A Cacophony of Bicycles

Five years ago in Copenhagen I went cycling with my friend Olle for the first time and when I remarked at his (and everyone else’s) religious adherence to traffic safety issues – cyclists, pedestrians, motorists, all seemingly working in harmony – he said, to paraphrase, “everybody has to follow the rules or the system falls apart.”

Here in Charlottetown, the system has fallen apart. Especially as regards cyclists.

I’ve had my bicycle back on the road for just over a week now, and here are just a few of the things I’ve witnessed from other cyclists in the city:

  • riding the wrong way up a one-way street,
  • riding behind parked cars on the wrong side of the street,
  • riding on the sidewalk (by far and away the most prevalent misdeed),
  • blowing through stop signs and traffic lights.

I’m not going to even mention the lack of helmets (especially important given all of the above and the attendant certainly of eventual death), the almost total absence of hand signals, and cyclists riding at night without lights.

I’m not being a effete cycling purist here: irresponsible cycling in Charlottetown is all over the place, all the time; just sit on a park bench at any downtown intersection for 5 minutes and you’ll be almost certain to see one or more death-defying moves.

Now the libertarian in me says “cycle however you want – it’s your life,” but the problem with that is that the bad cycling behaviour of others has a direct impact on my life: it motorists and pedestrians lose respect for cyclists (and I can’t imagine how they haven’t at this point), then, like Olle says, the system falls apart. Motorists and pedestrians stop looking for cyclists in expected places because “expected” places could mean anywhere. Kids see cyclists riding up and down sidewalks and think it’s okay; parents, afraid to let their kids on the road (where they would learn to be responsible), let them ride on the sidewalk. And so on and so on.

Somebody is going to be seriously injured or killed soon if this keeps up.


Alexander's picture
Alexander on June 2, 2011 - 13:54

While I know that when I’m out walking I’m more likely to be hurt or killed by a motorist, there’s just something more distressing to have one’s feeling that the sidewalk is a safe place to be walking violated be someone zooming by silently on a bicycle.

Cynthia Dunsford's picture
Cynthia Dunsford on June 2, 2011 - 14:45

It is alarming to witness the lack of appreciation for safe cycling that seems to have a solid grip on a segment of our cycling population.
You’ve detailed it accurately Peter. And despite any educational efforts by cycling groups, gov etc. safe cycling doesn’t seem to resonate and take hold with everyone.
I suppose one could say the same about drivers of cars and trucks.

Perhaps its time for a new approach. Better messaging etc.

Ben's picture
Ben on June 2, 2011 - 14:57

When I’m biking on a quiet street and have an unrestricted view in all four directions, if there are no cars or pedestrians, I don’t stop. Losing the momentum just isn’t worth it. Many cities have begun recognizing it and allow cyclists to go through signs, using judgment.

What really ruins it in Charlottetown are discourteous drivers who never let you turn left when you signal, pull out to pass then turn right, or roll down their windows to take the time to encourage you not to ride again.

alexander's picture
alexander on June 2, 2011 - 15:07

The 80% of traffic rules Ben chooses to follow while on his bicycle may make sense to him, but they’ll be a different subset than the 80% of traffic laws some other cyclist decides they need to bother following. This is precisely the chaos Peter has described and is the root of the problem. Stop it. Be a member of a community and follow the rules so that people can predict your behaviour. The one time something goes wrong will make your preservation of momentum not worth it.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 2, 2011 - 15:19

Agreed. The whole point of the rules is to create a shared set of expectations. If we cherry-pick the rules and follow only those that suit us, then, as Alex suggests, chaos rules.

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on June 2, 2011 - 16:40

A woman I knew and admired hugely was seriously hurt by a bicylist doing exactly what Ben describes. She spent years in an institution and eventually died. Frankly, I feel safer around people driving cars than I do around people riding bikes. It’s too bad -but I see serious infractions by bike riders every day. I cannot say the same about drivers.

Ben's picture
Ben on June 2, 2011 - 17:19

As I said, I *only* go through it if I have an unrestricted view in all directions and there are no cars or pedestrians.

