Biking as portrayed in the Newspaper
The Toronto Star is featuring bikes in the Wheels section of today’s paper (I would love to link you to the actual articles, but all I have is my iPad-hence all the typos you will be seeing-and Wheels is not part of their mobile site nor could I find it clicking through to their regular site. You can click through from there to wheels.ca, but I couldn’t find any of the same articles there, though there is a link to a video of one of their writers talking about why he loves biking). If this doesn’t seem that exciting, keep in mind that Wheels typically features motorized vehicles. Also keep in mind that they didn’t put out this special issue because it’s some official sort of “bike-to-somewhere” day or because there has been an unfortunate run of accidents involving cyclists or because some politician got all het up about the “war on the car” and decided to talk about licenses and insurance for cyclists, which are some of the more common reasons newspapers have had in the past for focusing on cycling. Nor does the decision appear to be related to the ongoing Tour de France, which is covered in the sports section, but not really the kind of cycling they’re talking about here (in spite of the picture on the front of the section, which appears to be of a race).
No, they put together this section because, in their words, “If it belongs on the road-and bicycles do-then it belongs in Wheels”. I could not be more thrilled about this. It is like saying, we are talking about bicycles because people ride them and care about them and that’s reason enough. I am also pleased they seem to have avoided the common trap of taking a writer who hasn’t been on a bike in ten years, throwing them onto one of the busiest streets in Toronto and having him write about how harrowing this experience was. I know those sorts of articles are often supposed to convince folks we need better cycling infrastructure and while that’s a laudable goal, an inexperienced rider on a busy street is obviously going to give a biased report and rather than changing minds may just end up scaring off people who were thinking about giving biking a try.
No, they seem to have found a couple of writers who are also riders, one seemingly mostly on the city’s trail network and another who has an $8500 bicycle (crazy) and rides it along Steeles (crazier).
They avoided all these traps and yet I’m still not happy. A minor quibble, if you will. It would be such a shame for me not to uphold the stereotype of the angry self-righteous cyclist given such a golden opportunity.
The amazingly informative article on websites and resources for cycling around the city (did not know about bikesandtransit.com, but I’ve been contemplating a longer, possibly-overnight trip recently, so I’m very excited to check it out) is on page 12 (not page 14 as the paper suggests). The article on fancy shifters and lightweight components and expensive tires? That’s on page 16. And the article on the best cars for transporting bikes, which is kind of a cool idea for an article that I don’t think I’ve seen before, is on page 20. The editorial stating everyone should wear a helmet? That’s on page 2.
Let me get this out of the way since it seems to be a compulsory thing for some people if you want to discuss cycling with them: I wear a helmet. I grew up when the mandatory helmets for under-16s law came in, so I feel naked without one. Although I should note that it’s over three years old, when some manufacturers recommend replacing (but there is some suggestion this is a cash grab). Also I’ve dropped it a few times, which means it may need to be replaced, but all these editorials that claim to be so interested in the skulls of cyclists often fail to mention this for some reason. (Other thing the Star fails to mention: the guy with the fancy bike worries about his speed, but speeding laws in Ontario only apply to motorized vehicles, although obviously they can still charge you with careless driving so 90 kph in a 50 isn’t recommended. I’m just trying to indicate that sometimes these bike articles seem poorly researched).
So with that out of the way, let me now say what I really want to. Cycling is so much more than helmets. To me it is fun and physical effort and getting to know new corners of the city and the pleasure of owning a vehicle simple enough that I can do basic repairs myself. And I’m sure to other people it’s even more than that. And I know that if they hadn’t mentioned helmets, someone in the comments would have (if I could find it online). And I know that if they had dared to show a picture of a cyclist without a helmet, it would be basically the only thing anyone in the comments mentioned. It’s frustrating as a cyclist to have something so minor dominate so much of the talk. It gives the impression that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is and that feeling safe is more important than being safe. And so I wish that the Star had left it out of their special issue. Or at least that it wasn’t the first thing they brought up about cycling. Or at least at least that they could mention it without the fear-inducing anecdotes.
But since they did, let me turn in my scientist card for a few minutes and fight anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence. Less than a year ago, a girl I worked with was walking in a quiet residential neighbourhood on the sidewalk when a car that had somehow lost control (still not clear on the details, but witness reports were of the car driving wildly through a stop sign beforehand) ran up on the sidewalk, knocked her through a fence and she landed on her head. Her brain shifted several centimetres; there was blood on it and she was in a coma. Several weeks later she died from her injuries.
Even just writing this out I feel silly using her death to try to demonstrate some point about safety, but no one ever seems to feel this way about using bicycle accidents, so I’ll press on. No one at her funeral suggested she “looked stupid” (as the editorial put it) for not wearing a helmet when she was hit. No one suggested they had a right to tell her what safety equipment she ought to have been wearing even though she needed the health care system and was thus “costing them money”. Because that would be silly. And because people are reasonable when it comes to pedestrians (mostly).
People get that when you leave your safe little home and poke your head out in the world, you are taking on a certain level of risk and that you wouldn’t have gotten hurt if you had elected to just stay home, but that we as a society have decided that this really isn’t a practical way to live. So we let some people walk without safety equipment and some people with further to go or more stuff to transport drive large motorized vehicles right alongside them. And we understand that when we let people do that, sometimes someone loses control. And sometimes someone else is, tragically, horribly, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I don’t know if wearing a helmet would have saved my friend. The same way everyone with a near-miss bike story who claims the helmet saved them can’t know that that’s true. But I am pretty confident that newspapers that have chosen to run features on pedestrian issues have not opened by suggesting all pedestrians should encase themselves in protective gear because walking is dangerous and it just makes sense.
But helmets so dominate the cycling conversation in North America that people do think it’s the most important thing to ask or mention any time cycling comes up. First, before anything else. Even if the original conversation was not about safety to start with. Look, even if the talk is about safety, helmets shouldn’t be the first thing mentioned. The best way to stay safe is not to get hit. And the best way not to get hit, assuming you’re not willing to stay home, is to be visible and predictable and follow the rules. Take a course if you need to.
So to take my own advice, I hope this is the last you’ll hear about helmets on this blog. Let’s try to offset that big rant with a more positive cycling story. I played Ultimate this week at Fergy Brown Park and decided to bike there from work. I have been over it a few times and can’t figure out a reasonable route that doesn’t take me a few kilometres down Eglinton Ave. This section of Eg is six lanes wide and, although that mean traffic moves freakily fast, there is also a lot of room to pass. Except now they are starting construction for the Eglinton crosstown and it’s down to two lanes, one each direction. Which is how I found myself facing down a row of pylons at rush hour on the Thursday before a long weekend with a huge line of cars behind me. And I ended up totally fine. Thanks to the kind drivers who let me in and didn’t try to sneak past when there wasn’t room to pass safely. Thanks to everyone who waited behind me. I’m sure some of you were cursing the 30 extra seconds it took you to get through, especially Eastbound where I swear I biked my little heart out to get up that hill. I know it can feel like forever when you’re slowed down so much, but know that I very much appreciate you not honking impatiently. Seriously. I’ve been biking here a little over three years and only had a few bad incidents, but those are the ones that stick with you. So glad this was not one of them. You all made my day.