Cyclists and the expectation of perfection / by Tim Querengesser

Cyclists are expected to be perfect. But here's a secret: We are like everybody else.

It's true that we demand next to nothing from our world’s resources as well as those of our cities, and while paying taxes just like motorists we ask for simple safety rather than subsidized extravagance. But other than those exceptional things we are completely unexceptional. Like all other people we are not perfect and should not be expected to be. And we should not lose things for our transgressions. 

Flickr/Tejvan Pettinger

Flickr/Tejvan Pettinger

As it currently stands, though, perfection is the expectation and the loss of hard-won rights or infrastructure is the penalty. If we ride on a sidewalk, roll through a stop sign or otherwise behave as motorists regularly do, there is often hell to pay. If we are hit by a motorist we are blamed for being in the wrong place or breaking a road rule. If we die we are often reduced to a stat or a disturbing picture, while the person at the wheel is kept anonymous and later, absolved with a mild traffic fine.

If we brag about cycling's many virtues we are often scrutinized by motorists. If we make a mistake on our bike we can sometimes pay dearly. But this is too often used as part of a narrative to further discourage cycling, as if it is itself inherently dangerous. It isn't, and the stats show it. The real danger is motordom itself—as a passenger, driver, pedestrian, cyclist. As The Atlantic put it, blame the absurd primacy of the automobile

Flicker/Tejvan Pettinger

Flicker/Tejvan Pettinger

All of this bounced around in my head over the past few days after I saw my friend Darren Markland’s mischievously funny post about getting a speeding ticket on his bike. He is not the first rider to get a speeding ticket on his bicycle and some have even pondered what happens to your driver’s license if you get a speeding or traffic ticket atop your bike.

Markland tweeted, from the scene, "No, but I could tell you if you let me check @Strava" was not the best reply to "Do U know how fast you were going?" The blue lights of the police cruiser were visible in Markland's photo. I chuckled and was even impressed. He shared a pic of his ticket. I won't tell you how much it was for.

I rode with Markland to work on a podcast and it's true, we rode damn fast. Car fast. Out-of-breath fast. But before judging us as imperfect, consider that Markland told me his days as a bike messenger underlined for him that riding with vehicles (something you need to do constantly in Edmonton to get anywhere) showed that he was safest if he could keep up with them and flow with them. And so he does.

Like him, that's how I ride. Fast. Traffic fast. My only accident in Toronto atop my bike was when I rear ended an Acura because I was going about 40 km/hr to flow with traffic on a busy street and he cut in front of me and slammed his brakes. I was fine, as was his car. I still ride like this because, well, it prevents so many other collisions.  

On our ride together, Markland and I ended up on 50 Street in Edmonton, which flows along at 70 km/hr. To feel safe on our bicycles, we needed to move. And let me tell you, I was in top gear and maxed out on the pedals. We moved, son. And we were safe.  

A few days later, I met an Edmonton man for a story I'm writing for Canadian Geographic. He told me the gutting story of his wife, who was cycling with him one day in 2012 along a two-lane, 80 km/hr highway when a driver swerved and hit her. The man said he was biking ahead of his wife that day. He heard a loud bang, and then rushed back to find a nightmare—his wife's lifeless eyes—that he keeps living every day.  

Flickr/European Cyclists' Federation

Flickr/European Cyclists' Federation

And yet I am sure many will react to something like a Markland getting a speeding ticket by thinking, tweeting or otherwise opining that it is further grounds to take something away from cyclists or force more controls on us. I write this looking at the 103 Street bike lane and it is absolutely full of cyclists. Over and over, I feel, I am forced to justify a tiny fraction of space offered to cyclists despite the obvious demand. 

Like so many marginalized groups, whenever a cyclist is so human as to do something that's against a rule, it's taken as proof of the unacceptability of the entire lot of cyclists. If one cyclist rides on the sidewalk well, then all of us do, apparently, so ban cycling. Or something like that. If we were to apply the same arbitrary rule to motorists, well, we would have grounds each day to shut down the Henday, or Jasper Ave., or you name the road, to motorists. They break rules by the second. With vastly more serious consequences. 

Cyclists should not be expected to be perfect. We do not need license plates. We do not need to accept being screamed at or threatened for our mistakes. We do not need to stop asking for more when we have been given a mere fraction of what experts have long said we are owed. We do not need to hear what you think if we are not wearing a helmet. In fact, maybe drivers should wear helmets

We cyclists are absolutely normal. Like everyone, we make mistakes, break rules from time to time, get on with our lives. Some, like me, even go fast. All while being given very little space to make our mistakes.