Talk Radio Ranting No Way to Debate Policy

Uninformed rationalizing from a set of prejudices might make for entertaining rants on the long commute home from work, but it makes for lousy public policy debate.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 16, 2009

On my way into work this morning, I stopped at a red light and a car pulled up beside me in the right turning lane. A bulldog in the back seat saw me and went ballistic - snarling, growling, mashing his wet nose against the window and jumping around.

The driver rolled his window down a bit and said, "Sorry, man, he just doesn't like bikes."

Later on, I turned to the op-ed page of today's Hamilton Spectator and experienced an eerie sense of deja-vu.

Yes, I'm talking about Scott Thompson's steaming load of codswallop on the subject of cycling and bike lanes.

Maybe streams of ignorant, self-important riffing are standard fare for talk radio, but we should expect a higher standard in the paper's opinion pages (though perhaps that's too much to ask these days).

Uninformed rationalizing from a set of prejudices might make for entertaining rants on the long commute home from work, but it makes for lousy public policy debate.

But instead of actually appealing to evidence, Thompson trots out all the usual discredited arguments against bicycle infrastructure.

Cars are bigger, therefore they win.

Of course, that's all the more reason to give cyclists their own space on the road, so there's a spatial (and preferably a physical) barrier between bikes and cars. That way, cyclists can ride with less fear of being run over, and motorists can drive with less fear of getting stuck behind a cyclist.

In other words, bike lanes reduce competition and conflict between cars and bikes. You'd think Thompson would be all over a bike lane network, but like most opponents of cycling infrastructure, he's less worried about making sense than about hammering his point home by any means necessary.

That might fly in Europe, but this is Canada, man!

Ah, good old exceptionalism - the refuge of scoundrels. Exceptionalism is tempting precisely because it provides an excuse not to go through the effort of changing. That couldn't possibly work here, because of some fundamental property of this place and its people that is exceptional, i.e. different from everyone else in every other place on earth.

It is generally based on some combination of fear (of the failure and/or the unknown), laziness (change is hard), and old-fashioned CYA (particularly on the part of those who benefit from the status quo).

It also generally takes the form of overt post-hoc reasoning and crude determinism. Exceptionalists reason backwards from the way things are to some arbitrary collection of local properties (Escarpment! Winter! Car Culture!) that are either proven to be irrelevant elsewhere or actually follow from the very social and physical policy decisions that are up for debate.

Bike lanes just aren't Realistic.

Naturally, Thompson claims to support bike lanes in principle, but like all good concern trolls he patiently explains why they can't possibly work in practice:

I am all for adding more bike lanes as I'm sure most of Hamilton is. But you can't do it by eliminating the car or car lanes. That is simply not realistic.

He seems to be suggesting here that we should never reduce the amount of space for cars to accommodate cyclists. If that's the case, where on earth does he think the bike lanes will go? Suspended in the air?

[A] plan that suits all or most of Hamilton ... means trying to introduce bike lanes by educating everyone and finding the best solution - not by eliminating one to satisfy the other.

What does that even mean? How does "educating people" get painted lines on the road? The best way to "educate people" is to demonstrate that bike lanes work, but Thompson clearly isn't interested in factual knowledge - which leads me to wonder just what he means when he talks about educating people.

Of course, his real objective is not to achieve a bicycle network - it's simply to stall and obfuscate a little longer to preserve the status quo. That's clear from the impossible threshold he sets for adding bike lanes:

Bike lanes should be built in addition to existing traffic lanes, not by sacrificing them.

By this reasoning, no existing street will ever get bike lanes, since the space for the lanes has to come from somewhere - either lane space or sidewalk space.

In fact, at one point he actually recommends "sidewalk sharing". This is another clear indication that Thompson has done no research whatsoever, since the absolute most dangerous place a cyclist can ride is on the sidewalk.

The bicycle lobby has too much power!

This line is my favourite:

It seems we are listening to the cyclists ... but no one else.

What an utter crock. I can't believe he wrote this with a straight face. Can anyone claim that the needs of cyclists are over-represented in Hamilton, a city with almost no bicycle infrastructure, almost no cycling budget, and a council that plans to take 20 to 40 years to build a modest bike network - if at all?

He also insists that the renovation of Dundurn St. S., which involves removing a few curbside parking spaces for bike lanes, was planned without proper public consultation. He cites one merchant who didn't know about it.

