For a safer, happier city: Just add a little empathy

open streets
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

Open Streets is a wonderful event in Toronto where two major roads are closed to cars for four hours, twice a year. Kids draw on the pavement with chalk, people dance in the streets, bands play, it’s a lot of fun. Everyone kind of slows down and enjoys the city. But as I walked down the middle of Toronto’s Bloor Street on Sunday I heard a bell ringing; it was a cyclist banging away at it while riding at full speed down the middle of the road, so fast that people (including me) felt like they had to jump out of the way. It was rude and obnoxious and scary. I yelled at him.

Toronto's new bike laneLloyd Alter/ Toronto's new bike lane, 6:30 AM Monday/CC BY 2.0

On Monday morning, I tried out the new Bloor Street bike lane for the first time; I was with a crowd of cyclists who were stopped at a red light. Another cyclist flew up from behind and past me, barely inches away, and continued straight through the red light. It was rude and obnoxious and scary.

I am not alone in worrying what these cyclists are doing to the reputation of cyclists in general; Bob Moinske writes in Bicycling about the problem in Portland:

When we’re on the road, we are the underdogs, and I applaud cyclists who stand up for themselves when their road rights are being violated. But if some of us are standing up for our rights while simultaneously violating the rights of others around us, that’s hypocritical, and makes for bad public relations with the majority of the public that doesn’t ride.

He thinks many of these are “sunshine cyclists” who come out in the nice weather and are in their cars the rest of the time, and perhaps do not know the etiquette; that they are “self-centered people who ride the same way they drive—with utter disregard for anybody but themselves.” I am not so sure; I see a lot of rude cyclists in the spring and fall too. Mionske acknowledges this, and also that some people are just jerks, no matter how they get around.

Some year-round cyclists really do believe that their “freedom” means they have rights without corresponding responsibilities to others. And some percentage of people are just inconsiderate, regardless of their chosen mode of getting around. And of course, because they don’t care about anybody but themselves, they also don’t care that they are creating lasting negative impressions that affect the rest of us. This means that it’s up to the rest of us—the vast majority of cyclists—to set a better example.

Back in Toronto, Shawn Micallef worries about this too in the Star. He notes that “in an ideal world each mode of transportation looks out for the one more vulnerable: Motorist to cyclist to pedestrian.”

But routinely, cyclists blow through busy stop signs or red lights and ride through open streetcar doors. Often when I stop at an open door another rider either wobbles through, pretending to go so slow in between people that they’re unnoticeable, or they speed through. Maybe they think they’re too fast to be seen?

streetcar doorsUrban Toronto/via

(In Toronto, if the streetcar doors are open, cars have to stop to let the passengers get on and off. Cyclists are supposed to as well; I once unthinkingly rode my bike through a gap in a line of people and a woman punched me in the arm. I have never done it since)

What’s the impulse to make pedestrians feel vulnerable, doing the same things cyclists yell at motorists for doing? There seems to be a lack of empathy all around for other commuters. Empathy leads to yielding and sharing space, all things that seem difficult in Toronto.

I have written before about how pedestrians and cyclists should be on the same side, since we are both fighting over scraps left over after the drivers take most of the road. We have to work together to improve infrastructure for everyone. But Shawn is right; the first step is to have a little empathy.

Cyclists can call other cyclists out for their bad behavior, but going through a day looking for confrontation is a hard way to live. Of course bad motorist behavior is magnitudes more deadly than a cyclist’s, but more human empathy all around would lead to a bit more grace on our commutes. It’s OK to yield a bit.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Biking | Cities | Urban Life

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