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Cycling has an image problem: It's just too much fun

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Photo courtesy of Martin Reis.

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Cycling has a serious image problem. It isn't that cyclists disregard rules of the road, or that they don't pay for those roads, or even that cyclists get in the way of traffic. The real problem is simpler. Cycling is just too much fun.

For most motoring commuters, roads and highways are joyless places defined by congestion, frustration, and anger. It's no surprise our transport system has little room for a mode of travel that's actually enjoyable. Since cycling looks and feels out of place --- because it's fun --- cyclists' demands for safe roads are often brushed aside with arguments feeble on facts and skinny on reason. Here are some of the best, of the worst:

"Do ya' wanna' pay for those lanes?" a motorist once yelled at me on seeing my flag calling for bike lanes. "I do and I do" I wanted to answer, looking earnestly into his eyes -- if I'd had the time. I do pay property taxes on my house -- taxes that are the primary means of funding city roads. And I do want my taxes to be used for bike lanes.

"Whaddaya' want, go back to the horse and buggy?" or "Roads were built for cars!" are other common retorts to cyclists. Valid arguments … if history didn't matter. Most urban residents were riding electric streetcars, not horses, before cars began to dominate. And cycling groups were calling for better roads years before cars became common, as documented in Carlton Reid's book, Roads Were NOT Built for Cars.

"Was she wearing a helmet?" is the most urgent inquiry that customarily follows a car-bike crash, as if a helmet will comfort a victim with a crushed pelvis. I wear a helmet but my preference --- call it a prejudice (shared by my wife) --- is not to get hit by a car in the first place, precisely the expectation of millions of bare-headed cyclists in bike-friendly cities like Berlin, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.

"Cyclists should be licensed" is another popular refrain -- often delivered in a scolding tone. It's an idle, even foolish threat. Licensing would complicate the auto lobby's resistance to cyclists' lawful claim to safe passage on public roads. Safe roads for cyclists and pedestrians can only be provided by taking from cars treasured space or beloved speed, or both. If the goal is really respect for road rules, cycling lessons in schools are a better solution.

The behaviour of some cyclists is raised to deflect and deflate the demand for cycling infrastructure, as if depriving everyone of safe bike lanes --- including the many motorists who would love to cycle --- is a fitting punishment. Ironically, when the carnage caused by motorists in the 1920s sparked public outrage, what followed was a highway building-binge that lasted a century. Unblemished conduct has never been a prerequisite for new road and highway infrastructure.

In the last three years, 100 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles (zero by bicycles) in Toronto alone. In two thirds of pedestrian deaths or injuries, the motorist is at fault, according to Toronto Public Health. Yet, when Toronto's Medical Officer recommended lower speed limits to protect pedestrians and cyclists, the (former) public works commissioner dismissed him saying he should "stick to his knitting." 

Finally, some politicians complain that bike lanes are an inefficient use of road space because fewer people cycle in wintertime. Gee, if efficiency was the goal the preoccupation wouldn't be winter cycling but the domination of roads by two tonne motor vehicles with a single 70 kg human occupant chaperoning four empty seats. Those same vehicles, when parked, which is 95 per cent of the time, occupy enormous amounts of space --- even on gridlocked roads --- spring, summer, fall, and winter. By all means, let's talk about efficiency.  

Provincial laws today do direct cities to develop cycling infrastructure but mostly in nudge nudge, wink wink language like "promote," "facilitate" or "encourage" that protects the status quo more than it does cyclists. This allows decisionmakers to cling to the notion that recreational trails are the place for cyclists because they're having fun -- unlike motor-propelled road users who are engaged in serious business. 

There are two simple solutions to cycling's image problem:  either cyclists practice grimacing, furrowing their brows, and looking unhappy like other commuters, or politicians learn that cycling -- even though it's fun -- is a serious part of the transport solution.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer and co-founder of Bells on Bloor -- an annual pedal-powered, fun parade that includes cyclists of all ages and their escort of smiling cops on bikes.

Photo courtesy of Martin Reis.

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