Cycling, Ideology and the Law

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. 

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.]


  1. Respect?

    @emmamwoolley is right to point out that comparing the situation to that of repressed minorities is a red herring and completely useless.

    Since the discussion is about safety and the law I think you bring up some interesting points in the latter third of your post. Could we use new/revised laws to keep cyclists safe? It's quite probable so I don't see anything wrong with persuing that avenue.

    However, I still don't believe that breaking the law is the best way to stay safe. Until there are new laws the best way to stay safe is to follow the pre-established conventions. They may not be ideal, but at least other users of the road will have a chance to anticipate your actions and avoid an accident. In effect, more people can stay safe.

    For now cyclists just have to be cautious and aware of the situation. You may feel entitled to full use of the road, but you have to share it with everyone else and they have to share it with you. The key is communication. The majority of people do not want bad things to happen.

  2. 'agentultra':
    I encourage you to re-read what I say about asking for "one example of a group that's been marginalized, disrespected, disenfranchised -whatever." No where do I use the term 'minorities' and I made my thoughts about that clear. You're putting words in mouth, then arguing against those.
    And no where am I arguing or suggesting that I "feel entitle to full use of the road" - however the law actually states that cyclists can take the full road!
    Your third paragraph is really what we're trying to get at, but what you say is likely not true. That is, there's nothing to say that following the letter of the law actually make cycling safer. As any cyclist knows, there are times when it's safer to break a law.

  3. Great post Mark. I think there is a menu a la carte that the media and motorists use to marginalize cyclists and force them off our streets. First they say cyclists could "earn" their right to the road by obeying the vehicle traffic laws.

    Then when you tell them to find you a single motorist who obeys all traffic laws, then they will say that motorists pay for the roads. So if cyclists paid for the roads, they would "earn" their right to the road. So when you tell them that cyclists already pay for the roads through property taxes and rent and that the gas tax is only used for highways that cyclists can't ride on anyway,

    then they will say that cyclists need to pay insurance and license and registration if they want to "earn" their right to the roads. So then when you tell them that cyclists don't need insurance because they don't inflict death against others the same way automobiles do, then they just shut up and drive their car really close to you to try to force you off the road.

    The solution isn't to chastise cyclists like Emma has done. This only creates more animosity on our streets. The solution is to show people that cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians are all humans trying to get from A to B. Show motorists that more people on bicycles is good for them (less cars means less competition for space on our streets, lower gas prices, more parking spaces, lower parking prices, etc.)

    If motorists can see the benefits of more people on bicycles, we will have less animosity on our streets, less jealousy, etc. If we are really persuasive, then they might even join us ;)

  4. Thanks, James!
    That 'menu a la carte' you outline is a fantastic point. It's very much like what Lacan calls the 'hysteric's discourse' - a person asks for something, receives that something, then claims it's not what they wanted. I tried to find a good summary/explanation of this but this is the best I could find online: (look especially near the bottom of that post).
    Bruce Fink's book The Lacanian Subject is a great resource for this:

    In any case, the take-away is that answering all those questions does lead anywhere. There will never be an answer that will satisfy. Rather it's better to not give any answers and try to figure out what's *really* bothering them - what they're trying so hard to avoid in this strategy of jumping from question to question.

  5. Friggin great piece! I love it.

    Sometimes when I go through red lights because there is no traffic coming, I will try to get motorists to follow by gesturing them to come. Nope. They just sit. Possibly because it is too dangerous for Them to move. They do not have the visibility, dexterity, speed, or agility I do on my little 55 lb bike.

  6. @mark

    Re: minorities, you're right. You did avoid using the word. Perhaps I just don't see cyclists as being 'marginalized.' My own experience getting in the way.

    However, I don't have a problem with questioning the laws or introducing new ones. Your comment on twitter about laws you do break: one way streets, indirect left turns... They might be viable options and I would welcome them into law if we can ammend the relevant act in our legislature.

