dandyARCHIVE Point/Counterpoint

Side Street Rider - Michael Louis Johnson

Artwork by Ian Sullivan Cant

Toronto has a problem – too many cars. So why don’t more people ride bicycles? Fear. When would-be cyclists think of riding in the city, they imagine falling in streetcar tracks, slamming into car doors, choking on toxic air and getting cut off by SUV drivers talking on cell-phones. What they are missing are gents in jaunty hats and girls in flowing dresses; roses and magnolias in bloom and the springtime snow of apple blossoms in the wind. What they are missing is the peace and tranquility of the side streets.

On my bike, I think like an 8-year-old. Mom doesn’t like it when I ride on the big roads. Rule #1 – avoid cars like the plague that they are. Main roads are hotter, more polluted, more stressful, and there is a higher risk of accidents. There is also the danger of being swept up in competitive frenzy for ownership of the road, which can lead to aggressive riding, taking unnecessary life-threatening risks, even succumbing to acts of road rage. Competing for space with cars, we are still operating in the framework of car culture. Why ride in the spirit of rivalry when the spirit of harmony is only a few blocks out of the way?

Side streets are the perfect breeding ground for joyful anarchy as they are a real retreat from traffic tyranny. One can more safely ignore the signs and the lines on the road and once more be free – self-propelling through public space. While main street riders race from stop light to stop light, cursing drivers, risking their lives in the gap between parked cars and streetcars, side-street riders cruise with no hands, blissfully going with the flow.

Trees and grass and flowers make side streets veritable “clean-air corridors” compared to main street ovens of concrete. Of course, there may be times when there’s no choice but to ride a main road, especially outside the downtown core. In this case it’s important to have a big presence, take the lane and make actions deliberate. On two-lane roads ride side-by side or in a group and don’t be in such a hurry!

Until we have the critical mass of riders who’ll group together and take back the main roads, I’ll happily go a few blocks out of my way for a healthier, safer, and more pleasant ride. The more people who realize this option exists, the more people will leave their cars at home and get on a bike.

Michael Louis Johnson is a member of Streets are for People! And plays the trumpet at Critical Mass in Toronto.

Arterial Girl - Tanya Quinn

Artwork by Ian Sullivan Cant

I have a confession to make – I am a tad directionally challenged. I have my navigational aids, most notably the sun and, of course, the CN Tower. But, when faced with the choice, “Do I turn left or do I turn right,” I almost always pick wrong. Residential streets with dead ends at ravines and cul-de-sacs would have me forever circling through Leaside or Rosedale. Riding the main roads it is pretty difficult to get lost. They follow a grid pattern and continue in a direct line. With a mental subway map in my head, I can place the streets in order to verify which way I am going.

The best part about riding streets like Queen and Bloor is that life happens there. They are full of energy and excitement. You might bump into a friend, or a parade of zombies, or stumble on a great sidewalk sale. You may be lured into the cheese store or florist or library to load your bicycle basket with good food and good reads. Ding-a-ling! Just letting those people dashing across the street know you are there. A cacophony of noise happens here – barking dogs, sirens, traffic, horns, pedestrians chatting, music spilling from storefronts – but, my favourite is the pleasing harmony of bicycle bells ding-a-linging one after the other.

The urban obstacle course is a great way to end up at your destination feeling alive and mentally alert. Your attention span must be locked in the “on” position. You have your eye on traffic in front of you, or that might pull out of the side street, all the while keeping a door width’s away from parked cars as you glance periodically in the rear view to check for any aggressive troublemakers. Making eye contact with the driver thinking “Oh that’s just a bicycle, I’ll take that space” and holding your ground. You know that pedestrian standing there is waiting for a taxi so you are anticipating the taxi’s U-turn will cut you off to pick him up. Nothing slows you down. You move from the center lane, in line with the rest of traffic grooving along at car speed, to a skinny little bicycle making its way through tight spaces. Anticipation keeps up your momentum without having to stop. Congestion doesn’t stop you.

Besides, you wear yourself out quickly with too much starting and stopping on side streets with four-way stops every 50 feet meant to slow down cars. Main streets provide priority for traffic – no stop signs to slow you down and the lights are green more often. Fun, fast, efficient, and easy! You can smile wickedly at the car drivers stuck in gridlock as you filter quickly past. With a good mix of assertiveness and responsible riding (light up at night!) you can take any route you like with confidence.

Tanya Quinn is the proprietor of the blog www.crazybikerchick.blogspot.com and a contributor to I Bike T.O.   

~This article originally appeared in dandyhorse issue one, Summer 2008 ~

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