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Wheels of Misfortune
Live by the bike, die by the bike and all the dodging and arguing in-between.

Photo: Simon Carr A year ago, Toronto elected a man who redefined the city’s agenda. After seven years of nurturing a new master transit plan, Mayor “End-the-War-on-the-Car” Ford exuded confidence and disdain for all those who disagreed with him. I didn’t exactly run back to Calgary, with its shiny new progressive mayor, but being on sabbatical leave did allow me to escape to New York for six months, for the first half of this year anyway.While living there, despite friends telling me I was nuts to want to bike up 5th Av through Central Park to the Met, say, or across the Williamsburg Bridge and through Brooklyn to Prospect Park, I found the town’s infrastructure surprisingly welcoming to bikes, at least since the last time I was there in 2003.

And, well, there was that other irony this past June. My temporary home held a greater Pride celebration than usual in Greenwich Village, around Stonewall. There was a special reason to celebrate. The conservative-oriented Governor Andrew Cuomo used his deft political skills to engineer the state’s legalization of gay marriage.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ford didn’t exude the same exuberance, shall we say. And so, I come back to find a pro-car mayor–elected on the skimpy platform of promising to find tax savings and assuaging the concerns of suburban gas-guzzling commuters–is ripping out the bike lanes on Jarvis Street (doesn’t this cost money, by the way?). As I resumed my 20- to 25-minute bike commute from Parkdale to Ryerson every day–College from Lansdowne to Church, then south to Gould–I wondered how surly our comforted drivers would be, and how much the city’s puny bike population might recoil. But as so often happens, the real world is different from the mediated world of the web and newspapers and magazines and radio.

Already, at Dufferin, I’m aware this is going to be a busy ride. And by the restaurant district in Little Italy, where bike lanes have not yet materialized, it’s tight single-file riding, as there are well over a dozen of us. By Spadina, it’s 20, then 25, then 30. Slow riders, fast riders, impatient riders. It’s busy, but not the kind of busy I had in mind.

While I was away, Toronto seems to have developed a passion for bike transit. I’m usually a pretty impulsive rider. Slowpokes, who needs ‘em? Last year, for instance, some holier-than-thou Nanny State bike Nazi admonished me as I headed home to Parkdale. A dozen riders cruised west on College just before Bathurst. I nabbed the outside part of the bike lane and flew by this guy to my right. He called out, “You shouldn’t be passing in such traffic.” Both car and bike traffic, he meant. Yeah, it was rush hour. Yeah, it was busy. “Don’t try to tell me how to live my life!” I yelled. Not sure why I blurted that inanity out, actually. Several blocks west, after the restaurant district, before the incline up to Ossington, a woman on the other side pressed the crosswalk button. She hadn’t actually started walking; well okay, maybe she had one foot on the road, so I blew through the crosswalk. I know, I know, it wasn’t the right thing to do. But hey, she was on the other side of the road. No harm done, right? The light ahead at Dovercourt then turned red and you-know-who, my sudden BFF, caught up to me. Started a conversation. “You shouldn’t do that.” I stared at him. I was panting. Do what? I wondered. “We’re trying to change our reputation in this city.” Lecturing. He started to lecture me. “That won’t help, you know.” Probably from some local bike advocacy group. “That helmet won’t help you, by the way.” He went after my equipment. “It’s not going to save you in an accident. You should get another one.” I shook my head. “Wait a minute,” panting, “you’re telling me how to wear a helmet,” panting, “and you’re not wearing one?” He looked at me; I looked at him. Pedestrians wondered if one of us was going to kick the other’s bike to the ground–just like in the schoolyard. But I’ve never been much of a fighter and the light turned green so I sped off. Don’t try to tell me how to live my life, indeed. 

So what’s the difference between then and now? More bikes, which means more congestion. And I start to understand the bike revolution in a visceral way. If there are 30 or 40 or 50 cyclists fighting for track on the same grey strip, then the frustration of driving replicates itself. The rider who is late–or, ahem, like me, who sometimes acts like a jerk–just wants to pass the duffers. But too many bikes in the bike lane force the rider to steal a ribbon of asphalt from the car, which means more reckless riding, more danger and, possibly, more mishaps.I think I get the city’s intent with its bright new thick white lines separating bike and car lanes. Not that this measure helped yoga instructor Jenna Morrison last Monday, November 7.

