Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Forgiveness and Unintended Consequences

My unpleasant encounter with a car fender last Tuesday has left me thinking about several things, including forgiveness and the law of unintended consequences.

In the moment that I stood in the street fumbling with my cell phone and deciding whether or not to dial 911, several instincts played through me. A long family tradition of toughness weighed against bothering the authorities over a little thing like a roll on the pavement. My history of cycling activism told me to hold the driver accountable. My deep belief in peace and reconciliation left me spring loaded to forgive. My years of experience in the criminal justice system have left me with a healthy respect for its limits. All that, combined with my own reluctance to spend time with police while waiting to get to the doctor, led me not to call 911. Some people who commented on my last post think I should tell the police what happened, if only to keep their statistics straight. I see the point in that call, and I may do it.

The incident did make me think about Toronto's street design, and the driving habits it encourages. Where minor streets such as Euclid cross arterial roads like Dundas, a long time can pass during rush hour without the kind of break in traffic drivers at stop signs should wait for. On Dundas, as on many other streets, when traffic in one direction breaks, the traffic in the other often does not. Drivers frequently pull forward at the first break in traffic closest to them, then wait for a break in the traffic going the other direction. Doing this creates a dangerous situation, but if drivers did not do it, traffic in this city simply would not move. At Euclid, the street where I got hit, "traffic calming" measures (excuse a hollow laugh) compound the problem. Normally, a driver attempting to cross a major street such as Dundas would have the option to turn right and circle back to their destination, but the maze of one-way streets, specifically designed to exclude traffic from the neighbourhood, boxes drivers in and makes it difficult for them to choose the safer course. The neighbourhood pressure groups and traffic engineers who designed the street where I got hit probably did not intend to create a stressful situation for drivers or a dangerous one for me, but between them, they did so.

In his book Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross discussed the preference of Native Elders for justice which dealt with the root of problems, rather than simply punishing the offender. In this case, I see the root of the problem as bad street design, a city profoundly conflicted about the role of the car in our culture, and some very mixed messages about aggressive driving. Right or wrong, I would rather address these roots of the problem than visit retribution on the apologetic young woman whose front bumper shoved my bike.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A roll on the pavement

Christian Peacemaker Teams has an office just off Spadina Avenue and below College Street. I go there to provide computer advice, work on plans, run errands, or just hang out. When I go, I often ride my bike; I find it a pleasant distance to ride in from Bloor West.

Yesterday, as I rode home along Dundas at rush hour, a car tried to cross at Euclid, which has no light, just a stop sign. By the time I realised they hadn't seen me and wouldn't stop, I had passed in front of them. Trying to avoid them, I felt something push my bike. I tried frantically to stay in control, realised I couldn't, and then an instinct that has saved me more than once took over: I relaxed and let it happen. My bike and I went down, and I came off the bike cleanly. I landed on my left hand, and rolled as I hit. I remember thinking I must look like other cyclists caught on You-Tube falling and rolling. I had my helmet on, but I don't think I hit my head at all. I came up in the next second, and roared at the driver, Stop!

I don't think I needed to yell anything; the two young women in the car stopped immediately and apologized profusely. I remember the next few seconds as a bit muddled; I took out my cell phone and tried to decide whether I should call 911. On one hand, I had just had a car crash; on the other hand, I didn't seem seriously hurt, the police might take a while to arrive, and probably had other things to do anyway. I just wanted to get to a doctor and get checked out. The driver asked me if I wanted to call an ambulance, and I knew I did not need to do that. I hesitated for a moment, then looked around for my bike. I panicked for a second when I didn't see it on the street, then realized a witness to the crash had kindly retrieved it for me. I thanked him, collected my bike, and then told the driver I needed her insurance information. She gave me the card, let me a pen to copy the number, and gave me her cell number. She offered again to drive me to the hospital, but I just wanted to get home with the bike. Also, when someone has a car crash, my first impulses don't include accepting a ride from them.

I went to St. Joseph Hospital. Looking back, I would have done better to go to Toronto Western, just two blocks away, but I wanted to go somewhere I knew. The doctors at St. Joseph stitched my thumb up where I lacerated it on the pavement, and took a few x-rays to make sure I hadn't broken any bones. I went home, had some ibuprofen and a hot bath, and emailed friends who had heard about the accident to let them know I had so far suffered no seriously ill effects.

