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The Last Thing Toronto Needs is More Cyclists

8334 by 'Xander @416cyclestyle.

These are not cyclists - Photo by Xander N'Dante

It’s a controversial post title, isn’t it?   However, it’s true.

BikingToronto member Todd pointed me towards a great article over on Publicola about how if we want our cities to be more bike-friendly, we need less “cyclists” and more “people who ride bikes”.

Essentially, the point of the article is that no one should be identified as a “cyclist” unless they do it professionally (the same way race car drivers have “driver” as their occupation).  People who ride bikes are not “cyclists”… they are people who happen to ride bikes.

You may think this is a case of “splitting hairs” but think about it.

If you are a bike afficionado or spend all day thinking about cycling infrastructure or advocacy, you are in the minority in Toronto.  Do you think your neighbour/sister/friend cares what kind of bike someone rides, or if there is adequate cycling infrastructure in Toronto?

No, they don’t care.

They care about what they *should* care about… namely – themselves, their kids, and their lives.  They don’t have time to obsessively track how many KM of bikelanes are painted every year in Toronto.  They don’t care what a sharrow is or that there are organizations in Toronto who lobby City Hall on bike issues.  It doesn’t matter to them nor should it.   They have their own lives.  If they bike to work or bike on weekends with their kids, it’s because they enjoy it… not because they are “cyclists”.

I'm taking a ride with my best friend... by 'Xander @416cyclestyle.

"I'm Going for a Ride with my Best Friend!" - photo by Xander N'Dante

What Toronto *needs* for cycling to be more mainstream is less “cyclists” and more people who just happen to ride bikes.  People who don’t feel any desire to spend more than $1000 on a bike, or dress up in spandex, or protest some imagined political or legal injustice by riding around downtown with a big group of other cyclists.

I’m one of these people.    I feel uneasy being indentified as a “cyclist” because it’s such a small part of who I am.  I’m a guy who rides a bike (and runs a biking website that does a pretty good job of organizing Toronto biking info), but I also have a regular office job, a new house I’m renovating and many many interests outside of biking.  I’m not a cyclist… I’m a guy who likes to use his bike to get to work.

These people can do more for riding a bike in Toronto than any organization.  They can make it mainstream.

Just by riding.

Not as a cyclist, as a person on a bike.

That is what we all are.

  • spire

    The only possible approach to our cause is to mainstream-ify cycling. The term and group ‘cyclists’ can hint at a more elitist opposite of this, but I think more people on bikes is a good thing period, regardless of how dorky they get about it.

    Still, we need to advocate cycling for all purposes, and especially we need as many normal people on bikes as possible.

  • Paul

    This is ridiculous. Should I start calling motorists ‘people in cars?’ No, they’re motorists, and you’re a cyclist, like it or not.

  • Also, Drivers DO wear helmets ;) Just like cyclists. People who ride bikes generally do not.

  • Paul, with all due respect… when someone asks a car driver “so… tell me about yourself”, no normal person says “I’m a motorist!” :)

  • Also Paul – I’m also a TTC user, a pedestrian and I drive occasionally too. It’s rather silly to identify yourself with one particular mode of transportation.

  • We definitely need more “people who bike.” But we still need “cyclists”, because they’re the ones who are going to push for infrastructure and initiatives that make it easier for people to “just” bike.

    As you say, most people don’t care. There are plenty of people who might bike if it was easier/safer, but they’re not likely to show up to council meetings, write letters, or otherwise get involved. They’re happy to bike, but they won’t get upset if they can’t.

    More “people who bike” are great. But I don’t know why you’d want fewer people who are committed to cycling.

  • @Ryan

    Toronto is doing just fine for groups of people going to Council meetings, writing letters, etc. The Bike Union and TCAT are doing excellent work.

    The challenge is to expand cycling into being a non-fringe transportation option. That is done by attracting regular ordinary Torontonians to it… by becoming part of the established system, not trying to work against it.

    We’ve all seen cycling demonstrations and whinging over bikelanes for years and years and years… and it has resulted in very little, besides an unrepresentative image of cyclists in Toronto

    Change has started by having TCAT and the Bike Union becoming ingrained in City Hall activities – showing politicians the benefits of bikelanes, etc… but all politicians (and media) will truly support cycling as “normal” when they see large masses of their constituents choose to get around on 2 wheels – a reason that bikelanes are still worth advocating for.

    The point of the post is an overwhelming majority of Torontonians don’t care about advocacy, what kind of derailleurs they use, or politics at all. They care about their lives and how to make them better.

