When is it acceptable to delay someone's commute?

I always marvel at how it’s okay for non-car commuters to suffer “minimal impact” to their travel times, but if a car commuter suffers the same “minimal impact,” everyone screams like it’s the end of the world.

I believe that the language people use says a lot about their beliefs and intentions, so I find it interesting that someone like Rob Ford, in the two quotes linked above, basically sits on opposite sides of the congestion fence at the same time. In defending TTC cuts (or as he calls them, “service level modifications”), he co-opts the reasoning of cycling advocates who defend bike lanes, saying that a few extra seconds of waiting isn’t a big deal. But in his case, he’s applying it to transit riders instead of drivers. It’s a perfect example of windshield perspective: delaying my commute by a few seconds is a travesty; but it’s okay if it happens to those other people. All those buses and bikes just get in my way anyway.

My guess is that Ford will always rail against congestion while simultaneously taking actions that will only make it worse, all in the vain pursuit of saving a few seconds and/or dollars. The only question is how long this council will let him get away with it.

A more direct message for drivers

Man, 58, killed here by traffic

I’m sure you’ve heard about the collision with a truck that killed cyclist Jenna Morrison on Monday. There will be a memorial ride on Monday and a ghost bike will be placed at the intersection where she was killed. A ghost bike both memorializes the cyclist and serves as a reminder to all of what was almost certainly a needless tragedy. There’s already a different kind of memorial at the site of the collision.

Beyond ghost bikes and guerrilla bike lane painting,  I think that a less subtle message to drivers is needed wherever a cyclist or pedestrian (or, indeed, a car driver or passenger) is needlessly killed. A ghost bike can be moving if you know what it means, but how many drivers really understand or respect the message? Few, I’d guess. And the ones who do get the message aren’t the ones who need to get it. Which brings me to the photo at the top of this post:

8-28-00 Man 58 Killed here by traffic.

Stencilled with the outline of a body on the street corner where, well, a 58-year-old man was killed by traffic on August 28, 2000. How’s that for direct? When I saw this stencil in San Francisco in September, 2000, you can bet that I paid attention. That I took a picture and knew exactly where to find it in my film archives more than 11 years later should speak to the effectiveness of the blunt message.

The story behind these stencils is told in Jeff Ferrell’s Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy:

Outraged about the way in which “automobiles seem to have taken over the streets and society,” [Ken] Kelton travels the streets of San Francisco, map in hand, searching for sites at which pedestrians have been killed by automobiles. Once a site is located, Kelton lays a life-sized body stencil on the pavement, outlines it with white spraypaint, and writes an asphalt epitaph: “5-15-99 Nameless Man Killed Here By Traffic”; “4-15-99 Woman 71 Killed Here by Traffic.” Though police officials confirm that Kelton risks citation for public vandalism, he continues to consecrate city streets because, as he says, “there’s something wrong with the whole traffic layout, the whole system.”


A pedestrian death “doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t even make the paper,” he says. “I’m trying to underscore that this is life and death.”

Here’s a picture of Kelton with his stencil. Although his crusade was specifically about pedestrian deaths, that article says that he was inspired by a similar activist in New York who memorialized cyclists who were killed in traffic.

The contrast between a ghost bike and a “killed here by traffic” stencil is notable: a ghost bike abstractly represents mourning, while Kelton’s stencil is a more direct declaration that enough is enough. At some point, cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, and—most importantly—our elected leaders have to stop accepting the status quo and say “enough is enough.” That would require taking the safety needs of all road users seriously.

Would having stencils like this dotting city streets cause drivers to be more careful? Maybe not. But it would at least make everyone a little more aware of the human cost of our modern transportation system instead of merely sweeping the statistics under the “it was just an accident” carpet.

Now close your eyes and imagine passing five of these on your way to work every day, whatever mode of transportation you choose. Would it change anything that you do?

