Tuesday, June 22, 2010

End the impunity. See what happens.

Jim Kenzie, among others, has claimed that, for no reason he cares to make explicit, Canadians will not stop driving cars and drivers will not change. I think he and people who think like him underestimate the intelligence and decency of the driving public. I think drivers would do the behave much better if the law and the culture around us sent a clear message about the right way to drive. Specifically, I think insisting drivers will never treat other road users respectfully makes it much less likely they will. Whatever the reason, this country suffers from a road death rate that makes it very likely that over a normal lifetime you will lose a family member or friend to a traffic crash. I have a modest proposal to change things.

End the impunity.

Recently, the courts convicted a driver for having a car illegally modified for street racing in a way that defeats important safety features, driving that car at a reckless speed, and causing a death. Having reached all those conclusions, the court sentenced the driver to one year in jail. This would not bother me as much as it does, if similarly reckless behaviour with firearms attracted a similar sentence. Someone who deliberately disconnected the smoke alarms in a house, or permitted someone else to, then behaved recklessly with matches and inflammables would face a charge of manslaughter, if not murder, should their behaviour kill someone.

With the series of judicial and police decisions over the past year, it seems hard to deny that dangerous drivers in this culture can expect a presumption of good faith and a leniency that few others can. If you pull the trigger, the courts assume you meant to shoot. If you strike the match, the courts assume you meant to burn. If you defeat the safety measures in your car, drive recklessly, and kill someone, the courts appear to assume that you meant to arive at your destination will everyone aboard well and hearty. This has reached a point where it amounts to impunity for drivers.

Let's end the impunity. Let's do whatever it takes to ensure the courts cannot presume good faith in the face of evidence of reckless conduct on the roads and tampering with safety features. If judges in this province regularly treat homicidal recklessness with motor vehicles as much less culpable than recklessness with guns or fire, then maybe the law should require minimum sentences. Maybe, then, drivers would treat the responsibility inherent in operating a vehicle capable of causing serious harm with more respect. If not, then at least offenders will receive proportionate punishment, whether they use a bumper or a bullet to kill.

Friday, June 18, 2010

These days, they come for the dictionary first...

Joe at Biking Toronto wants to ditch the word cyclist, and at first sight he seems to have a good argument. Goodness knows, with both the friends and enemies of cycling engaged in a demented race to pile more and more baggage onto this poor two syllable word, it should make sense to just chuck it and start over. Look at all of the attempts to define a cyclist: someone who wants to save the planet but won't bother to stop at traffic lights, an impoverished elitist, an altruistic member of a self-interested minority. Can we save this word? Do we want to save this word?

Speaking for myself, yes I do want to save the word cyclist. I want to cut the straps and let all the baggage fall off, but I want to keep the word. A cyclist can vote BQ, Conservative, Liberal , NDP, or Rhinoceros. A cyclist can obey all the laws with great care, or can proceed through the world making up his or her own laws. A cyclist can believe in capitalism, anarcho-syndicalism, or any other economic system; in representative democracy or absolute monarchy. A cyclist can love the planet, hate it, or believe it doesn't matter because the world will end next Tuesday. Only one thing makes a cyclist: the use of human-powered, wheeled transportation. Anyone who has used a bike reasonably recently can call themselves a cyclist.

The word "cyclist" describes those of us who ride bicycles with an elegance and brevity that the words "people who happen to ride bicycles" will never achieve; but I have two more basic reasons for not wanting to give up the word.

First, to the noisy minority that shows up in newspaper and blog comments after every story involving cyclists and whips themselves into a froth (and they do constitute a minority), the problem has nothing to do with words. I do not know what many of those people really object to, but they focus their venom on human-powered vehicles and those who ride them. Just as advocates for people with cognitive impairments gave up the word idiot, imbecile and retarded when these words each evolved from a medical diagnosis into a schoolyard taunt, if we start calling ourselves people who happen to ride bicycles, we'll start to read abuse directed against PWHTRBs. These days, before they come for the communists or the trade unionists, they come for the dictionary. Let us not kid ourselves: the ultimate target has nothing to do with the words we use, or even the actual technology that moves us. They want our freedom.

