Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two-Wheeled Whining

Riding a bicycle to work is great for the environment but it's also dangerous. Truth be told, a fair number of cyclists ride as though they're in a fencing match with their four-wheeled rivals. They dart and dodge and weave in and out, sometimes going for the narrowest of paths to avoid being blocked or slowed down by motor vehicles.

A lot of cyclists, especially bike couriers, are their own worst enemies, alienating and sometimes infuriating drivers and pedestrians alike. I saw more than one bicycle courier down when I practised in Vancouver and there was always very little sympathy to be seen in the pedestrians who passed by.

A recent fatality has the Toronto Cyclists Union demanding blood. On Thursday a cyclist was killed after running into an open car door (presumably a parked car) and falling into the road where he was run over by a van. Police are deciding whether to charge the driver of the parked car with failing to take "due precautions." I don't think there's a chance in hell of a conviction.

Here's the problem. Absent a marked, bicycle lane, a cyclist weaving his way through the curb/parking lane is essentially "lane splitting." The lane is already occupied - by the parked vehicle he strikes. The vehicle doesn't strike the cyclist, it's parked. The moving vehicle is the bicycle. Yes, sure, the car driver opened the door but the vehicle itself was stationary and the cyclist either wasn't paying attention and didn't see it in time or was going too fast to be able to stop in time.

A bicycle on a public road is just another vehicle. The rider is obliged to honour traffic lights, for example. Bicyclists have been charged and convicted for speeding. So, what gives them the right to indulge in lane splitting so they can illegally pass (on the curb side) slower motor vehicles? Nothing exempts them from the duty to take "due precautions" either.

I've been riding motorcycles for over 40-years and, from that perspective, the way bicyclists maneuver through city traffic seems nothing short of suicidal. I ride one of those really big, adventure touring bikes - a big, bright yellow machine with a big, not always bright me atop it. This isn't a flimsy bicycle with a rider hunched over the handlebars. Even then I always have to maintain "conspicuity" which means positioning my motorcycle in the way required by the road and traffic conditions to make me as visible as possible to every other vehicle on the road, in front of me, beside me and behind me. If I'm going to survive I have to ride as though I was invisible to every other user of the road. The driver who's going to kill you is the driver who doesn't see you. Simple as that.

From the newspaper account it sounds as though the cyclist was 1) lane splitting, 2) passing in the curb lane, and 3) riding too fast for the conditions around him. I might be wrong about those facts but it sure sounds to me as though the cyclist was the author of his own misfortune.

In our overcrowded cities there are no miracle answers to the car versus cyclist problem save, perhaps, establishing a few bicycle lanes on secondary streets with strict laws forcing cyclists to use them. I know cyclists aren't going to like this but those who insist on riding in congested, downtown traffic areas ought to have to go through some sort of training/licensing programme. Knowing how to ride a bicycle isn't the same as knowing how to ride one safely. A cyclist who doesn't know how to ride safely or won't ride safely has no business mixing it up with pedestrians and vehicular traffic.


Fjperry said...

This is the standard diatribe of those who wish to affirm that the consumption of gasoline is a sine qua non of good citizenship. A few points are in order.

1. The widespread violation of traffic laws by many cyclists has a simple cause: there is virtually no enforcement. It is unofficial police policy to turn a blind eye to violations by cyclists. No one imagines that motorists would all obey the law, if enforcement were discontinued, but people like you express mock dismay when cyclists fail to do so on the honour system.

Years ago, the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition made repeated approaches to the police, asking them to at least start warning scofflaw cyclists. These representations were politely received, and ignored.

2. Bike couriers are a special case. They flout the traffic laws and harass pedestrians because economics of the trade impel them to do so. Police enforcement would alter those economics. See point 1 above.

3. Your defence of the motorist who caused the death of a cyclist by opening a door without looking is outrageous. This person snuffed out a life because of an utterly needless bit of inattention. The fact that this act is widespread does not make it any the less reprehensible.

Prudent cyclists avoid this danger by riding well out in roadway, outside the "door zone". Of course in doing so they incur the ire of motorists who assume they are maliciously impeding traffic.

The Mound of Sound said...

Your comments are sophomoric. I am not "defending" the motorist who opened the door because I, like you, don't have the evidence. Would your opinion be less dogmatic were you to learn that the driver opened the door whilst the path was clear but the cyclist wasn't paying attention? You don't know and yet so readily presume. How about you get the facts before pronouncing judgment on anyone. p.s. - least you can do.

We agree on the need for proper police enforcement. All cyclists ought to be "prudent cyclists" and have no excuse whatsoever if they choose to be reckless.

The pressing need for enforcement is precisely why I endorse a requirement for licensing. Anyone can pick up a bicycle for a hundred bucks. That ought not to entitle them to put themselves and everyone else in peril by adding to the problems of an already contested downtown core.

Fjperry said...

Although your general tone is one of hostility and contempt for cyclists, I must admit that many of your specific comments are in line with the prescriptions of the advocates of vehicular cycling. For example, we agree that it is unwise to ride close to a line of parked cars. Too bad the average motorist does not understand that point.

You are also correct in saying that we can't judge a situation on the basis of sketchy information from a news clip. Yet that is precisely what you did yourself. If you did not unambiguously exonerate the motorist, you came very close to it.

The principle invoked in referring to the car as "stationary" is interesting. Technically, that is true. As we understand the situation, the wheels and chassis were not in motion. The door, however, was, and it was the door that is of relevance here. So I call this a sophistry, though an imaginative one. If this were an abstract debate, rather than a discussion of a tragic event, I would give you a point for clever argumentation.