weeks later. 

I imagine what those final few seconds before du Toit was hit must have been like, his shock at the realization that this event could end his life. 

A CityNews video shot at the scene shortly after the collision showed du Toit’s helmet in the middle of the road, his bike tossed on a lawn some 15 metres away, the vehicle parked a fair distance down the hill from the intersection, its passenger-side mirror knocked off. 

The police say du Toit ran the stop sign, but it’s rarely one variable that causes an accident. Traffic is a fluid thing, and it’s usually a chain reaction that leads to a collision. Drivers are usually the only witnesses in fatal collisions with cyclists, and unless alcohol is involved or it’s a hit-and-run, charges are rarely laid. Why do cyclists sometimes seem so angry? Because we get no respect. Not from motorists on the street. Not in the courts.

That du Toit was a respected architect and member of the community, not your stereotypical road warrior, didn’t protect him. Toronto and East York Community Council voted in February to install all-way stop signs at the corner where du Toit was killed, but city crews didn’t put them up until June, after publicity about his death and pressure from local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office. Cars continued to ignore the stop signs in the days after they were installed.

On June 19, cyclists staged a die-in at City Hall at which the names of all those who’ve lost their lives while cycling this year were read out. More than 150 bikers showed up to demand the city adopt a zero-tolerance policy on road fatalities, boost the annual budget for cycling to $20 million and build a minimum grid of protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards.

We’ve made demands for more and better bike infrastructure for decades. Shortly after the die-in, Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists tweeted a photo from a die-in on Spadina in 1993, when Metro Council was spending $140 million on a revamp of the street that included no plans for bike lanes or reducing the speed limit. Narrow bike lanes were put in for a time and then removed.

Truth be told, this city has proved itself woefully incapable of delivering. The question is, what do we do in the meantime? 

Reducing speed limits on local roads, as Toronto and East York Community Council voted to do last month, is a good start. But what about the major north-south and east-west arterials into the core that have no bike lanes, where the dangers posed by speeding cars are exponentially higher? 

Environmental lawyer Albert Koehl, a force behind Bells on Bloor, argues that lower maximums on major arterials from the current 60 km/h to 40 km/h are inevitable. 

He says he’s sure it will happen. The prevailing view that cyclist and pedestrian deaths are “the price we have to pay for a modern transportation system is ludicrous. 

“We are finally paying attention to a totally unacceptable consequence of our transport system [death and injury] that is largely the result of cars built for size, speed and rapid acceleration sharing space with vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists.” 

There’s some evidence to support Koehl’s claim that a change in consciousness is taking place at the political level. 

The province passed legislation in June, the Making Ontario’s Roads Safer Act, requiring motorists to stay one metre away when passing cyclists, when possible. It also adds demerit points for drivers who door cyclists. 

Last week, city council voted to ask the province to study imposing stiffer penalties, all the way up to suspending licences and jail time, for motorists who kill or seriously injure cyclists. The motion, tabled by Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, passed 36-2 – and was notably supported by Councillor Jaye Robinson, head of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, who has embarked on a Vision Zero road-safety plan to get us to zero fatalities. Robinson says McMahon’s idea is “worth exploring, but the key is an overarching, comprehensive approach to pedestrian and cyclist safety.” 

Cycling advocates are all for that, as long as what we’re embarking upon isn’t just another planning exercise. This is the same administration, after all, that did away with the pedestrian scramble at Bay and Bloor because of complaints from motorists.

“It’s not fair out there,” says McMahon. “People who drive are not sharing the road.”

McMahon knows what that feels like first-hand. She was knocked off her bike by a driver in 2014. Enrico Ferrara was charged with careless driving, but the charge was withdrawn because formal notice wasn’t mailed to the driver because of what prosecutors told McMahon was a “computer glitch.”

While motorists like to point the finger at cyclists who don’t follow the rules of the road, motorists are at fault in collisions with cyclists more than 90 per cent of the time. Cars running red lights or stop signs are the cause of most crashes with bikes. The second most common cause is motorists overtaking bikes third, motorists opening their doors on cyclists. It stands to reason that cyclists exercise more caution than drivers, since we all know who usually ends up on the wrong end of collisions.

Several U.S. states, New York, Washington, Oregon among them, have passed laws imposing stiffer penalties for drivers at fault in collisions with cyclists. These include the requirement that drivers take road-safety courses and be present when victim impact statements are read in court. There, the language in the car versus bike debate is also changing. Cyclists are not just cyclists they’re “people who ride bikes.” While motorists often walk away scot-free, those on bikes are left with emotional and physical scars. 

McMahon says the driver who knocked her off her bike showed no remorse. “He came out of his car and yelled at me. He didn’t even apologize.”