Cyclists that flagrantly disregard the rules in traffic, go down the sidewalk, turn without signalling, and make unexpected decisions when there are others around are the ones that are causing the problems.

When I’m around others I do what’s required. It goes back to the old question of whether you should stop at a red light in the middle of nowhere at 3am.

Ben's picture
Ben on June 2, 2011 - 17:27

A few examples of where the discussion is happening or it’s already been implemented:


So: Utah, Oregon, Idaho, San Francisco is having the discussion (they would simply stop ticketing), Minnesota, and I’ve read about places in Europe that do it, but I can’t find links.

I’m no advocating blowing through University and Euston at rush hour without looking. That’s stupid. But at 3 am? Or at Upper Prince and Gerald? Be safe, look both ways, go ahead.

til's picture
til on June 3, 2011 - 13:28

Without a personal experience of the situation in Charlottetown, I’m assuming it is in many regards similar to Berlin, where there is a lot of car traffic and most of the public space is traditionally planned in a very car friendly way, roads for cycling are an afterthought at most and often with the obvious objective to free the roads for the cars while imposing detours and slowdowns for cyclists, and that nevertheless there is a recent increase of cycling traffic up to rates of around 10%.

Under that assumption I disagree with you, because I believe that the majority of traffic rules and traffic planning in Berlin (and assuming Charlottetown) are made from a car centric point of view. They make great sense for car traffic, but fail to address different needs for other types of traffic. For example the classic traffic light — I don’t think it would ever be necessary on a car free road, because bicycles are always slow enough and use little enough space to make intersections work without traffic lights. Therefore cyclists here are used to move in a system with rules that were not made with them in mind — no wonder that traffic rules in general are getting neglected. However I find that in reality a healthy set of rules slowly emerges which makes sense for everyone and allows everyone to move around safely, with occasional exceptions as part of that process of establishing common rules (e.g. when to cross a red light and when not to, or when to ride on the sideway and when not).

Copenhagen with its great cycling culture and high rates of cycling traffic is propably much further in this process, and therefore the common set of rules that everyone obeys includes bicycles on an equal level with other forms of traffic, it’s understandable that the majority adheres to the rules there.

Ann, I’m very sorry about your friend. This is terrible and there is no excuse for dangerous behaviour like that. However the occasional anecdotal exception does not change the obvious fact that cars cause most of the fatalities and serious injuries in traffic. Personally I feel much safer when there is more bike traffic than car traffic.

Derek Martin's picture
Derek Martin on June 3, 2011 - 15:59

I totally agree with Peter and Alexander. There was some noise in the news last year about getting bikes off the sidewalk, but, as usual, nothing came of it and it’s as bad as ever. I think traffic enforcement in Charlottetown is broken, for bikes and cars.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 5, 2011 - 00:06

(I’ll probably get clobbered for this…)

There is a serious flaw in modern traffic awareness and I don’t know when it popped up but it sure wasn’t around when I was a kid — not at least among my friends. In a nutshell, a degree of people have forgotten the golden rule of commuting: anything smaller than anything else is absolutely responsible for its own safety no matter what the circumstances. To be clear: if I’m bigger than you, and you live, that’s because I let you.

This is why:
1. Where there are no sidewalks ALWAYS walk facing traffic
2. If there are no bicycle lanes behave as if you are a pedestrian.

That is the only workable system where your safety is even probable.

I grew up in Charlottetown and all my friends moved around on bikes. We never went anywhere slowly unless we’d tired ourselves first. We skipped over everything out there, jumped every ramp we could find, and we never expected cars to do anything but try to kill us — we defied them to try.

Pete, the sins you cited were sacraments to us and I can’t imagine life any other way. (And, by the way, I spend a great deal of my attention behind the wheel looking out for the cyclists (and others) and agree with you that drivers do not pay enough attention to smaller things.)

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 5, 2011 - 00:12

I’d have laughed out loud if someone told me PR said this, “Agreed. The whole point of the rules is to create a shared set of expectations. If we cherry-pick the rules and follow only those that suit us, then, as Alex suggests, chaos rules.”