This brings me to my second point. Some years ago, on a visit to the ancient seaport of Marseilles, I encountered a young street tough who asked me for money. When I had none to give him, he snarled "Juif". What should I have told him? The truth? Je ne suis pas un Juif would hardly have sounded dignified. In the end, I had no good (verbal) answer for him and just treated his comment as a stink in the air, not worth acknowledging. The point for us: when someone attacks us, it may seem to make sense to separate ourselves from the kind of people we think our accusers must really dislike. But that kind of denial preserves neither our dignity nor our rights. If we propose to drop the word cyclist as a way to distance ourselves from those dirty lawbreaking anarchists, we might as well forget it and preserve our dignity.Maybe I see myself as better than cyclists who ride badly, arrogantly or confrontationally; maybe I don't. But to many of our opponents, just riding a bike makes me just the same as all the cyclists they criticize. Maybe we need to debunk their stereotypes, but we sure shouldn't surrender to them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A thumb in the eye for a courtesy...

View Windermere Route in a larger map

When returning from the waterfront to Bloor West, I frequently take Windermere Avenue; it provides an easier and safer ride. Recently at the intersection of Bloor and Windermere, I had yet another experience of the factors which make for friction between motorists and cyclists. The Windermere/Bloor intersection has two northbound lanes: a right/through lane and a left turn lane. I reached the intersection on a red light, the first in line. I noticed the driver behind me wanted to turn right on the red, and the traffic conditions would allow him to do so safely, so I moved to the left to let him through. He made his turn safely and waved his thanks. Then the next car in line moved up and when the light turned, the driver went straight through the intersection on my left. That didn't cause me any great problem, since only one car went through the intersection that way. But If a whole line of cars had decided to pass me on my left, particularly if I also had cars going southbound, I might have found myself in a very uncomfortable position as a result of my courtesy to the driver turning right. I don't blame the driver who passed on my left; in Ontario, we don't train drivers to look out for cyclists.

The moral? The next time you see a cyclist and think that person could let you go ahead but won't, don't take it personally. Look at the situation from the cyclist's point of view. They may have no trouble letting you through safely, but they can't predict what the car behind you will do. Keep in mind also that the cyclist in front of you can probably do nothing to get you home sooner; if we let you through, or you pass us (safely, please) we'll probably see you at the next red light. Also, where you have crumple zones, seat belts, and air bags, we have a half millimetre of cotton or spandex. The other moral? If you want to speed up your actual travel time, well, get a bicycle. But if you have a load you have to move by motor vehicle, and you want to get through the city quickly, behave courteously to vulnerable road users, and encourage other motorists to do the same. For every driver who blows through a crosswalk, some pedestrian will push the button and wait for the lane to come to a complete stop. If you want crosswalks to work better, watch for the lights and obey them. If you want cyclists to offer you little courtesies, then make sure we don't find ourselves in dangerous situations when we do. If I move left to let a motorist make a right on red, that does not give you permission to pass me going straight. I try to treat other road users with respect and I expect respect in return, and respect and tolerance have to start with the people behind the wheels of the two-tonne steel bombs.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Too much fun in the rain forest...

A new cafe has opened on Annette Street called "Good Neighbours". Their lattes add a whole new layer of meaning to the phrase "guilty pleasure", and the decor of the place mixes contemporary art with traditional touches in a pleasing way.

When I lived in the United States and visited Toronto regularly, I always noticed the vibrant diversity of Toronto's business community. In all but the very largest American cities, the tried and true, the franchises with nationally known names, tend to dominate the landscape. Here in Toronto, a hundred thousand flowers have bloomed. Not for the first time, I feel the business climate resembles nothing so much as a rain forest, in the vibrancy of its diversity and its sheer sensuality.

In Toronto, we celebrate creativity with festivals: Luminato in the spring, Nuit Blanche in the fall. But we seldom seem to take the opportunity to celebrate the creativity all around us, in the simple act of opening a new cafe, or a store, or a restaurant. But when we honour creativity only in the official artists, we close our eyes to a wonderful bloom in forn of us every day.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

...and a bad argument against cyclists

Jason Henderson wrote an alternet article making the reasonable enough point that driving cars creates a demand for oil, the demand creates the impetus to drill, the drilling leads to disasters such as the one currently in the Gulf og Mexico. He proposes, as a solution, that we should accept driving as an activity fundamentally at odds with the environment and the values that progressive people hold. His prescription: don't drive. Not even a "green" car such as a Prius.

