Early one morning this past summer, I was in the bike lane heading east across the Bloor Street Bridge, just west of the Castle Frank subway station. An out-of service TTC bus sped past; the side of the bus hugging the white line at the edge of the bike lane. It was so close and so fast that my heart either momentarily stopped or skipped a beat. At the next intersection, the bus was idling at the red light. I gently tapped on the door. It opened. I immediately noticed that the driver was not wearing a uniform and was comfortably dressed in shorts. He had grey hair and wore a frown. I said in the most non-confrontational gentle voice I could muster,
“I really need you to know how terrifying it is for me when you come so close and fast as you pass me.”
In an angry voice, he replied,
“You cyclists, you have four feet over there and sit on the white line. Why don’t you stay at the curb where you belong?”
I did not point out that had I been “on the white line,” I would now be under his bus not standing beside it talking to him. I did say:
“Well, sir, sometimes the road is so full of potholes that I have to go around them. Please, I just need you to hear how frightening it is for me when you come so close.”
“Well, if it is so frightening get on the sidewalk.” The door closed in my face and the bus took off.”
I got back on the bike but felt shaken by the encounter. I don’t know if he was a regular driver or someone taking the bus somewhere it needed to be. Not that he would have heard, but I might also have remarked, that had I been lying under his bus, it would not only ruin his day, but both our lives. It was his anger that unsettled me and it made me wonder – if he, a professional, is that angry on the road, how many other “angry” and rushed drivers share our streets?
Several weeks before that encounter, I had just crossed a busy intersection on my bike, and ridden onto the sidewalk for the short stretch to a pathway that takes me towards my daughter’s house. This is a familiar route and I use the sidewalk here to prevent having to cross the busy roadway where there is no intersection. An elderly couple was walking arm in arm, as if for support, towards me. Sensing their fragility, I got off my bike, stood still and waited for them to pass. As the gentleman went by he said in a tone of reprimand:
Without missing a beat, I blurted out:
“Naughty but safe.”
This phrase characterizes how I ride my bike around Toronto. For the most part I stay where I am expected to ride – in a designated bike lane or on the side of the road.
I know many drivers dislike cyclists on the road and for sure many pedestrians dislike sharing a sidewalk with a cyclist. While I recognize it is illegal for me to ride on the sidewalk, at times cars parked – illegally – in bike lanes force me there. There are frequent complaints of cyclists going through stop signs and red lights. I also do this. Here is why: I’d rather be naughty and safe than dead or injured. If I go through a red light or stop sign when the intersection is clear, I have a head start on the cars beside me; they can more easily see me ahead of them, and I can stake out my territory at the side of the road. And because the roads are in such disrepair, I am often forced into the middle of the traffic lane. Bikes and their riders are more fragile than cars when confronted with potholes.
I will admit one more transgression. I go the wrong way on a one-way side street, if it means avoiding a busy main street or is a shorter distance to where I am heading. Shaw Street in Toronto in the only main street I know that has dual bike lanes on a one-way street. While other cites, such as Vancouver and Paris utilize this strategy for safer cycling, it is underutilized in Toronto.
My desire is for cyclists and drivers to respect one another for the benefit and safety of everyone. I have had the joy of cycling in many European countries where there is much more regard and support for pedestrians and for cyclists. Many cities have car-free zones where cyclists and pedestrians happily co-exist. While cycling in Berlin I experienced both buses and cars holding back to let me move into traffic when the bike lane was blocked for construction. In many places there are separate lanes for cyclists, off the roadway altogether so that cabs and other vehicles cannot block them; on shared pathways, a white line separates bikes and pedestrians. Simple, and it works. I felt safe, respected, even relaxed as I peddled through this world-class city.
I have been cycling in Toronto as an adult since 1979. I love the sense of freedom, the chance for exercise and the ease of parking and getting where I want without traffic tie-ups and adding to pollution. In the mid-eighties, I rode around downtown with my young daughter in a little seat behind me. I never felt we were unsafe.
All that has changed. There are many more cars, people appear in more of a hurry and are more distracted in spite of the law prohibiting use of hand held devices. At least ten years ago I realized I needed more help to keep me safe. I wear an ugly lime green, with orange stripes, reflective vest; I’ve had strangers ask if I’m a crossing guard when I step away from the bike; I have multiple lights and reflectors woven into my back carriers. I want to be seen and I no longer engage in risky behaviour. I also say a prayer for myself: “Keep me safe and sensible.”
More and more cyclists are appearing each year; more designated bike paths are being provided. The more there are, the safer it becomes for all of us. However, we are now heading into the cold, often wet, darkest time of the year. I will keep cycling despite these conditions and only personally stop when there is snow or ice on the roads. So will others. All of us need to take heed and slow down ensuring safety for all.