  • I would also add that if you get enough “people who bike”, you don’t need “cyclists”… as the needs of the people will push politicians to act accordingly. :)

  • Ian

    I find the distinction academic. The titles “cyclist”, “motorist” and “pedestrian” are only relevant when you’re moving on the street. To suggest we see past the means of transportation as a way of making cycling as common-place as driving misses the point. By this logic we’ll all be “movers” just like everyone’s lover is a “partner” because we seem to fear distinguishing between ourselves.

    Cyclists, amateur or pro, reckless or responsible share the same challenges while wheeling around Toronto streets. Motorists, good and bad have challenges they face collectively while driving. Pedestrians too. That’s why we use the noun collectively.

    Once the car is parked and the bike is locked we go right back to being people worried about kids, home renovation, cool bike websites (of which this is definitely one) or whatever else.

  • @Ian

    You are completely right… there are all kinds of uses for our public roads and everyone has a right to be there. The Complete Streets movement is based on urban planning that treats every road user equally, no matter their mode of travel.

  • I don’t understand what some of the posters are talking about in critisizing this post; frankly I think J oe is spot on with his post. It doesn’t make sense to have some blanket term to which people are characterized and consequentially critisized especially with the case of modal choice. *We* all ride bikes but our mode of transportation should not be our characteristic; I don’t call strangers who drive cars motorists or cagers and yet we’ve been essentially confined through media and pre-conceived notions that a person who rides a bike is a cyclist, no other explanation needed. As a visible minority it chimes as similar to prejudicial labelling of people simply based on race/ethnic origin. If it’s wrong to label people based on race or creed why is it fair to do so to people based on their modal choice? The sooner we get passed this the sooner we can get passed the prejudicial/naive beliefs on ‘cyclists’ are branded with

  • duncan

    The Department of Transportation in New York recently made a revolutionary decision to consider the number of people who can move through an area instead of simply the number of vehicles. When you consider the number of actual people moving through an area you instantly realize that personal motorized vehicles are the least efficient way to move large numbers of people through any space. When you allocate space to pedestrians, public transit and bicycles you instantly see that space filled with far more people, the clearest example of this is the new Times Square.

    This shift is similar to what Joe is discussing here. While “cyclist” and “motorist” seem like simple terms, they are so loaded and yet also ambiguous that the meaning these words carry can override the context in which they are used. Take for example this fictitious headline, “Cyclists call for bike lanes on Main Street.” Now, compare it to, “Local residents call for bike lanes on Main Street.” In the first example you strip much of the message out of the headline by evoking a group of people who would, of course, want bike lanes. However, when you talk about people, not defined by a shared activity, but by a shared location, you move the reader to wonder why they want bike lanes.

    Certainly, we need advocates and we need a lot of them. But, as Shawn Micallef erroneously suggests in EYE Weekly, just because you ride a bicycle it doesn’t, by default, make you an advocate.

  • I’m with you Joe, Bikeroo & Duncan…

    If we are no more than a little special interest group, there never will be more political will for better biking infrastructure in this city. And why should there be? We live in a democracy… the will of the people must prevail. So we just gotta get more regular folk on bikes. And I know a lot of regular folk who are just on the brink of dusting off the old vélo, but definitely NOT interested in biking through the city in groups ignoring traffic signals (sorry, critical mass, I love ya but you’re not for everyone), nor are they interested in joining pseudo anarchist groups that demand highly organized, well maintained cycling infrastructure.

    If we want cycling infrastructure to be important enough to be implemented, we gotta sell the biking to the mainstream.

  • I can totally understand the direction and intention in this post. I’ve purposely tried to focus on awareness instead of advocacy in my blog 416cyclestyle. The idea of just picking up a bike and going anywhere needs to be a thought before it can be an action. I feel that i am advertising without trying to sell anything. A label such as,”cyclist” can be interpreted in many different ways, but even the best city can always get better because of bicycles regardless of who rides them or what we choose to call them. I appreciate this forum as regardless of the tone in some comments and criticisms between members I know that in the big picture we all want to make this city better that when we found it.


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  • Antony

    I’m with Joe on this one. The series “Making Cycling Strange” on copenhagenize.com sold me.

    The view of “cycling” as a monolithic bloc (a la Shawn Micaleff) is really problematic.

  • Thanks for the heads-up on that Copenhagenize article, Antony.

    Here’s the link for everyone. It’s a good read.

  • Znoosle

    Right on the money – one of the cycling movement’s main liabilities is that it’s led by whiny cyclists!

