VOICES: Biking outside the lines

By: Josh Cupit

I broke my rib mountain biking last month. It was raining, and I took more speed into a stubby berm than the slick clay and dirt allowed. Ribs collided with gnarled tree roots, and the weaker of the two snapped. I kept on riding, of course. I was only a quarter of the way through my route, so turning around seemed silly. The next week, I headed back to the same trails, once again during the rain but this time also at night. It was fun.

Josh Cupit stops cyclist Maya Seto on Gould St. Seto is a fourth-year graphics communications management student at Ryerson University. (Natasha Hermann)

 

People assume that this same masochistic fervour extends to commuting. If I spend my weekends hitting the jumps at the bike park or flying down unlit single-track with a broken rib, I must be one of those militant commuters with a Cycle Toronto sticker on my bike.

I thought I might be too. I’ve been hit by four cars (so far), and I have nothing but disdain for the drivers in my native North York. There’s something about waking up on the street next to your bike after being sideswiped by literally the only car on a four-lane road that pushes a cyclist toward the bike lane mindset. It also pushes a cyclist toward the hospital, where he has to wait six hours for stitches.

I moved downtown in June and began riding everywhere. The quiet(er) side streets are all right, but I was unprepared for the hatred I now harbour for bike lanes. The problem is the afterthought nature of the lanes. “You want a lane?” says the city, “You’ll get a lane. It’s going to be narrow, poorly paved, and sandwiched between the sidewalk and a line of parked cars. Have fun.”

The issue is that cyclists don’t all move at the same speed. Due to the single-bike width of the lanes, every user must slow to the pace of the most leisurely rider. That cyclist is invariably a confused tourist on a Bixi bike, travelling at walking pace and veering about like an enormous, drunk tortoise.

Bloor Street is a prime example of bike lanes done wrong. Instead of two lanes of traffic in each direction, one of each becomes a segregated bike lane. This means that the remaining lanes are too narrow to facilitate mixed use by both bikes and cars, and that cycling lanes are too narrow for faster riders to pass slower riders safely (or to pass electric scooters, or electric wheelchairs, or joggers, all of which are apparently bikes now).

Downtown, you’ll frequently see faster riders (often messenger-types) weaving like madmen to get around the restrictive infrastructure that prohibits safe cohabitation for riders of disparate abilities. Frustration breed recklessness.

Cycling lanes are also commonly (and illegally) used as parking spots, or as a curb lane for cars to idle in while they unload passengers or luggage. When this happens, the narrow driving lanes are a cyclist’s only choice of detour around the parked car, which means that they must integrate into the flow of automotive traffic.

In contrast, cycling uptown (even on major arteries that are faster and busier than downtown streets) affords no segregated lanes. Even so, the wider, four-lane roads provide ample space for cars to pass, as well as for faster and slower cyclists to ride uninhibited by each other. Not a perfect solution, but I prefer it to bike lanes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against bike lanes in concept. I’ve been hit by enough cars to know the dangers of unsegregated traffic. But the current bike lanes aren’t the solution. They don’t address the issue of drivers who “door” cyclists, and they force cyclists to deal with the same traffic jam experience as motorists.

To be effective, we need a few key things. Most importantly (in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth), cycling lanes need to accommodate passing riders. That, or driving lanes need to be wide enough so that faster riders can keep their speed up at their own risk.

Perhaps more obvious is the need to keep drivers out of the bike lanes. On the unsegregated lanes, like those on College Street, many drivers treat the bike lanes as a set of VIP driving lanes, reserved for only the most privileged of road users. Similarly special people also park or stop in the bike lanes regularly, even on the segregated style found on Bloor Street. This sort of abuse is a daily occurrence.

Bike lanes need to be raised, or physically separated by something more imposing than some floppy reflective posts and road paint. Or maybe, parking cops could stop ticketing me for parking in my own driveway (yes, that happened once) and start patrolling the bike lanes.

A lot of it also comes down to broader enforcement. As mentioned earlier, the bike lane has become everything from a running course for very special people who can’t use sidewalks, to a path perfectly sized for mopeds, to a convenient gathering point halfway between your car and the sidewalk (because that’s a big trip to make in one go). People do this because they’re lazy and they know they’ll get away with it. There’s no cure for laziness, but visible and committed enforcement could make a difference.

Biking in the city will never be a pleasant experience. Personally, I’ll probably hate it no matter what. But the current attempt at bike lanes is particularly pitiful, and we need to expect better if cycling in Toronto is going to improve.

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