Looking back, should I have called the police? My instincts say no. The driver should have stopped to make sure she had a clear road (which means no cyclists in the way), but plenty of drivers have made worse mistakes in my presence, and I haven't dialed 911. It seemed a bit unfair to try to bring the full weight of the law down on the driver who had the misfortune to get into a crash with my bike.

In the end, I just feel grateful that I apparently go through it with so little lasting harm. When I think of how badly these encounters have gone for other people, I feel fortunate indeed.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Real and Imaginary Traffic Rules for Cyclists

Motorists who complain about cyclists seem to have two principal beefs. Some argue that cyclists take up space that "rightfully" belongs to cars, and that cyclists simply get in the way of what they view as "legitimate" road users. Others point out that the rules of the road apply to all of us. Unfortunately, the first view tends to inform the second: many motorists don't just want cyclists to obey the rules of the road, they want cyclists to obey the rules as they understand them, or even as they invent them.

The laws motorists claim cyclists routinely break fall into four categories: laws which really do serve the purpose of keeping us safe, laws in which the spirit reasonably ought to exempt bicycles, laws which serve a purpose but do not apply in the context that many motorists claim, and, last, laws not found in the Ontario statute books at all, and which some motorists have apparently made up out of whole cloth.

Real Laws that Really Apply

Everyone who operates a vehicle at night needs lights and reflectors. That includes cyclists as well as drivers. Every vehicle should obey the traffic lights. Vehicles don't belong on sidewalks or in crosswalks. Any cyclist can turn into a pedestrian at any time; just get off the saddle, grab the handlebars, and walk. Don't ride past open streetcar doors. Yield to the bus. Respect crosswalks. The list of laws that reasonably apply to bicycles includes most of the highway traffic act.

Real Laws that Common Sense Says Shouldn't Apply to Bicycles

Traffic calming rules apply to bicycles, although many of them really should not. When a local neighbourhood committee asks for stop signs on every block to deter commuting motorists from barreling through at fifty km/h or more, they don't intend to force bicycles traveling at twenty to thirty km/h to stop every sixty meters. However, we have a solution for this: change the law, so the letter reflects the intent. Where four-way stop signs and other traffic calming measures don't need to apply to bicycles, change the rules, and change the signs to match.

Real (Sort of) Laws That Would Paralyze Urban Traffic

According to a literal reading of the highway traffic act, you cannot pass another car on the right. Toronto has a number of streets with advanced right turn signals, and of course, cars routinely turn right on red. In congested traffic, the cars in the least congested lane move ahead as quickly as they can. Whenever cars in the rightmost lane move before cars in the left or center lane, they technically violate the law. If everyone followed the law rigidly, no lane could move unless the left-most lane started moving first. Nobody ever drives like that, but some motorists apparently insist that cyclists ought to ride that way.

"Rules" Made Up Out of Whole Cloth

One motorist recently wrote to a public forum, complaining that:

As a driver, this is frustrating. Cars move at a good clip, as I'm sure you're aware. When a cyclist darts in front of them to avoid a "pothole", as in your example, they usually do not signal. This is actually the law, to signal, if you are a car or a bike...any vehicle needs to signal.

This argument misstates the law in two ways. First, cars do not "move at a good clip"; they travel at the speed selected by their drivers, who have at all times the obligation to operate them in a safe manner. That means a driver who cannot avoid a cyclist in front of them maneuvering to avoid a pothole should slow down. Second, a cyclist, like a car, has a right to maneuver in the cyclist's own lane without needing to signal. If you want to pass a cyclist in their own lane, you have the responsibility to do it safely. That means leaving the cyclist enough room to avoid road hazards. If you can't pass safely, slow down. I don't think any motorist has ever died from driving at bicycle speed for a few blocks.

Then we have the extraordinary delusion that the highway traffic act, or any other traffic regulation, contains some sort of provision for those drivers who consider it unfair that cyclists take advantage of the nimble nature of our vehicles. Yes, bicycles work better in congested traffic, precisely because we can cycle through gaps in traffic that cars cannot. If you want to take advantage of that too, get on your bike; with one less car, we'll all have less congestion to worry about.

