Cyclists’ Attitude: A critical view from a cyclist

As a cyclist, I have to admit that one of the reasons I cycle is convenience. Yes, I do care about the environment and being physically active, so I choose to bike over driving (or taking transit), but cycling is the best way for me to get point A to point B in the city and usually involves me parking my bike right in front of my destination. Easy, convenient and fast.

During my last year of University, I did my Bachelors thesis about bicycling and I was particularly interested in what makes a city “bikeable” and what makes people decide to cycle as opposed to using other modes of transportation. A survey done by the research group I was a part of, “Transportation Research at McGill”, found that members of the University community often chose their preferred mode of transportation because it was the most convenient. Therefore, while cyclists also have environmental or health values, the main reason to cycle was convenience. Makes sense.

In a city, cycling is usually the fastest mode of transportation, as cyclists can avoid traffic congestion and the bicycle takes you from point A to point B without having to wait for transit connections. In both Brussels and Vienna, cycling was the fastest option for me to get from my home to the university campus or the city center. That said, I think cyclists often expect to be able to ride without stopping, and leave their bicycle in front of their destination. They are often impatient at red lights (sometimes going through these red lights) or leave their bicycles locked to any random object, not wanting to walk a few minutes to the nearest bicycle stand. Cyclists in this sense are like drivers, they are alone on their bicycle and expect to arrive to their destination without delays (although cycling gives a different perspective on the city that increases social relations, in my opinion).

Cyclists inhabit an ambiguous zone where they should follow the rules of the road, but do not always do so, slipping through red lights and crossing at crosswalks, often not giving pedestrians priority. As more and more cyclists hit the road, the bicycle infrastructure also becomes congested and cyclists have to start cycling more slowly. Also, more and more people are cycling, not just young and active people. Therefore as older or younger cyclists take to the road, the speed of cycling lanes decreases and conflicts arise. For instance, in Montréal there is a separated bicycle lane on de Maisonneuve in the city center. This is however very congested in the summer, meaning that the average speed of cyclists is much lower than the preferred speed of some cyclists. This leads to impatience, dangerous passing and some speed-seeking cyclists to take the adjacent roads, which have no cycling infrastructure, to be able to cycle more quickly.

The increasing number of cyclists in the city reminds me of the text written by André Gorz in 1973, “L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole”. He wrote that while the car was once a luxury item, only affordable for the wealthy and enabling them to live far from work and commute daily, in the post-war decades the automobile became a product of mass production and mass consumption under a new Fordism model of development. Less expensive to produce, it became less expensive to purchase and made its way into the driveways of a large segment of the population, especially in countries like Canada and the United States. The problem now is that so many people live in the suburbs and depend on the automobile for transportation that they are unable to escape the congestion caused by their own driving. In most cases, public transportation has not developed into a viable and reliable alternative and so a vicious cycle ensues: to escape the congested city, residents flee to the suburbs, but they are entirely dependent on an automobile to get to the city for work or access to services and therefore contribute to the problem which they seek to escape (Gorz 1973).

While cycling is different, for it is does not depend on petrol and takes up less space on the road, infrastructure is less costly and needs to be replaced less often, the growing number of cyclists on the road means that cyclists need to be more respectful and patient, slowing down and respecting the rules of the road. This new cycling congestion has been dealt with in some countries, like Denmark, with cycling “Super Highways”, increasing the space on the road available for cycling.

As more and more cyclists hit the roads, cyclists may not be able to park their bicycles where they wish, or cycle as fast as they want. At the same time, many cities still do not create transportation infrastructure for cyclists. I wrote in a blog post last year that cities should also design the roads for cyclists, with traffic signals for cyclists and separated bicycle lanes. Where this infrastructure does not yet exist, one can understand that cyclists “break the rules” by cycling along the sidewalk, or crossing the road at crosswalks with pedestrians, as the roads are still not being built with cycling for transportation in mind.

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