By Joe Hendry
As part of Injury Prevention Week, the Toronto City Cycling Committee arranged for couriers, police and the media (professional cyclists) to take a CanBike II course together. The course is mandatory for all members of the Police Bike Patrol unit and is offered to any cyclists wishing to expand their skills. It is not a popular course among couriers. Most don't know it exits and those who do were probably like me - sceptical. I ride my bike nine hours a day in the most dangerous streets in the city - and I survive. So what can I learn from this course that's mainly designed for commuter cyclists, parking patrol officers on bikes and slow moving bike cops?
The course is described in the CanBike pamphlet as "an advanced course in defensive cycling for commuters and recreational cyclists who already ride in traffic. It is an "18-hour course" over 3 days which "includes classroom study and outdoor riding". The course is for "cyclists (age 14 and up) with experience riding in traffic."
The CanBike II course is based on John Forester's "Effective Cycling" text and courses in the USA. In Canada it has been adapted by the Canadian Cycling Association and offered through the provincial cycling associations. In Vancouver, the Bicycling Association of British Colombia wanted to make the course mandatory for all bike couriers but had to settle for a written and road test based on the course. The course is usually a three day course and costs $75. In our case the course was shortened to two days and it was free of charge. The Cycling Committee had arranged for the couriers to be paid by their courier companies for the two days off.
Our group consisted of three bike messengers, three police officers, one media member and one city employee. Most CanBike certified instructors are not police and a couple are former or current messengers. Our two instructors were from the police department, one was an officer and the other a parking patrol officer. The course included classroom education, skills development and a group ride through the downtown core both days. It was tailored to the Bike Patrol Officers. The course manual was titled "Training and Education, Police Vehicle Operations - Bike Patrol Precis". We watched two videos, one promoting Bike Patrol Units throughout the United States as cost efficient and more involved in the community, and the other was "Bicycling Safety on the Road", which looked like it was made in some suburb many years ago.
We basically did the same things both days except Day One was instruction and Day two was testing. The classroom portion focused on things like the cycling laws, signalling, clothing, nutrition, proper helmet fit and personal experiences with drivers. The one thing we all had in common was either being hit, "doored" or run off the road by so-called "licensed" drivers of cars, trucks and buses.
After a break we met behind City Hall, went over a safety check of our bikes and headed out, in single file, on to the streets. It felt really weird, not only to ride with cops but to ride the same streets I ride every day in a lineup of cyclists, with my helmet and at such a slow pace. I normally try to signal my turns by pointing to the direction of the turn. CanBike teaches the same method, but I felt really stupid using the signal for stopping or slowing down. I rarely had two hands on the handle bars because it seemed I was always signalling with one of them. To signal that often may be courteous to other road users but if I did it while I was working, I would be putting my own life in danger. If you have to put your arm in an upside down L-shape every time you slow down or stop, it takes away from your overall awareness of the road and sidewalks. And I like to have both hands on the handlebars when I'm braking.
I also found myself riding the way that I thought the instructors expected me to ride. It definitely was not the way I would normally ride. We knew the route we planned to take in advance. I like to prepare for obstacles ahead, far in advance. I kept wondering why we stayed so long in the far right lane of a one-way street when we had a left turn coming up. Why not get over sooner? In fact, on the second day's ride there was an open fire hydrant on Richmond Street (a one-way street) spewing water on the road. Some of us saw it in advance, broke away from the group and changed lanes to the other side of the road. The rest had to walk their bikes across the road, around the water.
We tried to stay together as a group, so when some of us made it through an intersection they had to wait for the rest of the group. We took turns at the front of the line, with the one instructor in the middle of the group and one at the end. We zig-zagged through the streets to the Canadian Nation Exhibition grounds, where would worked on our bike handling skills. We practiced defensive and evasive skills such as emergency breaking, emergency turning, the rock dodge, and riding in a figure eight.