Adding bike lanes to Dundurn is detailed in the Cycling Master Plan, which was developed with massive public consultation and approved with lots of media coverage earlier this year.

The Cycling Master Plan, in turn, is based on recommendations in the Transportation Master Plan, which was also developed with massive public consultation and approved with lots of media coverage.

A few merchants are upset about this because they're afraid that the loss of a few curbside parking spaces will hurt business. Again, this fear is unfounded: the main problem with business on Dundurn is that the street is not very hospitable.

Making the area more pedestrian- and cycle-friendly will help their business by getting more people out of their cars and into the neighbourhood - especially as the McMaster Innovation Park around the corner continues to grow and develop.

Bicycle infrastructure on Dundurn links a crucial neighbourhood corridor to the new CP rail trail through the Golf Course and across the highway, to the Radial Trail up the escarpment, the planned connection to McMaster Innovation Park, and the alerady-vibrant Locke Street S.

In [insert anecdote here], the cyclist might have been at fault.

You can't make policy based on anecdotes. It must be based on evidence - and the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

In fact, if we start from the evidence and reason toward a conclusion, Thompson's thesis turns on its head. The following facts about cycling are proven again and again in every city in which they've been tried:

  1. The way to reduce the number of cycling casualties is to increase the number of cyclists. Anything that increases the number of cyclists on the road will reduce casualties, and anything that reduces the number of cyclists on the road will increase casualties.

    With very few cyclists on the road, every bicycle a driver encounters is therefore unexpected. When cyclists become commonplace, drivers will not be surprised when they have to share the road with a bicycle.

    Thompson claims he wants to see fewer casualties. If the US had adopted a Netherlands-style approach to its road system that balances drivers with cyclists and pedestrians, it would save 22,000 lives a year.

    Jack Wolters, Amsterdam's chief traffic safety officer, explains the Dutch approach:

    The target of the police is not to control cyclists and pedestrians. It is to control **the most dangerous part**, motorcar drivers. [*emphasis added*]

    The same pattern holds across Britain; Cycling has nearly doubled in London in the past nine years, but the number of casualties is down by one-third.

    It's not just magical Europe, either. In New York City, the annual number of casualties (injuries and fatalities) decreased by half during the same seven-year period in which the number of cyclists increased by two and a half times. The injury rate fell by a factor of four.

  2. The way to get more people cycling is to build a continuous network of bicycle infrastructure. People will ride bikes if you make room for them, no matter the climate, geography, or political culture.

    • New York City grew cycling by 35 percent in a single year between 2007 and 2008 and the rate of cycling continues to grow rapidly.

    • Portland, Oregon managed to increase cycling to five times the national average in a short time since it began investing in a continuous bike route network.

    • Amsterdam has increased its cycling rate from just a couple of percent in the 1970s to 40 percent of all non-walking trips today.

    • Copenhagen also boasts 40 percent of trips by bicycle and has a goal of increasing that to 50 percent by 2015. On good weather days, the cycling rate already reaches 60 percent.

    • Groningen, Netherlands has already reached 50 percent of trips by bicycle.

Thompson insists, "The competition between the cyclist and the car has to stop. No one wins."

But then he categorically refuses to adopt the one clear, proven measure that would reduce competition between the cyclist and the car - separating them by building bicycle infrastructure.

In all his pretended concern about reducing competition and conflice between motorists and cyclists, his cretinous rant against a balanced transportation network does nothing but pour more fuel on the fire.


You can read a transcript of the subsequent interview between Scott Thompson and Ryan McGreal on Scott's radio program.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Brioski8 (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 09:33:35

You forgot to mention the classic case of double speak that occurs in the first part of the Thompson Article. Observe:

"It seems like suicide for a cyclist to hang on to the side of a moving car while it is travelling down the street."

Anecdote of an extremely rare and dangerous maneuver performed by an extremely small number of cyclyst. Assigning blame to all cyclists for the stupidity of a very small few.

"It seems silly to weave in and out of moving traffic to advance your agenda or run a stop light to do the same."

More broad paint brush strokes of blame.

"Yet, when a bicyclist is injured or killed, even by his or her own negligence, it is most often the driver of the car that is chastised."

Assigning more blame to all cyclists. Again.


"Of course, there are lots of examples of bad behaviour on the part of both drivers and cyclists. I'm not trying to lay blame here."

