My life as a cyclist I expected conservative attitudes when I returned to Winnipeg, but driver disdain was a shocker
By: Amanda San Filippo
I recently came home to Winnipeg after a five-year hiatus.
I knew moving back to this city I'd be dealing with typical Winnipeg conservatism. We've always been slow to evolve. Coupled with the fact the typical North American city has been designed around the automobile, I was prepared for a slight regression in cycling culture and, consequently, less tolerant drivers.
What I was not prepared for was the actual disdain so many drivers seem to have for cyclists, to the point where my life has intentionally been put at risk. For these reasons, I often pick and choose when to follow the rules. Let me explain:
I arrive at a stop sign. I slow down, but don't come to a complete stop, because I'll hold traffic up too much. A driver yells at me: "It's called a stop sign for a reason!" as he gently rolls through the stop sign himself. Wanting to avoid another outburst, I decide to come to a complete stop at the next intersection. The driver behind me grows impatient and decides to pull up beside me. I arrived at the intersection before the car approaching the intersection to my left, but the car that pulled up beside me arrived after. Since it is my turn to go, I proceed cautiously, only to have the driver to my left flip me off, because he had to stop in the middle of the intersection to let me go.
This doubling-up (bike and car in the same lane) is especially common when making left turns. I can't clear an intersection as quickly as a car. If I am not commanding my lane, drivers will often drive up beside me to try to clear the intersection before me. This can be dangerous because I have to get from the left curb on one side of the intersection to the right curb on the other. If the car doubles up, and there are other cars behind it, I become sandwiched between the vehicles that should have been behind me and the oncoming traffic.
But when I do try to command my lane, I am often met with anger. I am reminded of one incident when a young woman in an SUV started yelling. Rarely can I make out a person's words when they are in their car. Naturally, I turned to make sure I was not in any danger. Her turn signal appeared just as I looked behind me. I didn't notice it right away. This infuriated her even more, at which point she stepped on the gas and squealed her tires, nearly knocking me off my bike.
I wish I could say these were isolated incidents. They are not. I am met with this type of impatience, belligerence and often danger, every day. I'll often cycle on the sidewalks, risking a heftier fine than the average speeding ticket. I'm left wondering if this city really does care more about the almighty dollar than the safety of its citizens.
It's not all bad, though. If cycling were really so bad, I wouldn't do it. I've designed some coping mechanisms. For one, I couple an obnoxiously large helmet with an airheaded smile. People seem less inclined to yell at you if they think you're missing a few screws. I am also overly courteous to drivers who are respectful of me, even when they are visibly irritated. I often wave and thank them for their patience. Generally, they smile back. You'd be surprised how much a smile from a stranger can make a person forget their annoyance.
I try to de-escalate where I can. Last month, I was biking down River Avenue. The parked cars were lined up leading up to Osborne Street. If I stayed in the curb lane, I risked having someone open their door in my face. This happens more often than one would think. So, I biked in the next lane. On this particular day, a car started honking while approaching me from behind. This is particularly dangerous, as the sudden sound of a horn startles a cyclist, causing them to lose balance or instinctively swerve into another lane. My partner, who was cycling in front of me, approached the driver at a red light, and asked why he had honked at me. The driver quickly became defensive and told us to meet him in the parking lot up ahead. He came out of his car, fists clenched, threw his hat to the ground and said: "What's your problem? You looked pretty far out in your lane there. You wanna fight, buddy?" This isn't the first time a driver has threatened to fight us, simply for asking them why they were yelling. My partner informed him we weren't looking to fight. We explained to him we were simply trying to avoid opening car doors. He looked at us begrudgingly, fists still clenched, and huffed: "I'm just really having a bad day. I'm sorry I took it out on you," and stomped off. I thought, "Well, it's a start."
*Amanda San Filippo is the co-ordinator for Bicycle Valet Winnipeg, and is such an avid cyclist, she decided to sell her car.*