    But in the meantime I'm not sure all cyclists are following the letter of the law; and some seem to follow their own laws. A week long pseudo-experiment I'm doing is trying to track how many cyclists engage in obviously dangerous behaviour such as running red lights, jumping red lights, and crossing on pedestrian cross walks. I'm also measuring people who do follow the laws by properly signalling, making left hand turns in the left lane, and stopping at a red light. I'm only a few days in and my sample is incredibly small, but the results aren't terribly surprising to me. It's almost 50/50 with legal maneuvers being slightly ahead.

    Not all laws are bad and I think following them is a good idea. Some motorists may honk if you take up the left lane to make a turn, but that's their problem. The law states that's what you should do as a cyclist and I think if more people were better educated on what is and is not allowed, there might be fewer people honking.

    There are some laws that should be looked over, I think we both agree. I just don't see it as an "us versus them" issue or one of "marginalization." What I think is frustrating for a lot of people is that cyclists are bringing up these issues but taking matters into their own hands and a consensus still hasn't been reached on many of these issues.

    Personally I don't think signalling, making a left hand turn in the left lane, or stopping for a red light is really going to put me in danger. You will get a ticket if you cross on a pedestrian cross walk if you are riding your bike -- for all intents and purposes it's a vehicle. I believe that as long as I follow the rules of other vehicles then at least I can be a visible, active participant in the unspoken conversation of the streets.

  7. @agentultra, the fact that cyclists who cautiously use indirect turns makes you so incensed makes me think you have some issues of your own that you need to address before lecturing others online.

    People use common sense when riding, and making a left turn in the left lane with cars passing by fast on your left and honking on your right is often uncomfortable and not always practical. Cautiously entering the pedestrian area, while being considerate to any pedestrians you may encounter is a much more pragmatic and comfortable way to make a left turn on a busy street.

    If you have so much faith in the Highway Traffic Act that you will blindly follow it even if it puts yourself in danger, then by all means do it. But don't sit on your high horse and tell me that my method is wrong.

    If the HTA told you that you are allowed to ride on the 401, would you do it blindly without considering the consequences? Some people ride by the rule of the HTA. Others simply ride with their brain.

  8. Really good piece. Couple thoughts though.

    1. Running a stale yellow or a recent red is actually safer for a cyclist than waiting for the light to go green. (If I run the red, by the time the cars catch up with me the cars a spread out and can easily pass me. If I wait along side a growing mass of cars, when the light changes there is all the jostling among drivers to get ahead and I'm the sorry sod on a bicycle.) So in support of the claim it is sometimes safer to disregard the law, yes, I think it is. (Besides, I find when drivers actually respect the space I am in, and signal their turns and lane changes I am more likely to show respect in turn and actually ride to the letter of the HTA.)

    2. Minor thing, but white on black is much harder to read than dark ink on light paper, (pick your e-version of those terms). It looks nicer, but it's much harder to read. :P

  9. Great post! One only has to browse through the Highway Traffic Act to understand how the bicycle rules have been grafted on to it with absolutely no common sense. I work in a science field which is governed by a number of laws that are expressed in the language of math. Many people follow God and live by a completely different set of laws which are expressed in the language of the Bible and the Koran. Neither has much in the way of common sense criteria. In between the two is our own made-on-Earth civil/criminal law, and if there is no room for common sense here of all places, then what's the use?

  10. Thanks for sharing this. It was linked to Facebook and I am going to copy my response here for you. I think you raise really important points, and I would like to take it a bit further...

    Living in Sudbury,I find it REALLY hard to follow all of the laws for riding a bike. The biggest one for me is riding on sidewalks. Frankly, I don't bike fast enough to keep up with traffic, there are an increasing number of bike lanes but still not enough, neither are motorists accommodating in any way (even in the presence of bike lanes which they often use as passing and turning lanes). Furthermore, our sidewalks are simply not congested, certainly not in the way Toronto sidewalks are (excepting some parts of downtown).

    To put it simply, I don't feel safe riding on the streets in this city. The irony is that I have to choose between following the law or being safe.