When we returned to the classroom, we discussed our day. One officer said he learned "he could never be a courier." He was an experienced cyclist who sometimes cycled to 52 Division, downtown from Ajax (over 50 km) but the volume and behaviour of the drivers in the core was too dangerous. On our ride one officer was almost doored, a car came down Adelaide Street (a major one-way street) the wrong way, a pedestrian jumped in front of us and there was so many cars driving on, and parked in, the Bay Street Clearway (the curb lane reserved for Bikes, Buses, and Taxis) that one officer wished he had his ticket book with him. Basically this was a normal hour or two of riding in the core for a courier.
The police also noticed how the motorists treated us much differently than the officers. The cars would crowd us and show us very little courtesy but when they noticed the cops, they would all of a sudden make plenty of room. At one point on Dundas Street, some of our group was having a hard time crossing the street so one officer directed traffic to stop and waved the group through.
On Day two we were tested at the SkyDome, on the skills taught on Day one. We were all complimented on our skills and everyone passed both the written and the road test. The media was invited. CBC Radio showed up to interview one instructor and Global TV interviewed two couriers and one instructor. Global called their piece "Nice Couriers" and reported the course as the police teaching couriers how to ride. I guess they thought we were "nice" because (in their view), we were "learning" how to ride our bikes.
The most beneficial part of the course was to take it with the police. Most of my contact on the job with the police has been negative. The last officer I came in contact with felt it necessary to scream at the top of his lungs "I hate couriers!!", before lecturing me about every single infraction of the law he ever witnessed a messenger commit. However I have always had better communication and understanding from bike patrol officers than car cops.
The bike patrol officers ride very heavy mountain bikes and they must wear their bullet proof vests all the time, (some cops are not as out of shape as they sometimes appear), even on the hottest days. So it would be quite easy to slip away from one if you wanted but that doesn't happen very often. There are so many laws regarding traffic that the officers cannot possibly remember them all. The officers were able to provide clarification on many of the laws for us and one obvious tidbit of information that I had overlooked, was that the law prohibiting riding on the sidewalk only pertained to the sidewalk and not the private property beside the sidewalk. (I must find the legal definition of sidewalk). I also confirmed that tickets on your bicycle cannot be applied to your driver's license no matter what a misinformed police officer, insurance employee or Ministry of Transportation employee tells you. That means absoluely no demerit points.
The police also benfited from taking the course with the couriers. They were able to understand our points of view and the problems we encounter just trying to earn an honest living. The more police who are trained with couriers like this the more understanding messengers would receive from them. And the more couriers who took some sort of course with the police, the more we could understand the bureaucracy and pressures they face and what compromises we could both live with. After all police don't set their radar at 1 kilometre over the speed limit to catch speeding motorists. The intent of the law is more important than the letter of the law. When it comes to couriers people love to quote the letter and forget the intent.
The CanBike II course is a good course, but for it to be of any benefit to couriers it would need to be tailored more to the messenger. I didn't learn any new skills. I don't fell like I'm a better rider. I learned these same skills by experience and from other messengers. If I had taken this course when I first started as a courier, it would have helped me to develop some skills faster but I still would have had to learn much more by experience. The course could be used as a starting point for one specifically for couriers but messengers would definitely have to be involved in the design and instruction of the course. There are many courier specific topics and skills that could be added. Being a messenger is much like being a pilot. Your "hours in the air" or "on the road" is important to the development of your skills and experience. The instuctors must have some kind of experience that is relative to working messengers. No matter how much bike education you have, or how much city riding you do, if you haven't worked as a messenger under the pressures, stereotypes and prejudices that a messenger faces you do not have the proper experience to educate couriers on their everyday working and riding behavior. After all other professions are trained by their peers, why not messengers too?
At $75 and three unpaid days off work, the course is very expensive to couriers. And for any governing body to suggest that a manadatory course is of any use, is plain nonsense. Education is much more effective if the student wants to be there and perceives some sort of value in it.
Footnote: As is typical in Toronto, both of the two other couriers who took this CanBike course with me have since had their bikes stolen while working.
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