Pharmacy bike lanes gone but not forgotten

The bike lane was removed from Pharmacy Ave last month. As someone who rides regularly along Pharmacy as an alternative to Warden and Victoria Park, I think the city, driven by the misguided local councillor Michelle Berardinetti, made a big mistake taking it out. But what’s even worse than taking out the lane is the way that they did it. Before the bike lane was originally put in, Pharmacy was four lanes wide. When the bike lanes were painted, Pharmacy went from four lanes to…four lanes: two bike lanes and two vehicular lanes. The reconfiguration also allowed painting of a centre median and the creation of left-turn lanes at every intersection. So in places, there were actually five lanes.

When the city took out the bike lanes, it would have made sense to configure the street as it had been originally, with four traffic lanes and no turn lanes. Instead, they simply erased the bike markings, retained the centre striping, and reduced Pharmacy to a single lane in each direction. The current configuration has absolutely zero benefit to anyone over the configuration with bike lanes.

Confused, I emailed Councillor Berardinetti earlier this week to ask whether the road would be restored to four lanes or left as-is, and this was her reply:

Operation crews promised that the full restorative work would be complete by the end of this month. However, given the colder November nights and shortage of equipment, city staff are indicating that the work will now only be complete at the onset of spring.

Having said all that, we are all glad [Ed. note: actually, “we all” are not glad] that the lanes are going back to their original state but if the work could not be done at a single time, then they would have been better off leaving everything as was until the spring.

So the lanes were removed this fall for, really, no reason whatsoever.

In a followup email, I asked the councillor if she could recommend an alternative north-south cycling route to access the businesses on and around Eglinton. No answer yet. If she (or a staffer) took the time to look at a map to try to answer my question, she’d have seen that there is no such beast.

Cycling in Austin

Tikit to the Capitol

While I was in Austin last week, I managed to get out for a couple or rides and get a bit of a feel for cycling in the area. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect in the way of cycling infrastructure in the city: my cycling friends all said that Austin is a very bikeable city with cyclists everywhere, whereas all of the drivers I know who have been there said that the only cyclists to be seen were large groups of spandex-wearing racers who took over the thoroughfares heading out of the city every weekend. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

Like Toronto, Austin is split between a bike-friendly core and somewhat bike-hostile suburbs. There are recreational trails all over the place, but actually getting by bike from one place in the suburbs to another requires you to grit your teeth and put up with a lot of fast-moving traffic. The bike lanes and racks of downtown quickly give way to turning lanes and parking lots when you leave the core. Sidewalks also largely disappear, leaving car travel as the only practical way of getting from A to B in the suburbs. A lot of roads in the burbs have what most people would call shoulders, but what many Austinites seem to think of  as passing lanes: what looks at first glance to be a safe suburban haven for cyclists is actually home to lots of cars going really fast with drivers probably not expecting slow-moving  bikes in front of them.

It’s hard to tell from a short visit whether Austin has really embraced the practicality of cycling, but I do know that in just five days, I saw three different cars with “Please be kind to cyclists” bumper stickers, which is three more than I’ve seen in a lifetime in Toronto.

Yield to bikes

One of the major cycling routes downtown goes down Guadalupe St, seen above at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. There were a lot of bike lanes downtown, both on major arterials and on quieter side streets. But compared to the state of the road paint in Toronto, most of the lane lines were faded almost to invisibility. Several times while riding in a barely-discernable bike lane, I was unsure that drivers in the cars behind me could see the same markings that I could. The sign above, telling drivers entering a right-turn lane to yield to cyclists in the bike lane, is rare in Toronto, but common in Austin.

Area map on a bike route sign

One nice touch on some of the signed bike routes was an area map, showing not only where you where, but connecting routes and nearby attractions.

Bike racks with integrated cable locks

Another interesting feature was bike racks with integrated cable locks for securing your wheels without having to carry a second lock around. I only saw these in two locations, but it would be great to have these city-wide.

Bike frames made into a bike rack

Unlike Toronto’s iconic post and ring racks, there doesn’t seem to be a single standard design for bike racks in Austin. Many racks are provided by private businesses and can take interesting forms. I was especially taken by this excellent re-purposing of old frames into a functional sculpture.

The war on texting?

