The Oil and Water of the Victoria Commute

The bike lane symbol, which is indeed symbolic in my neighborhood–Oak Bay. This one (and only) bike lane springs into existence as you approach the intersection of Foul Bay and Oak Bay, and then disappears.

Most citizens of the United States view Canada as a peaceful, quiet country which produces a disproportionate amount of comedians and, in certain spots, poutine. I’ve been lucky enough to visit one province — British Columbia — many times over the past twenty years. When talking to fellow Americans about my travels to BC I’m typically asked two questions: 1) was it snowing, and 2) what’s a province?

With my new status as a temporary resident of BC (belated thank you) I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in Canadian culture. I can reaffirm that it is a beautiful place full of natural beauty, friendly people and dining that does not always involve gravy (namely salmon, though there is sadly a lot less of that these days). I’ve also found that the proverbial duck swimming on the normal placid waters of this provincial capital is actually furiously paddling through a lot of anger and intolerance.

The source of this conflict does not involve hockey, nor does it discriminate in terms of nationality, race, or gender. No, here in Victoria the very real, very personal and sometimes violent conflict is a three-way affair between pedestrians, cyclists, and those clad in steel behind the wheel of their car.

At a high level it’s not much of a contest. The car wins every time. But, until teleportation is reality, the game must be played.

Laws have been created to try and give those on two wheels (or feet) a chance. Those laws do help, as does the fact that it’s illegal to drive around BC while talking on your cell phone (Houston, you have a problem). The fact that so many people here in Victoria walk and cycle also forces drivers to be at least be aware of others. I never felt more vulnerable than when I attempted to walk the short distance to my office back in Texas. I saw the looks of those who drove past and could feel them thinking, He doesn’t have a car. There’s probably something wrong with him. I should probably run him over just in case.

Laws are great, but even those with the best of intentions might not understand the rules of the road. People come to Victoria to retire (my non-scientific poll finds that most of the people I’ve met, even long-time residents, are originally from somewhere else—particularly the prairies). A recent arrival from Edmonton probably doesn’t know what you’re doing with your arm—are you stretching?—but they’re not coming away with the idea that you and your bike are about to stop. Plenty of evidence exists on social media that even those who claim to know the letter of the law often don’t agree (no, I’m not trying to reopen the debate on who has the right of way for a right turn).

We live in arguably the sleepiest part of Victoria (it’s telling when most of the restaurants on the main drag are closed by 7:00). There are no bike lanes here. Period (well, see caption above). Regardless of the direction I take, I’m attempting to share the road squeezed between lines of parked cars on either side, hoping that someone doesn’t open their door. Several streets in the area are so narrow that only one vehicle can pass at a time and, as I’ve come to find, most motorists do not believe that a bicycle counts. I could, I suppose, ride on the sidewalk but the pedestrians—the third leg of the stool–aren’t having it.

This is the opposite of downtown Victoria, where bike lanes are common and some streets have had a lane of traffic taken away to create protected bike lanes. This has angered many of the motorists, who now must wait for a special signal to make a right turn to avoid ramming cyclists and pedestrians. It also aggravates those who used to park on those same streets (and before the streets, on one of the many parking lots which have almost all been converted into condos).

The mayor of Victoria, who I have overheard described as some sort of “bicycle communist” has a vision of a city without cars (or at least a lot less of them). Her efforts are also now aided by the city’s official Bicycle Mayor. No, I’m not making that up.

Why is my neck of the woods, only a few kilometers from downtown, so different? The challenge is that the larger area called Victoria is actually comprised of thirteen different municipalities.

Thirteen has long been considered an unlucky number. I don’t know that I buy into that particular superstition, but I suspect that it does make it a wee bit difficult to form a consensus regarding city and traffic planning in this now very densely populated area. Further plans are being discussed but, as it stands, a bike ride home from downtown goes from a protected bike lane to…every man, woman, and child for themselves.

