Once again, Toronto is under siege. No one is safe, not seniors, not nuns, not dogs. No, I’m not talking about Hell’s Grannies; it’s far worse than that. Yes, gentle readers, it appears that people are riding bicycles on the sidewalks.
My initial reaction to these seemingly semi-annual stories is to ask for any evidence that sidewalk cyclists are truly a problem. Is there any record of how many pedestrians are struck by cyclists, or how many serious injuries are caused by such collisions? A recent study of Toronto cyclists (PDF) found that only 5% of cyclists rode on the sidewalk, though that study was confined to the downtown area. In last year’s bike safety blitz, police handed out 27 tickets for riding on the sidewalk – a fairly small number compared to the 211 busted for running red lights and stop signs.
All the evidence against sidewalk cyclists seems to be anecdotal, like Councillor Mike Del Grande complaining about almost getting hit while walking his dog. Personal experience is important, and the government should listen to individual concerns, but public policy should be based on something more solid than “some people say…” Moreover, it tends to be a one-sided argument: Pedestrians are intimidated and inconvenienced, but few councillors seem interested in the reason why people are riding bikes on the sidewalk.
“There are times that road conditions can be so unsafe that cyclists feel that their safest option is to ride on the sidewalk,” Andrea Garcia of the Toronto Cyclists Union told the CBC. There are two things to consider with this statement: The first, and most obvious, is that bicycle infrastructure in Toronto sucks. Few streets have bicycle lanes, and many of those are plagued by parked vehicles (legally and otherwise) and lanes that disappear without warning. Throw in some extremely lax traffic enforcement, and it’s not surprising many people don’t feel safe on the road.
But there is, perhaps, a bigger problem here, though it’s not as obvious: Riding on the sidewalk isn’t any safer than riding on the road. In fact, it may be more dangerous. It seems counterintuitive, but you’re less visible to traffic, in a spot where drivers are expecting pedestrians, not a much-faster cyclist. You may be less likely to get hit by passing traffic, but your chance of getting creamed at an intersection or driveway shoots right up.
Unfortunately, many cyclists simply don’t have an understanding of how to ride safely. You can see it every day: We can debate the merits of helmets until the cows come home, but surely we can all agree that lights are important when riding at night? And that wearing headphones and sending text messages while riding is pretty dumb? Other examples are less obvious, like hugging the curb or riding too close to parked cars.
Taking your place in automobile traffic may be scary, but in most cases it’s your safest option. Contrary to your fears, drivers are not hell-bent on running over as many cyclists as they can. Most of them are entirely reasonable people, and will make an effort to pass safely. Some are even very nice people who will yield to allow you to make a tricky turn or change lanes. One of the most important things you can do is ensure that you’re visible and predictable. And there’s safety in numbers: When more people ride, everyone is safer, as drivers are more used to the sight of cyclists.
There are jackasses who will cut you off or honk at you in hopes you’ll get out of the way, but they’re a very small minority. Some days, I have more near-misses with errant cyclists than drivers. (One of my biggest pet peeves is the cyclist who rides on the sidewalk for a while, then switches back to the road – usually right in front of me and without any attempt to look behind them.) And at the risk of sounding like your mother, two wrongs don’t make a right: Misbehaving drivers aren’t an excuse for cyclist to flout traffic laws.
I don’t want to go hardcore vehicular cyclist here: We badly need better bicycle infrastructure, to say nothing of better enforcement of existing traffic laws. But building better bike lanes, cracking down on dangerous drivers, and encouraging safer cycling are not mutually exclusive goals. Chris Cavacuiti’s study on the causes of automobile-bicycle collisions in Toronto is oft-quoted by cycling advocates to shoot down the “reckless cyclist” stereotype. But even with his finding that cyclists are the cause of 10% of collisions, he emphasizes the importance of following the rules of the road and finding a balance “between being a careful rider and being confident enough to claim adequate space on the road.”
Riding a bike in a city like Toronto can be an intimidating experience. But if you take the time to learn how to ride safely – either through practice, or with the help of a cycling safety course – everyone will be safer and happier. The best bike lanes in the world won’t help you if you aren’t aware of your surroundings, but knowing how to ride safely can help keep you safe on some of the busiest streets in the city.