Why does this matter? First of all, it matters that road users have reasonable expectations of one another. Also, some drivers seem to believe they do not have to respect any cyclist if they see just one cyclist do something they consider wrong. That attitude has plenty of obnoxious features by itself; if you extend that way of thinking to cars, could the police ban motorized traffic from the city for twenty-four hours after every hit and run? If drivers can behave with contempt and distrust for all cyclists because of the behavior of one cyclist, can any cyclist who has ever encountered a drunk driver treat all motorists with contempt and disdain? But this belief in collective guilt takes on an additional dimension of absurdity when the "rules" motorists blame us all for breaking exist only in heir own heads. Plenty of cyclists, including myself, advocate excellent cycling, which includes showing respect for other road users. We should follow the rules that keep us and other road users safe. Those rules, however, come from the law and the courts, not the desires of individual motorists.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mr. Bush doesn't get it

...the American people will never be safe until the people of the Middle East know the freedom that our creator meant for all.

Almost five years after Jean Chretien summed up the problem with a single nation trying to police the globe and impose one version of the "good life" on everyone, George Bush still doesn't get it. As the United States prepared to invade Iraq, Chretien asked the single question that, in retrospect, everyone should have asked: once we grant the world's dominant military power to impose their vision of freedom on anyone, anywhere, by armed force, what limits to this power exist? And if any nation can suffer an invasion simply because opinion moulders in the United States find their society insufficiently "free", then what freedom, what security does anyone have?

Almost two hundred and twenty years after the framing of the United States constitution, and four bloody years in Iraq (and counting), the basic concept that freedom means, above all, limits on the power of people with uniforms and guns still escapes many "serious" foreign policy minds in Washington. Almost eighty years after the Kellog-Briand pact, it hasn't penetrated the mind of George Bush or his supporters that the same principle of freedom from government intervention that underpins the US constitution has to apply to everyone. Trapped in a tragic conviction that the United States government can make people free by pointing guns at them, Mr. Bush and his supporters have succeeded only at diminishing everyone's freedom.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A beautiful pause in Wisconsin

Toronto, Ontario. -- On the way home, we spent three days in Wisconsin, first visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum to see their current exhibition, Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape. Then we stayed at a lovely, quiet resort in central Wisconsin, the Oakwood Lodge in Green Lake.

I think that the picture says it all.
And here's another picture.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Road East

We headed east from Bear Butte and Sturgis South Dakota on Tuesday, making for Sioux Falls where we had to drop a colleague off. Interstate 90, the road which traverses the southern part of South Dakota from Minnesota to Wyoming, has relatively little traffic. However, much of that traffic consists of big vehicles. We regularly saw bus-sized recreational vehicles (RVs) towing SUVs. In fact, one RV actually had a hummer in tow, which pretty much redefined the term "wretched excess" for me.

We stopped for lunch at Wall Drug, which has essentially evolved from a small town drug store on the edge of the badlands to a large western-themed mall. They have a cafe which serves a good inexpensive breakfast, and a sculpture court where you can take someone's picture on a jackelope.

After we had dropped our co-worker off for the flight home, we headed for our first night's stop in Fairmont, MN. The next day we drove on through to the Mississippi crossing, and then on through the Wisconsin Dells, and so to Kenosha on Lake Michigan.

And so we ended the first part of our trip, the excursion to South Dakota and our religious meeting.

A Prairie Trail

Green Lake, Wisconsin. -- I am writing from a resort in Wisconsin, but (to keep with our chronology), I am recalling the events of a few days ago, on the prairie.

John has already written about our reasons for being in South Dakota, where John spoke at a Spiritual Forum in Rapid City and where we stayed for two nights at the prayer camp at the foot of Bear Butte. So I am just adding a few impressions.

Now I have to admit that I do not like camping as a rule, being quite fond of the comforts found in say, a nice Holiday Inn or a cosy bed and breakfast. But the experience of camping on the prairie was lovely in a lot of ways. First, and most important, because of the warm welcome we received from the First Nations people there. Second, because of the gentle breezes that kept the heat at bay (even though they threatened to blow one tent away).