Wait.... What? You just spent the previous paragraphs laying all kinds of blame squarly on the shoulders of all cyclists using anecdotes of the bad behavior of the few. It's bizare, he wrote the words but he didn't even notice he was doing it.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 10:42:45

Ryan, your obvious outrage here is warranted.

The fact that the Spec would print such a callous overture to ignorance is not only disappointing, it's downright dangerous.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 10:49:43

Scott Thompson is a nice guy, but yeah, this piece is just a lot of mush that says absolutely nothing.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:03:59

I echo Jonathan here. Scott's usually pretty balanced and fun to listen to. THe fact that the article was printed is an indication of the stance of the Spec on the issue that's for sure. Whatever happened to fact checking before printing something???

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:10:22

It's an "opinion" piece and everyone knows my opinion is just as valid as you're opinion. :-P The Spec could be such a great paper if they just raised there standards instead of appealing to the lowest status quo denominator.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:21:47

I did like how the photo the spec used is one of the few streets in the city with a dedicated bike lane.

But in dealing with idiots like the writer of the letter, YOU CAN'T FRAME A COLLISION AS A WIN. To imply that you are victorious because you aren't dead is ridiculous. The win is when there is no collision. Any self-proclaimed 'avid cyclist' shouldn't frame a collision that way.

For the section of Dundurn where parking for cars is being removed. a) there is still parking on the other side of the street. b) this is an aerial map of the area

It is a one kilometer stretch.

Note that for the first quarter or third (until past the bridges, there is no on street parking at all). Moving north to South there are currently the following spots available, west side of the street (the side being repaved) and then the east side...

Melbourne to Chatham [note: about 6 of the spaces on the west side are currently blocked due to construction] 12 & 8 Chatham to Charlton [note: two parking lots also exist along the east side (14 spaces at the beer store & 30 spaces at the liquor store, both sparsely used at the time)],[note 2: Obviously 11am isn't exactly a peak time for alcohol purchasing] 7 & 6 Charlton to Herkimer [note: 2 of the spaces were blocked by a construction vehicle], [note 2: the newly paved 25 space parking lot (also on the east side) was blocked off while the pavement cures] 8 & 3 Herkimer to Stanley 3 & 5 Stanley to Homewood 0 & 5 Homewood to Aberdeen 15 & 6

So, while, it's only anecdotal, I just walked out and tallied how many spots were currently in use. I'll put those numbers in parenthesis beside the initial numbers

12(2) & 8(3) 7(0) & 6(2) 8(5) & 3(3) 3(0) & 5(2) 0(0) & 5(0) 15(1) & 6(2)

Those numbers are typical for the street, with two time exceptions. There are localized peaks caused when a) parents drop kids at school and b) it's Friday night at the LCBO, but to reserve an entire street to meet very small time requirements isn't fair to the other users of the street. Especially with the two aforementioned parking lots providing 44 spots which are nearly always sufficient to handle the surge.

So, even with all the construction going on and a closed parking lot, there was still no shortage of parking (over fifty vacant on street parking spots). People trying to go to Zarky's (located between Charlton & Herkimer) might have to walk an entire 100 feet to get to their destination (not including the parking spaces available along Charlton, Herkimer or the parking lot which should be open shortly). And that 100 meters is really what the writer's concern really is, is that he might be slightly inconvenienced, and that he might not win his daily commute.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:25:40

I just double checked something, they are planning to add the bike lane to the east side Dundurn.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:28:21

everyone is entitled to an opinion, but when your opinion is easily proven to be incorrect based on well known facts, it has no place in the daily paper.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 12:51:45

The media is typically framing these discussions as a 'war' of some kind. That is completely insane and contrary to a smooth functioning society. What I'm not completely sure about is whether it is a cause or a symptom. Is the media influencing, or reflecting, public opinion? The science of manipulating minds has become very advanced so it's both I suppose.

But still the faulty idea that this is some kind of battle to be won by one 'side' or another, instead of what it really is - an civil engineering and social puzzle to be solved, is inciting anger and dangerous. It should be very transparent to anyone thinking clearly.

"It seems we are listening to the cyclists ... but no one else."

Are you kidding me? Many of us here know about the documented efforts to subsidize cars and psychologically manipulate whole societies into becoming completely dependent on personal vehicles. The citizens that are affected by this programming have a panic attack at any trace of indication that some equilibrium may begin returning. So they see it as a false dichotomy ... all road surface (even if the road is 50M wide) for cars as a matter of fact, otherwise pedestrians will take over the entire road width! It is an illogical fear, as numerous places are beautiful and multi-modal and cars can still drive anywhere they need to. Something weird is going on here and it is difficult to explain!

