This is no ride in the park

In Features /

Jeff Lagerquist looks at cycling in one of the city’s most dangerous areas

They call it the right hook. A cyclist slows to a stop at an intersection. A vehicle pulls alongside. As the light turns green, both set off down a busy urban street. The driver pulls ahead and makes a sudden right turn without signaling or checking the blind spot, the cyclist is violently launched over the curb or into the vehicle. It happens all the time, and often goes unreported.

While repairing vehicle damage can be unpleasant and costly, cyclists may find themselves in a different sort of body shop after an accident.

In Toronto, only 1.7 per cent rely on a bike to get to work according to the 2006 census numbers. Perhaps a wise decision considering we have more serious collisions per capita than any other major Canadian city, with 47 for every 100,000 residents. Still, the numbers are increasing. There were 50 per cent more commuter cyclists on the road in 2009 than a decade before.

The daily flow of pedal power through the heart of Toronto is often clogged at the busiest arteries. According to the 2010 Toronto Bicycle Count, 19,162 cyclists entered and 15,241 exited the downtown core between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on a typical September afternoon.

Ryerson University is completely obscured by the amount of cycling collision graphics on a map released by the city’s Traffic Safety Unit. It should come as no surprise that the roads around campus are too intimidating for many students.

“Everyone I know who rides a lot has either had a bad accident or come close. I understand why some people are afraid,” says Micah Markson, president of the Ryerson Bike Club. Now in his third year of information technology management, Markson cycles to campus daily, and admits to bouncing off more than a few cars. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to make it [cycling] sound worthwhile.”

Markson says most accidents happen because people aren’t paying attention. He’s been hit with the dreaded right hook. “I yelled at the driver. She said, ‘Oh sorry, I’m on my cell phone.’ As if that’s a real excuse for nearly running me over,” said Markson. He wasn’t seriously hurt, just thoroughly annoyed.

Benedict San Juan, a former Ryerson Bike Club executive, has also felt the sting of the right hook. It happened last April while riding south on Spadina through Toronto’s Chinatown. When the lights changed at Dundas Street, a silver Toyota minivan sped past San Juan on his bicycle. Inside, a man and his wife searched for parking so they could pick up their takeout. Spotting a vacant space along a narrow side street, the driver swerved from the left lane, hit the breaks suddenly, and started a sharp right turn. With a car in the adjacent lane and a sidewalk packed with pedestrians, there was nothing San Juan could do accept brace for impact.

“I remember the squeal of the tires and the smell of rubber,” said San Juan. “I also yelled, ‘Oh fuck!’ really loudly.”

San Juan slammed into the minivan with the left side of his body. His bicycle still attached by his pedals, he lay motionless on the pavement staring into a cloudless sky. Almost immediately a crowd started to gather. A bystander called 911, others took pictures on their cell phones, most were too shocked to react at all. Knowing that trying to get up could risk further injury, San Juan lay still.

“I checked to see if I could move my fingers and toes. My head was throbbing and I was bleeding pretty badly.”

The driver had no intention of sticking around. He continued down the side street, not realizing it was a dead end. By then, the crowd had grown and bystanders watched the man sheepishly exit his car.

“Right away he said, ‘Please don’t call the cops. I’ll give you $500 cash.’” San Juan told the driver, “Stay where you are, the police are coming,” as he lay dazed in injured on the ground.

The driver begged him to take the money – he didn’t want insurance companies involved. His wife got out of the van. “She started yelling at me. Saying, ‘You were the one not paying attention. I can’t believe this is happening. You were being stupid. What the hell were you doing on the road,’” said San Juan.

Police arrived on the scene moments later, and the paramedics got there shortly after. The collision left him with serious bruising on his left side and slight rotational damage to his lower back. Even after four months of physiotherapy, he was still unable to stand for more than a few minutes.

The only reminder of his ordeal today is the odd spell of back pain and some scratches on his bike. The driver was charged with careless driving. However, not every accident ends with a cyclist walking away, and a guilty driver being charged.

