Why are cyclists so angry?

Source: National Post

Bike Messenger - "Wrong Way" Cyclist

Bike Messenger – “Wrong Way” Cyclist

Darren Stehr, who lives in Scarborough and is active in Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, was riding west on the Danforth Tuesday, on his way to meet me in Kensington Market. He had passed Greenwood Avenue when his trip went bad.

“There was construction in the curb lane, so I was over,” he says. “Some guy was yelling, ‘Move over, get out of the way!’ The next thing you know, he hit me with his side mirror. I kept riding. I told him, ‘Pull over.’ He zoomed off.”

It didn’t end there. Cyclists can get angry.

”I chased after him, told him he was under arrest for dangerous driving, and called 911. Police got there. Then the guy yells, ‘You told me you were a cop!’ I said I didn’t. The police said they can’t charge him because there are no witnesses.”

Those crazy cyclists. Banging on your hood. Taking up the whole lane so you can’t pass them. Kicking your car door. Yelling at you. Giving you the finger. And as if that weren’t enough, now they are making citizen’s arrests.

And who can forget the January altercation in Kensington Market, when a cyclist threw a man’s litter back in his car? He got out and stomped on her bicycle; photos of the fight went around the world on the Internet, prompting a global debate on cycling and driver rights.

Why are Toronto cyclists so freaking angry?

Maybe because they are all self-righteous freaks, frustrated they can’t afford a car, rebelling against the establishment for any number of misguided reasons; in short, leftist, dope-smoking vegetarian militants with hairy armpits, hairy legs and troubled souls.

Or maybe cyclists are angry because they get no respect in this town.

“It often feels like we’re on our own,” says Tanya Quinn, sitting with Stehr and I at The Last Temptation in Kensington. Active in ARC, Quinn also has her own blog, crazybikerchick.blogspot.com.”It feels like there are a lot of drivers out there who are hostile and feel like cyclists don’t have the right to be on the road.”

On Thursday, April 20, a little after 8 a.m., Dr. Hubert Van Tol, a father of three, left his modern home in a leafy, sidewalk-free enclave in Lawrence Park, and headed to his job as head of the molecular neurobiology and transgenic section at Toronto’s Centre for

Addiction and Mental Health. Half an hour later, a dump truck filled with gravel heading south on

Avenue Road turned right on Cortleigh Boulevard, hit him and crushed his head.

Dr. Van Tol, 46, was no self-righteous freak. He was merely doing something that is commonplace in his native Holland: riding his bike to work.

That same evening, Bianca Gogel, 16, was cycling past the corner of Keele Street and Finch Avenue West. As she entered the intersection, she “came in contact with the trailer portion” of a tractor-trailer turning north, according to the police report. “The cyclist was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Last week, Stehr and other cyclists chained a “ghost bike” — a bike painted entirely white — to a pole near each bike accident site.

At Dr. Van Tol’s home this week his wife, Monica, pleaded for privacy. “There are 15 people from his department in the backyard right now,” she said. “It’s only 11 days since he died. Please give us some time.”

On Tuesday, a 15-year-old boy rode his bicycle south on Lockwood Road in Brampton. As he entered the Queen Street intersection, a woman in a van heading north on Lockwood turned left on to Queen and hit him. He died that night at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

So why are cyclists so angry? Mostly, it is out of fear.

“I don’t even like getting a call on major arteries after 3:30 p.m.,” says Glen Chomniak, 44, a South Riverdale father of one with degrees in urban planning and urban design who works as a bicycle courier. “People going back to Markham think that they have this absolutely biblical right to go as fast as they want because it’s considered rush hour. They get really mad, they get aggressive. People are all honking and held up and they start using their cell phones and then they get angry because they have to get their kids to piano and soccer.”

Chomniak and I are having an after-work beer on the terrace at Fionn MacCool’s, on the Esplanade. It is rush hour, and around us churn angry rivers of metal as motorists attempt to leave downtown. Who would dare enter that flow on so vulnerable an apparatus as a frame of metal with a couple of thin wheels? The statistics are not reassuring. City figures show an average of 1,230 bike-car collisions in Toronto in each of the past five years. According to Sgt. Brian Bowman of Toronto Police traffic services, 1,100 cyclists were injured in bike-car crashes in Toronto last year.

“These are more than just a scrape,” he says. “They’re often broken bones.” Bike accident totals, he says, are under-reported, and a fair number are hit and runs. He calls the numbers “alarming.”

In about 50% of cases it’s the driver’s fault, in the other 50% it’s the cyclist’s fault, he says.

“If you look at it from the cyclist’s perspective,” he adds, “They have the right to be on the road. And the motorist is protected by all the metal around them.”

Drivers on cell phones are a huge danger, he says. One even cut him off the other day. He was heading south on Strachan Avenue on his motorcycle, his lunch and Tim Hortons coffee carefully wedged in his saddlebag next to his rain coat. At the corner of King Street, a northbound car turning left cut him off. Sgt. Bowman pulled him over.

“Officer, it was a very important call,” the driver protested.

“More important than having me on the hood of your car?” the sergeant asked.

Det.-Const. Stefan Nasner of Toronto Police, who is investigating Dr. Van Tol’s death, plans to bring in the truck driver for questioning before meeting a Crown prosecutor to look at laying a charge.

Laying a charge can take time. A month ago, Det.-Const. Nasner went to Hamilton to charge Carlos Picanco, 49, a delivery-truck driver, with “making a turn not in safety” in the Oct. 31 death of Ryan Carriere. Carriere, 33, died under the wheels of a truck at the corner of Gladstone Avenue and Queen Street West on his way home to take his kids out for trick-or-treating. Picanco is due back in court on May 18.

Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. What does the group have to show for its work? Not much. With the advent of the SUV, bikes have even less room on the road. The city put out an ambitious bike-lane plan in 2001. The Dundas Street East bike lane was a big breakthrough, but this year, despite a huge influx of new residents in all the new condos, the city will extend the bike lane network by just five blocks on Harbord Street (from Grace Street to Ossington Avenue) and put in a little piece on Logan Avenue.

“It’s not as fast as many of us would like it to be,” admits Daniel Egan, manager of the city’s pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. “It’s frustrating for staff and community activists. The biggest challenge is the lack of resources.”

“Now we are so far behind implementing the bike plan that it’s getting silly,” says Wayne Scott, another ARC activist, who spent 25 years as a bicycle courier and managed to convince federal tax collectors to let couriers deduct $15 a day for their fuel — food. Mayor David Miller, adds Stehr, isn’t leading on the issue. “He’ll get his face out there during bike week for a couple of photo ops, but that’s about it.”

I asked the ARC people whether there is any good news at all.

“There’s a lot of people out on their bikes,” Quinn says with a smile. “That’s good.” “The price of gas is going up,” adds Stehr. “That’s good.”

National Post

pkuitenbrouwer@nationalpost.com