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 12:57:27

Oh I forgot to add one more thing. Shared spaces! I advocate alleviating concerns about absolute world domination by removing traffic controls. Except for highways and major regional arterials specially intended for higher speeds.

But in the city shared space solves this in its entirety! The bikes have no concern that vehicles take over the world. And vehicles need not worry that bikes will take over the world (muahaha). We treat each other with respect and civility, people have more patience, and common sense keeps you alive!

What's that ... I'm completely crazy? I thought so :)

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 13:31:34

Has anyone seen how the Toronto Sun hypes the 'war on cars' that's going on there? Just saying, we could have it worse.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 13:37:47

The Spec really has come close to sinking to the level of the Sun. The paper's become a sensationalist rag pandering to the ignorance and fear of the city's uneducated masses. It speaks down to its readers, confirms their prejudices, never daring to enlighten or challenge them. It won't be long before it starts bewailing a "war on cars" too.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 16:03:17

This is the second time the spec has printed commentary suggesting cyclists use the sidewalks without informing their readers that it is both illegal and dangerous. Seems they're not content to keep Hamiltonians languishing in poverty and ignorance, now they're trying to kill us as well.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 16:10:31

Is The Spec readers wanted to be educated, they would read a worthy publication.

The fact is The Spectator is perfectly happy catering to the ignorant, uninformed and uninterested reader (or Grumpy Old Men) who just want to 'shake a fist' at something/anything.

Gooo Spectator! Gotta love a one-(mainstream)media town!

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 16:41:17

This comment is possibly quite apt for this situation as well:

``Put simply, the puppet master is not less blameworthy than the puppet. Indeed, I would suggest that the master is more culpable since he or she puts the wheels in motion and then stands back under a facade of disassociation while the scheme that they have created unfolds.''

Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 17:01:22

yea, Thompson is right. We need to stop pushing the cars out of Hamilton. I step outside and peer down York or Main and I don't see a car for miles. Only thousands of bikes and thousands of people. Where did all the cars go? Such a shame.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 17:06:55

No No, Jason! I think you're mistaking Hamilton for NYC!?

You see, that's New York City (Traffic Capital of the World) who has shut down their Downtown Streets several times this summer for pedestrians/cyclists/anyone who's not driving a motorized vehicle!

Wipe your eyes and look again... Ahhh, there they all ZOOOM CRASH BANG ZOOM* SCREEECH ZOOOOOOMMMM... they are all are. Sorry, have to wait for a red light, oh it changed ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOM...

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 18:48:36

No, Jason is right, the cars are gone! On the bike ride home from work I can finally stop at a relaxing patio along Main Street and have coffee at a down-to-earth nice cafe (sorry that's not you Tim Hortons) and relax for a bit before climbing the car free bike lane equipped jolley cut!

Aww nuts that was just my imagination, if I lived in Holland that would be my commute home. Really? is right after all. I still have to take a lane and get from Dundurn to John as fast as I can so I don't impede the 60kph wave. ZOOOOM HONK

Sigh ... I miss Amsterdam ... but I so badly want to see things get better here

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 21:57:25

What is wrong with people anyways? I always give bike riders lots of room, they aren't hurting anybody. In all the years I have been driving, most bike riders are ok.

Children need to be educated and wear helmets. One child riding near Barton and MacNab was not being safe. Luckily it is a four way stop.

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By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:28:00

I like the interview with the owner of Ray's Place last night on CHCH and he wrongly states he has never seen a cyclist riding along Dundurn....


So that bike locked up outside your establishment pretty much everyday just magically appears...


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By TomC (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:42:00

Rumour has it that Scott Thompson is also a big NASCAR fan....pass it on

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 23:12:05

Dave - thanks for the heads up on that, I'll make sure to avoid Ray's. But let's get this straight, the owner of a bar is concerned with less parking spaces in front of his establishment? His beef is that these bike lanes will make it harder for people to drink and drive? Or am I just reading into this too much?

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By JonC (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 23:37:57

His patrons don't want to walk 100 meters down the street while drunk. They're okay with the driving.

