Fund the neighbourhood police – and get them to police our cycle lanes!

In a recent blog I argued that more bike lanes – whilst a temporary solution to the immediate danger that car-culture poses for cyclists – are not really a solution that will encourage more cycling.

The reason for this is that car-culture has permeated all types of mobility: the bullying and danger that cars inflict on cyclists (when cyclists are on the road), is now inflicted on cyclists by e-mopeds, e-scooters and e-bikes on bike lanes, not to mention cars and trucks themselves who see them as convenient short-stop parking spaces.

How can car-culture evolve?

Although the general points I make are valid, it is not ALL car drivers or e-vehicle drivers who are bullies. Indeed, the majority are respectful of cyclists and other vulnerable road and cycle-path users.

As Philippe Apparicio shows in his research, for cyclists riding on roads, about 1 out of 30 overtakings is dangerously close: so 29 out of 30 overtakings are OK. If we assume that it is usually the same drivers who perform dangerous overtakings, then we can deduce that maybe 96% or so of drivers are respectful of cyclists.

That looks good.

But it still means that on an average ride, say 10km through town, with 10 overtakes per km, there will be 4 dangerous interactions: a cyclist will be risking life or limb 4 times on their way to work and back.

Thus, it is not sufficient for 96% of drivers to be respectful.

However, it does not help if cycling advocates tar all drivers with the same brush: somehow, we need to recognize that most drivers cohabit well with cyclists, whilst calling out the bad ones.

Policing : necessary (but needs to be done well)

Traffic enforcement is critical. It is thanks to enforcement that there is limited speeding on highways, limited running of red lights, on so on.

However, bicycles and bike lanes are rarely considered as areas to which traffic rules should apply. The few times I have witnessed attention to bikes is when the police come out en force to ticket cyclists. Ticketing cars for close passes, for cutting-off cyclists, for parking in cycle lanes, etc. is a rarity.

Even drivers who kill cyclists are rarely prosecuted, at most being given a ticket for their specific highway code enfraction, with no attention paid to the consequences of the infraction. Dooring is hardly ever sanctioned in Montreal.

It will be argued that there are far more important things for police to do than make sure traffic rules are respected, particularly with respect to push-bikes.

This attitude is borne of at least three circumstances:

  • most policepeople are completely wedded to car-culture. They cannot really conceive of bicycles as a serious means of transport, or of traffic regulations being MORE important when bikes are involved given their vulnerability. This calls for better police training, and for a change in priorities.
  • the highway code supports and reinforces car-culture, as do our law-courts. Until the highway code has serious input from experienced cyclists, and until judges get off their benches and onto a bike, our regulations and their enforcement will continue to be a means of policing the hierarchy of power: drivers of powerful vehicles, who display their social status and with whom judges identify, will always come off better than sweaty cyclists.
  • for realistic enforcement of the highway code – even a good, re-written, one – we need policepeople on the street. In Montreal there is a chronic lack of policepeople, few neighbourhood police stations, and even fewer policepeople walking the streets.
E-vehicles: the bane of push-cyclists’ lives

E-vehicles are powerful, heavy, and have been let loose on bike paths. They are like foxes in a henhouse.

The highway code, even though it needs an overhaul, does regulate motorised traffic (and makes vague attempts to regulate bicycles, but in a rather unrealistic and ineffectual way). It has no provisions for vehicles that are as fast and heavy as small motorbikes but that can be driven be unqualified drivers along narrow paths intended for push-bikes.

Whilst my own cycling experience lends plausibility to an estimate that 96% of drivers are rather considerate of cyclists, the same cannot be said for e-vehicles.

There are now many e-bikes available through Montreal’s Bixi bike share. Whenever I see one on a bike path, I tremble. Likewise e-mopeds, which are so wide they take up more than the meagre 1m or so allowed for traffic in either direction along a bike path. If ever I collide with one, I will end up in hospital.

I estimate that maybe 50 or 60% of e-vehicle drivers are considerate of push-cyclists. In otherwords, if I cross (or am overtaken by) 10 of these vehicles on a ride along de Maisonneuve bike path, I reckon that in about 4 or 5 cases I will need to take some sort of evasive action (or, if they are coming from behind – fast as always – I will feel them brush past inordinately close to my elbows).

They too need policing.

Possible paths forward

1- Acknowledge the many considerate car drivers, and try to engage constructively with them.

2- Re-write the highway code so that vulnerable road users, cyclists in particular, are truly taken into account. This means thinking through the whole set of regulations so that they are appropriate: so, for instance, the vague rule about cyclists riding as close to the right of the road as posssble needs to be completely rethought. Potholes, drain covers, road debris, and car doors are all, also, towards the right of the road…

3- Train policepeople, and recruit more who do not see themselves as stars of a Hollywood cop show, and who do not rely on big cars and loud engines to project their authority. We DO need enforcement of (good) traffic rules: but the enforcers themselves need to understand the way that car-culture has, so far, biased the way roads are regulated and traffic rules are enforced.

4- Properly sanction drivers who cause accidents and death of cyclists & pedestrians, particularly those who do so as a consequence of enfringing traffic regulations. For now, it seems that our courts view traffic regulations as an end in themselves: drivers get punished for, say, performing an illegal U-turn, with no weight given to the consequence of this infraction.

5- Put more (well trained and sensitised) police officers on the streets, not in patrol cars. Only they can observe, and sanction, dangerous driving (by cars, e-drivers and cyclists alike). If we do not want cycle lanes to be jungles, then – whether cyclist libetarians like it or not – some type of enforcement is necessary: self-regulation simply does not work.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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