Reviewing cyclist deaths between 2006 and 2011, the Coroner of Ontario found that while drivers were found to be at least partly at fault in 62 per cent of cases, only 27 per cent of the drivers involved were ever charged. 

Unless the driver is impaired or it’s a hit and run, the punishment rarely fits the crime, says lawyer Patrick Brown, who’s represented dozens of cyclists injured or killed in collisions with motorists. 

In the rare instances when police lay charges of, say, careless driving, drivers usually plead guilty to a lesser offence, such as unsafe lane change, and get off with a fine. Often they don’t even receive demerit points. When they’re sued civilly, insurance companies step in to pick up costs. For these reasons, Brown argues, we need laws like the ones McMahon is advocating.

“Many have a mistaken understanding that roads are solely for cars. The inequality between road users, unfortunately, can seep into the mindset of police, policy-makers, witnesses and judges,” Brown says. “There needs to be a cultural shift. Until that happens, or we give cars and bikes separated space, inequality will continue to exist.”

It’s tempting to think of the recent spate of cyclist deaths as a blip on the statistical continuum. But they’re more the inevitable outcome of a stressed transportation system – and bad planning. The rate of collisions has been rising steadily for the better part of the last decade. 

Between 2007 and 2009, the number of cyclist-motor vehicle collisions averaged about 1,100 per year. That number started rising from there, to 1,268 in 2010, 1,315 in 2011, 1,475 in 2012 and 1,042 to September 30 in 2013, the most recent collision statistics available from the Toronto Police transportation services. 


Cycle Toronto

Toronto’s roads are the most dangerous in the country for cyclists, with approximately 52 bike-car collisions per 100,000 people, compared to Montreal’s 37 and Ottawa’s 36. The numbers are actually worse when you consider how many incidents go unreported. 

Congestion is certainly a big reason for the rising frustration between all road users. But we could also do with an attitude adjustment when it comes to sharing the road. 

Torontonians have always been uptight about traffic. Even the mayor, a proud member of the Canadian Automobile Association, bemoaned the fact that the Pan Am Games are in town and folks are pissed off about HOV lanes. 

When the revamped Queens Quay reopened last month, reportage focused more on some users’ confusion than on the fact that the boulevard is the closest we’ve yet come to an example of a complete street. 

Toronto is nearing the point of no return when it comes to gridlock. And our ever-increasing population means it’s only going to get worse, with the number of automobiles on the planet set to double by 2020. We’re already years behind in our Bike Plan and so far off track when it comes to public transit, we can’t see the light at the end of the subway tunnel. If we’re not planning for the future now, then when? 

If we think the kind of congestion that’s causing atrophy in cities like São Paulo and Los Angeles can’t happen here, consider that L.A. had one of the best public transit systems in North America until auto companies bought up the trams and trains and literally tossed them into the ocean. Before that, the California Cycleway, an elevated wooden path, brought cyclists from Pasadena to L.A. Toronto was once one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities, with one of the best public transit systems in North America. 

The cities that are thriving today are those that are taking back public space from cars and building bike infrastructure, says filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, whose documentary Bikes Vs Cars follows the money to show how the auto industry has rewritten the rules to create a car-devoted world. (The film screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema July 31 to August 6.) The “war against the car” rhetoric that got Rob Ford elected in 2010 plays a special role in Gertten’s film.

He says Ford is part of a global phenomenon: in cities where people are car-dependent because of bad planning, politicians win elections by promising to end gridlock by doing away with bike lanes and public transit. Gertten says the driving experience isn’t about freedom anymore, as the car companies are advertising. It’s about frustration.

“You can’t grow a city with more cars,” he says. “It doesn’t work. It’s a matter of space. A motorist’s worst enemy is not a cyclist – it’s another motorist.”

Which is why cities like Paris, London and New York are running like hell in the other direction. In New York, for example, massive investment in bike lanes is actually reducing car traffic. We have our own example of a similar trend – the Simcoe, Richmond and Adelaide bike lanes, on which usage has tripled without increasing the commute times of drivers.

The optimistic view is that Toronto is lagging behind but making progress – and there is some reason for optimism. The city is seeking public input on a new 10-year bike plan to identify residents’ priorities. Metrolinx just announced a massive expansion of the Bike Share Toronto (formerly Bixi) program.

And although the current administration at City Hall is sending mixed signals, Simcoe et al proves that if we build them, cyclists will come. Congestion is pushing us toward a more balanced transportation system, as it has in other cities.

People will abandon their cars if they have safe and efficient alternative ways to get around. E-bikes and bike superhighways, which allow people to cycle from greater and greater distances outside the city core, are already signalling the next revolution in Europe.

In the end, it shouldn’t be a debate about bikes versus cars. It should be about the future sustainability of our city.

I keep hoping. That’s why I keep riding. | @enzodimatteo

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