The comments attracted a set of fascinating defences of the car and denunciations of bicycle culture. One idea stands out: we shouldn't cycle, because "bohemian" cyclists oppress the "true" working class. Consider the following:
I see "progressives" like Jason Henderson every day. People who ride their bicycles inside highly electrified cities benefiting from wealth and privilege that made high education possible, while others in the vast service industry grew and shipped their food, made and shipped their clothing, maintained the day-to-day infrastructure working long hours for pennies and built the gigantic buildings required for a privileged few to have sufficient free time to pursue being "progressive" by cycling to a university.
It would take too much time to unpack all of this for one post, so I will focus on the central fallacy here: the assumption that bohemians in general, and perhaps cyclists in particular, partake of some privilege that renders them (us) at odds with some vague notion of an "authentic" working class. That, in turn, depends on a single (false) argument: that cycling necessarily requires so much time that only those people with both flexible and undemanding work schedules can manage to use a bicycle for practical purposes. I know from experience that at least in an urban centre, where most people now live, bicycles provide a more efficient way to get around. Whether from an economic, resource, or time perspective, the bicycle simply works better in the city than the car does.

Cycling requires organization and a measure of physical fitness. It does not require a "bohemian" or academic work schedule. Those people who want to suggest they drive in order to express solidarity with working people will have to think up a better excuse.

A challenge to the cycling community....

In my opinion, the best challenge to cyclists seldom gets made. The best possible argument against the cycling community would go like this: you (we) have the potential to achieve genuine excellence in the way you (we) travel, so why don't you (we) do that? The answer, of course, would go like this: we do come much closer to complete excellence than motorists allow. But we still make to many excuses for our own and each others' mistakes. We still settle for a lower standard than we could potentially achieve.

Too often, we can't find a good way to say to the world that we exist, we have an unquestioned right to the roads, and at the same time to say to one another that we fall short too often. We have the potential for genuine excellence: we can make our journey through the world a positive thing for our bodies, our minds, for the world around us. Motorists can never do that, or as with cyclists (most of us) who also drive cars, I need to say that when we drive, we can never do that. Behind the wheel of a car, we can only seek to limit the damage we do. But on a bicycle, we can grow our bodies, calm our minds, and travel peacefully and lightly in the world.

So why do we so often accept all the anger and frustration of the motorist, and return it to them with a little interest of our own? Why do even those of us most gifted with privilege, most able to forgive, sometimes cycle with a chip on our shoulders? Why foster a cycling culture that ratchets up the impulse to confront, to accuse, to respond to the violence motorists do, to themselves, to us, to the world, with anger and accusation? Can we find a better way?

A thumb on the scale

Over the weekend, someone put up a poignant protest at the courts: a white bicycle protesting the lack of justice for cyclists in Ontario courts. While I agree that Canadian courts have, in recent years, treated cyclists appallingly, I would go much farther than this. It seems to me that in virtually all cases where anyone, whether cyclist, pedestrian, or motorist has fallen victim to homicidally bad driving or roadside violence, someone, somehow, has put an obliging thumb on the blind lady's scales in favour of the errant motorist. Two young men kill a taxi driver by speeding on a downtown Toronto street at an estimated 30 to 90 km/h over the speed limit. They plead guilty of dangerous driving causing death, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of fourteen years in prison. They get a sentence of one year under house arrest, followed by an 11 pm to 6 am curfew, which their parents can override by giving them a note. Toronto drivers kill fourteen people un a little over three weeks, including one woman who runs a red light, kills a woman and very nearly kills the infant in a stroller. The police lay only provincial driving charges. An ex-politician tries to shake a cyclist off his car, battering him to death, and a prosecutor sees no prospect of conviction. A driver in Quebec hits a group of cyclists from behind, killing three; the police have yet to lay charges. A homicidally reckless, possibly drunk driver hits a car with his cement truck in Calgary. He kills five people, including three children, and virtually wipes out a family. The court awards a sentence of eight years, of which the defendant will serve five and a half. While heavier than most sentences for driving-related offences, this falls far short of the life sentences usually imposed for homicide, particularly in cases of multiple homicides with violence.

