When a police officer struck a cyclist riding a bike in High Park last week, it was only the latest – and most serious – incident where people riding their bicycles came in conflict with people performing their job as police officers.
Some accuse the police of harassment and victim blaming, while others blame cyclists for recklessness and disregard for the law. As someone who rides my bike throughout the city (and who has been guilty of ignoring a stop sign or two), I tended to lean toward the former perspective when I heard of such conflicts in the past. But with time I’ve found myself at odds with both fault-finding views.
As with most conflicts, the way forward is not through blaming either party. Instead, when it comes to different road users, and enforcement of traffic rules, we need to have some good guiding principles.
Firstly, if rules in a particular area are continually being broken – whether a geographical area, or in a particular population, we should ask ourselves if the rules are actually needed. In the case of cyclists failing to come to a complete stop throughout the city, many are arguing that we need legal reform so that cyclists don’t get ticketed for an “Idaho stop” . And in the case of High Park, where presumably the high disregard for the stops is what has led to the blitz, we should first ask if we really need the signs at the blitz targeted locations. Is it possible that the contested stop sign(s) in High Park are unnecessary? Should we trust people at this intersection to keep themselves safe without putting in a sign that people regularly ignore? Do traffic regulations that are disregarded lead to disrespect for the ones that are critical for public safety? Are we wasting police resources and creating unnecessary tension between the officers and the people they serve by making them enforce laws that few want to obey?
Secondly, we need to look carefully at high conflict situations, without blame, to see if there is a genuine problem. If a full stop is needed in High Park, or if speed is posing a danger to children, pets or the elderly who are leisurely walking through the park, then there’s a problem that must be addressed There are always potential dangers caused by high speed vehicles, no matter what type of vehicle it is. While it is true that automobiles cause by far the most injuries and fatalities, the police point as a rationale for their enforcement actions that pedestrians have been killed or severely injured by people going too fast on other modes of transportation like bicycles and scooters. And this reality hit close to home for me when a close friend was severely injured by someone racing down a hill in Cedarvale Park on a scooter.
Finally, when there is a problem, we should look to better street design – and path design in parks. Straight, smooth, wide paths and roads inevitably lead to high speeds by some users. Changing such corridors through design will naturally result in speed reduction. Signage telling people to go slow simply does not prevent speeding, and even stop signs are regularly ignored by people whether they are on two feet or four wheels. But a physical barrier, a narrowed path or roadway, real speed bumps, painted and elevated sections – all these measures force people to slow down or stop.
Enforcement should always be our last resort. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming, and it leads to anger on both sides. Police feel disrespected for their work in trying to keep our communities safe, and road users feel resentful that they are targeted, especially when they believe the rules aren’t fair.
Let’s move away from the blame game, and come together for what we all want – a city where people can joyfully use our streets and public spaces without fear of injury or death because of other road users. And let’s all take responsibility for how our actions, as a driver, as a cyclist, or a scooter rider, can impact those moving at a slower pace than us.