Bicycle vs. Car - an Argument With Myself

I’ve been becoming more vocal lately about pretty much everything.  I’ll go right back to what I told you last year - I’m a smart guy, but I’m wrong about half the time.  We count on it - that’s the basic fundamental principle of democracy:  The majority of us will probably have the right answer most of the time.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s as good of a starting point as we’ve found.

So I’ve made a big shift from being a fair weather, pathway cyclist to year-round, “confident” cyclist who chooses a bicycle as my primary choice for a daily commute.  I’ve always been good on a bike and I’ve always enjoyed riding, but I grew up in Small Town, Alberta where traffic wasn’t anywhere near the big deal it is in Calgary.  In the city, it’s a whole different deal.  The pathways aren’t bad when they aren’t busy, but they can get extremely congested downtown.  Roads in the city are just scary to ride on.

Where the conflict develops is that I’m not just a cyclist – I’m a driver too.  I’d like to think I’m above average in both categories - I secretly fear I’m not much different than anybody else out there.  It’s not a fair argument.  We already know who’s going to win.

Driver Mark:  All this crap about making Calgary bicycle friendly is starting to make me sick.  We have more than enough problems with traffic in Calgary.  We have too much sprawl and not enough roads and interchanges.  It takes far too long to get in from the suburbs to downtown.  Most of the people in this city drive cars.  We need better roads, we need more parking, we need better ways to move people back and forth.

Cyclist Mark:  We have a better way.  We’ve sunk untold millions into automobile infrastructure.  We can’t continue this.  We don’t have the space for more roads, we don’t have capacity to move more cars through the inner city, we can’t afford to keep building more neighbourhoods further and further from city centre and still move people back and forth every day the way we have.  The better way is alternative transportation.  Transit, bicycles, and walking can all relieve our biggest obstacles.

Driver Mark:  Yeah, yeah, more of this cycling crap.  One percent of Calgarians are going to ride bikes for three months in the summer and we’re talking about sinking $28 million for a handful of people.  It’s a joke, we need to put the money where people are really using it now.

Cyclist Mark: Hold up, let’s be genuine here a moment.  We’re talking about $28 million in capital costs, but there’s a little over $12 million that’s unfunded right now.  One mile of urban freeway costs about $60 million.  The numbers are kinda simple - that’s one fifth of a mile of highway to find for all of Calgary’s start up for bicycles over the next three years.  That’s really cheap compared with vehicles.  We’re talking tens of thousands of cyclists out there now, and we want to increase those numbers in the near future.

Driver:  That’s ridiculous.  The roads are already built!  You’re going to take away driving lanes and parking and call it a bargain.

Cyclist: We’re not going to reduce McLeod Trail to two lanes all the way up and back.  Changes have to be strategic.  Bicycle lanes need to be put where cyclists can use them.  We’re asking for a full transportation network, just like vehicles have.  No one would be happy driving from Deerfoot Trail, getting on a five mile long dirt lane, and then carrying on Highway 2 up to Edmonton.  We want the same planning to go into our bicycle infrastructure.

Driver:  But we already have this world class bike path system we brag about.

Cyclist:  We call them bike paths, but they’re really not just for bikes.  They’re Multi-Use Pathways (or MUPs) and there are bicycles and pedestrians and dog walkers and wheelchairs and all manner of users out there.  They’re great for recreation, they’re okay for commuters when they happen to align with your route, but they’re not helpful when you have to go out of your way.

Driver:  So we spend a whole pile of cash to revamp our roads and nothing is going to change.  We don’t know that anyone is actually going to ride a bike anyways.

Cyclist:  No, we don’t know for sure that habits will change.  We do know one thing for sure:  Without better infrastructure Calgarians will not change.  Most people don’t feel comfortable riding on the roads.  We have to make things easier if we want to convince more people to pull their bikes out of their garage. We’ve proven it over the last 40 years.  It’s time to fix it.  It’s a cheap way to leverage what we’ve already built.