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 5, 2011 - 14:58

Yes, re-reading that it does make me come off like something of a high school principal, doesn’t it.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 5, 2011 - 14:58

As much as I still believe in my original thesis, the rough-and-tumble, devil-may-care anarchistic paradise that you describe sounds equally appealing.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 5, 2011 - 16:43

Tom Wilkinson, Gr. 6 — You channeled him.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on June 6, 2011 - 01:23

I’m with til. Incidentally, cycling on the sidewalk is what you’re at least sometimes supposed to do and always allowed to do by law in Madison, WI. Seems it’s workable for some people.

Cecilia's picture
Cecilia on June 6, 2011 - 16:59

Gosh, I do hear what your saying. But having had the experience of being run down and badly injured by a car on a crosswalk in the past, in a hit and run accident. I am physically and emotionally incapable of riding my cycle on the road in traffic. I just cannot ride in a way where I cannot see the vehicles behind me. I am terrified of the drivers, personally. I act like a pedestrian but I make sure to give pedestrians on the sidewalks a wide berth, or I stop and wait for them to pass. I wear a helmet and approach the whole thing with a lot of caution. Until they fix the glaring issue of reckless driving and speeding on PEI in regards to vehicles that are bigger , heavier and faster I’m keeping myself safe on my bike.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 7, 2011 - 12:17

Physical injury is always traumatic and having been hit by a car must add a huge psychological dimension to it and I hope your healing goes well and you fully recover. I say that to make sure the human dimension is not lost when I add: What were you doing in the crosswalk when there was a possibility that a car could hit you? Why leave your fate and that of the driver to the force-field of the rules? Every driver makes mistakes sometimes, some are careless and are essentially doing “mistakes” on purpose, why would anyone expose themselves to that so that they can claim they had the “right of way”? It’s nuts.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 7, 2011 - 17:21

All comments about the predictability of a we-all-follow-the-rules environment aside, I ride my bicycle in Charlottetown under the assumption that all vehicles can’t see me and/or are deliberately planning to kill me, that all parked cars are about to back up, and that all pedestrians are about to carelessly and suddenly dash into my way.

Cecilia's picture
Cecilia on June 7, 2011 - 17:51

@ Kevin ooooohkay … I was on the crosswalk in specific because that is generally the safe zone for a pedestrian to cross the road ie: I was following the road rules and according to PEI Highway ACt/ road rules have the right of way. The driver was a block away and they SPED UP while I was crossing. The onus was on the driver to NOT speed, to heed what was in his way and slow down. I did all I could to get out of the way. I believe that comment you made was one of the reasons drivers on PEI need to be re-educated in a big way. Mostly lacking in general insight is all I can gather from such a comment. I’m perplexed ? where else was I supposed to cross the street ? Float across ?
If my response seems heated it’s simply because you have touched a nerve and I perceive the comment as quite callous.

Cecilia's picture
Cecilia on June 7, 2011 - 18:37

@KEvin Yep I’m all kinds of upset at that comment.
I used a crosswalk :

(c.2)“crosswalk” means that portion of a roadway ordinarily included within the prolongation or connection of curb lines and of property lines at intersections or any other portion of a roadway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface;

The driver was a block away and traveling at a reasonable speed when I started to cross:

190. (1) Subject to section 191, where traffic control signals are not in place or not in operation when a pedestrian is crossing the roadway within a crosswalk and the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is travelling or is approaching so closely from the other half of the roadway that he is in danger, a driver shall yield the right-of-way to the pedestrian.
(2) A pedestrian shall not leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close that it is impracticable for the driver of the vehicle to yield

The driver:

(e) “driver” means a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle or who is exercising control over or steering a vehicle being towed or pushed by another vehicle, and the expressions “drive” and “driving” shall be construed accordingly;

did not SLOW down but SPED up:
192. Notwithstanding sections 189, 190 and 191, a driver shall (a) exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian who is upon a highway; (b) give warning by sounding the horn when necessary; and (c)observe proper precaution upon observing a child or an apparently confused or incapacitated person who is upon a highway. R.S.P.E.I. 1974, Cap. H-6, s.177.