Just when I was starting to think that Austinites had fully embraced (or at least tolerated) cycling as a form of transportation, I read the above letter to the editor in the local newspaper as I sat down to my last breakfast in the city. Apparently, Toronto isn’t the only place where anything done in a car is more important than safe cycling routes.

"I saw you"

So it’s a gorgeous autumn morning and I’m riding east along Queen Street, having just made a side trip to one of my favourite stores on the way to the office. I’m approaching a green light at York Street, with pretty much no other traffic around. There’s a westbound car at York, the driver signalling a left turn and waiting to turn south onto York. The car is motionless and there’s no sign that the driver is going to do anything other than wait for the one car, three pedestrians, and one cyclist (that would be me) to clear the intersection before turning. I continue in my straight line, and just as I reach the intersection, he decides that he’s going to make a run for it and guns the engine, leaping into the intersection.

At this point, he’s turning straight into me and whether I keep going or screech to a halt, slow down or speed up, there’s nothing I can do; if he continues, he’s going to hit me broadside. At the last second, he slams on his brakes, the front of his car diving deep down from the inertia. He stops about two feet away from my bike. He’s just accelerated hard from a standing stop across almost two lanes of road straight at me before realizing that he’s about to hit me. I come to a stop a bit further down the road, just out of his way should he start up again. I’m upset, but more bewildered than angry. I look at the driver and he looks back, a little sheepish. One of the pedestrians in the intersection is almost right behind me, next in line to be hit had the driver continued on his path. The other two pedestrians are standing on the corner looking shocked at what they’ve just witnessed.

The driver puts his palm up in a conciliatory gesture and rolls down the window to say something to me, looking more concerned than angry. “I saw you.” What? You saw me? I was expecting “Sorry,” or “My bad,” or even, “Get off the road.” But “I saw you”? It seems like such an odd thing to say. “Hey, I know I accelerated straight at you and came within a whisker of T-boning you and sending you flying across the road on this beautiful day, but no worries mate, I knew you were there.”

“Really?” Bewildered, it’s the only response I can come up with. I say it in the same tone I may use if someone tells me that the Earth is flat or the Leafs are going to win the Cup this year; we both know that you’re just bullshitting me, but there’s always that small chance that you actually believe what you’re saying.

“Yes, I saw you,” he repeats.

“It didn’t seem like you saw me.”

“I did.”

“Is that why you drove straight at me?”

At this point, the peculiar assertion turns a little nasty. “If I hadn’t seen you, you’d be flat on the ground now. Are you on the ground?” His demeanor changes from misguided cover-your-ass to misplaced aggression. He’s not blaming me so much as telling me that I’m lucky he’s not a psychopath. It’s in his tone as much as his words. He begins inching forward again. Wonderful thing about cars; moving forward can be both fight and flight.

The pedestrian standing behind me pipes up at this point. “You did not see him.”

“Yes I did. I didn’t hit him, did I? If I’d hit him, he’d be lying on the street.” At this point, the penny drops. When he says that he saw me, he means that he woke up halfway through his turn and managed to recover just in time. Avoiding a collision set into motion by your actions is as good as not setting it into motion in the first place. I call this Dodge’s Theory of Driving Relativity: From any given observer’s frame of reference (most commonly the driver’s seat of an automobile), nothing that happens outside that frame is your fault. As long as contact between your frame of reference and someone else’s frame of reference is indirect (“a close call”) rather than a direct hit, you are absolved of responsibility for anything that follows.

You can be the hero who defuses the bomb, even if you’re the one who planted it in the first place.

The pedestrian continues arguing with him. The two pedestrians on the corner have graduated from shock to amusement. No one is hurt, and they’re laughing and shaking their heads as the driver continues arguing with the pedestrian that he was in the right. As for me, is it time for fight or flight? Neither. It’s too nice a day to argue with a brick wall and it’s obvious that nothing I can say will change the version of the story that the driver will be telling at the office this afternoon. So I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and continue on my way. “I saw you,” eh? What happened to, “I’m sorry”?

