Friday, September 11, 2009

We need more cyclists not more car drivers

Laura Robinson, Special to The Province | September 7, 2009
How do we share the road? It's a question we must seriously address in the wake of an incident in Toronto this week that left cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard dead and former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.
If there is enough evidence that a crime has occurred, the Ministry of the Attorney General is involved, which is why this story is emblematic for cyclists of the long road we still must ride. If the person who was until recently responsible for the protection of cyclists' rights to a safe environment under the Ontario Highway Safety Act can end up in this situation, what does it say about how cycling is understood at the top of the decision-making food chain?
We mourn the needless death of Darcy Allan Sheppard, who died of severe head injuries after witnesses say he was slammed into a mailbox and run over. We know Sheppard had been drinking and was so belligerent at his girlfriend's home that the police were called. She says she wanted the police to drive him home, but they sent him on his bike. Bryant has stated he is innocent.
The Ontario Highway Traffic Act clearly states that bicycles are vehicles, and cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as automobile drivers. It is up to the justice system to find guilt.
But the essential dialogue and debate around why roads and public space must be shared, and how we design our environment in ways that embrace other forms of transportation beyond those propelled by the combustion engine, is in its infancy.
The car is just over 100 years old, yet we design cities as if it is fundamental to human existence, and of far greater importance than the human body. If there is anything to be gained by this tragedy, it will be the impetus for real legislative changes, not just in transportation law, but mainly in municipal planning.
In 1992 I wrote virtually these exact words after London cyclist and renowned artist Greg Curnoe was killed and others seriously injured when a pick-up truck drove through a pack of cyclists on a clear November day on an empty road. But nothing happened after Greg's death, except that London became a far more dangerous place to ride a bike.
I wish North America was ready for real discussions on what is essentially the right of human beings to be able to move through time and public space propelled without metal, glass and an engine surrounding us, but with a deep and sensual understanding of the beautiful ways in which bodies can move with strength and speed.
The automobile has long been a vehicle in which male egos play out their assumed worth. Cars are the perfect substitute for all a man, and to a lesser extent a woman, imagines he or she is lacking; this manufactured insecurity is why cars sell so well. And anyone who has observed countless men on bicycles will know that this insecurity has simply been transferred onto a bike for many two-wheeled devotees. Like others who ride their bikes daily, I am amazed that I am still alive given how many times a motorized vehicle has had me in its crosshairs.
On the other hand, with several decades of experience as a cyclist in Toronto, I can't count the times a male cyclist, whom I have just passed, felt the need to run a red light, or commit some other dangerous act just so he can pretend he wasn't passed by "a girl."
The upcoming Bicycle Summit in Waterloo will bring together those of us who care deeply about the quality of our lives as human beings who transport our bodies by pedal power, with politicians and decision-makers. The latter must understand that we need to provide opportunities to everyone to be very physically active. Choosing to ride a 40-kilometre commute daily should be fun, not impossible. That way we create new cyclists, not new car drivers.
Robinson is a former member of the national cycling team

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