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American Myth Busting Series: Part I: Rage on Wheels

Sharing the Road

Having recently returned from my fourth road trip through the Eastern United States, I find myself compelled to address some of the misconceptions Canadians have about, not only the American people, but also America itself. I have quite a lot I would like to say, which I’ve decided needs to take the form of a series. The first part of the series is going to address something I have grown increasing passionate and concerned about, and that’s the resentment that exists between drivers and everyone else (especially cyclists) in the city of Toronto.

I should probably start by saying that I am driver most of the time; a necessary evil I embrace, not only for my job, but to get to a lot of the pursuits I enjoy (camping, kayaking, visiting friends, and of course, road tripping). However, if I can avoid it, I prefer to ride my bike or walk.  I am also a runner, so suffice it to say I have spent quite a lot of time outdoors in this city I love.  I grew up in Toronto and have always been a “City girl” preferring the convenience and energy that comes from living in an urban centre.  I don’t understand the suburban existences which tether people to their cars, and creates an unnatural dependency on only one way of living, but that is not what this myth bust is about.  This is about a growing problem I have noticed in Toronto – RAGE ON WHEELS, and while my generalizations may apply to pedestrians and cyclists (and mothers driving strollers), I am basically talking about drivers.

On my last trip I visited Montreal, Quebec; Stowe, Vermont; Jackson, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont, and 0n other trips have also visited Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York and Boston, Massachusets.  What these places in common is that they have embraced the reality that human beings cannot rely on the car alone, and successful cities and towns must find a way to incorporate a variety of transportation methods, if for no other reason than the survival of the planet depends on it.  Granted, there aren’t any complex bike networks in these places in the way that they exist in European cities such as Amsterdam, but what does exist there, which is SO ABSENT here in Toronto, is RESPECT for other people and whatever transportation method they are engaged in.

Torontonians have become very angry (cue the predictable “not everyone is like that….” response) and it seems to be worse every year.  Why? Perhaps because of the tens of thousands of people who move to the city every year?; perhaps because of the growing animosity between Toronto and its suburban parts (we can thank Amalgamation for merging very different cities)?; or perhaps it’s the thousands of people who flock to the city core every day to work, and play because their own suburban dream has turned out to be lacking? I don’t know, but what I do know, having been here my whole life, is that people are so much angrier and this is never been more apparent that when I return from the US.  This is an irony most people will refuse to wrap their head around, becasue we are Canadian! We are “nice”! Americans are “rude and narcissistic”! Let me bust this myth now – my experiences with Americans and in the US have been some of the most pleasant experiences I have had travelling, and have only served to highlight the rage that exists here.

Americans are very nice!  Everywhere I went I encountered courteous, happy, “no please, after you” attitudes. Even in busy cities like New York and Chicago, native urbanites would stop and ask “can I help you find something”; public transportation workers would come out from behind their secure boxes to help me figure out a transit map or buy local fares for getting around; folks sitting next to me at a bar or restaurant would regale me with stories of their beloved city and share the best spots to visit normally reserved for locals.  Americans don’t go about their day in the “me only” fog that engulfs Torontonians.  Here in my beloved city I have watched countless folks pass confused tourists by; I have never actually seen a TTC worker emerge from the box, much less answer my questions about the best way to get somewhere; and no one has every struck up a casual conversation with me in a public space.  Look up Toronto – you are not the only one here, and other people you’ll find – should you take the time to say hi, ask if they need help, or just acknowledge their existence – are actually quite NICE!

But what I really want to highlight is the biggest difference between us and our US counterparts: the drivers.  Drivers in Toronto drive with a misplaced sense of entitlement.  They drive angry at the fact that there are people on the sidewalks, cyclists on the curb, and other cars on the road.  This tunnel vision, and refusal to acknowledge and RESPECT other human beings sharing the road are what seperates us from our friendly neighbours to the south. In the six states I was in, everyone saw me whether I was on my bike, by foot or in my car.  No one tried to pass me, beat me to the next light, cut me off when I needed to merge, honked or ignored me when I was clearly lost, or yelled at me because I was on my bicycle.  Instead, I always got the friendly “you go first” wave, space for me to ride/run/walk, and the best thing of all – they stopped for me! Cars on the highway stop for pedestrians and cyclists to cross – wow!

Since I am myself a driver as well as a cyclist, pedestrian and runner, and have been all of these in multiple American cities, I feel qualified to provide a list of things that I believe will help  Toronto drivers RELAX- lessons from our neighbours to the south.

1.  Do not cut off a cyclist or pedestrians with a right of way green so that you may make a quick right turn.  (On a side note: I really wish there was no right turn on red here in the city.  I believe it would help people to relax).  On the same theme: do not start a left turn until the intersection is clear of cars, cyclists and people, and PLEASR stop honking at drivers who refuse to inch forward to intimidate people into walking or cycling faster.

2. Don’t be an asshole.  There is no other word for people who speed up to cut someone off when they need to merge.  If my lane is suddenly is blocked, then guess what? I need to merge into your lane.  You can speed up and prevent others from getting in front of you (because god forbid I should get there first), or you can slow down a bit and let your fellow Torontonian in (and as a result, help traffic move along easier).  This applies to cycling as well.  Usually I prefer to travel on streets with bike lanes. I recognize that sometimes people (drivers) have to block my lane (deliveries, police, ambulance, etc).  I am pretty sure drivers can see the same blockage, so please think about what you are trying to prove when you speed up so that I can not go around the obstacle.

3. Expect traffic.  It always makes me laugh to hear drivers complain about traffic.  Get over it.  If you have to be, or choose to be in your car, then expect that there will be traffic; the two go hand in hand.

4. There are people walking and running around this city.  Again, if this is news to you, perhaps you should stay out of the city.  Don’t speed or roll into intersections (especially from laneways).  Both of these things will increase your chances of hitting someone.

5.  There are cyclists here – a lot of us.  Again, if this is news to you, perhaps you should stay out of the city. Continuing to be angry about people and their choice of transportation will do nothing to move this city forward into the future. Instead, how about acknowledging the responsible cyclist by waving them on.

6. Don’t inconvenience others. Parking in busy driving lanes, bike lanes or up on the sidewalk so you can run in to get a grande skinny latte is extremely selfish, disrupts the natural flow of people moving, and increases the chances of accidents.  Park where you can do so legally and walk.  Chances are the walk will do you some good.

7.  If the car in front of you suddenly has to turn left, or there is a cyclist in front of you turning left, there is no need to erupt into expletives.  There  is also no need to anxiously try to go around them.  Be patient- the turn will happen and you will continue on your journey, and in that extra second or two that you waited the world did not end. Recognize that people make mistakes.  Again, don’t honk at people who clearly have made one.  Feel free to honk at people who are driving dangerously, but relax with the driver, cyclist, pedestrian who has made a genuine error.

I want to end by saying PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES.  Before your rage on wheels surfaces, think about the fact that you (or one of your loved ones) have/will probably be in the same situation.  Is your reaction the reaction you would want if that was you? Or your kid? In my experience Americans are willing to do this; they demonstrate acceptance and patience with each other, and people visiting – something I hope I can one day say about Toronto.

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