It’s been a bit of an interesting week and it all started with a tweet! On Aug. 14th, I tweeted the following "I've noted some benefits of the #COVIDlanes for me as a cyclist and as a driver, but I also like them as a pedestrian. I am walking along streets w/ cycling lanes more often as they provide an additional buffer/separation between me & vehicles, resulting in a better experience." The next day I saw that a local city councillor had retweeted that with the comment “You’re losing this one. The silent majority is starting to speak up”. That exchange started quite a bit of discussion. Of course, like all of these types of interactions, the ‘frenzy’ has died down and it’s allowed me some time to reflect on the interaction. Here’s a few of my thoughts from that experience.
A number of people weighed in to the conversation because they found the councillor’s tweet to be inappropriate or offensive in some way. My reaction to that tweet was not one of offense but rather surprise. I felt my original tweet was positive and it was related to a Regional project. So when I saw the negative response to it from a city councillor, I was a bit surprised, wondering why that was the tweet with which the councillor decided to interact. I was also a bit confused by the comment ‘You’re losing this one’. I was unclear about what I was losing at exactly.
However, the Twitter conversation became even more surprising to me as the councillor went on to say that the solution to this issue was that cyclists should be riding on the sidewalk. He then explained how he has been cycling along Westmount for years and simply uses the sidewalk. He suggested that pedestrians didn’t mind moving out of the way, and there were few pedestrians on that stretch anyway. He noted that there were ‘miles and miles of sidewalks not being used’ so encouraging cyclists to use that space, even though it’s against the law, seemed like a good solution to him.
It sounded like his experience riding on the sidewalk has been positive. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most people. Pedestrians often feel unsafe having to share the sidewalk with faster moving bicycles. Crossing intersections becomes problematic as well as drivers aren’t expecting cyclists to cross from the sidewalk, or cyclists must dismount at every street crossing – neither option is ideal. Also, research shows that Black and Brown people face additional criticism and anger when they are seen as ‘breaking the rules’. Asking BIPOC folks to ride their bicycles on the sidewalk may well put them in a vulnerable position.
The fact that the councillor was advocating for cyclists to ride on the sidewalks because it’s safer only seems to bolster the argument in favour of safer cycling infrastructure such as separated bike lanes.
Another topic of discussion that came out of this conversation was the cycling lobby. The councillor congratulated me, as part of the cycling lobby, on being so well organized in our response to his retweet. I have asked for clarification from the councillor on what exactly the cycling lobby is, as I am unclear what he’s referring to. Is it anyone who is in favour of cycling infrastructure or is it something more organized? I’m still unclear at this point. However, my concern about using references to a cycling lobby, is that it minimizes the ideas and concerns of certain residents who are asking for safer streets. I’m a resident who sees adding cycling infrastructure as one way to improve the safety for all road users, and our community at large. It feels frustrating to have those ideas dismissed as being part of a cycling lobby, and not simply as a resident.
Lastly, what I found most discouraging about the retweet was this idea that there are winners and losers in city-building conversations. My hope is that we all want to create a community that works well for all residents. We, of course, will have different ideas on how best to get there, but that’s why we do our research, engage in conversations, and try out possible ideas. I don’t consider that to be a win-lose endeavour. What can feel like a losing situation is when certain perspectives are not intentionally included (or perhaps even actively dismissed) in these conversations. The councillor mentioned that the silent majority is now speaking up. My worry is that if we only listen to the same voices that we usually do, we can never move past the status quo. I think our community can be so much more than just the status quo and that’s the reason I will continue to speak up on issues such as street safety, especially for our most vulnerable road users.