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Denley: Let's not overstate the virtues of cycling

RANDALL DENLEY
More from Randall Denley

Published on: June 29, 2016 | Last Updated: June 30, 2016 9:30 AM EDT


Cyclists and drivers should all obey traffic rules. ERROL MCGIHON / .


I’ve never really understood just what it is that makes riding a bicycle so special. Sure, riding a bike is good exercise and an inexpensive way to get around, but that’s all it is. Cycling’s contribution to our transportation needs is minimal, as is its contribution to improving the environment.

And yet, when they climb on a bike, some cyclists believe they are on a planet-saving moral journey that entitles them to demand special bike lanes and as much government spending as they can get. In addition, they claim a right to ride on sidewalks as required and to ignore the laws that apply to bicycles. All while complaining about drivers and claiming that cyclists are subsidizing motorists.

The city government encourages this line of thinking by pretending that cycling is a vital part of our transportation network, at least until it comes time to spend money on it. According to the city’s transportation master plan, cycling makes up about 2.7 per cent of the morning commute and two per cent over the whole day. As a means of practical transportation, it is close to irrelevant.

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You’d never know it from watching Ottawa’s cyclists, but a bicycle is classified as a vehicle under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. That means cyclists must obey all traffic laws and have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers, but who hasn’t seen cyclists drive up on sidewalks, sail through stop signs, ride the wrong way on one-way streets and make unsignalled turns?


My colleague David Reevely has written a pair of columns this week that offer some insight into cyclists’ thinking. Without endorsing the practice, he explains that cyclists make a habit of gliding through stop signs because bike routes off major roads are often on streets with stop signs every 50 feet. Actually stopping would take away all of a cyclist’s momentum. Similarly, cyclists ride on sidewalks because the city has refused to make major roads like Bank Street safe.

Clearly, these things happen, but who really thinks it’s safe to ride a bike on a sidewalk meant for pedestrians? One can easily imagine the sympathy a driver would get if he rolled through a series of stop signs, citing reluctance to wear out his brakes, or a desire to burn less fuel.

The city has responded to cyclists’ dissatisfaction by building bike lanes as an attempt to help cyclists get safely through the core. As Reevely observes, bicycle lanes like those on Laurier Avenue are clearly hazardous. The problem comes when vehicles turn off Laurier and potentially cut off or even run over cyclists. This is drivers’ fault, mostly, but cyclists are responsible for their own safety. Anticipating hazards when riding in urban traffic would seem to be a basic survival skill. A bicycle lane isn’t an autobahn for cyclists.

Of all the claims that are made about cycling, the idea that cyclists are subsidizing motorists is the most dubious. Cyclists use the roads, just like car drivers do. Unlike car drivers, they don’t pay licence fees and gas taxes to contribute to their upkeep. Everyone benefits from roads. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get groceries to the store or a repair person to the house. Even the virtuous electric cars would be rendered useless. We wouldn’t want that.

Cyclists would get a lot more respect if they were willing to follow the rules of the road. This is not just because drivers like rules. It’s a safety issue. Unpredictable moves lead to accidents. Despite what some cyclists seem to think, drivers actually do not want to run them over.

The recent dustup between drivers and cyclists suggests they have nothing in common, but the thing that should unite them is the poor condition of our roads. Too many of our major streets are tough to drive on in a car, much less a bike. Fixing those roads, not more bike lanes, would be the best thing the city could do for cyclists and drivers.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa commentator, novelist and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com.