  • Paul


    You’re right that most motorists wouldn’t necessarily introduce themselves as such, but it doesn’t make them any less of a motorist!

    cyclist |ˈsīk(ə)list|
    a person who rides a bicycle.

    All these other traits people are talking about here in regard to ‘cyclists’ are projected. Cyclist is a broad enough term that we can all rally (or just ride) beneath it. If in addition you choose to append ‘advocate’ or ‘activist’ to this description of yourself, great; but no matter what, we’re all still cyclists.

  • @Paul

    Well sure, but we’re all “pedestrians” too, as well as “human”, “mammal” and “male or female”, but we don’t go around announcing ourselves as such.

    The point of this whole thing is that the word “cyclist” is a very loaded term – and it’s for the best if we got away from it. I think the the casual bike commuter is far less of a cyclist than someone that makes their living competing in cycling races.

  • Ian

    What an interesting topic!

    I thought about it on my ride home last night.

    It seems we want more people to appreciate the utilitarian appeal of cycling. It should seem as natural to people to use a bike to get their groceries as a car: “regular folks on bikes” as Cat b puts it. And, as Cat b and others indicate, riding two wheels should not carry the stigma of being a politicized cycling advocate, it should very simply their “modal choice” (bikeroo). Bikeroo is also concerned that being cast as a “cyclist” may become a form of prejudicial discrimination.

    This kind of reminds me of some women who say, “Oh, I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist”. The implication being feminism carries a stigma, and while they clearly benefit from its struggle, they do not want to be associated with the movement. I think at this point Bikeroo might argue: well why do we need to identify ourselves as anything!

    With respect to calling ourselves “cyclists” (ignoring the simple fact it is accurate to use that noun to describe a person on a bicycle: Paul) we are doing ourselves a disservice by making it a dirty word. It is simply a broad group of people getting around on bikes. Within the group there are aficionados of specific types of bikes, custom builders, mountain bikers, road bikers, commuters and advocates. But as a group with a simple identification everyone stands to benefit as the group grows.

    The other day I drove to see a friend. It was a Sunday afternoon and the junction of the 400 and 401 were packed with cars. The 401 was full out to the horizon and I thought, “we have a long way to go to undo what the car has done”. We are small force to reckon with.

    Borrowing from a chapter of sexual politics; I contend it was the courage and willingness of LGBT community to self-identify and achieve great things for their group in spite of being a minority that suffered tremendous negative discrimination.

    Cyclists should learn from that model. We are unlikely to be the majority on the roads in our lifetimes. By identifying ourselves and supporting targeted, responsible advocacy (would you refuse to sign a petition that called you a cyclist) and making use of the courts, media, etc… We may become a force to be reckoned with and take our rightful place on the roads until we get to the day where no one will really care how you got to work or picked up your groceries.

    So, I’m a cyclist!

  • Great comment Ian. Very well thought out and written.

    You are exactly right… advocates are needed. Some people reading this post (although I suspect they are just skimming it) are under the impression I’m saying they are not.

    What the post is saying is that “cyclist” has become somewhat of a dirty word (thanks to major media who sometimes, not all the time, pursue the scofflaw cyclist stereotype – the cyclist that goes through reds, bangs on car hoods, etc. etc.) and that MOST people in Toronto do not think of themselves as cyclists – they think of themselves as people who sometimes ride their bikes, either for recreation or getting to work or school.

    I’m going to write a follow-up post to further clarify what I already thought was clear – advocates are needed, and “cyclists” are needed – but there is over a million people in this city who ride a bike who are not interested in either.

    I’m not saying they shouldn’t be… I’m just saying this is the way things are.

  • Paul

    Of course it’s a loaded term, just as motorist, pedestrian, human or Canadian is. This doesn’t mean we have to throw it out! ‘Cyclist’ is a broad enough term for us all to identify with, and it’s instantly recognizable and understandable to everyone.

    If there are counter-productive divisions within the cycling population, then we need to reach out to those who feel left out. We need to be inclusive and recognize the diversity in our numbers, and that’s the case whether we’re ‘cyclists,’ ‘people who ride bikes,’ or ‘wheeled-horsemen.’ I know that the spirit of this article is about finding a way to be more inclusive, and if we don’t do that, changing terms would just be a band-aid solution. If we do reach out, then changing terms just isn’t necessary at all!

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  • Derek Kraan

    I think the main confusion people are suffering with your post is the part where you say that we need “fewer” cyclists. I totally agree that we need to make cycling an attractive option for the modally agnostic among us (and also agree that this is the majority), but I also wish for more cyclists.

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