Another Fatal Hit and Run: Time for Cyclists and Drivers to Work Together

It is time for the City of Toronto to grow up with regards to transportation policy.  Even as our city’s website encourages citizens to join the two-wheeled revolution, that tidy phrase comes without acknowledgement of the cost of this revolution: human lives.

The man who died today was just like the rest of us. 35 year old Tom Samson was a teacher who coached chess and boy’s basketball. He will leave a great gap in our community.

Drivers, transit users and cyclists alike have much in common. We are all users of the road. Drivers as a group are not at fault for taking these lives. Our city, and therefore all of us are responsible. We must acknowledge that our needs – cyclists, transit users and drivers – are not being met by our city. We are in charge of the city. Lets make it safer for all of us.

Today, another young man died in a hit and run, and in spite of a vast net spread by media and the police, so far there is no progress in finding the driver. That this driver is unlikely to come to justice is not only a problem for cyclists, but for all users of the road. The driver, at fault or not, could have just as easily hit and run another vehicle, or a pedestrian.

The problem is one of design. Toronto’s cycling infrastructure is patchy and dangerous, requiring cyclists and motorists to weave in and out of traffic with one another.  Compounding the problem, cyclists and drivers alike are poorly educated on traffic safety.

A case in point: Every day I see cyclists and motorists playing The Red Light of Death.

Pass to the LEFT of right-turning vehicles.

If you read that link, you’ll see that “Don’t pass on the right”  appears twice in bold letters.  Yet my informal observations as a daily rider tell me that most motorists and cyclists think that to the curb side exactly the place to pass.

I have had a few taxis and other professional drivers, actively try to block me from passing on the left, where it is safest.  Meanwhile, cyclists most often cue at the curb and proceed to cut off right-turning vehicles, who unwittingly allow themselves to be cut off.

I don’t take it personally. They don’t know any better. I didn’t either, until I began cycling with my daughter. Having someone else’s life in your hands makes you care more.

Another obvious indicator of poor education is the way we react to potholes and shoddy road work. The scourge of drivers and cyclists alike, these pits of doom are deadly to cyclists, an enemy of every car’s suspension, yet sections of Bloor West and other streets leave us playing a deadly game of pinball.

When encountering a pothole, a cyclist is forced to “take the lane” or ride to the left of a full traffic lane. Drivers are forced to bob, weave, swerve and react suddenly to potholes and to the bobbing, weaving and swerving cyclists. It is a death trap, and a cyclist’s only defense is to take that lane by riding to the left.

A cyclist who does so can expect to be treated to flurries of honking and wild gesticulation by frustrated drivers who queue behind them. While the cyclist does so for safety and may do so legally, one cannot blame the drivers here either. Unable to pass on either side of the cyclist, it seems like a cruel joke to be forced to lumber along at the pace of a pedal pusher on a 3-speed Bixi, when in a car with plenty of power to spare.

We all just want to get where we’re going with a minimum of fuss and trouble. We all know the risks. When a bike is hit by a car, the rider may be thrown from the bike, or dragged across the ground, perhaps hit by another vehicle, as happened in that fatal hit and run today.

Helmets don’t protect against such a fate.  Neither do bike lanes, full of uninformed, frightened, unlicensed cyclists who ride alongside similarly uninformed, drunk, distracted, unlicensed, or angry drivers. It is a dangerous mix, and it is dangerous by design. We have failed to design and build a safe city. We have failed to support each other. The intersection where he died is known to cyclists as a death trap. Why has it not been fixed? Why are we removing bike lanes on Jarvis and in Scarborough?

The view that cyclists and motorists want different things is perpetuated by our mayor, who has talked on his phone while driving. He apparently shares the anger and impulse problems that plague frustrated drivers.  Many cyclists know that awful feeling of being stuck in traffic. We cycle to evade it!

That may be our choice, but many people are understandably not comfortable with the risks of cycling.  Those risks must be reduced if our urban areas are to accommodate projected growth. There can never be enough roads in Toronto for all of us to drive.

The city must start protecting its citizens from senseless danger.  Motorists and cyclists need to get together and demand better infrastructure. Bikes and cars are not at war.  The city is slow to respond to our mutual needs for better infrastructure. We’ve let politicians divide and conquer us instead of setting the agenda.

In the end, it’s not Rob Ford’s responsibility to make this city safe. It is all our responsibility.  Whether our mayor survives his next challenges in court, the residents of this city must work together to better protect and plan for cyclists, drivers and transit riders, and to become better educated users of our transportation system.

That will not bring Mr. Samson back, but it will save future lives.

What do you think we can do to make our city safer?

A Soft Launch, From My Bike

Last night, I made ready to die. These things have a way of making the path before you appear very clear.

My entrepreneur friend and mentor Arshad Merali once told me about the strategy of a ‘soft launch’ with restaurants.

It’s the culinary equivalent of how Apple, Google and Microsoft ship software before it is fully ready and then put the finishing touches on things as the early adopters come on and provide valuable feedback. It’s something I’ve been doing for the last year with my own business, which you probably know nothing about, but it almost ALL ended last night.

At 6:55pm, I was launched, swiftly, from the seat of my bike, and it made me reconsider everything. I watched my 4-year-old daughter and dog slide in terror along the asphalt as a black SUV rammed, then dragged us along a row of parked cars. We finally stopped after knocking the front bumper from a parked car, skidding into the rear bumper of another. The driver sped away. In case you were wondering, we were riding in a bike lane on a wide, well-lit road.

Remarkably, we walked away with only minor injuries(so far). The Nihola (cargo bike) is a bit of a mess but it did its job and kept us alive. I am convinced that had we been on a conventional bike, you would be reading this in the newspaper as my family prepared to mourn the three of us. Without a single friend to mourn it, my new venture would have died too, sideswiped by a dinosaur that lurched into the wrong lane. Thus, I am breaking the silence today, and at the same time, I am asking for your help.

First, I am asking for help identifying the driver in this hit and run. Please share this message widely, as the sooner the message spreads, the better our chances of finding him. Look for a black, full-size SUV with damage to the paneling and doors on the passenger side of the vehicle.

Secondly, I want you to spread the word about my new business. Over the last year, I’ve been quietly piloting a company that delivers cheerful, guilt-free, carbon neutral, digital cinematography and production service by bike. Today, I feel reassured to have chosen the sturdy, safe, and fast Nihola as the all-weather vehicle to transport and protect the precious cargo of both my family, and my business. Although the events of last night were terrifying, I am energized, with new purpose and determination. I am reminded of my mission to transform how people look at transportation, work and life. I am ever more determined to be an advocate for safe, green transportation. I am more resolute that carbon-conscious business is the way of the future.

That rumbling dinosaur who tried to run us over last night? He only did so out of fear for his life.

See the aftermath

Please help identify the driver in a hit and run

My four-year old daughter and I were struck by a recent model, full-size black SUV headed southbound on Lansdowne just south of Bloor at 6:55 last night, November 15. We were pinned against the vehicle and dragged for 3 car lengths before ripping the bumper off one parked car and sliding into the back of another. Anyone who may have witnessed this hit and run, or who may have information on the vehicle or its driver, please come forward to the Toronto Police. There would be damage to the passenger side of the vehicle.