Third, as an Ontario resident, I had never really seen the grasslands up close or realized how rich and colourful they are. Black-eyed Susans are the flower of choice there, growing by every roadside in the hundreds. There are plants with little red berries (I don't know the name) and others that have elegant brown thistle-like (but not prickly) flowers. Best of all, sage grows alongside the pathways, and across the pathways too, so that, as you walk, it is as if your footsteps are always raising incense.

Honouring our Ancestors

Christian Solidarity Walk,
Mato Paha 2006
Green Lake, Wisconsin - As part of our trip to Mato Paha (Bear Butte), we attended a spiritual encampment set up to pray for the protection of the sacred mountain. There we met a Lakota woman who spoke to us of White people who ask to join First Nations rituals, to take part in Sweat Lodges and watch the Sun Dance. She told me she asks them what they do to honour their own ancestors, what rituals they have.

As a Christian, my religious rituals do not relate to my ancestors. But I do make an effort to honour my ancestors; I work for justice towards Aboriginal North Americans on my behalf and theirs.

My great-great-great uncle, William Spragge, signed the Manitoulin Island Treaty on behalf of the Crown. I don't know his actual attitude towards the First Nations he negotiated with, whether he truly wished to make the encounter between two cultures as just and fair as he could, or whether he mainly wished to move Aboriginals and their cultures out of the way of European settlement. In a sense, it does not matter very much. The Europeans who first encountered First Nations people shared the difficult task of reconciling two very different cultures with very different views of the world, and I believe in evaluating even their worst failures with compassion.

But whatever my ancestors did or failed to do right in the centuries that preceded this one, their actions form part of an ongoing relationship. I can choose to honour the best things my ancestors did by doing everything I can to foster a just relationship between the Aboriginal and Non-aboriginal people of this continent. If enough of us do so, in the end I believe history will see even the worst mistakes of our ancestors as slips at the rocky beginning of a positive relationship. If we and the generations that follow us fail, then all that our ancestors did, the good and the bad, will blend into a history of genocide, of the destruction of a people. I do this work, I strive to steer our relationships in a positive direction, because I have the honour of my ancestors in my keeping.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Not Quite Critical Mass

Sturgis SD. - The thunder creeps in everywhere: through library windows, through the walls of our tent at night, and into the cafe where we eat. Tens of thousands of engines roar in unison at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, where we have come to attend a prayer camp for the protection of Mato Paha, the holy mountain threatened by bars and party venues. We have come to meet with Native Elders, and have joined a prayer camp sponsored by the Northern Cheyenne.

During the rally, Sturgis South Dakota presents a picture of a culture utterly enthralled to the internal combustion engine; some motorcycle rally participants arrive on motorcycles with their tents and bedrolls, while others ride in van homes or rolling palaces towed by semi-trailers. The festival has grayed; the average age of the participants has topped fifty. But even the AARP of motorcycle rallies has plenty of beer, plenty of noise, and a very busy court and jail.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Cyclist Goes for a Long Drive...

Winner, SD. - If you read the cycling stories and the cycling advocacy here, the stories of travel by car we have posted in the last three days may make you wonder: why did we choose to drive? And does that mean my advocacy for cycling only means advocating easy cycling?
The work I have undertaken on behalf of Christian Peacemaker Teams requires travel to Rapid City South Dakota, two destinations not served by any public transit other than a bus service which runs on an irregular schedule, and an airline service. The work we plan to do requires mobility in a place where summer temperatures routinely get up into the mid forties (Celsius). We need to go to the area at a time when demand for accommodation pushes hotel prices for even budget hotels into the $200.00 per night range. We have to navigate changing circumstances, complex politics, and extreme, unpredictable weather. To do this work, we need a car. A bicycle touring champion might operate successfully on a bicycle in these conditions, though I doubt it, but I cannot.
All this means nothing to the Earth's carbon balance. Does the work we do justify itself to future generations, who will have to endure the atmosphere we leave behind? I believe it does. Nothing creates as much pollution as unconstrained conflict. I consider peacemaking a carbon offset. I believe the work we do to heal confrontations justifies the carbon we must expend.

Classical taste in the Midwest

Sioux Center, Iowa. - During our stay in Beloit, Wisconsin (which we learned is pronounced Beloyt, not Belwah), we enjoyed visiting Beloit College. Besides the fascinating effigy mounds and Emma Goldman sculpture, there was the Wright Museum of Art, a delightful red brick structure. Its courtyard with round arches has a definite air of promoting art as a civilizing influence.

