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Cyclists break law for (their) safety

THE CITY: No one wants to put pedestrians at risk, but some streets are dangerous

The London Free Press: Cyclists break law for (their) safety

By Ian Gillespie, The London Free Press
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I’ve done it. Coun. Joni Baechler says she’s done it. And 80-year-old Dirk Bergsma and his 73-year-old wife Annamarie admit they do it a lot.

I’m talking about breaking the law by riding a bicycle on a sidewalk.

The topic surfaced at Monday’s meeting of the civic works committee, which accepted a staff proposal to allow children younger than 14 to ride bikes on city sidewalks.

The amendment to the current bylaw, which prohibits anyone from riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, is to be considered by city council on Sept. 18.

On one hand, the recommendation is a no-brainer: Cycling is good for our health and the health of our environment, our kids are getting less activity — and gaining more weight — than ever, and it makes sense to encourage more kids to get pedalling.

And many London streets are simply not safe for kids on two-wheelers.

A report released last year by the Ontario Medical Association argues something must be done to reconcile the problem of “inactive and unfit children” with the risks of cycling.

The report notes there were 26,300 emergency department visits and 1,374 hospitalizations for cycling injuries in Ontario in 2009 and that “the majority of cycling emergency department visits are for children and youth.”

The report notes that, on average, 20 cyclists are killed every year in Ontario and concludes “much more has to be done by provincial and municipal transportation departments to make this form of exercise safer.”

Letting little kids pedal along sidewalks is one way to help achieve that.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that no pedestrian should have to worry about being knocked over by some scofflaw cyclist whizzing along a walkway.

It’s a balancing act. But opening the sidewalks to kids who, theoretically, aren’t big or fast enough to seriously endanger pedestrians, seems reasonable.

As Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen pointed out during Monday’s meeting, the new bylaw would “codify in many instances what is already happening out there.”

But the amendment opens up another can of cycling worms; namely that in many cases it simply isn’t safe for adults to ride along roadways.

“We love cycling,” says Dirk Bergsma. “But sometimes it’s scary to go on the road, so we go on the sidewalk.”

The Bergsmas emphasize they try to plan safe routes along secondary streets, their bikes are equipped with lights and bells, they always alert pedestrians to their presence and only take to the sidewalk when the street is too dangerous.

But for them, the reality is that when you have to cycle along parts of London streets — including Wellington, Wharncliffe, Adelaide and Southdale — the sidewalk is the only safe place.

“It’s a difficult issue,” says Annamarie Bergsma. “We love to obey the law in every respect, but sometimes common sense tells you something different.”

Unfortunately, you can’t legislate common sense.

It’s unclear how — or even if — the proposed bylaw would be enforced, but until the city expands its network of bike lanes and pathways, in many cases — and for many cyclists — breaking the law remains the safest choice.