Over the last week or so there's been a few articles and opinion pieces concerning cyclists in Toronto. Few of the arguments/opinions expressed are surprising. However, it has led to some good discussion.
On May 24th, there were two great articles on cycling on Torontoist. One concerned the city's Pedestrian and Cyclist Collision Data and a great discussion was inspired by an article on the "uphill climb" cyclists have in Toronto. More recently was an "opinion piece" by Emma Woolley that was re-posted from her blog on Spacing. In response to Woolley's post, Ben Mueller-Heaslip wrote his own 'open letter.' Meanwhile there's been Tweets back and forth and, I'm sure, discussions over beer..
Actually, I have a few problems... but first off is this argument that if cyclists obey the law, they're be respected. You can see my comments on this in "uphill climb" article and Spacing's 'opinion piece.' My problem with this argument is it's what Zizek would call "ideology at its purest." Consider the American Dream, a clear expression of ideology: if you work hard, you'll get ahead, make lots of money, etc. Of course, we know that people who make minimum wage (or less, perhaps a few cents more) work their tails off and never get ahead or become rich. Why is there a relation between the belief that if one obeys the law they'll be respected and if one works hard, they'll get ahead? The key is 'belief': we all know both arguments are bogus, but we continue to believe them. It's this type of belief that can be stated as "I know very well, however I continue to believe otherwise." This, in psychoanalysis, is the structure of 'fantasy' and has been extrapolated by Zizek and others as the structure of ideology.
I've challenged people to give me one example of a group that's been marginalized, disrespected, disenfranchised -whatever- to give me ONE example of this strategy of obeying the law to gain respect having any success whatsoever. I've yet to receive a response. Woolley dismissed my question by saying that bringing in 'marginalized' groups adds an unnecessary level of complexity. Fine, though cyclists' problems do not exist in a historical vacuum. But we were able to agree that, while cyclists are marginalized, it's not to the same 'order' as other groups. Nonetheless, I'm sure we can imagine just how offensive (and completely ridiculous) it would be to think back in history of a marginalized group and someone telling them to just obey the law and they'll gain respect. At the same time, it's absurd to equate the marginal status of cyclists in Toronto to blacks, women, or exploited workers (Godwin's Law!). A much more reasonable equation to cyclist's marginal status is that of pedestrians. Of course, streets and roads were the realm of pedestrians until the motor-vehicle became more and more popular, but eventually a lack of pedestrian space became a problem. Crosswalks were invented. New laws were created (which vary by jurisdiction) to give pedestrian right (or lack of right) of way - and to keep pedestrians off the street. The laws that exist now regarding streets and roads are designed for motor-vehicles and many of these rules, when applied to cyclists, are absurd and unsafe. As someone said, demanding cyclists obey the same rules as cars is like demanding a canoe obey the same rules as a speedboat.
So, rather than argue that cyclists ought to obey the laws to gain respect, we ought to argue that the laws need to change to account for the increasing number of cyclists on the streets. This isn't radical at all. Idaho has already altered its laws regarding stop signs so that cyclists treat them as yield signs. Read about it here, watch a video on it here. This change in the law permits cyclists to slow down, check for traffic and, if there's no traffic around, to proceed through the intersection.
This behaviour at stop signs is what already occurs. Commenters on mainstream media websites like to use the hyperbole "blow through" when giving an account of what they've witnessed. But I've never seen a cyclist speed up as they approach a stop sign. What we do, in fact, is slow down, look to see if there's a car and go through if there isn't. And, in my experience, if there is a car, the driver will often wave you through before you even get a chance to stop. Now, in Toronto, we couldn't have a similar law to Idaho's that would cover *all* stop signs. But we could have little signs below some stop signs (decided on a case-by-case basis) that read "cyclists yield." This would permit perfectly rational and safe behaviour that already occurs.
Another law that ought to be altered for cyclists concerns one-way streets. Many cyclists ride the 'wrong' way on one-way streets, and they do so because it's safe and doesn't interfere with oncoming traffic. Many residential one-way streets in Toronto were *changed* to one-way to limit motor-vehicle traffic. Most of these streets are wide enough for a parked car, a moving car and cyclist. (In fact, recently the idea of a "yield street" has be heralded by urban planners - a street that's only wide enough for one car, but permits two-way traffic.) Many cyclists know these one-way streets are wide enough to accommodate them going the 'wrong way' and use them as such - all without incident. So, Toronto could (again on a case-by-case basis) put a little sign under the one-way arrow sign that says "cyclists excepted - cyclists must yield to oncoming traffic." Again, this would permit rational and safe behaviour that already occurs.
But where does 'respect' come in? Nowhere. No cyclist should believe that if they follow the letter of the law they'll somehow gain respect. It's extremely unlikely that that one driver who 'disrespects' you on the road witnessed your law-abiding bike-riding.
Furthermore, why is it that in society a few cyclists not following the rules makes all cyclists look bad? The same does not go for drivers - there are more than a few drivers who break the rules, but no one suggests these few 'bad apples' make all drivers look bad.
One of the ways ideology becomes internalized is police enforcement. Here in Toronto, the intersection of Beverley and Baldwin has a 'all-way stop.' Beverley has a bike-lane and many cyclists do not come to a full stop. I often ride past the line of stopped cars and 'shadow' a car going through the intersection (i.e. I ride beside the car going through the intersection). Many cyclists come to the intersection, see no traffic with which they'd interfere and glide through. This intersection does not have a history of crashes - I'd challenge anyone to give me an example of a single bike on car or bike on pedestrian crash that's ever happened. And yet, this the police's 'favourite' intersection to lie in wait of cyclists not coming to a complete stop. This police surveillance and ticketing has nothing to do with safety - it's not a dangerous intersection. So why to they surveil it? So that cyclists obey the law no matter how dumb it is; so that cyclists internalize the law. It's unsurprising that the police have weighed in to agree with Woolley's opinion piece.
JEALOUSY AND JOUISSANCE
Whenever the mainstream media (Globe, Star, CBC, etc.) post a story about cyclists in the city, there is this inevitable pile of comments that, based on anecdotes, portray cyclists as some lunatic fringe of society that disregards everyones well-being and safety, including their own. Some commenters even imply that, given this imagined behaviour, it's ok that cars hit them or 'teach them a lesson.' But most comments just express this exasperation - "I'm sitting in my car stuck in traffic and this bike just passing me on the right and goes through the intersection!" And then there's the oft-repeated 'argument' that cyclists should be subject to the same registration, licensing, insurance, etc. as drivers, even though these drivers hate all these regulations. So why is there so much invective in the cycling debate? Because cyclists "steal jouissance." If that's too theoretical, it's because drivers are "jealous" of cyclists. Perhaps this appears too simple or juvenile. But consider how important pleasure and desire is. And when you read or hear the arguments against cyclists, to how many could you reasonable respond "you're just jealous - you're stuck in traffic, have a host of associated expenses, etc."? And isn't the most absurd behaviour that of a driver sitting at a stop-light when there's no traffic for miles - they'll sit there no matter what and wait for the light to change. Meanwhile, a cyclist with come up on their right, look around and then just proceed. The cyclist in this situation is doing something completely reasonable; the driver's behaviour is materialized ideology. Cyclists make this apparent - no wonder they're pissed. And it's no wonder that cyclists who've internalized ideology (obeying all the rules) are pissed when they see another cyclist disobey a law without interfering with anyone else in any way.
[As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged. Dumb comments, however, will be ridiculed or deleted.]