I was neither confused nor incapacitated at that point. When the vehicle hit me … it fractured my pelvis, tore my knee ligaments & meniscus, broke my tibia and fibula and fractured my sacrum. At which point I was incapacitated for months. The driver left the scene of where I was badly injured and in pain.I got no compensation : (b.3) “compensation” means gain or reward

Who do you think was at fault ??

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 7, 2011 - 20:40

Via Kottke.org, here’s a video illustrating much of what we’ve been discussing, but in New York City:

<iframe width=”600” height=”338” frameborder=”0” src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/…“></iframe>

3-Way Street from ronconcocacola on Vimeo.

By summer 2010, the expansion of bike lanes in NYC exposed a clash of long-standing bad habits — such as pedestrians jaywalking, cyclists running red lights, and motorists plowing through crosswalks.

By focusing on one intersection as a case study, my video aims to show our interconnection and shared role in improving the safety and usability of our streets.

The video is part of a larger campaign I created called ‘3-Way Street’. Please see blog.ronconcocacola.com for more details.

Music: Peter Gunn Theme by Art of Noise, available on iTunes

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 8, 2011 - 16:35

To me it’s about consequences. A vehicle — human collision is so undesirable that, in making the decision to enter the street, one would not use the same degree of caution as if, say, one were on a divided bicycle lane in a park meeting another cyclist.

Example: Mother pushes stroller into crosswalk and relies on driver to stop (attention, equipment, etc…). In other words, if something failed the child is run-over.

I see that scenario almost every day and it makes me cringe. I know it’s rare, but when a car rolls over a kid people always come to the mother’s defense in her time of grief — when [even] a slap a moment before her fatal choice would have everyone enraged while mom holds her baby in her arms. [ooodles of male examples too, but it’s the stroller thing that really curdles my spine] Breaks are not the only thing that fail — attentions fail too, and onus there is equally divided. But, being the more vulnerable, pedestrians should always be paying more attention than drivers, and drivers should never expect it to be that way; when the baby is under the car it makes no difference who made the first or worst mistake.

If the car ~can~ hit you, don’t be in front of it unless you remain aware of its presence AND provide ~yourself~ with a functional escape route. Anything else, regardless of what traffic rules say, is willfully negligent of your own safety.

Rules precipitate order via common understanding. Rules do not mitigate unsafe situations; when you are exposed pretend they don’t exist or live with the consequences. (At least do it for your kids if you won’t for your self.)

Kevin's picture
Kevin on June 8, 2011 - 17:00


Callous? Two things were pointed out to me here about the degree of caution; it was: consistent with traffic rules and inconsistent with safety. Proven on two counts.

I am very empathetic to the injuries you suffered but, were I instructing a child, I would use your two letters as an example of precisely how not to think in traffic or about traffic. Being right will not stop a car. Callous? Ok, if that’s what we need to call it. I’m callous. Guilty. Kids need safety information based on a much higher standard — that callous at least! Proud of it.

Ben's picture
Ben on June 8, 2011 - 18:14

I was just about to post a link to this. This shows the worst of the behaviours that make the rest of us look bad.

Cecilia's picture
Cecilia on June 8, 2011 - 19:50

No one is safe. I knew that before that accident, and it was most keenly drilled into me from an early age. I have always noted and gauged approaching cars when deciding to cross streets. But in reality you do have to cross a street at times when cars may be approaching or at a stop sign. One cannot wait at a downtown intersection until all traffic is absent. You will then never be able to cross and will be stuck there until the wee hours of night before you can ” safely” cross with no approaching traffic. Sheesh! Your argument has no basis in reality in this case.

To re-iterate… before I started crossing at the crosswalk which is the designated area for a pedestrians to cross ~ I had already visually gauged that the vehicle was traveling at a safe speed for me to cross in time. In the process of crossing the driver sped up significantly — I had glanced back at the midpoint and noted this, and increased my speed to get OUT of the WAY. My only “fault” was I was not a gas powered vehicle able to speed up enough to avoid the collision and I was not psychic to be able to read the drivers misguided decision to speed up.

Your ” argument ” makes absolutely no sense. One has to rely on the driver at some point to give way or practice caution as well because they are OPERATING the vehicle not the pedestrian.