    These discussions are Toronto-centric, but actually the laws affect smaller cities like Sudbury in even worse ways.

  11. I really just want to say a big thanks to all for the comments. I saw that today this post is linked to on another 'open letter' article on Spacing:
    Some really good discussion going on - and I hope people are thinking more about this issue. But, like most things, this discussion will fade into the background for a while.

    Anyway, a few replies to the commenters above:

    John Henry: if your bike weighs 55lbs, it's time for an upgrade :)

    I wholeheartedly agree with James D. Schwartz reply to 'agentultra.' So good to know that there are people like James fightin' the good fight. Looking forward to your next post on TheUrbanCountry.

    Michael: your point 1 is great! Often when I'm on a busy road and cars are bugging me, I'll go through an intersection and then just pull over until the light behind me turns red.. then I can cycle along with little or no cars beside me. I used to do this on King West a lot when I worked at King and Bay.
    And thanks for the design tip... not very good at internet design stuff. I changed some colours - hope it reads better.

    'Anonymous': Strange the HTA is what governs cyclists in the city. Most of it has to do with highways (hence the name) ... there's stuff in there about horse and buggies! And science/religion is an interesting dimension to bring into this discussion. I'm sure many would say it has nothing to do with cycling, but I bet it has lots... Food for thought - thanks!

    Gina: a view from the big Nickel! Thanks! I think your experience with sidewalks is much like what people in Toronto's suburbs see - people don't really use the sidewalks there, and the roads are super-busy so why not ride your bike on them?

    But, to be totally and absolutely clear, sidewalks belong to the people walking on them. If you're ever on riding your bike on a sidewalk, you better have a damn good reason and you must not interfere in *any* way with people walking on them. Give people walking lots of space, don't go any faster than a slow jog and, for gawds sakes, don't ring your bell at them to move!

  12. I agree that obeying the law won't bring respect. I think, though, that disobeying it will prevent any respect from ever happening. Necessary, but not sufficient.

  13. Nicely explained and described. i hope this can change the life of many. Thanks a lot for sharing this post.

  14. Respect. Residents of Haiti and New Orleans *HAD* to loot stores for survival: food, water, diapers, trainers, jewelry, designer togs, TV sets etc.. Both complained at lack of government aid. Japanese quake/flood survivors queued up for hours at stores to get a ration of 6 items. They sacrificed and volunteered to help each other. Guess which people earned my respect? Another example are Gypsies. They are known in Europe for pickpocketing, stealing, not paying taxes, not educating children, and generally not adhering to rules of civilized society. Respect is commensurate.

    Motorcyclists for decades have been encouraged to gain respect from auto drivers by keeping their mufflers on, not lane splitting, not doing wheelies and other tricks on the street, and wearing helmets. It has helped. Chatting or texting isn't even an issue for motorcyclists like it is for car drivers and bicyclists. Bicyclists, strangely still debate earning respect. I think even bicyclists laugh at people riding recumbents!

    Motorsport racers are encouraged not to practice racing or use racing equipment on public streets in order to preserve respect. Bicyclists do the opposite, dressing in racing gear, using racing pedals/shoes that make obeying traffic signals more difficult, and riding fixed-gear track bikes, often without pesky, ugly, brakes.

    Appropriate questions for the Jay Lenno show: What are sideWALKS and crossWALKS for? Hint, not operating a vehicle on!

    By all standards, the bicycle is increasingly perceived as a child's toy because its many users display the attitude and behaviors of children. Only training wheels differentiate the very young from those with teen attitudes.

    Cyclists need a funding model beyond lobbying government for handouts. Users of other transport pay user fees: gas taxes, tolls, bus fare, subway fare, plane fare, ferry fare, lift tickets. Even amusement park rides have fares and one ends where starting! In the 1800's or so, private companies funded waterway canals and railways, paid for by user fees and not government subsidy. If bicycling has any worth, users will cough up commensurate toll or other payments towards construction and maintenance.


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