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

Peter Janiszewski

Published on July 22, 2009 in the Kingston Whig Standard