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Active transportation: healthy but unsafe?

Friday, July 24, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

This Wednesday I published an editorial in the Kingston Whig Standard in response to a recent story of a near-fatal accident of a local cyclist who was cut off by a truck while commuting to work (read the story here). See the editorial below:

The story of Brian Bowers’ near fatal cycling accident, along with the online comments to the story from members of the community, illustrate exactly why the Canadian Medical Association’s new policy on active transportation has no hope for adoption by the public, until such a time when attitudes towards cyclists, not to mention the ravaged Kingston roads, are overhauled.

Recently, the Canadian Medical Association released a policy statement recommending that “all sectors (government, business and the public) work together, as a matter of priority, to create a culture in their communities that supports and encourages active transportation.”

This policy statement is yet another attempt by the medical community to alleviate the growing rates of physical inactivity in Canada. Currently, three-quarters of Canadian adult men and women fail to meet the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day, and are thus deemed inactive.

Given that physical inactivity is a known contributor to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and multiple other health conditions, the health care cost of inactivity among Canadians approximates $4.3 billion each year.

Thus, in terms of personal health, the health of our community, and that of our overextended health care system, we all stand to gain much from adopting an active lifestyle.

One of the easiest ways to increase your level of daily physical activity is to use active modes of transportation, such as walking or cycling.

Before his devastating accident, Brian Bowers was one of only approximately 14% of Canadians who travel via active transportation. According to Statistics Canada, the remaining 86% of Canadians spend an average of 63 minutes every day commuting by automobile.

But is it really surprising that Brian Bowers was among a minority of active transporters?

When it comes down to it, how does one reconcile the potential personal health and environmental benefits of active transportation with the risk of serious injury or even death?

Most people, especially those not accustomed to the extreme cycling necessary to navigate the severely damaged roads, unyielding motorists, and jay-walking pedestrians common to Kingston, will opt for the relative safety of their car for transportation from point A to point B.
While the Canadian Medical Association’s policy statement suggests that communities must create an environment in which the “the physically active choice is the easy choice”, currently, the physically active choice in Kingston is anything but easy.

For one, bicycle theft in Kingston is all too common. It took only one week after my arrival in Kingston for my first bicycle to be stolen. Being a graduate student, it took some time before I could invest in another one.

Secondly, many streets are void of bike lanes and even when present are often being driven over or parked on by motorized vehicles. I have been personally cut off by vehicles while cycling in the bicycle lane on more occasions than I care to remember. Luckily, regular maintenance of my brakes and quick reflexes have thus far averted any serious injury.

In response to the above, the City of Kingston has just announced that it is working on the first phase of its “On-Road Bikeway Implementation Plan”, which aims to build a “dedicated cycling network in Kingston to encourage more Kingstonians to choose cycling as their mode of transportation.” The street locations of the cycling network and the specific work planned is outlined in detail on the city’s website.

While bike lanes can be painted overnight, attitudes are not so quick to change.

As well exemplified by the divided comments from the community on the Brian Bowers story, there is a lack of mutual respect between cyclists and motorists. Motorists perceive all cyclists to be untamed and reckless daredevils; meanwhile cyclists feel that many motorists are blood-thirsty cyclist hunters.

Since bicycles are legally considered to be equal to automobiles, cyclists must abide by all traffic regulations which apply to driving a car. On the other hand, motorists should understand the broad positive implications of active transportation by fellow members of the community, and encourage this activity by being courteous and accommodating to their pedaling peers.

Until mutual respect develops between cyclists and motorists, few Kingstonians will adopt habitual active transportation, no matter how many encouraging reports the medical community releases.

Have a great weekend,


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7 Response to "Active transportation: healthy but unsafe?"

  1. Lauri Said,

    Sigh...I really don't like cyclists -- flame away, I don't care. I live in what is allegedly a bicycle-friendly city, Austin, TX, but bike lanes are few and far between; even on the same road, a bike lane will suddenly end and start up again in another block, leaving bicyclists to dodge traffic. And that's why I dislike them. The times I encounter cyclists are when they choose to ride on a road with a 55mph speed limit, when they run a red light or stop sign and cause an accident, when they ride on the sidewalk causing people to jump out of their way and into traffic. And since I drive alot, these are daily occurances.

    I'm sure there are polite cyclists. I just haven't encountered them.

    Recently, a local newscast ran a piece on cyclists where they interviewed one, who owns a bike shop, explaining why he feels that he shouldn't have to obey the rules of the road -- when they start requiring licenses for bikes, bikers will start obeying traffic signals. A few nights later, another station showed footage taped by a citizen over a several day period showing bicyclists running the 2-way stop signs in his neighborhood, running stop signs while cars that had the ROW and were already in thge intersection having to skid to a halt. Rather than using it as a lesson that cyclists should stop at stop signs, bike owners who were interviewed instead stated that drivers needed to be monitored.

