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New to Cycling in St. John’s: Part 1

In the Go-Around during the last regular meeting of Council, I mentioned that I would like to host some guest blog posts from people who are new to cycling in St. John’s to get their perspectives and asked the public to consider sending me a pitch. This piece is the first in a short series, written by Kirsten Morry. Thanks for sharing your experience!

“When I was a student in Montreal and in Lund, a small city in Sweden, I bicycled often for transportation and found it incredibly freeing. There’s no paying for gas, it’s way faster than walking, and the schedule’s completely up to me. But in my hometown of St. John’s, my bicycling experience was limited to meandering up and down cul-de-sacs near my house as a child.

That changed a month ago when my boyfriend bought me a beautiful new bicycle as a gift. As an avid cyclist himself, he wanted me to have the ability to get around town more easily and independently. He calls bicycles “money-printing fountains of youth”, which is a pretty attractive pitch.

All the same, I was, and remain, fearful of bicycling among St. John’s drivers. In Montreal and in Lund, there are more cyclists around, so drivers are more accustomed to slowing down and accommodating cyclists as a matter of course. More importantly, both Montreal and Lund have networks of physically segregated bicycle lanes. The fact is that cyclists are much more vulnerable in a collision than are drivers, so physical separation makes for an eminently logical confidence boost.

I first learned how to bicycle from home to my office, a route that takes perhaps 15 minutes in one direction and 10 in the other, thanks to one lengthy, gently sloping hill. I still use the (very convenient) bus route in foul weather, but switching to bicycling on fine days has improved my mood as I like getting a little exercise without specifically planning for it. I’ve been pleased to find that many drivers give me an ample berth, and that the roads generally have room for me. Gearing up and down means I can handle going uphill without breaking a sweat (unless I want to!) and the feeling of the wind in my face as I cycle downhill is refreshing.

The magnitude of my fear of drivers has proven unwarranted, but isn’t completely diminished. Some drivers don’t slow down at all as they pass me, and they are quite willing to veer into the wrong lane in pursuit of speed at seemingly any price. Cyclists by law travel “as near as is practicable” to the right-hand curb – but what is “practicable” for a cyclist varies greatly on the number of cars parked along the road, the volume of traffic, whether a lane change is needed up ahead, and other factors that might not be visible to drivers.

It’s incumbent on drivers to show a modicum of patience and respect for the travelers without giant metal shells around them, which includes pedestrians and cyclists alike. Moreover, I’d invite drivers to consider that every person on a bike is a person who isn’t in a car – they’re taking up much less road space than they might, and they’re not competing with you for parking!

I’ll also note that I think the legal prohibitions on cycling on the sidewalk, and on cycling without a helmet, are totally misguided. For true cycling safety, we need many more people to decide to cycle so that drivers become calmly cognizant of the cyclists in their midst, rather than surprised or annoyed. Laws that project the idea that cycling is serious business for specialists are silly and serve to dissuade potential cyclists from giving it a go. Of course, I really long for a network of segregated bike paths that actually go useful places, but in the interim, we should at least get rid of the unnecessary barriers to travelling by bicycle. Neither Montreal nor Lund requires helmet use, and in Lund many of the bike paths are actually shared pedestrian/bicycle pathways.

Bicycling this summer has made my everyday life more fun, and although I am still learning how to navigate the roads as a cyclist, it’s been a lot easier than I expected. I would definitely encourage anyone who’s been considering cycling to give it a try – the relevant routes for you may be easier to use by bicycle than you expect.”
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