THE BICYCLE’S POPULARITY IS RISING ACROSS CANADA—AND SO ARE THE TEMPERS OF MOTORISTS
THE BICYCLE’S POPULARITY IS RISING ACROSS CANADA—AND SO ARE THE TEMPERS OF MOTORISTS
It used to be that when Canadians grew up, they stored their old bicycles in the garage and bought cars. Thousands still do. But in the last 10 years, additional tens of thousands—in pursuit of physical fitness, cheap transportation, freedom from traffic jams and less pollution—have been storing their cars and buying bicycles. In fact, Canadians have been opting for two wheels rather than four, pedal power rather than horsepower, in unprecedented numbers. And the experience makes some of them almost lyrical. “My bike is a precision instrument,” says Calgary homemaker Celia Norman, who edits a newsletter for the city’s 750-member Elbow Valley Cycle Club. “When it’s all tuned up, and I’m rolling along, riding is like a natural high.” Elbow Valley member Jack DeLorme, a 63-year-old retired commercial photographer, cycled 1,200 km last year. “You can stop, chew the fat and get some fresh air and exercise,” DeLorme says. “It’s just a great way to get around.”
By any measurement, it is also a transportation revolution. About a decade ago, only about two million people over age 10 cycled regularly. The Canadian Cycling
Association, counting heads somewhat differently, estimates that in 1992, 5.7 million adult Canadians rode a bike at least once a week. In major cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, the number of cycling commuters is rising. In Toronto alone, trips made by commuters on bikes have risen on the order of 50 per cent during the past five years. Growing congestion on busy streets has persuaded several cities to build more bike lanes and some provinces have enacted cycling safety legislation. The cycling industry, which not long
ago catered primarily to children, now offers bikes that cost as much as good used cars— and a head-to-toe range of fashions and accessories that can make a commuting suburban banker look like a competitor in the Tour de France.
Like any other revolution, this one has generated conflict. On congested downtown streets, motorists, cabbies and bus and truck drivers fume over the presence of legions of pedal-pushing commuters and couriers. Cyclists, claiming an equal right to the streets, say that drivers can be inconsiderate and careless. One of the most hazardous places to ride a bicycle in Canada may well be downtown Toronto, where more than 400,000 motorists compete for room with about 40,000 cyclists over the course of a day. Last year, there were more than 1,500 accidents between bicycles and cars in the Metropolitan Toronto area. “I can’t believe the way it is out there,” says Const. Devin Kealey of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Traffic Support Services unit, adding that running red lights at T-intersections and riding on sidewalks are two of the most common complaints against cyclists.
“Not all cyclists are bad but a lot are out of control,” Kealey adds.
Although the competition for street space may be fiercest in Toronto, frustration runs high in almost all major urban centres across the country. “If they just followed the laws, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Claude Pagé, director of Montreal’s League of Taxi Owners. Pagé notes that, unlike motorists, cyclists cannot easily be tracked down. “You can identify a car by its licence,” he said. “Bicycles can get away with anything.” Bike couriers are probably the object of the most complaints. Under intense competitive pressure, some couriers frequently run red lights, cut diagonally through intersections and ride the wrong way on one-way streets. But many try to stick to the rules of the road. Says Toronto courier David Shamanski, 32, who earns $250 a week and prizes the freedom the job gives him: “I want the respect that pedestrians and cars get.” Shamanski also noted that reckless riding can quickly lead to trouble. “If you’re not watching,” he said, “a car door opening in front of you can be like a Scud missile in your face.”
While each side portrays the other as the biggest menace, the two groups bear roughly equal responsibility for accidents involving
bicycles and motor vehicles. And most of those accidents, experts say, could be avoided with greater awareness and better training. Civil engineer Derek Watts, president of the advocacy group Biking Nova Scotia, has cycled 8.5 km each way to work for almost 20 years. “The key is to ride so that drivers can always see you,” says the 62-year-old Watts. Vancouver computer analyst Helen Warn, who pedals 30 km to work from her home near suburban Burnaby, agrees that training and experience are the keys to safe cycling. Says Warn: “A good rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t do it in a car, don’t do it on your bike.”
No matter how great the conflicts, say authorities across the country, they have to be resolved because the bicycle is here to stay. And there are signs that cyclists and motorists may be learning to live together. City of Toronto planner Daniel Egan says that accidents have not increased as rapidly as the number of cyclists. In addition, Transport Canada figures show that fatalities nationally
dropped to 73 in 1992 from 102 in 1991. Egan says that more bicycle paths, safety courses and mandatory helmet legislation, such as a proposed Ontario law that would provide for fines of $90 for riding without a hard hat, could help reduce injuries even further. “People are just beginning to realize that cycling is fun and more practical than driving,” Egan says.