Driver: And the end result of this is that we’re going to get more idiots on bikes driving dangerously.  Have you seen those guys weaving through traffic back and forth?  They’re insane, they’re dangerous, and they’re never held responsible for their absurd behaviour.  Why don’t they ever get tickets the way I get ticketed as a driver?

Cyclist:  You know what?  You’re exactly right.  It’s dangerous, it’s stupid, and it’s setting back the cause of cycling twenty years.  Cyclists should not be riding like that.  Let’s not forget there are plenty of drivers out there driving dangerously, too.  The dangerous drivers are a much bigger problem for you than the dangerous cyclists because you have to deal with a lot more bad drivers than bad cyclists.  I am still going to through out a proviso, however.  Sometimes it’s safer for a bike to not strictly follow the rules.

Driver:  Hold it.  As a driver, I’m expected to follow all the rules, all the time.  You are not going to get away with some creative excuses because you’re on a bike.

Cyclist:  People on bikes should follow the rules all the time.  But not all the rules are particularly bike friendly.  Not all the rules have been designed with bikes in mind.  We need to get them addressed fairly.

Driver:  Tough, tell it to the judge.

Cyclist:  It might come down to that, eventually.  Until then can we agree that we need fair and reasonable enforcement for everyone on the roads?  We’re going to have issues, but everyone’s driving out there needs improvement.

Driver:  Fine.  But what about all those cyclists slowing me down when I’m trying to get somewhere?

Cyclist:  Bicycles are slowing you down?  Can’t you pass safely?

Driver:  No.  Those cyclists think they own the whole lane.

Cyclist:  They deserve the whole lane.  It’s done to keep us safe.

Driver:  Safe?  You’re going 30 km/h blocking me the whole way!  Move over and let me by.  You’re supposed to ride to the right.

Cyclist:  Most people I know generally do move over when it’s safe.  But even if you’re held up for a block, it’s hardly the problem with slowing you down much.  Honestly, the problem is there are more cars than the roads can handle.  Look at this video, it’s Crowchild Trail during rush hour.  The bikes are faster than the cars.  And they’re not even trying to go quickly.  More bikes on the road mean less cars on the road.  You’ll travel faster as a driver.  It’s good for you!

Driver: It will only get worse when you’re taking away driving lanes and parking.

Cyclist:  Experience from cities like Montreal have been the opposite.  Bike lanes are getting congested because they’re so well used.  That’s easing congestion on the streets, at least a little.  Besides, haven’t you noticed all the “traffic calming” measures the city is slapping in through the inner city neighbourhoods?  You’re losing your driving lanes anyways.

Driver:  All those blockages really piss me off.

Cyclist:  We can use some of that for bike lanes.  It’ll keep traffic flowing, take cars off the streets, and we’ll all be better off.  As for parking, if someone goes to the store by bike, that’s one more person you don’t have to fight for a parking stall.  You can park a lot more bikes out of the way with a bike rack than you can with a single parking stall out front.

Driver:  Okay, but Calgary has this thing called winter.  Why are we spending this much money for times of the year when no one can ride?

Cyclist:  Actually, I ride year round now.

Driver:  Are you crazy?  That’s ridiculously dangerous.  You’re going to slide right underneath my car going around a corner.

Cyclist:  Look, during the winter what tires do you put on your car?

Driver:  Well, I just use my All Season tires.

Cyclist:  The same tires you hate in the rain because they’re so slippery?  Are they better on ice?

Driver:  Well, no.  It can be kinda scary in the winter.  But I have AWD so it’s not all that bad.

Cyclist:  Okay, when I ride in the winter, I put studded tires on my bike.  They give incredible traction out there - I feel very comfortable on ice or snow.  Besides, Calgary is famous for it’s chinooks.  It’s not so bad all winter long.  You just prepare for the conditions.  Why don’t you put winter tires on your car?