Among the exhibits was a plaster cast of the ancient Greek discus thrower. The label explained that he was one of a collection of plaster casts acquired from the Greek government's exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Typical of such collections, these casts were once treasured, subsequently fell into sad disrepair, but are now being rediscovered. The museum invited us to "adopt" the plaster cast of the discus thrower or one of his fellows.

After enjoying a small exhibit of plein air painting, and a show of sequential paintings, we were on our way.

Crossing Minnesota

We set ourselves a challenge yesterday: swimming, blogging, sightseeing, and getting from the edge of southern Wisconsin to the borders of South Dakota. By Mapquest's account, it should take eight hours to drive that distance, but MapQuest does not take construction delays, rainstorms, or meal breaks into account.
We started out looking at Native effigy mounds at Beloit College, a small liberal arts university. The mounds at Beloit look like small humps, clearly visible as human constructions, rising between two and four feet above ground level. The brochure provided by the college anthropology museum tells us they date from AD 800-1000, and surmises that Native families built them as projects to foster family unity. Beloit College has added some modern sculptural installations to the grounds as well, including a tribute to Emma Goldman. It consists of a seat with a cage in front of it, and an open liberating window to the left.

We had lunch in Beloit, then drove north and west, past Madison to the Mississippi crossing that divides Wisconsin from Minnesota. The Mississippi has cut a large valley here, with impressive bluffs looming over it. According to the historical plaque, the area has attracted tourists since 1855. The highway follows the valley for a short while, then climbs out into rolling farmland of Minnesota. We stopped for dinner in Rochester, which appeared to have a balloon festival under way.
After dinner, we drove on in the dark; rain turned the drive into a challenge at first, then an endurance test. We arrived after midnight.
Today we pick up our co-worker and travel on to the meeting in Rapid City.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Revisiting old Haunts

Beloit, Wisconsin. - I have little to add to John's post except to say a bit about revisiting Ann Arbor. When we arrived there with Rebecca and Doug I was delighted to show them the parking structure, which goes beyond parking to be a lesson in cross-cultural mathematics. Each floor is indicated in a variety of number systems -- modern Arabic, Roman numerals, Egyptian, Chinese and Hindi. Having lived six years in this lovely city with its high concentration of Ph.D.'s, all I can say is, this is so Ann Arbor.

It's interesting how a one-and-a-half hour revisit to a city one knows well, becomes a condensed version of one's remembered life there. Zola is special to us because of many visits for waffles and other treats, but especially because, the evening after I successfully defended my dissertation, my superisor Howard took us to dinner there.

By the way, it is the addition of yogurt and lemon zest that makes the Zola waffle so special

The Journey is Our Home

Yesterday we left our house with the sun. Friends picked us up in the Christian Peacemaker Teams car, and we headed west for Chicago. Rebecca and Doug had meetings at the Chicago offices of CPT; we plan to attend a spiritual gathering on the subject of Mato Paha, the great sacred mountain of the Western Plains.

We had a long drive ahead of us for this first day: from Toronto through Chicago to Beloit in Wisconsin. Fortunately, our friends took turns with the driving, allowing me to catch up on sleep that the trip preparations had given me no time for. We took our friends to lunch in Ann Arbor at Zola's cafe, and treated them to the best waffles on this mortal Earth. Then we hit the road again, through the hills of southern Michigan and the northern Indiana, through the dark and slag-scarred mills of Gary Indiana, and so to the CPT American office on Chicago's West Side. There we rested and had dinner.

Whenever I see it, the scale of the American industrial landscape impresses me; where other cities have a lifting railway bridge, Chicago has a row of lifting bridges. The use of steel in places like Chicago also impresses me; where in Toronto we tend to build in square forms that have a spare functional beauty, American designers use more decoration, shaping even objects such as bridge supports into decorative shapes which look to me like tulip bulbs, and weaving decorations into bridge railings.

After dinner, and after leaving our friends behind, we headed west for the final phase of the day's journey: the trip to Beloit Wisconsin. We followed I-90 out of Chicago to Rockford, where crews repairing up the road reduced traffic to a monumentally frustrating crawl. And so to the inn and bed after a long day, a long leap at the start of our journey.