Friday, September 09, 2011

A for idea, D- for execution

As an idea, you can't argue with it: cyclists shouldn't kill pedestrians. Moreover, cycling culture should take the obligation not to kill pedestrians very seriously indeed, and jurisdictions, from the city to the province, with responsibility for traffic safety should frame a comprehensive strategy to ensure the cyclists who do not understand our shared responsibilities get the message.

So how did the recent Globe and Mail editorial, which tried to make these simple points, do such a bad job? The answer partly lies in the atrocious phrasing the editorial claims cyclists should "know our place". And if we don't, do y'all have a rope, a tree and a bunch of good ole boys to teach us? Some phrases just bring up too many bad memories, and editorial writers should leave such phrases out of their tool boxes. Whoever wrote this particular editorial then added pomposity to their list of rhetorical blunders by writing this: "We do not occupy a planet where cyclist safety trumps all else." I get it: cyclists don't have a right to risk other people's lives to stay safe ourselves.

But this editorial does more than just break most of the rules of effective writing. It asserts a double standard and dares the reader to ignore it. Because anyone who spent much of last year in a conscious state has probably noticed quite a few very public decisions that paid no heed to the safety of cyclists. Fear of traffic doesn't cut it as an excuse for cycling on sidewalks. I don't cycle on sidewalks, and I ride my share of fast roads and heavy traffic. But consider the decision that Michael Bryant's fears absolutely justified all of his actions the night of his fatal encounter with Darcy Alan Sheppard, or the decision to tear out downtown bike lanes so a few residents of Moore Park can get downtown a few seconds faster, not to mention the frequent failure to file dangerous driving charges in many cases where pedestrians or cyclists get killed. I can't help getting the feeling that maybe my fears don't matter, but other people seem to think their fears, and even their resentments, do matter.

I know where I belong when on my bicycle: the bike lane or else somewhere between a meter and a meter and a half from the kerb in a lane wide enough to share in safety, secondary position (the right-hand tire track) in a lane too narrow to share, and primary position (lane center) in a lane to narrow to share where cars cannot pass safely. I ought not to cycle on the sidewalk, and I don't. But in a wider sense, I do not have a "place" any different from anyone else because I option a healthy, non-polluting option for some of my travels. I have exactly the same rights and obligations as anyone else, however I move around. And that sums up the underlying for the failure of the Globe editorial to make what should have been a simple point. Everyone, however we travel, has a moral responsibility to avoid harming other people, and the law should hold us all to account. But that raises a troubling reality: in many if not most cases where errant drivers have killed off cyclists, pedestrians, or even other drivers, the law has failed to apply the standard the Globe's writer proposes for those who bicycle on the sidewalk. Choosing not to deal with this basic contradiction, the writer of this editorial blends some very inappropriate rhetoric with pomposity to produce a very bad editorial.

I consider that sad, because I consider the underlying proposition valid. Indeed, I have seldom if ever seen the truth dressed up as such nonsense.

(Cross posted at I Bike TO; thanks to Yvonne Bambrick for pointing out the editorial)