Toronto could take a little advice from New York, where city planners painted fat green lanes on the east-west avenues–car-sized lanes in between the parking lane and multiple lanes of one-way traffic. A fatter lane means more capacity and less congestion. So you’d think. Planners, they plan for a perfect world, where everyone follows the rules. In New York, pedestrians never, ever look before asserting that first foot onto the roadway–it’s their institutional right as New Yorkers to remain willfully oblivious to traffic. And so the green lane, while useful, is also a bit of a mass transit illusion. The operators of two-wheeled, self-propelled machines are nothing but “fucking cyclists,” as one guy wearily spat out at me on a Friday afternoon as I cruised around him in the green lane, heading north on 1st Av at 9th St. But hey, what more do you want?

The north-south avenues, at least up to 34th St, protect riders to a large degree. The east-west streets, okay, they’re trickier. When there are bike lanes, the cars still park by the curb with a narrow strip of bike lane inserted between parked and moving vehicles. The bike lane’s nice, but don’t let your guard down. When this New York lady driver pulled out of her parking spot on Av A at E 7th St around 11 o’clock one sunny mid-June morning, right into my moving bike–i.e., me– I had time to say, “Aaah!!!” and slam the brakes, only to have my back wheel rear into the air. And there I was, tire suspended, thinking, okay, you’ve been doing yoga, buddy, your balance is better now, maybe you can will this spastic unicycle monkey’s ballet to your advantage, as opposed to falling on your hand and breaking it, like you did the last time, and maybe, just maybe, you can wrestle it around. And so you swing the damned heavy commuter Miele frame around and land it on the ground, on both tires, except now you’re looking north instead of south. “You’re going the wrong way,” she offers. Wow, you’re really helpful, lady. I dismount to catch my breath and pump the pedal to get my chain back on. My nasal-voiced tormenter repeats: “You’re going the wrong way.” I want to yell in her general direction, in my deepest voice, but I’m busy concentrating on breathing. The lady gets out of the car. She surveys her car door. I haven’t dented it. I haven’t scraped it. She glances at my bike. “Are we done here?”

As this point I think about Jeff, the guy I rent my apartment from. He moved from the “cornfields of Ohio” to Manhattan in 1979, and he’s been riding since. “You know those studded gloves they sell at sex shops? They’re really good for scraping paint off limos that double park in the bike lane. Oh, yeah . . . .” Not that I’m a frequenter of sex shops or anything, you understand, but you know what, one of those gloves, with sharp one-inch silver spikes jutting, yes, it could be useful right now. But I’m too much of a wimp to mix it up like that. Peacenik, make love not war, live and let live. The lady gets back in the car and puts her transmission in gear. “You’re going the wrong way.” “Lady, I don’t want to hear it! I just don’t want to fucking hear it from you!” She drives off, unperturbed. No wonder–it’s the lamest outburst she’s ever heard, failing miserably to crack her Manhattan faade. 

Like I said, friends advised me not to ride in New York. They implied it would be suicidal. It wasn’t. In fact, it was the best way to get my bearings. Every other time I’d visited I used the trains. And, okay, I admit, I’m a little directionally challenged. But many times I would come up from underground and wonder where north was. It’s not simply that there’s no one tall building, no CN Tower, to orient yourself, but that is a good-sized chunk of a reason. On a bike, though, I knew immediately and instinctively where I was going. That first ride last January, heading south down 5th Av, marveling the Flatiron Building at 23th St, I recall, with my sightline above the traffic, the sound of an old shutter cameras–ker-shook! ker-shook! ker-shook!–my brain being imprinted with the Manhattan map along with a certain amount of cool navigational regard. Hey, if I don’t know where I am–big deal–pedal over a block and figure it out.

So now that I’m back in Toronto, after six months of riding in NYC with only a couple of scratches, I think: What have they done to my road? They have taken my road. I’ve been riding in Toronto since 1988. Sometimes I’d be the only guy out there riding, except for couriers. Now everyone wants to clog my road. Toronto riders, what the hell are you trying to do–prove Mayor Ford wrong? 

Here’s my thought: Sometimes right-wing mayors are more effective than left-wing mayors in bringing out the activism in people. Not the Occupy Toronto kind of activism, the get-active kind of activism. As in why wait for a car ride, why wait for the TTC, why not hop on a bike? When thousands of Torontonians ride to work and school it isn’t going to matter who’s in power or how many cars are on the street. The congestion will lead to safety concerns, concerns our fair Nanny State will address, and from there, I can assure you, it’s a very, very short skip to those gorgeous wide green lanes. Except here they’ll probably be painted in screaming caution yellow.

__

Bill Reynolds is an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

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