Rob Ford has gotten a lot of flack for a statement he made about cycling in Toronto. To quote the relevant section:
What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks, and sooner or later you’re going to get bitten. And no wonder, roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. And my heart bleeds for them when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.
Now – to be clear, I in no way support Ford’s candidacy for Mayor. If you vote for Rob Ford, I will actually punch you in the face. Just kidding. But seriously, his opposition to Transit City is potentially disastrous. And, he’s probably a climate denier – his policies certainly are. But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about how this statement he’s made is actually true – and the radical opposition to it reflects a peter-pan syndrome in leftists. It’s true that the roads we have built are not for bikes – and putting bikes on them is precarious. I don’t think people properly understand the dangers associated with riding in the city – in traffic – and I don’t think that if they did that building more bike lanes would increase ridership.
The bike lanes he is opposing in this speech are, I think, significantly worse than doing nothing to improve conditions for cyclists. Worse because they increase the perception of safety, but not real safety (at least not directly). To make a very simple point – most of these bike lanes are 1.5 metres wide, and sandwiched between traffic and parked cars. But, if you look at the Vancouver engineer’s cycling recommendations, it is a no-no to cycle within 1 metre of parked cars. So, just from a door-opening perspective, 2/3rds of the bike lane (which you are presumably meant to ride in the middle of) are unsafe. And if you think drivers have an incentive to look before they open their doors – just look at the case on Eglington where a driver having killed a cyclist was fined only 110$.
One might think the solution is Montreal-style separated bike lanes. But they also expose cyclists to very high risks of death due to the problematic situations they create at intersections. According to a whole slew of studies linked to the wikipedia page, the major danger to cyclists is not being rear-ended by cars, but being hit at an intersection. And, a variety of studies indicate that separate cycle paths create far more accidents at intersections. So, while you might be impressed when visiting Montreal at the number of children riding in the bike lanes – this is based on the perception of safety (or rather, their parents perception of safety), not the real risks they are exposed to – which might actually be higher than if they were riding in traffic.
Some researchers argue that the decrease in the perception of risk is itself a real cause of increased risk – and that the increased perception of risk in shared space (drivers mixing it up with cars) is a better way to increase safety. This might be true, but the risks still might be greater than people are willing to rationally absorb.
In a radical sense, if you are out doing something which you know is dangerous, and you get killed doing it – it is your fault. For example, if I’m driving home and I know there is a certain risk of being run off the road by a drunk driver, and that happens – then my death is a result of my free choice. The issue, therefore, is not to “figure out who to blame”, but to reasonably decide what risks we are willing to take on. Complaining at Ford because he speaks an inconvenient truth about risk and responsibility does nothing to improve the situation of cycling and rational risk taking in our society.