I cycled over to my friend’s place by the harbor about a month ago, using front and rear flashers and a reflective harness over my jacket (though it was not yet dark). I’m also 6’2” and use a bright green bike with a bright blue helmet (I am a lot of things, inconspicuous is not one of them). I traveled down one of the roads with no bike lanes, keeping a vigilant eye on the parked cars to my right, ever wary of a door popping open, when a truck passed me at a speed better suited to the highway (not Douglas Street, an actual highway). The driver of the truck—the only moving vehicle on the road—had plenty of room to pass but chose to drive close enough that his passengerside mirror grazed my elbow. Greater Victoria defeated his escape as, despite his velocity, he was soon stuck behind a line of cars at a stop sign just a couple of blocks further.

I caught up to him, stared into his closed, tinted passenger window, and relayed a number of unflattering thoughts about his driving. In response, he repeatedly revved his engine. Had he been driving an actual truck I might have felt a bit of fear. As it was, the tinny whine of his Ford Ranger was more pathetic than threatening.

Incidents like that make me think more about walking. I take daily walks with our dog and also walk for recreation as my knees do not like the idea of supporting my generous belly for a run. Interestingly, I noticed than when the rains finally came this winter, black was the favorite color chosen by pedestrians for a rain coat, followed closely by dark blue (I freely admit that my slicker is black—I now wear a reflective harness when I walk). In a place where the sun sets in winter around 4:15 pm, this means that cars, and bicycles, have to contend with pedestrians who appear like magic on the wet, dark road. I don’t claim to have the details or understanding regarding who was at fault but do know that, in the past couple of months, even our sleepy part of town has had two unfortunate incidents where pedestrians were struck by cars and a third where the pedestrian narrowly escaped injury while her dog sadly did not.

This past weekend I took our oldest, Thing #1, downtown for a movie. We could have ridden our bikes, but I had the nagging sense that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble and potential danger, so we walked. We were roughly two blocks from our destination, strolling down the very wide sidewalk on a sleepy Sunday morning, when a man in a Rascal scooter turned the corner and came at us with the pedal down.

He was neither young nor old and had no distinguishing features – other than the angry look on his face. Thing #1 and I were walking a few feet apart on the otherwise empty, oversized sidewalk. Not liking the look on the Rascal driver’s face, I gave Thing #1 a nudge towards the curb and took a step closer to the building. The angry Rascal driver now had a good six feet of open space to work with but instead aimed directly at me. At a loss, I pushed against the building, ducked behind a post from the scaffolding above, and felt his mirror tear off as he clipped my elbow (same one!). I turned and watched as he continued on, never once looking back.

After spending the last four years on treacherous dirt roads in Central America, where many of the drivers lacked a license or a vehicle worthy of the journey, I looked forward to opening our door and sending our boys out into the world of greater Victoria on their bikes, or sneakers, without fear of being run over. I now have significant doubts about that plan.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it’s fair to say that the pedestrians, cyclists, and cars here mix like oil and water. As more and more people move to this beautiful place the challenge is just going to increase–and the proposed changes regarding more bike lanes are fiercely opposed by motorists.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I understand why drivers here are often angry. The streets are crowded, many of the lights are badly timed, and the crush of bicycles and pedestrians (including a few million tourists fresh off their cruise ship) makes it hard to get anywhere in a hurry – and good luck finding a parking spot at your destination. It’s also very true that not all cyclists obey the rules (I was recently stuck driving behind a cyclist who refused to use the available bike lane and instead puttered down the middle of the road at 15 kms). It’s also true that many pedestrians step out into the road expecting traffic to magically stop. Driving here is stressful, not fun, which is part of the reason we drive so little (the dealership that sold us our new car claims that we need to buy a trickle charger because we don’t use the car enough to charge the battery–I think the issue is the alternator, not my preference for cycling, but still).

My bride is a big fan of the bus system here. I’ve never liked that mode of transportation, but until the teleportation technology is rolled out I think it’s worth considering. Let’s all be safe out there–and keep an eye out for an angry dude driving a Rascal down Yates Street.

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