Critical mess? Let hue and cry begin

Yesterday’s VPD plea to motorists to evacuate the downtown core in the face of the Critical Mass bike ride — as if they needed urging on a hot Friday night — has provided a welcome new “critical mess” story line for media hounds to bay at.

But the outcry is no surprise to those in close touch with the mood of drivers and cyclists.

Friction is growing between drivers and cyclists. It can boil over at events like the Critical Mass ride, which is growing much faster than its organizers can manage. Last month’s massive 1,000-cycle ride nearly triggered fisticuffs between fuming drivers and a handful of taunting cyclists trailing the main pack.

The risk that poses to improved cycling in the city was clear at a meeting I facilitated Tuesday at City Hall with the assistance of Kari Hewett, chair of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. It was attended by eight cycling advocates, including two from the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, and representatives of VPD, ICBC and city Engineering.

We were unanimous on two points: the focus must be safety and co-ordination must be improved to ensure cyclists, drivers and the general public all hear and understand the safety message.

Excerpts from my notes, in no particular order:

  • The city is seeing an exponential growth of cycling and cycle activism, which council has been giving voice to through car-free days and the Burrard Trial, both of which are very successful. There is a power shift under way, a change that won’t be easy. (Think of the long controversy over smoking bans.)
  • Most cyclists are on the road without training. Even those with training are often afraid of the risks they run in traffic. When incidents occur, anger is often the first reaction. Cycling advocates agree that too many cyclists are bending the rules, but argue that some of the rules need to be bent for safe cycling, and some of the laws that work for cars are hard on cyclists.
  • City bike routes are a huge achievement, but flaws in the cycle network generate unsafe responses — cyclists are often encouraged to ride on the sidewalk or do so for safety reasons. Segregated lanes are the right, but long-term solution.
  • Drivers may not be fearful, but they are frustrated, both at delays and what they see as a double standard in enforcement of rules of the road.
  • There is no VPD ticket “crackdown” on cycling, but VPD is concerned about increasingly unsafe cyclist behaviour. Issuing a helmet violation is the cheapest, cleanest way for an officer to rein in a cyclist (lowest fine, easiest burden of proof.) While there are tickets being written at stop signs and elsewhere, this is not an organized enforcement program, despite the comment it has elicited in the cycling community

My take-away message: everyone must take responsibility for safety in traffic.

Cyclists must ride safely and respect drivers and pedestrians (the main source of complaints about cycling); drivers must drive safely and respect cyclists’ needs; the city and VPD need to support both through safe street design and, where necessary, enforcement.

There was a good discussion on Critical Mass and complete agreement between VPD and the CM riders on the paramount importance of safety.

Here, though, the CM organizers have a bigger role to play. To grow the ride without hurting the cause of cycling, they’ll need to build a mutually-respectful long-term relationship with the VPD. That will take more structured organization than they have now. Without that, the backlash could extend far beyond the ride itself.