    I know there are bad auto drivers out there, I have permanent scars attesting to someone else's negligent driving, but until the majority of cyclists obey the laws I'll have to assume that they are all lawbreakers.

    Posted on July 24, 2009 at 4:07 PM

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ Lauri,

    I cycle a fair amount (100-150km/week), but I agree with you 100% Lauri. If cyclists want respect from drivers, they need to respect the rules of the road. As Peter said in his editorial, both sides have a lot of room for improvement, and improved bike lanes, and stricter enforcement of traffic laws, could help alleviate a lot of the problems that you bring up.

    Posted on July 24, 2009 at 6:44 PM

  3. justjuliebean Said,

    Why don't cars stop at stop signs? Don't they know that when the light turns red, that means stop, not plow through intersection? Why do they turn suddenly and not use blinkers, make unpredictable dangerous u-turns?

    I'm a cyclist and a driver, and I find that most drivers have a blind spot for cyclists. Cars in this town don't really stop at stop signs, I've seen stunning red light running, turning without signals, doing generally inconsiderate crap. I think the cops should start taking licenses for driving dangerously and not stopping for pedestrians, but don't expect that to happen. Until then, beware the death machines!

    We do have lots of bicyclists in this town, fortunately, and other than lost and confused tourists, they're getting used to bicyclists. People who only drive cars see bicyclists as scofflaws, and that there are plenty, though not as high a proportion as motorist scofflaws. Cars run red lights so often, nobody blinks twice, but let a cyclist do it, and all of a sudden they're all law-breakers. Mutual respect goes both ways. As someone who walks, bikes, and drives, I find more danger from the cars. When cars start obeying traffic laws, maybe bikes will too. Until then, I'm just going to assume drivers are inconsiderate, pollution loving, selfish lazy parasites.

    Posted on July 25, 2009 at 9:33 AM

  4. Jenny Said,

    Every Spring this topic tends to pop up and, unfortunately, it seems like an ongoing debate without an end in sight. As one bad apple can spoil a bunch, one reckless cyclist can give a bad image of cyclists everywhere.

    Toronto police have been cracking down on rule-breaking cyclists and while I feel for them and their pocketbooks, I think it's good that action is being taken against people breaking the law.

    This being said, I was almost hit by cars four separate times on my way home last Friday - and I was riding in the bike lane! Drivers not stopping properly (or at all), running through yellow lights and not checking blind spots when making turns...police need to crack down on them too. When it comes down to it a car can do a lot more damage than a bike.

    Respect for the strangers around you can go a long way. Unfortunately, though, many people are so wrapped up in their own lives that holding a door open or obeying right-of-way sits low on the list.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 2:19 PM

  5. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    Thanks for the comments Lauri, justjuliebean and Jenny.

    It seems like no matter the venue - people from one camp (cyclists or drivers) tend to point fingers at those in the opposite camp. This was also the case in response to my article and the one that was written before regarding the cyclist who is currently in critical condition.

    As both a cyclist and a driver - I try my best to behave appropriately regardless of my mode of transportation. However, I have witnessed on many occasions both very reckless driving by motorists and equally dangerous manoeuvres performed by cyclists.

    In the end both parties share a portion of the blame for the countless accidents that occur. As I argued in the editorial, rather than pointing fingers at those in the other camp, both sides need to develop mutual respect and understanding for each other for road safety for active transportation to be improved.

    Posted on July 27, 2009 at 3:16 PM

  6. Anonymous Said,

    You know, I've been following this story, and as a cyclist, I have to agree with many of the points that have been made about dangerous driving by cyclists.

    However, there is an important point that I think is being missed in the debate. The fact is, as obvious as it may sound, that bicycles are not cars and cannot drive like them. Because their power is limited by their driver, there are limitations to what a bike can do.

    Case in point: I live quite near a railway. There's a one-way tunnel under the railroad for cars to drive through. The problem with this setup is not only is there a traffic light immediately before the tunnel, but there's quite a steep hill immediately after.

    As a cyclist, if I stop at that light, I won't have enough momentum to make it up that hill, which forces me to get off my bike and walk it (very unsafe). Also, cars get upset at my slowness in the tunnel and pass me (leaving me trapped between the tunnel wall and the car). much as I feel bad, I take the broad sidewalk tunnel. I've been yelled at by pedestrians several times, even though I travel extremely slowly through the tunnel. There's no other road nearby that I can take (due to limited railway crossings). What do you do?

    Posted on September 16, 2009 at 9:28 PM

  7. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    Very good point. I had a similar experience this summer biking through several tunnels on the Trans-Canada highway in British Columbia. My advice would be to get off your bike and walk through the tunnel on the sidewalk, which is exactly what I did, because as you say, cycling in a tunnel is pretty terrifying.

    Could you get back on your bike near the end of the tunnel when you know there are no pedestrians coming? That would seem to have all the benefits of what you do now, but with less risk of upsetting pedestrians. Does that make sense?

    Posted on September 16, 2009 at 9:35 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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