Not all of these cases represent the same level of leniency, and you could argue that in some of these cases, the courts have simply served justice based on the facts. But I challenge anyone to look at the overall record and maintain that the same trail of mayhem committed with guns or knives would elicit a similar response from the police and courts. The evidence that the legal system in this country treats the same harm very differently when delivered through a motor vehicle seems overwhelming, and it also appears equally clear that in too many cases, air bags, seat-belts and crumple zones do much less to mitigate the harm done by recklessness than car companies would like us to believe.

Some councillors and others have taken to whining that Toronto has embarked on a "war on the car". It seems clear to me that homicidally reckless drivers have long ago declared war on all of us: pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. So far, dangerous driving has killed more North Americans than al Qaeda and the Islamist movement, the Communist party (all communist parties), the government of Hideki Tojo, and the national socialist german worker's party. Combined. Maybe the time has come to stop mourning our dead, and instead to do something serious about the deaths.

...a long time coming

Jeffery Goldberg ascribes the recent events in regard to Gaza aid flotilla to military and short-term political incompetence. I think that does the Israeli politicians and generals a disservice. As long as Israeli forces maintain the Gaza blockade, by all accounts a popular policy in Israel and a very unpopular one elsewhere, people willing to risk death can make Israel look bad. The Gaza relief ships simply have to keep steaming toward port to compel the Israeli military to either abandon the blockade, or to use force and risk subsequent casualties.

Rather than blaming the Israeli Defence Force, it helps more to ask how the Israeli government got their tails in this particular crack. It seems to me that Israel blockaded Gaza in despair, because they had run out of options. Having beaten the corrupt Fatah party in the election of 2006, Hamas had a earned, by the normal rules that govern these matters, a right to govern. But governing the Palestinians meant working with the Israeli government, and the Israelis could find no way to work with people dedicated to their destruction. Here, I believe, two quite understandable impulses in Jewish life collided with disastrous results.

The first impulse, which for convenience I will refer to as the ADL impulse in honour of the Anti-defamation League, holds that the Jewish community cannot ignore or condone hostility. The second impulse, which I call the IDF impulse in honour of Israel's defence forces, says that the Jewish community can never afford to rely on goodwill alone, because enemies can overpower even the most sincere of friends. Both impulses make sense, given Jewish history, but they lead to fatally contradictory policies. If you have power, you can dictate to your enemies what they can and cannot do without having you punish them for it, but you can't try to force them to like you. A policy based on the IDF impulse would have ignored Hamas rhetoric, but punished any government led by Hamas for hostile actions against Israel. A policy based on the ADL impulse would have deplored the hostility to Israel shown by Hamas, but not used force in response to it. In fact, it appears the impulses collided, and Israel refused to recognize the results of the election both because of the past terrorism by Hamas and also because of the ongoing hostility of Hamas to Israel.

If Fatah had taken control of Gaza by force, then Israel could have released the blockade. But since Hamas won the election and the subsequent power struggle in Gaza, I can see few good options for the Israeli government short of a more general settlement with the Palestinians. In the meantime, blaming the situation on Israeli commandos, or even on the planning staff of the Israeli Defense force, strikes me as a less than useful simplification.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Semantics and car dependency

Cyclists who set out to argue with opponents of bicycle lanes and other facilities for cyclists have a problem: our opponents tend to speak a different language, to a different purpose, than we do. Many cyclists who argue for bicycle facilities also drive, but many motorists who argue against us do not cycle. That means many of our opponents have little if any experience choosing their transportation mode. To go any medium distance (one to a hundred kilometres), to them, means to drive a car. They know, in a sense, that they could cycle, but someone who has not cycled for transportation in their adult life has no actual experience of actually weighing the two transportation modes and choosing the one best for the purpose.

In practice, this often means that when cycling activists speak of the problem of car dependency, our opponents often answer us by talking about the advantages of "auto-mobility". I can't speak for other cyclists, but I do know about the advantages of the automobile. When I have a computer CPU, or other heavy gear, or a bunch of kids to schlep, I use a car. When I have just myself and something I can fit in panniers, I generally use a bike. But for someone who has never biked as an adult, in their practical experience cars mean mobility (and vice versa). The different experiences of cyclists and motorists cause us to speak a different language, and I believe it helps to both discuss the question of what purposes the private car will prove useful for, and to affirm the importance of choice in modes of transportation.