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Rights + Justice

Halt, Sidewalk Cycling Menace!

In Vancouver, who but vigilante citizens will keep rogue bikers off pedestrian footpaths?

By Shannon Rupp 27 Sep 2012 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Call 'em Robertson's Rogues. Illustration by Commodore Gandalf Cunningham via Creative Commons license.

I'm deeming September "Slap a Sidewalk Cyclist Month," and you can celebrate by giving the next pedestrian-on-wheels coming at you a good smack upside the head.

OK, maybe that's true only in my fantasy world. But it ought to be true in Vancouver, where in the space of two Denman Street blocks and three minutes I recently dodged seven cyclists. This doesn't include the riders I dodged on Commercial Drive, Main Street, West Broadway and South Granville. I'm not even going to get started on skateboarders other than to note that a friend and I are planning to carry piano wire between us.

While I've heard grousing about this for years, it struck me that the phenomenon is growing worse in the wake of all the blather about how Vancouver wants to be North America's "greenest" city. Suddenly bicycles aren't just fun or even transportation -- apparently cyclists are now doing God's work fighting climate change so they are entitled to special licenses reminiscent of BMW entitlements in the 1980s.

Yes, I am old enough to remember the '80s. Which means I'm not nearly as agile as one needs to be to dodge these vehicular renegades. Although I've been thinking it may be time to get an umbrella designed with a nod to John Steed. (Oh, look it up.)

'People should be courteous'

At the beginning of the summer I rang the city's engineering department to discuss this growing hazard. City hall is still gathering data on how cyclists move about the city, but Dale Bracewell, manager of "active transportation," tells me there's been an uptick in cycling following the establishment of separated bike lanes. In summer months they've measured as much as an 80 per cent increase among work commuters.

Anecdotally and by his own observation he knows there's more sidewalk cycling, but has no hard measures of how widespread the problem is.

"We often hear about repeat locations -- Smithe between Beatty and Expo Boulevard is one -- and city personnel see this when counting cyclists."

Do city workers chat these individuals up and suggest, gently, it might be nice if they respected the city's bylaw against sidewalk cycling?

"Not as a general practice. We are not able to enforce that kind of thing," Bracewell says. "We wouldn't want to be in any kind of confrontation with people."

Right. Let's leave that for regular citizens. Excuse me while I search for one of those old-fashion brass-headed walking sticks...

Bracewell doesn't have a solution for pedestrians weary of this menace, other than to call the police department. And tell them what, exactly? As bicycles are unlicensed there's no way to report a cyclist, short of arresting him yourself. And I'm pretty sure the 180-pound guy who whipped up a breeze as he whizzed by me yesterday might object vigorously to me arresting him.

Bracewell notes it's worth calling the city's 311 number to report where sidewalk cycling is common because it will help engineering establish traffic patterns.

"People should be courteous. It's not good for people to be confrontational and they should be conscious of their own personal safety. I can only say that if there is an infraction, you follow up with the (police)," Bracewell advises me.

I agree people should be courteous. In fact I have a long and ever-growing list of things people should be. But as he himself observed: many aren't. I press him on how, exactly, one reports an unlicensed vehicle speeding by, but apparently this is not his job -- he refers me to the Vancouver Police Department.

Empty enforcement

I requested an interview with Const. Jana McGuinness, media relations officer, to find out how many tickets have been issued for sidewalk cycling and just how the average ambulatory citizens should go about dealing with the tyranny of the wheeled. I got an email reply.

"We regularly receive requests for stats on many different topics and our analysts are very busy as you can appreciate. We'll put your request into the queue and if we have any stats compiled in coming weeks we'll be sure to send you a copy," McGuinness wrote on May 25.

I'm still waiting. Maybe I should ring back and ask for the homicide statistics involving pedestrians and cyclists?

It's obvious that Mayor Gregor Robertson's enthusiasm for the bicycle solution has caused the whole bureaucracy to turn a blind eye to the grief Robertson's Rogues are causing. I was actually shocked to see a young man on a crowded sidewalk ride up behind an elderly man in a wheelchair and say, "beep-beep, beep-beep."

So I feel for Stephany Grasset, 80, who sent a letter to a Vancouver paper in July to complain about the run around she got after she tried to report one of the miscreants knocking her down on Stephens Street in Kits. The VPD pointed her to city bylaw enforcement; they in turn pointed her back to the VPD, and so it went.

"I contacted city hall to find out how to contact or identify a bylaw officer. I was told 'they are out there' and that the rules of the road are enforced by the police. No wonder that there are so many scofflaws on two wheels. It seems that bylaws and rules are there to be ignored with impunity," Grasset wrote.

She's lucky she lived to complain. Headlines went worldwide last spring when a San Francisco cyclist ran a red light and killed a 71-year-old man in a crosswalk.

Smokescreen for transit pains

I've followed the bike-sharing chatter and helmet debate with some enthusiasm. Naturally, I fall into the no-helmet camp, as this will aid my plans to launch a slapping campaign.

I was particularly intrigued by what Luke Brocki's reports on the Velo-city Global conference revealed about Vancouver's cycling culture. And I was almost as incredulous as the European cycling aficionados when he reported that he welcomed them to "the greatest cycling city in the Americas."

Brocki was echoing the city's tiresome boosterism that has had it declaring itself "world class" since sometime around Expo 86. Here, let me digress and note the obvious: If you feel a need to tell people you're "world class" or "the greatest," it's because you're not.

But the city's braggadocio isn't just the work of inept marketers, it's a smokescreen for Vancouver's real cycling problem: transit. Or rather, the lack of convenient, reliable transit in the city. Or any public transportation at all in some of the sprawling suburbs.

Sidewalk cyclists often highlight the problem as they try to plough through packs of pedestrians at bus stops who wait as bus-after-full-bus speeds by. The snarl echoes the one found in Vancouver intersections and the emphasis on cycling as the solution is just putting the cart before the horse -- or rather, the bike before the bus.

Consider some of the great European cycling cities like Copenhagen or Paris and you'll realize they're also cities with superb mass transit. Google the cities reported to be good for either cycling or transit and you'll find a huge overlap in the lists, even in the supposedly auto-centric U.S.: Denver, Chicago, New York, Boston and mid-sized cities like Sacramento are known as great cycling cities and good places for reliable transit.

I'm all for bike lanes, not least because when the city launches its bike share program we're going to find more inexperienced riders full of their own virtue speeding along sidewalks. (Although they will most likely be helmet-free, so that will give endangered pedestrians a fighting chance.)

But it's absurd to argue costly infrastructure that would support only seven per cent of the region's trips by 2020 is the green solution. Particularly when the baby boomers are about to hit 70. Lifelong cyclists still riding at that age is one thing; persuading novices to begin post-retirement is another.

Meanwhile, the city turning a blind eye to the real hazards of the cycling campaign is just unconscionable. Is it so tough to post signs reminding Robertson's Rogues to stay off the sidewalks?

As long as governments take the Ayn Randian view that individual action is the solution -- which is the unspoken philosophy behind bicycles as the answer to climate change -- it exempts them from having to take responsibility for the real problems that can only be solved by government institutions.

Not that I don't embrace the power of the individual to effect change. I've also noticed an urban variation on cow tipping has sprung up as plucky, independent pedestrians deal with the cyclists passing within arm's reach.

It's simple, subtle, and comes under the heading of self-defense. Maybe I won't need that walking stick after all.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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