What I’m Talking About When I’m Talking About Biking

It’s a funny little quirk of Ontario traffic laws that the fine for killing a cyclist is often less expensive than the bike they were riding when they were killed.

I’m a cyclist. I own bikes for different jobs, I commute to work every day I can on a bike, and ride for fun when I have a chance. There’s no better way to get around this city; you have almost perfect freedom and nothing is faster. If I’m pushing hard my commute at the height of rush hour is 25 minutes. 22 is a personal best, pretty good for a 10 kilometer ride.

I only drive it two or three times a year but in a car I’ve never been able make it door to door in rush hour in less than 45. As a cyclist I’m faster and more agile than anything else on the road, but all that speed and freedom comes at one cost: total vulnerability. I am, I think I’ve mentioned, one of those proverbial “scofflaw cyclists”. I can guess what you think about that; I don’t particularly care.

Riding in Toronto means you’re quote-sharing-unquote the road; there are very few genuinely separated bike lanes, mostly disconnected from each other. All of them are about five feet wide, maybe enough for two cyclists to pass each other if one hugs the curb. If you’re lucky something more robust than a painted line separates you from passing cars, but usually not.

Navigating infrastructure built with your existence as less as than an afterthought is never boring; the casual transgressions drivers barely notice themselves committing every day can injure or kill an inattentive cyclist, so space and direction are never things you can just have, or trust. You fight for every inch of it, carve it out and press forward. What you’re given is the worst parts of the pavement if anything, where people will pull up to park, unload, and cut you off without so much as a glance. So you take as much of the lane as you can. It might be rough, the route might end up circuitous, but if you don’t assert your right to the lane you’re stuck. You might get in somebody’s way and they might get angry but you do it anyway because the alternative to being loud and visible is being a statistic.

And if you’ve ever been in an accident bad enough to warrant the police showing up, you know the drill already: it’s always an exercise in figuring out what the cyclist did wrong. Did they have lights on their bike? A bell? Did they signal? Maybe their clothes weren’t visible enough. It must have been something like that, but if not it was probably the cyclist being “too aggressive”. Just to give you a taste of how little the Toronto police think of cyclists, here’s an accident prevention campaign they ran on May 16th of this year by parking an old-timey novelty police car in the Adelaide bike lane. That’s right, a traffic safety awareness campaign forcing cyclists into traffic at rush hour.

For the most part, that’s just how it is. Cops don’t actually think cyclists are people, and the laws don’t actually treat cyclists like people. Cars, yes, definitely! Cyclists, not so much; this is why so many cyclists have bike- or helmet-cams now; without the recording, the police will always – always – find a reason it was the cyclists’ fault. If somebody threatens to kill you with a knife or a gun, police are on the way, sirens blazing. With a car, though? If they show up at all, it’s to tell the cyclist it was their fault.

So as a cyclist, you have to navigate this world full of people who are wearing three thousand pounds of indestructible, gasoline-powered armour and do not care enough if you live or die to glance in their mirrors – motorists who’ve lived in the armour of their privilege for so long they can’t distinguish it from a capital-R Right – but who will get incredibly upset if you do anything that so much as hurts their feelings.

And, Oh My God, they have so many feelings. They’re full to bursting with Driver Feelings. If you so much as startle somebody in a car, those feelings all come out at once. They’ll chase you down, cut you off, roll down their windows and start into the insults, the death threats, it’s amazing.

You’d think being functionally invulnerable would give you some sort of minimal sense of confidence, but my goodness no. That’s not the case at all; I’ve swerved around a car that decided to park in the Bloor bike lane, only to have the person in the SUV who had to brake behind me honk, pull up and start yelling. I’ve had a car on the Danforth start swerving into me like he’s playing chicken. Screaming, swearing, all of it, from people who’ve got three other lanes to choose from and an entire city of infrastructure purpose-built for their vehicles ahead of them. I’ve had a car run a stop sign just so they could catch up with me and yell at me not to run stop signs. I’ve been told, by somebody parked in the bike lane, that I should think of the reputation of cyclists and stay in my lane.

This is a routine experience in this city. You’re riding through a city where four- and eight- lane highways crisscrossing the downtown core are completely normal but safe bike lanes are somehow “controversial”. Nobody really cares about following the rules, to the point where people get upset if you’re following the wrong ones, and if you’re on a bike those rules aren’t, by design, going to protect you anyway. They’re just what drivers point back to when you’ve made them angry, and they’ll get angry if you break the rules, or if you follow the rules, or if you’re nearby, or if cyclists exist at all. It’s the veil of authority people hide behind, when they have power and want to vent their anger at people without.

You’ve heard this story before, I suspect. With different labels, in a different context maybe, but I bet the broad strokes of it are familiar. My routine bike commute is at the core of my politics, of my understanding of the nature of power.

For me, though, that ride is a choice. Ultimately I can put the bike down. And because I’m an upper-middle-class white man who works in tech, when I put the bike down I get to step into my own, different suit of nearly-invulnerable power armour.

It says a lot about you, I think, if you can look at any imbalance of power and vulnerability and your first reflexive reaction is to talk about how important rules are. I don’t know about you, but that’s not who I want to be. I live and work in a world full of people who can’t put their vulnerabilities aside so casually, who are full time, 24/7 navigating social and economic structures that are far more pervasive and hostile to them than cars are to me and my adorable little hour per day of commute. People who understand how those “rules” really work where the rubber (and sometimes the skin, and sometimes the skull) meets the road. So the least, the very least I can do is listen carefully to people who can’t put down their gender, their disability or the color of their skin, who suffer the whims of those oppressive, marginalizing systems, and to try to understand more than the problem or grievance they’re facing right now, but the architectures that give those problems their durability, their power. And to do the day-in, day-out work of understanding my own blind spots and taking responsibility for the spaces and systems around me.

It’s not super-convenient for me personally, to be honest. It takes me a bit longer to get places or find a place to park. But this is the job.

3 Comments

  1. Buck
    Posted June 9, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    It’s often fraught to analogise about oppression but I appreciated your framing here, thanks for writing it!

  2. Doug Wedel
    Posted June 11, 2017 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Nicely said for a professional class white guy. You hit a lot of fine points. So much more to be ed about by others. Maybe one day we will hear from them too.

    Thanks and happy, safe biking!

  3. mhoye
    Posted June 11, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you both. I think it’s important not to lose track of the fact that empathy isn’t equivalence when you’re talking about privilege and oppression, and I hope that came across.