Saturday, June 18, 2011

We Are The Traffic

I've been following some of the recent discussions about the interactions between cyclists and motorists with some amusement.

This latest kerfuffle was set off by an open letter in Spacing from a cyclist venting about her fellow cyclist's behaviour. That spawned an article in the Star: Are cyclists alienating drivers by being selfish and rude? Which was followed by hand-wringing and pontification, debates over the right approach to reform, and even suggestions that charity events like the Ride for Heart be prohibited from using city roads.

It's a topic that comes up often in Toronto. I've been reading The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company: Sunday Streetcars and Municipal Reform in Toronto, 1888 - 1897, which takes a look at our city's early municipal battles over Sunday streetcars (It's hard to believe, but early in our civic history, the city's strong Protestant background meant that many interests were vehemently opposed to running streetcars on Sunday. Rigorously keeping the sabbath was an institutional means of controlling certain elements -- Catholics, foreigners and so forth).

The Toronto Bicycle Club was incorporated as early as 1890. The Mail and Empire observed:
The various bicycle clubs are doing their best to impress upon the members the necessity for moderation in this respect, and the average club cyclist is only a 'scorcher' under conditions which preclude collisions with unwary pedestrians.

In 1895 there were so many bicycle accidents that there was strong pressure to regulate cycling. Further, cycling was actually seen as a threat to the economic viability of the transit system.

Charles Porteous, the general factotum for the Toronto Railway Company complained:
Sunday running is not nearly as profitable as we had expected it to be, and the Bicycle is seriously affecting our earnings.
So this discussion isn't entirely new. In the fall of 1895 there was a traffic census that counted 395 cyclists passing the corner of King and Yonge between 6 and 6:30 pm. There were 90 stores selling cycles in Toronto. Fascinatingly, the backers behind the Canada Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) were the same people who opposed Sunday streetcars.

From Toronto World, May 10, 1896.
(reprinted in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company: Sunday Streetcars and Municipal Reform in Toronto, 1888 - 1897)

As for myself, I fall in the pragmatic, 'use some common sense and courtesy' camp. I don't favour additional regulation governing cyclists.

As a skateboarder whose regular travels around the city are technically illegal (a topic I've explored elsewhere at length), I (perhaps selfishly) just don't think there's a problem when people pay attention to traffic around them -- and don't impede the flow. I'm going to skate anyway; it doesn't matter if there's some law saying where and when I can skate.

Trouble is easy to avoid if you use your head and don't do anything stupid. Cyclists should take note.