It was almost 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 7 when 38-year-old Jenna Morrison’s green bicycle was crushed by the rear wheels of a five-tonne Freightliner truck travelling south on Sterling Road in Toronto’s west-end. Morrison suffered massive trauma and was pronounced dead on the scene. She was five months pregnant. A Spiderman bike helmet lay on the ground next to a mangled child’s tow trailer. Morrison was on her way to pick up her five-year-old son Lucas from school. Police say she lost her balance and fell into the truck as they were both making a right turn onto Dundas Street. No charges have been laid against the 55-year-old driver.

The following Monday morning Toronto’s cycling community quietly assembled in a park at the corner of Bloor and Spadina, the starting point for a memorial bike ride to the spot where Morrison was killed.

Most of the people there had never met Morrison, but any urban cyclist worth their wheels couldn’t deny being moved by her tragic passing. At 7:30 a.m. activist Chloe Rosemarin from Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists addressed the group. A news helicopter ominously hovered overhead as she struggled to be heard.

“This is a silent ride, that means not a carnival, so if you need to ring your bell that’s fine, but we’re not turning this into a parade. Keep the mass together, and ride safe,” said Rosemarin from atop a granite bench. She led the pack of around 300 cyclists though the city streets.

When the procession arrived at Dundas and Sterling, Geoffrey Bercarich of Bike Pirates, a volunteer-run bike shop at 1292 Bloor St., clasped a classic commuter bike painted white to a street sign as the crowd observed a moment of silence.

The “ghost bike” stands as a lasting reminder that while car-on-bike fatalities are rare in Toronto – only two in 2010 – they poignantly highlight the dysfunctional relationship between cyclists and drivers when they happen.

Andrew Burse is an avid cyclist and Toronto resident. He felt compelled to join the memorial ride.

“The rider who was killed died at an intersection that I go through every day. She also commutes with her child as I do, so I felt we had a lot in common. All it takes is a moment for a regular ride to become a tragic one. The whole thing hit really close to home,” he said.

While the riders at Morrison’s memorial ride were bound by an overwhelming sense  that this kind of thing could happen to anyone on a bike, the question of how to improve cycling safety in Toronto doesn’t yield any clear answers.

Toronto Centre-Rosedale Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says there are a variety of options, but the discourse around cycling at City Hall is completely fractured.

“Cycling is probably the most viable and accessible transportation option we have. There needs to be adequate infrastructure that encourages everyone to ride a bike. Some councillors are only interested in quick sound bite slogans rather than having a conversation about how to integrate cycling into the city,” said Wong-Tam.

Last month, Ontario’s chief coroner Dr. Andrew McCallum announced an extensive investigation into the roughly 75 cycling deaths on Ontario roads and sidewalks that occurred between 2006 and 2010. The review, to be led by Toronto’s regional supervising coroner Dr. Dan Cass, will “identify common factors that may have played a role in the deaths, and where possible, make recommendations to prevent similar deaths,” according to the province’s media release.

The results are expected in the spring.

Although Ryerson’s Master Plan explicitly mentions a “bicycle-friendly campus” featuring “lanes throughout, which connect to the city’s proposed cycling network,” the only street the university has full control over is Gould Street, which is pedestrian-focused. Ryerson President Sheldon Levy admits that nothing can be done without the the approval of Toronto City Council.

“They probably won’t favour bikes and public transport over cars,” said Levy.

Markson and the Ryerson Bike Club have started holding monthly meetings with key members of the university administration, facilities planners, and the RSU to discuss cycling infrastructure.

The meetings have focused on storage, security, and a bike repair facility. Cycling safety is an important issue that appears to have been placed on the back burner.

Markson has cycled extensively in Europe. He recently completed a journey from Italy to Amsterdam, and has seen first-hand how major cities can find a balance between bicycles and cars.

“None of the countries I visited were as bad as things are here in Toronto. Short of a complete bike infrastructure with separate lanes and everything, I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done,” he said.

Comments

  1. I think that bad parking habits are so dangerous for bikers. My daughter was hurt several months ago just because there was a car in the bike lane! While parking a car in Toronto is considered to be easy on average (especially when compared to the other big cities of the world), there is a desperate situation for bikers in general. I hope the situation will change soon. The portion of people using bikes in the city is probably not that much important as safety and tolerance.

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