All your lanes belong to us

Have you ever been hit by a car? I have. In fact, I’ve been hit four times; three times while riding my bike. My most recent experience was this past Thursday morning as I was cycling to the university. I was preparing to turn onto University Crescent when I felt a sharp pain on the back of my leg, and saw a side view mirror tumbling across Pembina Highway. I stumbled, but managed not to fall off my bike. After sufficiently reaming out the driver that hit me, I thanked Lucifer that I had survived another run-in with a driver with only a few bruises.

And this is why I take the lane.

Take the lane, you ask? Isn’t that illegal? Why no, actually, it’s not.

The Manitoba Highway Traffic Act states that someone riding a bicycle should “operate it as closely as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway.” This actually provides a lot of leeway for cyclists. What is “practicable” can vary a great deal depending on the rider, traffic and the state of disrepair the road is in. I’ve ridden on Winnipeg streets so full of potholes that I had to constantly zig-zag within the lane to avoid them. Some motorists may disagree, but bending my rim on a giant pothole isn’t very practicable.

Riding in the centre of the lane is defensive cycling. I know it can sometimes be difficult for drivers to put themselves in a cyclist’s shoes, but imagine how safe you’d feel cycling while a 5,000 pound vehicle hurtles past you so close that you can reach out and touch it. It’s not like getting into a fender bender with another car. We humans are spongy creatures; we don’t stand up very well to being hit with big hunks of metal. According to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, there are 250-300 bicycle-related traffic injuries reported in Manitoba every year. Imagine how many more aren’t reported.

Given how vulnerable cyclists are on the road it’s not unreasonable that they be given a lane to themselves. The right-hand curb lane should only be used by slow drivers, or drivers turning right anyhow, so the level of inconvenience should be minimal. If you’re using the right lane for its intended purpose, you’re likely not going much faster than the bicycle ahead of you, or you’re going to turn right soon, and you can handle 30 seconds of slowed driving. If you’re using the right-hand curb lane for any other reason then you deserve to be stuck behind a cyclist.

But motorists aren’t all to blame. Even the Winnipeg police can’t seem to get the rules of the road straight. I’ve been pulled over while riding my bike on the road and told I should ride on the sidewalk for my own safety. I’ve then been stopped while riding on the sidewalk and told I’m a hazard to pedestrians (which I am). Just last week I had a police car come up behind me, put its siren on, wait until I pulled over and then breeze past me. And no, there was no emergency. The car stopped at the next red light. How can cyclists expect Winnipeg drivers to give them respect when police officers won’t? How can we obey rules that seem to change depending on which cop you talk to?

This isn’t just a Winnipeg problem. Cyclists all over Canada are ignored, threatened and made to feel unsafe on city streets. Bike lanes are a start, but they aren’t enough. As Michael Bryant proved when he allegedly mowed down a bicycle courier in Toronto last month, bike lanes don’t stop motorists from behaving like assholes. Motorists’ attitudes towards cyclists are what must change. Drivers need to understand how vulnerable cyclists are on the road and act accordingly. Sure, maybe some maniac cyclist has just cut you off, but that doesn’t mean you should retaliate by trying to clip them with your side view mirror. In the battle between bicycle and car, car wins. Car demolishes bicycle. Car wreaks havoc until there’s nothing left but a bloody body under a mangled aluminium carcass.

You’re welcome to call me names, honk or threaten to run me down, but I’m not moving over. I’d like to warn you, however, to be careful how far you take this harassment. There are plenty of bitter cyclists who will follow you to your destination, wait for you to go inside, and take sweet, sweet vengeance out on your car. Just a friendly reminder. Share the road.

Shawna Finnegan is the Online Editor at the Manitoban.