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By radio gaga (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:26:41

So I caught your interview on the radio and had to check out your rant. Harsh but spot on. No wonder Scott kept cutting you off, you were demolishing his anti bike tirade. "FORCING PEOPLE OUT OF THERE CARS" where do they get this stuff? I drive a car and I'd love to have cyclists in there own lanes, that means I don't have to be stuck behind them, hello, everyone wins!

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 18, 2009 at 11:15:46

There was a radio bit? I missed it!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 12:00:48

Geez. You need to give us a heads up about these things.

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By davidvanbeveren (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 14:17:17

Interview clip on Thompson's website: http://www.scottthompsontalk.com/index.c...

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By radiotech717 (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 14:59:37

Don't sweat it, everyone's voice sounds bad when they hear it recorded.

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By brendan (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 15:09:06

I think you handled the interview fine Ryan. I'm disappointed it had to be so confrontational, but that's how the debate has been framed. The funniest part was you two arguing which of the two sides was arguing :)

Unfortunately if the addition of < 1km of bike lane on one of the most cycled roads in Hamilton causes this much stir, I'm afraid council will lose its nerve before enacting the rest of the plan.

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By race_to_the_bottom (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 15:33:52

"The funniest part was you two arguing which of the two sides was arguing"

That's McGreal, 0 to meta in < 5 minutes. LOL

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By birdie (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 15:40:09

RT @brendan i thought you handled yourself well, radio's a tough gig when your use to a more friendly pace of debate...

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 16:12:00

Can't figure out what's got Scotts spandex shorts in such a twist about this, he's normally a nice reasonable guy -- and he's a cyclist??? what, he has a dusty bike in his basement so that make him an expert on transpo policy? people on radio/newspaper with big voices have a responsibility not to be douchy about important issues, he could really make a difference with his listeners if he paid more attention to the truth and stopped pedaling (pun intended) contraversy.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 16:41:22

ratings, ratings, ratings.
Ever hear of a sane, normal, even-keel radio show?? I haven't. Limbaugh, Stern, Adler etc..... they're all loudmouths who need to stir up the pot and say stupid things in order to drive ratings. CHML must have told Thompson to quit acting so normal and chatting about music and get the ratings up.

It's all about money at the end of the day.

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By Randers (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 17:43:21

Ratings? This is a debate about a bike lane! You think a conversatino about a bike lane would drive ratings?

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 18, 2009 at 17:58:01

Wow - this guy needs to SLOW DOWN. I would not consider this an interview, the guy never let the interviewee talk. Wow.

"when it gets to the point where this is obviously the other way around"... it will never get to the point of being more cyclists if we don't have the transportation network to support them.

"i think there's a great need for this" - for what - for building a bike network by not building a bike network?

I also love the argument that there was an accident on the 403 one day, and York was backed up -- because of bike lanes. Never mind the other 364 days of the year when there's nowhere close to a traffic jam on York even at the height of rush hour.

At least he agrees with everything Ryan is saying, though!

He's welcome to think that bike lanes are bad, but bike networks are good - as long as he has SOME alternative idea. Like, even ONE alternative idea. An idea other than "we should come up with a better solution".

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2009 at 11:39:51

Amazing the he agreed with you yet wanted to argue anyway...weird. Definitely a case of riling up the audience. If you ain't angry you ain't listening :)

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 21, 2009 at 09:00:58

rusty >> "Amazing the he agreed with you yet wanted to argue anyway...weird. Definitely a case of riling up the audience. If you ain't angry you ain't listening :) "

It all makes me think the Hamilton media is stealing the 'Grinds My Gears' segment from Family Guy; CHCH Guy: Know what Grinds My Gears? My colleagues tie colours... Scott Thompson: Know what Grinds My Gears? Cyclists... Spec Editorials: Know what Grinds My Gears? Everything/Anything 'Progressive'

We're in a world where Logic/Reality doesn't matter... People want controversy/anger/bad news. Papers don't sell good news, CNN doesn't broadcast good news. Why would The Spec/Whatever-Media in Hamilton announce/broadcast good/positive news if they know it wont generate a debate/discussion/full-blown war (a-la Cyclign Net situation) and sell papers!?

It's a shame we now live in such a world... but hey, C'est La Vie mes Ami(e)s!

ps: How sad is it that our only Broadcast News Outlet has a man copying a Family Guy segment!? Pathetic!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 21, 2009 at 09:28:01

As if on cue, the Spec puts up an inflammatory poll:


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