People reflexively say that they’re sorry over so many little things: sorry I have to slip past you in the supermarket aisle, sorry I’m trying to get through the same door as you, sorry that you’re trying to get on the elevator at the same time that I’m getting off the elevator, sorry you stepped on my toes while walking backwards (I must have been in your way), sorry we did a little two-step on the sidewalk while trying to figure out how to pass, sorry I don’t have exact change, sorry that I’m paying with pennnies, sorry, sorry, sorry. Why is sorry so difficult for the things that really matter?

Random notes for other cyclists

A straight fender over your rear wheel may keep your back clean in the rain, but anyone riding behind you will get a hard line of spray right in the face. Do other cyclists a favour and eliminate the rooster tail; get yourself a set of full fenders.

If you’re riding at night, you really need lights. You may be able to see without them, but you also need to be seen.

You’d find riding a lot easier if you just pumped up your tires a bit.

Please, can I put some oil on your chain? If I have to listen to that squeaking for one more block, I’m  going to have to take another route.

I realize that those damned ear buds have been surgically attached to your head since 2006, but at least pretend to pay attention to the world around you when you ride.

If yammering away on your cell phone is preventing you from riding in a straight line, either pull over or call back later.

No, I will not call out “passing on the left” whenever I overtake you, for the same reason that I don’t honk at every car that I pass on the highway. If you’re on the road, I expect you to be alert enough to know what’s happening around you.

I understand why you’d choose to wear a helmet, and I understand why you’d choose not to wear a helmet. What I don’t understand is why you bother bringing a helmet if it’s just going to swing from your handlebar like that while you ride. It’s the worst of both worlds.

If you think that crossing against a red light at the top of a T intersection is so harmless, maybe you can explain why you nearly rode straight into me.

I realize that you’re too super-cool to bother with courtesy, the rules of the road, and all that, but stop your bike for 20 seconds and let people get off the streetcar in peace.

If you’re going to make a U-turn on the bike path, look over your left shoulder first.

When you’re teaching your kids to ride, don’t tell them that cyclists “don’t really have to stop at stop signs.” They’ll figure that out when they’re teenagers, but in the meantime, you’re setting them up to expect something that just isn’t true.

When you’re teaching your kids how to ride, don’t tell them to ride on the left side of the road in order to avoid getting doored. Instead, teach them to keep a safe distance from parked cars and to be alert for people exiting vehicles.

I understand why you might want to ride on the sidewalk in certain places, but beside a perfectly good bike lane really isn’t one of them.

If you must ride on the sidewalk, please don’t careen around pedestrians like they’re part of an obstacle course; ride at a walking pace or learn how to schluff.

If the car driver ahead is signalling a right turn, don’t try to squeeze past on the right; wait behind or go around to the left.

If you’re moving out to get past a parked car, check over your shoulder to make sure that you aren’t about to ride in front of another cyclist. Or a car.

I’ve been using this post and ring all winter long. You’ve seen me using this post and ring all winter long. And now that the nice weather is here, I really don’t appreciate you taking my post and ring just because you get to work a few minutes before I do.

I really don’t mind stopping to help you patch up your tire, but seriously, how can you ride this far out of the city without carrying even a basic repair kit?

And finally, you may be all decked out with your team jersey, clipless shoes, energy bars, and carbon-fibre road bike, but this 40-year-old fat guy on a 20-year-old  mountain bike heading home for dinner can ride through Leaside faster than you. Bring it!

Random notes for drivers

If you see me, don’t turn into my path. If you don’t see me and turn anyway, you’re breaking the law because you’re not doing shoulder and mirror checks before changing lanes.

Flashing your turn signal doesn’t mean, “Get out of my way because I’m turning,” it means “I’m letting you know that I’m planning to turn, but I won’t begin my manoeuvre until I’ve verified that it’s safe to do so.” Please learn the difference.

If you think that I “came out of nowhere,” it’s because you weren’t paying attention; I’ve been riding in a straight line in the middle of this lane for almost 2 km.

Don’t think that honking your horn absolves you of your responsibility to drive safely.

