First, the good news.
Many public health officials have said that cycling is a good way to get some badly needed exercise as people stay home and practice social distancing (now called physical distancing). This includes statements by the head of Ottawa Public Health.
In the States, New York City has actually opened up emergency bike lanes in anticipation of more people getting on their bicycles. At the state level, the Governor identified bike shops as an essential service that will be allowed to stay open. (It should be remembered that NY currently has some of the strictest stay-at-home rules in the US.)
Closer to home, Premier Doug Ford has ordered the closure of all non essential businesses, but a careful reading of the government directive indicates that those businesses involved with “ bicycle repair” can stay open.
Moreover, it appears that some towns and cities are thinking about closing certain streets to motorized vehicles to make it easier for people to walk, run, or cycle while keeping the necessary distance from each other.
All this suggests that cycling, along with the appropriate physical distancing, is a legitimate option for people to get some exercise, and as a alternative mode of transportation under these difficult circumstances.
So far, so good. But the message becomes a little less clear when the Prime Minister and other political leaders state, with all the severity they can muster, Go Home, Stay Home, … or Else.
On the surface, such a directive would seem to preclude the possibility of going out for a bike ride to get some exercise. Of course, such directives should be read in conjunction with subsidiary statements by health officials, which suggest that cycling is a valid way to exercise. But for many people, this is a little bit like reading the fine print.
It should be remembered that public shaming can go a long way in enforcing the rules pertaining to the COVID-19 crisis. This can certainly be appropriate in some circumstances, but it can also go too far in other cases. There are reports that people in Quebec have been shamed for going out with their children. In the Glebe someone called the police when a dozen neighbours had a “driveway party”. The catch is that people were standing two metres apart and in different driveways.
In other words, if you do go out cycling, there’s a chance that someone could pull up next to you to say you shouldn’t be out on a bicycle. (There’s also a chance that the person doing this will be driving a large SUV loaded with toilet paper, but that’s another matter.)
One of the problems is that authorities haven’t been overly clear about what is expected of us. Originally, we were being asked to practice physical distancing and avoid crowds by staying at home as much as possible. Over the pass week or two, this message has largely morphed into: Stay at home, period.
If you doubt this, consider that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health now strongly recommends that people stay home except for a “limited” number of trips to access health care, get groceries and medication, support vulnerable community members, and, when required, walk pets. That’s right, no going out to get some exercise with a walk, run, or bicycle ride. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given that authorities and media have started vilifying people for taking a walk in a park, even when they are keeping 2 metres apart from each other.
So where does all this leave people who want to go cycling. So far cycling is permitted in Quebec and Ontario, especially if you are using your bike to get groceries or medication. However, I wouldn’t try cycling across any of the bridges between Gatineau and Ottawa where Quebec Police are setting up checkpoints to see if people have a good reason for being out of their homes.
Whatever the case, I’m worried that various authorities in Canada may soon follow the lead of some Europan countries that have banned cycling altogether.
The reasoning for banning cycling in Europe seems to be based more on a public relation contrivance than a real set of facts. The reason given most often is that cyclists can be involved in accidents and will require medical treatment that will place an additional strain on the hospitals.
It’s a bit of a reach to single out cycling for this kind of logic, especially if you consider that reduced traffic volumes during the pandemic means cycling is now safer than ever. Moreover, if authorities are really serious about reducing the potential for accidents during the COVID-19 crisis, they should crack down on dangerous driving, and not the victims of dangerous driving.
I also find it frustrating that despite everything that has been said and done in the past few weeks, some authorities don’t seem to fully appreciate that we’re all going to be in this COVID-19 situation for the long haul. It seems that we are going to be directed to stay home as much as possible and practice physical distancing for another 2 or 3 months, and maybe for as long as 6 months or more.
In order to maintain compliance with these directives over such a long period of time, authorities are going to have to place more emphasis on providing people with the necessary coping mechanisms. Without this, people’s physical and mental health will start to deteriorate.
At the very least, authorities should be encouraging people to go out for a walk, run, or bicycle ride by taking concrete measures to facilitate such activities. This could take the form of opening up the appropriate parks and green spaces, and designating certain streets for the exclusive use of pedestrians and cyclists.
There is one good thing that could come out of this pandemic. This past week I have seen dozens of people riding around my neighbourhood, many of which probably haven’t been on their bikes in years. Maybe they’ll continue to go cycling when this is all over.
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