And it has been around a lot longer as well. The first popular form of the bicycle was invented in 1861 by two Frenchmen, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest. Built of wood and iron, it was known as the “boneshaker” and soon gave way to lighter, more practical models that used a chain and gears to increase a rider’s speed. The bicycle still remains the most efficient method ever devised for turning human energy into forward momentum. Add low costs—a bike can be purchased for as little as $150, compared to $7,000 annually to own and operate a car— and the bicycle becomes an attractive alternative for recession-battered consumers. Currently, the most popular version is the mountain bike, with high handlebars and
wide, knobby tires. Designed in California in the early 1980s to handle rough, mountainous terrain, the mountain bike has proved to be safe and stable on city streets. In 1982,10speed racers accounted for almost 70 per cent of the 720,000 bicycles sold in Canada. By 1991, 70 per cent of the 1.5 million bicycles purchased by Canadians were mountain bikes and a related design known as hybrids that use lighter frames and slightly narrower tires. Prices can range up to $5,000 for a hand-built titanium bike with top-of-the-line
components. Extras can include items such as a set of 40 lightweight titanium screws that retails for $500. John Calladme, owner of the Toronto store Cycle Logic, sells about $100,000 worth of bikes a month in spring and summer. Says Calladme: “There hasn’t been a recession at my shop.”
One reason for that success may be that for thousands of people, the bike has become a symbol of the 1990s’ trend toward an active, less encumbered lifestyle. Gregory Furlong, 34, spends at least an hour a day on his bike, including 40 minutes for the roundtrip from home to his job in Toronto. Like a growing number of city cyclists, Furlong relies on his bike all year except when heavy snowfalls make Toronto streets too dangerous.
But even Furlong acknowledges that fear of urban traffic discourages a lot of people from using their bicycles to commute. “Riding in the city can be a terrifying experience, especially when drivers are in a rush,” he says. According to Furlong, the key to improving relations between drivers and cyclists lies in education. Cyclists need to abide by the rules of the road, he says, and drivers need to be more aware of those on bikes. To that end, Furlong co-founded the Bike Choir, 12 to 20 committed cyclists who appear at cycling events. Using a simple repertoire of songs set to well-known tunes, the Bike Choir cycles while it sings. “We want to make people realize that cyclists have rights, so we do songs like What Shall We Do With the Thoughtless Driver? set to the tune of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?” Furlong says. “People think it’s amusing but it seems to get the point across.”
Cycling’s popularity has reached the point where it has become part of municipal planning and safety legislation in many provinces. In Toronto, authorities recently expanded the city’s network of bike lanes to a total of about five kilometres. Most of the new lanes are in heavily travelled downtown streets prompting Egan to speculate that even more people will be encouraged to leave their cars at home and ride to work. The city also plans to spend $50,000 annually for the foreseeable future for new bike racks and city councillors recently passed a bylaw requiring all new buildings to include space for indoor bike storage—an attempt to reduce a plague of thefts in which almost 12,000 bikes were stolen in Metropolitan Toronto last year.
In Ottawa, city bicycle co-ordinator
Daphne Hope says that eight per cent of commuters, or about 47,000 people, regularly cycle to work. The region’s total biking population is about 270,000, one of the highest per capita rates in North America. To accommodate them, Ottawa is planning to extend its network of paths and lanes for bike commuters, including the possible expansion of bridges and adding 1.5 metres of paving to road shoulders.
Like other biking advocates, Hope says that Canada could learn from countries like the Netherlands, where between 20 and 60 per cent of the population relies on bicycles to get around. Groningen, the country’s sixth-largest city, closed its downtown core to private cars last year. Now, three-fifths of the population depends on the bicycle. “We have grown up with the idea of the bike as a toy or recreational vehicle,” Hope says. “We need to change.”
Provincial officials are taking the bicycle more seriously as well. Ontario is due to become the first province with mandatory helmet legislation for all bike riders in the fall of next year. A U.S. study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in May, 1989, concluded that bicycle helmets reduce brain injuries by 88 per cent. The authors also noted other studies that show that head injuries account for 70 to 80 per cent of all bike fatalities. Dr. David Wesson, a surgeon at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, has seen some of the damage firsthand. About 12 chil-
dren die in Ontario every year as a result of colliding with cars while riding their bikes. Across Canada, the toll is about 60 children every year. Because there is frequently little that doctors can do, Wesson led a campaign to increase helmet use among children. ‘These children often die at the scene or on the way to the hospital,” Wesson says. “A $20 helmet can make all the difference in the world.”
But some cyclists oppose mandatory helmet legislation. Says Watts, the Halifax engineer: “It’s an intrusion on my right to choose.” Stephen Saines, an electronics technician who uses his bike to get around downtown Toronto, doesn’t wear a helmet because it “feels like having my head in a bucket.” Says Saines: “It’s far better to take action to minimize a hit in the first place.”
While urban planners and proponents are content to work slowly to improve the quality and safety of cycling, others are more impatient. Guy Wera is a member of the Bicycle People, a group that advocates closing downtown Vancouver to cars. “We have had 10 years of encouraging people to leave their cars at home,” he says. “We don’t have any more time to encourage them, we have to stop them.” If that conviction becomes widely shared, the biking wars may well have just begun.
PATRICIA CHISHOLM with ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary
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