Why do cyclists break the rules? (Or do they?)

Why do cyclists break the rules? (Or do they?)

I was pedalling home from downtown yesterday afternoon, along the Experimental Farm pathway. My day started cold but clear at 7 am, with heavy rain, warm beautiful sunshine and blustery grey alternating all day. You gotta love fall weather in these parts, as you peel and reapply layers all day long.

By 4 pm I was in the mood for a jolt of caffeine so when I got to Merivale I decided to swing by the Central Park Tim’s. It’s about 400 metres from the pathway, and there is no bike lane on that stretch of Merivale. The painted lane starts right after the Tim’s, going towards Baseline.

I don’t like riding on the road when there are no lanes painted, especially when car traffic is significant, as it was at that time. So up on the sidewalk I went. A lady waiting for the bus (inside a bus shelter) made terribly disapproving faces at me.

I stopped and took out my earbuds. Yes?

“You’re not supposed to be on the sidewalk,” she said. Her tone was antagonistic, she wasn’t pleased one bit to see me there.

“I know.”

“You can hit someone.”

She was right, of course. I’m a pedestrian and a jogger, too, and I know perfectly well how dangerous it can be to have a cyclist whoosh by you at high speed. It’s even unpleasant when you’re biking and another cyclist passes you without warning.

That’s why, on the rare occasions when I do cycle on the sidewalk, usually because I don’t feel safe on the road, I am extraordinarily careful. I go slowly, just in case someone darts out of a driveway or something. And if there are pedestrians, I stop my bike. Sometimes I dismount and walk my bike, but more often than not I simply wait until the pedestrians have passed to continue.

She told me a few horror stories, mostly young men on bicycles ringing their bell repeatedly to make her get off the sidewalk, one going so far as to kick her dog. That’s awful. I agreed with her that in principle cyclists shouldn’t be on sidewalks.

Except, I said, for children and, on rare occasions, anyone who doesn’t feel safe riding on the road. I teach my kids that when there are no bike lanes and the cars drive by too fast and too close for comfort, that they should ride on the sidewalk. But ALWAYS remember that as a cyclist, you technically have no right to be there. So it is incumbent upon you to behave accordingly. Never push pedestrians around, never get close to them (someone can lose their balance and fall if you surprise them with your bike; this can be very serious), and when in doubt, stop and/or dismount.

I explained to the lady at the bus stop why I was on the sidewalk; I pointed to the Tim’s, my destination. I pointed to the road, which at that place has no room for bikes and plenty of cars going by at 60km/h or more. “I don’t feel safe cycling there, and there are no pedestrians on this stretch of sidewalk right at the moment. I feel like I can use it provided I’m careful.”

She softened considerably, in part I think because I agreed with her that technically I had no right to use the space. Eventually we agreed that if most people learned to share properly, there would be no problem with cyclists temporarily and respectfully borrowing bits of sidewalk here and there. We parted not quite as friends but at least as allies.

In La Presse this morning there’s a story about a large Danish study on road safety. Researchers studied how often cyclists break traffic rules.

Une vaste étude danoise sur le comportement des usagers de la route révèle que les gens qui se déplacent à vélo – souvent accusés d’être des cowboys à deux roues – commettent en moyenne beaucoup moins d’infractions que les gens qui sont au volant d’un véhicule automobile. Sur 28 579 passages de cyclistes aux intersections de grandes villes danoises, les chercheurs du ministère des Transports du Danemark ont observé que 14 % commettaient des infractions (principalement rouler sur le trottoir), une proportion qui diminuait à 5 % lorsqu’une piste cyclable était présente. En revanche, les chercheurs ont constaté que 66 % des automobilistes en ville commettaient une infraction – la plus courante étant de ne pas respecter les limites de vitesse.

Quickie translation: They found 14% of cyclists breaking traffic rules, primarily cycling on the sidewalk (a proportion that drops to 5% when there is a bike lane), compared with 66% of drivers who break traffic rules, primarily going faster than the speed limit. The Danish study apparently echoed another similar study in the UK where they found pretty much the same thing. I’d be curious to know whether Ottawa would come out looking differently. Somehow I doubt it.

I’m in favour of everyone respecting the rules of the road. I don’t drive much these days, but when I do I make a conscious effort to respect the speed limit. That earns me some honking and aggressive passing, by the way. But meh, they just wind up stopped at the next red light anyway because — shocker — traffic lights are set up to encourage people not to speed.

Should you be scolded for going 55km/h in a 50 zone when it’s safe to do so? No, not really. Should I get a ticket for cycling very carefully on the sidewalk in the rare cases where my route takes me where there are no paths? I don’t think so either. There are times when minor rule-breaking is alright, and most of us can be trusted to use our judgment and be safe.

I’m grateful to the lady waiting for her bus on Merivale yesterday afternoon. She was all set to give me what-for. We discussed it, and found that we agreed more than disagreed.

I enjoyed my coffee, too.

Rating a difficult debate

Rating a difficult debate

The cost of a kilometre

The cost of a kilometre

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