I hope that leaning on your horn is making you feel better, because it’s just steeling my resolve to ride in the middle of the lane and make you change lanes to pass me. The last thing I need is some infuriated driver buzzing me if I move over to the curb.

The fact that your vehicle outwieghs mine by 100 to 1 doesn’t mean that either one of us is less human than the other.

I realize that it’s frustrating for you to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but steering over to the curb to prevent me from passing isn’t really going to make you feel better.

I’m probably moving faster than you think, especially if you’re trying to judge whether you can floor it and make that turn in front of me.

When I’m on the road, my safety is my responsibility. That means that if I decide it’s unsafe for you to pass me in this lane, you don’t get to override my decision.

It won’t kill you to change lanes or wait behind me for 10 seconds until it’s safe to pass. It could kill me if you try to squeeze past now, so don’t try.

I’m riding in the middle of the road because the asphalt is in such poor condition closer to the curb that it’s unridable, even on my mountain bike. Please wait to pass me.

If you have to speed up to pass me before you turn right in front of me, you should just wait behind me until I’m through the intersection.

You don’t pay any “road taxes” either, because there isn’t such a thing.

As a matter of fact, I do have insurance. And a driver’s licence. And a car.

Do you really think I’d take up less room on the road if I was in a car instead of on a bike?

Yes, sitting in a padded chair and pressing your right foot down on a little lever that makes liquid flow through a thin tube toward your car’s engine makes you a real man. I tremble in the presence of your enormous penis.

When you say that cycling is dangerous, what you really mean is that you’re causing the danger and then subjecting me to it.

If you think I’m in your way, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re also in my way. So, uh, get outta my way!

Besides, why am I, riding the smallest vehicle on the street, the only one who’s in your way, while all of those cars aren’t in your way, they’re “traffic”? Aren’t all of them blocking traffic too?

This may come as a surprise, but I really can’t understand a word you’re saying when you gun your engine past me and shout out your window. So I’ll just imagine that you’re saying, “My crappy life really depresses me and I’m unfairly taking my frustrations out on you, random anonymous person on a bike!”

What part of that “no stopping” sign—not 10 feet in front of your car stopped in the bike lane—don’t you understand?

No, I won’t get out of the middle of the lane. Wait behind me until you can pass me safely.

I realize that what I do for my safety doesn’t always mesh with what you’d like me to do for your convenience, but frankly, I don’t care.

I don’t have an airbag or a seatbelt. My crumple zone is the space I create around my bike and I really don’t like you in it.

If I can touch your car when you pass, you’re way too close.

I realize that parking in the bike lane is very convenient for you, but it’s pretty dangerous to me.

Just imagine that your mother or sister is out riding her bike, and that some asshole like you is threatening to run her off the road; what would you think of yourself?

Just because you’re in a car and I’m not doesn’t mean that you’re in more of a rush to get to wherever you’re going than I am.

There’s a whole other lane over there for you to use; there’s really no need to crowd me in this one.

I’m sorry that your life is so miserable that you need to vent your frustration on me. Maybe you need some happiness in your life.

Yes, I’m turning left from the left-turn lane. Deal with it.

I’m signalling a left turn at an intersection; please don’t try to pass me on the left.

Yes, I’m waiting at this red light. If you’re going straight, you can wait in line behind me. If you’re turning right, there’s plenty of room to my right to make the turn without waiting.

Yes, I know I’m in the middle of the lane. It’s my way of telling you that you’re not supposed to pass me along this stretch of road. I do that because I’ve had too many right hooks at this intersection coming up and riding in the middle of the lane is the best way to prevent them.

If I’m riding at the speed limit, you have absolutely no need to pass me.

When I go to the effort of stopping at a four-way stop because you have the right of way, please proceed. Waving me on first may seem polite, but it makes you wait longer and it frustrates me because I stopped for nothing.

If you really want me to get out of “your” lane, call your councillor and tell her that you want a bike lane here.

It’s a good thing you blew past me back there; it must be really important to you to wait at this red light for 10 seconds longer than me.