As a final note … since I have had the experience of being hit by a vehicle, I am the last person on earth who wants to get run over again, I practice EXTREME caution when crossing or walking anywhere ( or cycling) for that matter. It STILL does not afford me insight into the bizarre things drivers do, or preclude me from STILL being cut off by drivers when crossing at lighted and lighted cross walks. Drivers are simply reckless and because they have the speed and weight advantage are obligated to practice more caution.
I still feel safer relying on my own senses to protect me from this kind of behaviour. I adhere to rules of the road the majority of the time ( unlike the majority of drivers ON PEI), actually have a keen insight into it despite not being a driver, but if it actually puts me in harms way I will choose my own gut instinct and survival any day.
My “accident” was due to driver recklessness and there is no question about that.

Cecilia's picture
Cecilia on June 8, 2011 - 20:07

An additional note:
Yes I agree the system has fallen apart and everyone follows their own rules which does lead to chaotic situations in traffic. But you want to know what the real kernel of this issue is ? Lack of enforcement of traffic laws on PEI. If police were more diligent with enforcing these laws and applying fines specifically for the bigger , faster and more dangerous drivers ( ie : operators of vehicles with motorized engines)guess what ? More caution on the part of the drivers to avoid nasty consequences and as a natural result more pedestrians and cyclists will feel safer to actually BE on the roads or cross them.
It’s only a banana republic on the road because no ONE authority is truly in charge and it’s basically everyone for themselves.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on June 9, 2011 - 00:47

I tend to be guilty of cycling the wrong way up (empty) one-way streets and using a mix of road and side-walks.

On the way home from work today, inspired by this post, I took care to follow the general rules (as I understand them). No wrong-way up the one way street. No cycling on the sidewalk. Use proper hand-signals.

I’m lucky I made it home alive.

The trouble here, as Peter stated in his original post, is that “everybody has to follow the rules or the system falls apart.”

I you try to be the first one to fix it, you could pay with a close call or an accident. I’d like to see the roads safer, but I’m not willing to take a Ford for the team.

The best compromise I can find is to avoid the side-walks unless there are no pedestrians and you are explicitly avoiding cars (the narrow Upper Prince street with street parking is tricky for this). When I get to major street crossings, I’ll sometimes get off the bike and take the pedestrian route — which tends to be better understood by motorists.

You won’t get me today, Euston & Prince!

Paul's picture
Paul on June 9, 2011 - 16:35

I suppose you would be right if Charlottetown had a system — and more importantly one that included cyclists — but it does not so what’s the point?

I mean come on, Charlottetown is renowned for it’s super crappy drivers who ignore the rules-of-the-road 24/7. I’m not just talking about minor violations like failing to use turn indicators (which is killer annoying and dangerous) but more serious violations like driving the wrong way down a one-way-street, which I witness every other day when I sit on my front porch on Fitzroy. I truly feel that in many cases it is MUCH safer for a cyclist to disobey the rules and pedal a path of their own.

Until there is a system in Charlottetown which includes cyclists, I will proudly ride beside the law-breaking cyclists down side walks, pedaling in solidarity up one-way-streets until the police take me down or until Islander’s learn to drive. 4Realz.

Jen M.'s picture
Jen M. on June 9, 2011 - 16:39

It’s not so much the system has fallen apart, but there was never a good one in place. As a cyclist who sometimes drives, I certainly see it from both sides. I love that more people are biking, but beyond the bike lane in Victoria Park and the recently installed bike racks downtown (!!!!) there isn’t a lot of infrastructure supporting cyclists. Bikes were painted onto the shoulder of Belvedere Avenue, kind of making it a bike lane, but the shoulder is littered with potholes and terrible pavement and makes you feel like you’re being shaken like a carton of OJ. A little respect from all sides would be nice.

And, my personal beef, if you’re going to bike at night get lights and reflectors. Ack.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on June 11, 2011 - 02:27

You are always in front of a car. If it’s being driven extraordinarily fast, it could be around a corner or two hundred feet away initially and still it will hit you. If we couldn’t assume anything about how others will behave we’d never use the roads, let alone the sidewalks.

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