Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dreaming and living in the now

This past weekend, the Star had a special on people's dreams of what could make Toronto a better city.

My wife and I went to the Netherlands last year, where I took the photograph shown here. My wife hung this photo on our wall a couple days ago because she knew it would make me happy. This is the view of Leiden University soon after stepping off the train. The thing that struck me most about seeing all the cycling there was that everyone was doing it. If you ever had the idea that cycling is not for everyone, visit the Netherlands or Denmark (or look at photos like this!). By far, a huge majority of a population can happily get around by bicycle.

However, cycling in traffic, with fast moving cars and trucks passing closely, is not for everyone, at least not without a little bit of learning. It requires education on how to encourage people in cars to behave safely around you. This brings me to the obvious difference between our cities here and there. Where cars are expected to move fast, fully separate cycling paths exist. In the dense parts of the cities, cars and bikes move at the same speed, and it's not because everyone pedals like they're in a race. They don't; they pedal at a comfortable pace. People in cars and trucks drive slowly because it's the only safe way to drive when there are so many people around. Another big difference there is that the volume of cars on the street is a fraction of what it is here.

We don't have bicycle-specific infrastructure here. (We do, but it's sparse). Many cyclists say that is a good thing, since you will always need to deal with intersections, which is where most collisions occur, and the bike infrastructure just creates confusion.

Dreaming about a rosy future is great, but making a difference today is better. There are things that can be done so easily for cycling right now. People can take courses on cycling on busy streets right now, or at the very least read about vehicular cycling. The more people who know how to cycle safely on our existing streets, the more will have a positive experience. It takes some courage at times, but it's very achievable for anyone who has a half-decent sense of their surroundings and is comfortable pedalling and steering their bike.

Second, we need to educate drivers of cars and trucks about cyclists, how to pass them, and how to wait behind them sometimes (what?!). Since motorists are a huge part of the population, a massive advertising campaign would be helpful (as I've said before). The information is already in the driver's handbook, but that isn't making enough of a difference. People seem to need flashy videos, preferably with some funky music. The strange thing about it is that this is not as much of a problem as you might think, as long as you take command of the road and make sure you're seen.

For example, a couple mornings ago I signaled before taking the full lane because I saw that there was not enough room for me and the van behind me to use the lane straight through an intersection. When I didn't continue to shift into the left turn lane, the woman in the van honked at me a few times and waved at me to go left. I just kept going straight. She then passed me after I had cleared the narrow intersection, exactly as I had planned. She was all worked up and made some hand motion at me that I'm pretty sure meant I was an idiot. This woman could benefit from an education program for the sake of her own sanity.

And third, we should actually install the dedicated bike paths that we've been talking about for years. This is a bit more futuristic, but compared to other public projects, it's tiny. With some initiative and a little bit of asphalt, the Finch Hydro Corridor, similar bike paths and some safe expressway crossings could be installed immediately throughout our suburban areas.

So I'll have another look at that photo and think about what could be, what people are capable of doing and what people are doing right now. The future is not so bleak afterall.

Darren J 4/20/2006 10:48:00 a.m.


The first thing I think of when see that photo is .. oh crap, now WHERE did I park my bike again?
Great post. I, for one, am optimistic like you.

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