I know that commuting in a car every day makes you angry and depressed, and that’s precisely why I don’t do it. Commuting by bike every day puts a smile on my face. Don’ t you wish you could say the same thing about your trip?

And finally, no, I will not get off the road.

Where's a cop when you need one?

Yesterday afternoon, I was riding west along Summerhill Avenue, which forms part of bike route 41 through Rosedale and Moore Park. Traffic there is usually pretty calm and slow-paced, but shoppers and delivery trucks always seem to be jockeying for space in front of the Summerhill Market; so much so that a paid-duty police officer is frequently directing traffic in front of the store.

So I was riding along and could see two car drivers getting ready to pull out of their street parking spaces and directly into my path. One driver had the good sense to wait, but the other didn’t and just pulled into the traffic lane directly in front of me. I’d been anticipating the boneheaded move, so I was already in position to avoid the car if necessary, but it’s still pretty annoying to be either unseen or ignored in broad daylight. To cap the annoyance, after the driver cut me off and then slowed down in front of me, he held his hand up to thank me for letting him in. I started swearing at him under my breath. “Don’t wave at me, jerk. I didn’t let you in, I just avoided being hit. There’s a difference you know.”

And then for the first time ever in my many years of riding in the city, something almost perfect happened: the paid-duty officer at the Summerhill Market flagged the driver down and gave him a lecture. I couldn’t hear the driver’s protestations from my spot behind the car, but the officer’s half of the conversation went something like this:

You know you almost hit that cyclist, right?


It’s not his fault. He’s just riding along the street.


It’s on you to look for traffic before you pull out of your parking spot. It’s dangerous.


You have to be more careful. You could kill someone if you don’t look.

The officer eventually waved the driver on and I thanked him as I rode past, feeling quite a bit better than I had 30 seconds earlier. Overall, not a bad start to my ride.

What would have made the moment perfect instead of merely almost perfect? If the officer had pulled out a ticket book and given the driver a summons under the Highway Traffic Act, I would have had time to pull out my camera and take pictures. Oh well. It still made my day to have someone other than me lecture a driver for cutting me off.

Locomotive 1, Cruiser 0

There's just something about police and parking

We all know that just like many other drivers, some police officers regularly park in bike lanes and other no-stopping zones. But the picture and an almost throwaway aside in this story from the Star illustrate that some officers don’t just have a rather liberal interpretation of the proper use of bike lanes, but they also seem a little confused about who has the right of way on those little ribbons of steel that crisscross the city. Surely even the most hubristic officer should realize that parking in the train lane is a losing proposition.

Also, top marks to the Star for using the fine phrase “stuck in the wigwags.” Although the term “wigwag” (yes, I had to look it up) is not technically applicable to the drop-down barrier that the cruiser is stuck in, I’m still filing it away at the very top of my “gotta-say-it-myself-someday” notebook.

Pedestrian infrastructure, suburban style

 Boldly going where no pedestrian has gone before

I’ve long thought that there must be some provincial regulation requiring municipalities to install pedestrian signals whenever they reconstruct a signalized intersection. I’m all for the idea, but implementations sometimes trend toward the bizarre.

Take, for example, the intersection of Highway 7 and Westney Road in rural Pickering. It’s near the hamlet of Greenwood, with Valley View Public School just down the street and the Pickering Museum a country block away, but I highly doubt that more than a couple of pedestrians grace the intersection on the busiest of days. There are no sidewalks anywhere around here. Yet pedestrian signals and their activation buttons stand guard over each corner of the intersection, just waiting to be pressed by the hapless soul who finds himself lost here. So far so good. But when you look closer, you realize that with no sidewalks and corrugated beam barriers sheltering the buttons at three corners, the only way to activate them is to stand on the road. On the fourth corner, pedestrians have to climb a small weedy hill to press the button:

An inconvenient button

But even better than the activation buttons are the curb cuts, dutifully guiding people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers into the guardrails and onto non-existent sidewalks:

Curb cut to nowhere

Curb cut to nowhere

The whole thing smacks of some bureaucrat following the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.