Unsafe at the intersection: Racism, road rage and the role of urban design

A few weeks ago, while biking to the University of Waterloo (as I do every day), I had a jarring altercation with a motorist. I use the Spurline Trail, which is a lovely bike path that connects Downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo. The path is well taken care of. It is beautifully lit, which recognizes that cyclists and pedestrians use the trail at night (unlike the Ironhorse Trail in Waterloo, which can be challenging to navigate in the dark). It is a much needed piece of cycling infrastructure in a region that has an apparent lack of it.

Despite its positive attributes, the Spurline Trail still puts its users in dangerous situations. Where the trail meets roadways, the crossings are uncontrolled and drivers have the right of way. Trail users are instructed to “look both ways” before venturing out into the road. And that’s about as much as there is to protect trail users as they put themselves in harm’s way. One particular intersection is quite dangerous. Cars drive by at ridiculous speeds. Most motorists barely even realize there is a trail crossing there. I’ve seen kids on bikes, the elderly, and individuals with mobility issues trepidatiously try to make their way across the roadway. I’ve had numerous close calls myself. It’s almost a daily occurrence.

As I had mentioned earlier, I had a pretty negative experience while trying to cross at that intersection. While trying to speed across during a momentary break in traffic, someone driving a sports car at an exorbitant speed swerved around me and yelled out “get off the road and go back to your country”. As a person of colour in Canada, these experiences aren’t new to me. Sadly, for many people they can be quite normal. Despite our social progress and the inclination to celebrate our country as an inclusive one, the reality is that we have a largely unacknowledged problem of racism in Canada. It’s pervasive and insidious and it isn’t something that only lives in small backwater towns, as much as many people would like to believe. The guy who yelled that nonsense at me wasn’t wearing a KKK outfit. He was a middle aged city dwelling white guy in a sports car who could easily pass for one of my friend’s dads.

Late last week, a student by the name of Bashir Mohamed was cycling in downtown Edmonton  when he was verbally assaulted and called racial slurs by motorists, on two different occasions in a short span of time. In one of the news stories, Mr. Mohamed is quoted to say:

“This happens often, I have people yell and scream at me when I bike and that’s just because there are no bike lanes up here and I have to ride on the road. Sometimes they resort to my race.”

Mr. Mohamed’s experiences, which he has courageously shared with the public, made me reflect on the importance of urban infrastructure in situations like the ones he encountered.

Road rage and racism are a toxic mix. Both are plentiful. When cities build proper infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, they’re not only making the streets safer from the perspective of physical injury. They are also creating safe spaces for marginalized peoples and helping minimize the interactions we need to have with angry racists who spew hate. Physical violence is also a possibility. Let’s not forget that these angry racists are driving around 4000 pound weapons. That may seem alarmist, but the reality is that I ride around with a healthy fear of the worst case scenario. I ride with the caution of a cyclist in the context of an anti-bike culture; I also ride with the vigilance of a person of colour in Canada. I expect harassment on both fronts. When I reflect on the intersectionality of my identity, I often wonder if I should add cyclist to that list.

I didn’t write this piece with the intention to garner sympathy. I don’t need nor want it. I wrote it in an attempt to provide a different perspective on the importance of good infrastructure.

I often get the feeling that cities are built by and built for one type of person.

We need to acknowledge the complexity of urban design and the implications the built form has on the people that occupy it. We need a more sophisticated understanding of what safety means. And, we need to act more urgently in building these safe spaces. I recognize the importance of long term planning, but the timelines that some cities have on making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists are, quite honestly, pathetic.

If we really are intent on touting our urban centres as inclusive places, we need to recognize the privilege embedded within the built environment and build better cities. Now.

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