Thursday, June 19, 2008

State of the Traffic Union

I'm strolling along Richmond Street and bright flashing lights distract me in the distance. As I get closer I notice a motorcycle cop has someone pulled over. The criminal? A responsible-looking helmeted cyclist. The crime? Unknown. He hands her a ticket. Maybe she was endangering the lives of those cocooned in 2-tonne steel cages by not having a ding-a-ling bell to warn them she was there since checking mirrors is becoming passé.

The fine for not having a bicycle bell? $110. Cyclists are getting stopped for this infraction at random as part of the police's plan to make cycling safer entitled Safe Cycling – Share the Responsibility.

The fine for improper opening of a vehicle door? $110. The driver that recently committed that exact offense resulting in the death of a cyclist on Eglinton West? Not ticketed. According to the police ''If she didn't look, would that be negligence? It'd be very hard to label that as negligent,'' said Sgt. Burrows. Share indeed.

Over at I Bike T.O., many cyclists have weighed in with comments on their recent traffic tickets. Sadly, the police campaign is only serving to discourage cycling as a mode of transportation. As one reader points out, after receiving two hefty tickets (one for the bell!) for rolling through an empty four-way stop after deciding to take his bike rather than his car out, he'll think twice in the future.

I admit that my bicycle bell is sometimes useful in waking up drivers about to make a right turn off a side street without looking to their left. But the manic bell ringing seems to do nothing to stop the door flinging without looking. Maybe they do look, and they think whacking cyclists is funny.

Sure its safer to ride outside the door zone. But on narrow downtown streets like Queen, often doors open right out to the cyclist spilling streetcar track rut. Ride between the tracks in the only mixed traffic lane? Often its too congested, and way too slow moving for sanity - filtering next to the parked cars is the only choice. Faster moving? Gee maybe I would feel incredibly self-centered about slowing down a streetcar packed with 70 people on it, something that the SOV motorists making a left turn don't seem to give a second thought to. No streetcars and moving along? Better watch out for Angry Motorist (TM). After about two seconds of ignoring his horn, he will put his vehicle in park to get out and start a fistfight.

More effective than a bicycle bell for a cyclist alerting others to their presence is their voice. Clearly staking out my safe space in the center of a lane too narrow to share, I often find motorists, in particular cabbies, changing lanes right into mine so that if I kept my speed constant we'd collide. Maybe they didn't see me. Maybe they looked right through me. "HEY!!!" I bellow. "Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?" replies the cabbie. Maybe he does see me. Maybe he just does not give a shit. Stopped at the next red light seems like a good time to have a discussion to educate him, but you know what, if he doesn't understand what he was doing wrong, no amount of conversation is likely to clue him in. In the interest of road peace I keep my eyes focussed straight ahead and my mouth shut.

Handheld cell phones are still legal while driving in Ontario. The premier might think about. Without fail, every single clued out motorist conflict I have on my bike, has one glued to their ear. Oops. Sorry, one exception. Someone was eating lunch with no hands on the steering wheel.

Clued out drivers it is possible to be defensive against. Actively hostile ones are another matter. And one only gets a split second to judge if someone is just a hurried honker, or may have potentially lost their marbles while in control of a potentially lethal weapon directly behind you. Anger seems to be going in the direction of gas prices.

You would think that downtown SOV traffic would be on the decrease with the higher cost of gas and the excellent alternatives - if pedaling is not for you, it is well served by public transit. 6:30 pm downtown (past prime rush hour) its more logjammed than ever and frustrating on a bicycle. My Kona Dew has pretty wide handlebars, and with the rearview mirror sticking out another couple of inches to the side, filtering through it is tricky.

My rule on filtering? I won't pass anyone that is likely to have to repass me in the next few blocks. Its just rude. But when all the wide vehicles have to merge to get around one parked car, a bicycle can use that dead space to continue right on by. Its frustrating when drivers squeeze up so close to the next stopped car that there's no way to reach the dead space.

I watch as the majority of cyclists squeeze next to one car stopped at a light. There's no room for the motorist to start driving where they are as the cyclist starts riding. I'd almost feel sorry for the motorists having to deal with repeatedly passing these vulnerable cyclists - but I don't. We simply don't have enough room downtown for everyone to be sucking up valuable public space with a wastefully large vehicle. If people do not-so-smart things that cause drivers to have to drive slower (and thus safer for everyone) and with more attention, then that is a Good Thing.

I'm not meaning to sound so gloomy and doomy. Some days though in the traffic madness its easy to lose sight of the bikey love. I give brief thought to trading in the bike for another way. But what better way is there? The speed, the freedom, the virtually zero cost, the familiar motions of legs moving in circles that distract even when sick, low hassle parking, connection to the surroundings, ease of interacting with people, and the smiles.

The whimsy of it all. Zooming along at 30 km/h, but in an instant able to flick up a kickstand and fill a wicker basket or milk crate with goodies from the sidewalk fruit market. Detouring off the road into the canopy of trees on a ravine path. The orange glow of dusk and utter silence except the chirping cormorants or the scurrying of a bunny at Tommy Thompson Park.

Smiling at other cyclists. The fashionista with a red PVC rain coat and flowery messenger bag on a matching red Dahon folding bike. The elderly Chinese woman with a wizened face toodling along a busy street, looking anything but afraid. Staring curiously at the interesting geometry of a Moulton. All kinds of cargo being carried solely by human power - from the precious cargo of a smiling infant, to paddles on cycles heading for the lakefront. A one-legged cyclist who I can barely keep pace with.

Life happens on a bicycle. At a pace we can see and interact with.

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