Culture  Two wheels good, four wheels bad?

Leah Pires deconstructs the fraught relationship between cyclists and motorists

Last Saturday, I donned two sweaters, three pairs of pants, and six socks before spending three hours biking around the city – from Parc La Fontaine to Jean Talon to Old Montreal to the Village and back again – in subzero weather. Why? Because I was a participant in Montreal’s first annual Street Dog bike race, and I had my eye on the prize.

The Street Dog was a two-wheeled scavenger hunt organized by a group of local bike enthusiasts who wanted to host a non-intimidating, accessible community event for cyclists of all styles and stripes. And, despite the chilly weather, they succeeded in bringing together a wonderful cross-section of the biking community.

However, somewhere along the way – was it before I ran that red light, or after I rode against traffic, while I was riding on the sidewalk, or as that truck honked at me? – I realized what an anomaly cyclists can be in the ebb and flow of city traffic.

Saturday’s Street Dog aside, celebrations of cycling take place on a fairly regular basis in Montreal. Alleycats, which are checkpoint-based races organized by the bike messenger community, take place a few times per year. And on the last Friday of every month, cyclists and their kin unite to reclaim the streets from cars at an event called Critical Mass.

Opinions are mixed on whether the motivation behind Critical Mass – a spontaneously organized event without any particular leader – is political or pleasure-driven. “Critical Mass asserts the power that cyclists have, and increases their visibility,” Riley Fleck, my racing partner in Street Dog, explains. “Critical mass isn’t a solution to giving bikers more space. It’s just a general affirmation of bikers.”

Mackenzie Ogilvie, the owner of Révolution Montréal bike shop and a former bike messenger, agrees. “People are polarized about cyclists, and Critical Mass isn’t going to win anyone over,” he says, acknowledging the frustration of drivers stuck in traffic. “The problem is that people are sitting in traffic for hours every day, not us [having Critical Mass] on one Friday a month. The purpose is to establish camaraderie amongst bikers. It’s a huge amount of fun.”

However, in my experience, these events unite the bike community often at the expense of our relationship with motorists and pedestrians. Standing in the intersection of Mont-Royal and St. Denis amidst 60-plus cyclists hoisting their bikes over their heads and shouting “Plus de vélos! Moins d’autos!” at last April’s Critical Mass, I couldn’t help but feel a little apologetic toward the exhausted drivers honking their horns in frustration.

As I’ve experienced firsthand, one side effect of events such as Critical Mass and bike races is that they encourage cyclists to break traffic laws and, at times, ride recklessly. But is this something we do anyway, albeit not in such large groups? One of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling, for me, is its renegade nature: the only rules that apply to me are the ones that I choose to adhere to, and I find myself having a sense of entitlement over the road. Pedestrians had better stay on the sidewalk when I’m coming through – and as for cars, do they think they own the road?

The cyclists I talked to seemed to share my pick-and-choose attitude toward traffic laws. “It takes the fun out of biking when you have to follow the same rules as cars,” explains Ogilvie, emphasizing common sense over strict adherence. “I try not to ride on the sidewalk, but I run red lights every day,” Fleck says. “If no one’s coming, why wait? I even biked in front of a train once. But it was going really slow.”

The consensus seems to be that as cyclists, we think it’s fine to follow the rules we consider appropriate for our set of wheels – but I can’t imagine motorists agree. If bikers want to be given as much respect and road-space as cars, should we have to adhere to the same traffic laws as they do? The devil-may-care attitudes of some cyclists may merely exacerbate the tension between those who share the road.

I asked Jeff McMahon, a volunteer at Concordia’s bike co-op Right To Move, whether he thought better-behaved bikers were the solution. “I don’t think that if most cyclists obey the rules of the road, they’ll get more respect,” he said. “Ten per cent will still spoil it [for everyone].” Instead, McMahon pointed to Montreal’s road infrastructure as the main source of tension between cyclists and motorists. Both he and Ogilvie cited Portland, Oregon as a city where a well-developed traffic system allows for harmony on the road.

“Montreal’s bike lanes are a death trap,” Ogilvie stated. “I would rather see bikes on the roads than in bike lanes.” He believes that our city’s poorly-designed bike lanes – on Maisonneuve, for example – often put cyclists in more danger than riding amidst traffic. McMahon elaborates that the danger of bike lanes lies in drivers’ misunderstanding of them: “It makes the driver think that if there isn’t [a bike lane], bikes shouldn’t be there.” His ideal road system would feature two lanes on every road, one for cars and one for cyclists.

And, with the oft-mentioned rising gas prices, both Ogilvie and McMahon believe that the city will have to redesign their roads to accommodate a burgeoning population of cyclists. “Biking is a reality,” Ogilvie says – and naturally, I agree. This past September, I felt like the Milton bike path was our own personal Critical Mass every morning before school.

It appears, then, that the solution to car-bike tensions may come with time. As driving a car becomes increasingly unaffordable and more people start fixing up their old ten-speeds, it seems only natural that the development of a road system that can accommodate this new crop of cyclists will follow suit. This, in tandem with cyclists’ and motorists’ increased awareness of their mutual presence on the road, might signal the end of the “us v. them” mentality that is currently de rigeur amongst road users.

“The relationship between cars and bikes can be symbiotic,” McMahon says. “In the end, we’re all trying to achieve the same thing: getting from point A to point B. It’s not hard to help one another out.”