Driver:  They’re pretty expensive.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have better tires year put on.

Cyclist:  I got fantastic tires for $80 each.  I feel much safer out there and they’ll last me for years.  My entire bike is set up and maintained for winter.  Honestly, it’s kind of nice to not get to work sweaty in the winter.  It would be a lot better if they cleared snow regularly out of the lanes where I need to ride instead of moving snow onto it.

Driver:  It was tough enough getting the city to plow more of the city streets regularly.

Cyclist:  We’re sharing the pain.  Don’t you agree it’s a real problem when the lines are faded?

Driver:  I can’t tell where the bicycles are supposed to be and where I’m supposed to drive.

Cyclist:  A huge portion of the bicycle strategy is dedicated towards maintenance.  That’s going to help drivers and bikes know where each other are supposed to be and keep us all safer.  It’s as much about cars as it is about bikes.

Driver:  Well why aren’t bikes carrying their share of the costs?

Cyclist:  I drive, too.  I pay taxes just the same as you.  We’re paying right now.  It’s just that there’s been very little put towards cycling infrastructure up to now.  We don’t need as much as vehicles, but we do need more than we’ve had up to now if we’re going to encourage more people to ride.  Cycling is getting me fit, it’s going to save a whole lot of health care costs.  Cycling can save us a whole lot of money in the long haul.

Driver: Well why aren’t we leaving space for the cars and just putting cyclists and pedestrians together on a oversized sidewalk?

Cyclist:  There are two major problems.  The first is the problem that a traditional intersection isn’t really well designed for pedestrians, and it’s atrocious for cyclists.  The other problem is between cyclists and pedestrians.  Relative speeds between bikes and pedestrians are too great to be safe.  I walk at a quick pace and I’m only travelling at 5 km/h.  On a flat road on my bike with no wind I can sustain 35 to 40 km/h now.  That’s the same as talking the difference between a car and a bike.  Really, the best case scenario is to separate vehicles from bicycles and separate bicycles from pedestrians.  It will take an investment, but it’s ultimately geared towards making us all safer, more active, and hopefully healthier.  We call it our bicycle strategy, but it’s really about transportation for all Calgarians.  We have literally sat on this since the early 1970’s.  The sooner we act, the sooner we can make it better for all of us.

Driver:  Well, I’ve got one more beef.  I don’t see why we have to hire three people to organize this whole bicycle strategy.  What are those jobs supposed to be doing?

Cyclist:  You know I’ve been complaining about the signs on the pathways.  They’re horribly designed for a cyclist moving at 20 km/h - let alone someone moving at that 35 km/h I can sustain now.  We need someone to design better signs, to plan detours and maintenance, we need someone to plan routes that will least interfere with drivers and give maximum usefulness to bicycles.  We need someone who is taking a serious look at bike boxes, crossing signals, coloured lanes and other safety features other cities are having success with.  This isn’t a three year job, this is going to be a ten year project until we show significant results.  At the end of it, we’re going to have a healthier city, cleaner air, safer traffic and faster commutes.  It only makes sense.  We absolutely have to work on this.

Driver:  I’m not sure you’ve convinced me, but you make some good points.

Cyclist:  I am you.  You’re out riding on a regular basis.  You’re happier when you get into work.  You’re not scowling at the other drivers when they do something stupid.  You haven’t lost a pound of weight, but you’ve dropped an inch from your waistline and your lungs feel better than they have in years.  You know this is right for you.  You know this is best for your children.  It’s a chance to correct 40 years of mistakes and finally get a cycling network built in Calgary for them!  Don’t blow the opportunity.

Driver:  At the public hearings when one of the presenters said cycling was fun, Andre Chabot said that driving was fun, too.  He’s right, I like to drive!

Cyclist:  That’s never going away.  You’re going to have to do a little of both well into the future.  Having more choices is best for everyone.  We need to fund this.  We need to seriously act on it.  Right now.