On Friday morning, I biked to work. This summer I have cycled about two or three times a week. It’s about 15 minutes to bike from my house, most of it down a six-lane major street that is busy by Winnipeg standards but would seem relatively calm to anyone from Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto.
Friday was different, because I was still reflecting on the death of a cyclist in Ottawa on Thursday. Nusrat Jahan was 23 and killed while cycling in a bike lane, only two blocks from her home.
As I was thinking about this, a car passed me to my left, way too close for comfort. At first it sounded like it was right behind me, then I realized it was squeezing past me, only about two feet from my back tire. A small deviation on my part of the car, and I knew I was done. It was incredibly scary, and I swore loudly while trying to keep my bike very straight so as to not get in the car’s way.
About five seconds later, I found myself stopped at a red light, right behind the car that had just passed me.Without pausing to think, I pulled up between the car and the curb. “Hey!” I yelled. “You can’t do that here”. I was having trouble expressing myself, partly being out of breath (a strong prairie wind was working against me that day) and partly out of anger and fear.
“You can’t do that in Manitoba”, I said, as a woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “he was just going around you”.
If you’ve ever genuinely feared for your life, you might know the anger I was feeling.
“You have to leave a meter of space” I yelled. “You can get fined for that. It’s extremely dangerous.”
I swore again as I backed up my bicycle behind the car. The light turned green and I made it to work without getting hurt.
I wear a helmet. I follow the rules, except occasionally when I bike on the sidewalk for safety reasons (and when I do that, I slow down so that I’m not a threat to pedestrians).
The thing is, cars don’t follow the rules. In Manitoba when you pass a bicycle, you are required to give them a full meter of space between you. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be passing. And yet it happens at least two or three times every time bike to work.
I know that drivers want to get to work quickly, and getting stuck behind me might be annoying. But here’s the thing: my life is worth more than shaving ten seconds off your commute. If that driver had waited for a couple of blocks, he could have passed me safely and easily.
My worst fear as a cyclist in Winnipeg is swerving around a pothole at the wrong moment. If there’s a car behind me in the wrong spot, I could die. A small mistake by me or the driver and I wouldn’t be writing this today.
Drivers, apparently, mostly think cyclists are rude and badly behaved. They’re probably right, to a degree. Cyclists aren’t as worried about drivers’ manners. We’re more concerned that drivers will kill us.
Progressives advocate for more bike infrastructure, and that’s great – I’ve even complained to my city counsellor about the pitiful stretch of bike path that suddenly appears in the last five blocks of my route to work. But Nusrat Jahan was killed in a bike lane. Clearly, infrastructure is not enough. Drivers need to take some responsibility for the amount of power they have; the fact that their negligence could so easily cause deaths. We need an attitude shift. We need drivers to look out for our safety.
I will keep cycling. If I yell at a few people, so be it. My safety is more important than the speed of someone else’s commute.