s Toronto’s motorists share space with a growing cycling population, a turf war is taking shape between the two groups. City streets remain a theatre of conflict between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians; and, more recently, a beloved park is becoming a symbol of the rules of the road that no one can agree on.
Recent data from BikeShare Toronto indicates that bike ridership is up in Toronto, more people are cycling and the trend has outlasted the lockdowns and pandemic-era incentives like ActiveTO. The result has been a bike boom, with increasing numbers of people in the GTA incorporating cycling into their commute or leisure activities.
But another thing taking up a lot of space on streets in Toronto (and across North America) is road rage and aggressive driving. The OPP reported that speeding and aggressive driving deaths were higher in 2021 than they have been in a decade, and there have been eight cyclist fatalities in as many months in 2022 – a 300 per cent increase from 2021.
Verbal abuse, harassment and curbside hostility have long been the status quo for exchanges between cyclists and drivers, but some motorists are so agitated by cyclists on the road that harsh words have escalated to hit-and-runs and left cyclists gravely injured and feeling abandoned without recourse.
The primary figure acting on behalf of victims in Toronto is attorney David Shellnutt, best known for his alias ‘The Biking Lawyer.’ Shellnutt has been a vocal ally for cyclists and his recent caseload has been overflowing with vehicular assault cases and hit and runs.
“We have an unfortunate number of cases where vehicles have been weaponized towards cyclists… We have people who suffer major injuries as a result of this behaviour,” says Shellnutt.
With the number of files piling up on his desk, Shellnutt and his team scramble to offer guidance to victims and to advocate for a future where these violent occurrences don’t become a fixture in transport culture.
Much of what Shellnutt can offer is a sparse list of contingencies to prepare cyclists in the event that they are assaulted by a driver. All of these provisional strategies include cameras: wearing body cameras, cycling in locations that are heavily surveilled by cameras, and — as a last resort — keeping phones accessible so that rapid photos can be taken after an incident has occurred. This is because, in a hit-and-run scenario, the victim’s prospects for legal proceedings and — more importantly — closure, speed off with the newly dented vehicle.
“In these cases, justice is initially what we want, however, overcoming trauma and the assault itself is really the most important thing. Having the support benefits to lean on, to help you through it, psychological benefits and physical therapy are the kinds of stuff that are available without having to identify the driver,” says Shellnutt.
But while Shellnutt feels that the precautions could offer recourse to cyclists after they’ve been harmed, video evidence of individual events will not scratch the surface of administering justice for the victim.
“The reality is there are situations where there isn’t a camera; or, cameras in the distance can’t pick up the licence plate. All you’re going to get after the fact is a vehicle description. What is that going to do? Nothing in our experience,” says a visibly weary Shellnutt.
This past August, Shellnutt helmed a rally for cyclist rights in High Park. The park, which is a heavily frequented, picturesque greenspace used for recreation and leisure, has recently become an arena for the conflict between cyclists and drivers. Three weeks after the event called Ride for Safe Streets, a cyclist was followed and attacked by a motorist in the park who immediately fled the scene.
Marcel Zierfuss has frequented the loops around High Park for years; however, the escalating aggression of drivers as well as a heavy presence of law enforcement ticketing cyclists for minor infractions have made the area less appealing, and turned what were regular visits into sporadic pit stops on his route.
Zierfuss — who has been on two wheels since he could stand on two legs — is a retired competitive athlete who once raced as an elite cyclist in countries like Netherlands and Germany.
“I was a top-level, competitive cyclist from pretty much the age of seven onward, right up into the end of my twenties,” says Zierfuss.
Riding though High Park on an afternoon in early September, Zierfuss came to a stop sign, slowed down, but did not brake fully before crossing the intersection. He was subsequently followed by a motorist who yelled obscenities at Zierfuss from the car window.
“The driver of the car started yelling out of his window, ‘Fucking cyclist, get off the road, you think you own it? You should be banned from the park,’” says Zierfuss. “I hadn’t even come in contact with him, there was no point where we crossed paths until he came up alongside me.”
Following the motorist’s challenges, Zierfuss tried to make his way out of the park, but the driver impeded his path and physically assaulted him with the vehicle.
“He went into a huge rage, he tried to take me out with his car, twice,” says Zierfuss. “He was swerving his car into me.”
The driver of the vehicle cut off Zierfuss’s path with his car then attempted to get out of the car and grab Zierfuss.
When that failed, Zierfuss says the driver “got back in his car and sped up ahead of me as I was coming around a corner. He slammed his brakes aggressively… intentionally.”
Riding roughly 35 miles an hour, Zierfuss was unable to avoid collision and slammed head-first into the back of the vehicle.
On the ground and bleeding, Zierfuss attempted to grip the perpetrator's vehicle to prevent the driver from fleeing. However, the vehicle sped off, knocking Zierfuss back to the ground.
Nearly four weeks after the incident, Zierfuss’s injuries include a severe concussion, whiplash and damaged teeth. His bike is also beyond repair.
“I’m now dealing with multiple physiotherapy sessions because of my neck and my back, as well as, generally speaking, trauma. I can’t touch a bike right now, I don’t really know if I’m going to go back, I’ve even instructed my son not to ride his bike to school,” says Zierfuss.
Zierfuss was unable to identify the driver or record identifying information. Shellnutt, who is Zierfuss’s primary legal representation in the matter, explains, “Marcel was trying not to die and didn’t get the plate.” He adds, “We really try to encourage people to get off the road, disengage if you can, and get the plate number,” says Shellnutt.
Zierfuss did have the support of fellow cyclists who attempted to track down the vehicle, and canvassed nearby businesses for camera footage that might be of use.
Shellnutt is appreciative of their actions, as he says, “That’s all we can ask of other cyclists, whether it is a hit-and-run or a full-scale crash: stick around and gather information on behalf of the person,” says Shellnutt.
Shellnutt is not optimistic about legal interventions to protect cyclists, and views law enforcement’s current pattern of aggressively ticketing cyclists in the park — what Shellnutt describes as a “we’ll get ‘em and show ‘em’ attitude” — as another source of antagonism towards riders.
In addition to the twin hostilities from the city and local law enforcement, some local motorists have been organizing against cyclists online.
“There are hate groups online whose mission is all about reporting cyclists, it’s dangerous and I never thought something like this could happen. You have a run-in with a car here or there, you say your piece, and you move on. Today, it’s a completely different story,” says Zierfuss.
Zierfuss acknowledges that it isn’t only motorists who need to take on responsibility in order to prevent further violence, and to de-escalate tensions between the groups.
“There’s a lot of other cyclists out there and commuters that really need to become far more respectful as well. It’s not just these aggressive drivers, there are a lot of riders that need education,” says Zierfuss.
While veteran cyclists like Zierfuss believe in “strict enforcement for drivers and strict enforcement for cyclists,” cycling advocates also know that enforcement does not keep anyone safe when faulty policies are the ones being enforced.
Zierfuss violated Toronto’s traffic laws when he made a rolling stop in High Park. However, this manoeuvre, known as an Idaho Stop, has been officially adopted as traffic policy in states across the U.S., and research suggests that laws which allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, decrease collisions and protect cyclists.
Organizers are campaigning to make the Idaho Stop official law in Toronto, but the city is slow to change.
As Shellnutt puts it: “Cycling infrastructure and the positive changes that have been made, have been made with cyclist blood. It's only when someone dies that politicians start to take notice.”