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Dear media personalities

Thank you for your interest in my bike project. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to attempt to capture the essence of my book, and the message contained there. Having met several of you in person, and having spoken to so many of you by phone or Skype, I’ve witnessed firsthand your genuine desire to showcase the project in the best light. Generally, you are what my parents would describe as ‘good people’.

That’s why what I have to say here has been too long in the writing. I like you, you see, and I want to showcase your work in the best possible light, too. However, while these are hard words to write, my not writing them does us all a great disservice.

Some of the write-ups have been bland. A Facebook comment I received suggested that one write-up was an insult to both the interviewees and the author, since watching the video gave viewers no insight at all into the book’s message. My message in This Road Continues One Block North is not bland. It’s positive and warm, full of innovation and determination, and an overarching desire on the part of over one hundred people to quietly do good.

Some of the press I’ve received makes the Toronto bike community appear eccentric. There are more of us than you think and historically, we’re the reason the roads got paved in the first place. Don’t believe me? Look up National Wheelman’s Association.

Most people who ride bicycles in the Greater Toronto Area, who commute by bike or use a bicycle to haul loads for work, who ride for exercise or to challenge themselves physically and mentally, most of these people are okay with being misunderstood, because they just want to get from A to B safely and efficiently. I haven’t responded publicly to these misinterpretations for that reason. What they’re not okay with, what disturbs me, is a write-up or in this case a video in which the message of the book is undermined. I feel obliged to respond.

This week, I received the following email through my blog, from a concerned commuter. Her comments mirror my concerns, and the concerns of everyone I’ve interviewed:

Congratulations on your interview!
It’s unfortunate that your top recommendation—learn and obey the rules of the road—was undercut by the video they ran with the story. The video was taken from helmet-mounted camera footage, of a cyclist who ran a stop sign, biked in a busy pedestrian crossing and biked on a sidewalk. These are just three examples of precisely the kinds of things that pedestrians and car drivers hate about cyclists.

What worries me about this isn’t that those commuters who indulge in these behaviours are giving cyclists a bad name, but rather that they’re endangering both themselves and others with their carelessness.

Lots of people seem to feel it’s okay to just hop on a bike without first acquainting themselves with the rules of the road, without understanding road etiquette, oblivious to the responsibility we all share for commuter safety. We’ve all seen those people. I assure you, they’re not in the majority. Further, no one would ever consider doing that in a car. By law, a bicycle is considered a vehicle.

And that’s part of my message. Showing images of people following a loose interpretation of the rules of the road while my message is playing undermines everything I’m trying to do. And, it completely dismisses anyone who chooses to ride a bicycle in Toronto as irresponsible and a danger to the general public.

I’m disappointed on several levels. First of all, before that taped interview, we had a pre-interview phone call, where I vetted a list of questions we’d be using to ensure a positive message. I pointed out that use of confrontational rhetoric would damage the message, and the interviewer assured me that we could clarify that. Unfortunately, the actual questions asked during the taped interview led us away from that conversation, rather than toward it. Beyond disappointment, I’m alarmed that the video included images of a ghost bike and a mourner. Let’s maintain perspective: of the nearly one-hundred-and-fifty stories I collected in 2011, only two of them involved such a scenario. These images only reinforce the belief that commuting by bicycle is dangerous.

Media, viewers, those who are uncertain about the benefits of commuting by bicycle in a large urban centre: here are some of the original questions, with my responses.

Is there any truth behind the supposed bike vs car? What sorts of stories did you encounter?

From the average person’s perspective, there is no ‘us vs them’. That sort of rhetoric doesn’t further anything meaningful.
When I travel a long distance, or have a large load to transport, I use a car. When I need to pick up something from the corner store, I walk. For everything else, I ride my bicycle. I‘m one person and I use all forms of transit. Branding me a driver or a cyclist risks polarizing the conversation. I’m a commuter.

Roads are not made for cars, but for the people in the cars and on the bikes, on foot and on the TTC. We’re all just trying to get from A to B.

But what about alleviating some of the tensions between cyclists and motorists—any tips?

We’re all commuters, so common rules apply.

  • Learn and respect the rules of the road. For instance, if a lane isn’t designed for your vehicle, respect that. A car in the bike lane isn’t an inconvenience: it’s dangerous for anyone on a bike.
  • Act responsibly. For instance, communicate intent. If you feel tension as a commuter—regardless of your chosen mode of transit—then start a conversation.
  • Use good etiquette and act graciously. (Torontonians excel at this point!) No one likes a douchebag, no matter what their chosen vehicle.
  • Be proactive. If you don’t like something, lobby your city councillor; become a member of Cycle Toronto, the bike union.
  • Assume the best of people: if all else fails, step away from your bike, your car, the sidewalk, get off the streetcar, and then have a conversation together.

How do you convince someone who might be afraid of biking in the city? What would you tell them to get them on a bike?

First of all, I try to set a good example. In Kingston I have a radio show—Totally Spoke’d. On that show, I share encouraging and positive bike stories, from real people. I read a story recently from a listener who took a friend out on a ride, taught her hand signals and safety rules, and gave her confidence to ride her bike around town. Every show, I encourage people to call me or to call a friend who rides, or to go to a bike shop for assistance and encouragement. It’s a huge community-building exercise.

Many of the people I interviewed are highly educated, but even if they’re not, they’re intelligent. The vast majority of people on bicycles in Toronto know and respect the rules of the road. They ride responsibly and they treat others with respect through proper road etiquette. They—that is, we—are not bland, or eccentric, or dangerous, and our message is important. A bicycle is an intelligent, inexpensive, sensible, environmentally responsible and fun way to commute.

We’re all commuters. Let’s talk.