Remember when we were kids and when we wanted to ride bikes we just hopped on and went?
Believe it or not, I’m old enough to remember a time before helmets and bike lanes, where it was a free-for-all on the roads and a kid on a bike pretty much had carte-blanche on most roadways. Although, now that I think on it, free rein to ride a bike might be a small-town thing.
Regardless, bike riding has become much more political in the last five years as cyclists and motorists vie for space allotment on the city’s roads.
Look no further than the new lane on Boundary Avenue, created as a pilot project to try to increase safety for cyclists on Nanaimo roads. The bike lane was placed between parked cars and the sidewalk to create a buffer.
Drivers, or more accurately their passengers, will need to be aware when parking on Boundary Avenue that a cyclist might be coming down the lane before they throw the passenger-side door open. The markings on the street will also take some getting used to, as drivers, pedestrians and cyclists all learn to navigate the new lanes.
Motorists have been getting used to seeing more cyclists on the streets. Transport Canada reports that cyclists account for 3.2 per cent of fatalities and 4.6 per cent of serious injuries per user class, which is consistent with the previous year at 2.9 and 4.3 per cent, respectively.
I wonder, however, if instituting rules that segregate each road user is the problem. What if it was simply a free-for-all when it comes to cars, bikes and pedestrians?
When putting the safety of people at risk, this would require study. But a couple of anecdotal adventures and observations is where I’m forming my questions.
About two years ago I had the opportunity to travel overseas for the first time, spending about 10 days in northern Germany. There, transportation corridors were often divided up, with bikes segregated to a red-brick lane between vehicles on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Everyone stayed in their lanes and never the three shall interact, save for a hapless tourist who speaks little German yanked by the collar onto the sidewalk as a bike blurred by, its bell dinging in the distance.
In contrast, I found myself on Granville Island in Vancouver a few weeks ago. Few – if any – bike lanes, hundreds of tourists and locals on foot, and a never-ending stream of vehicles navigated the narrow streets to get to the shops and studios.
Everyone had a right to be there, to take up space on the roadway, and amazingly folks worked it out. A friendly wave as a vehicle stopped to let a pedestrian pass was much more common than the shrill blast of a car horn.
Back to Germany, this time Berlin and the popular tourist destination of Checkpoint Charlie, the division between the West and the East in post-war Berlin. Thousands of tourists from all over the world visit this busy intersection daily and there was nary a traffic light in sight. Pedestrians huddled into a group and crossed the road en masse, believing safety in numbers would thwart a speeding Mercedes.
I didn’t see a traffic accident in Berlin until we crossed into the ‘west’ where tram tracks had been ripped up by the Allies to make way for a car-centric western culture. Make of that what you will.
What then is the secret to ensuring safe interactions between pedestrians, motorists and cyclists? The understanding that each is allowed to exist.
Whether it’s segregated lanes or a free-for-all, our social contract must include coexistence between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. No group will be disappearing anytime soon. We might as well get used to each other.