“Mark Saunders doesn’t actually care about bike lanes”: The Biking Lawyer on rising violence against cyclists

Dedicated two-wheeler David Shellnut on why bike lanes are an election issue, what’s actually causing gridlock and whether cyclists are vying for total societal destruction

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Lucy Lu
“Mark Saunders doesn’t actually care about bike lanes”: The Biking Lawyer on rising violence against cyclists
David Shellnutt, “The Biking Lawyer”, poses for a portrait outside his office on Thursday, June 8, 2023, in Toronto, Ontario.

In 2020, personal-injury lawyer David Shellnutt launched the Biking Lawyer, a firm dedicated to representing Toronto’s cyclist community. It may seem like a niche clientele, but it’s growing—and Shellnutt says that, these days, he’s seeing more anti-cyclist violence in Toronto than ever before. He blames the city’s politicians, including a few current mayoral hopefuls, who he says are stoking tensions between drivers and bikers in order to gain support and media attention. Here, he tells us how anti-cycling groups are selling false narratives and why the road-safety crisis isn’t about bikes at all.

Before we get into the current debate around bike lanes, can you give a biking-in-the-city overview? What’s new? What’s changing? Why is everyone losing their minds? During the pandemic, we saw a cycling revolution. Before 2020, bike lanes were being implemented around Toronto at a relatively modest pace, although still to great effect. Think of Harbord Street and Bloor Street West, where protected lanes led to more cyclists and fewer cars. And then, when Covid hit, suddenly it also became a safe option. Health care workers were using bike lanes to get to work, and lots of people wanted to avoid exposure on the TTC. That uptick in ridership triggered a push to create even more safe cycling infrastructure, and city council approved a plan to install 100 kilometres of new protected bike lanes by 2024.

By “safe,” do you mean bike lanes that are separated from the rest of traffic using cement barriers or posts rather than just white paint? Exactly. The thing that keeps a lot of people from biking is that they feel it’s too dangerous. But, if you build in those protections, they will.

So why am I reading that two-thirds of Torontonians think bike lanes should be removed from major arteries? I think we need to look at where that data is coming from. The particular poll was commissioned by a PR firm working for a lobbying group, Keep Toronto Moving. They have a specific agenda, and the survey involved only 500 respondents in a city of millions. It’s not a poll; it’s propaganda. Groups like this may not call themselves anti–bike lane, but they’re relying on that rhetoric. The same is true of certain mayoral candidates like Mark Saunders and Anthony Furey. These are guys who, if you ask me, don’t actually care about bike lanes at all. They just know that it’s a lightning rod issue and a good way to gin up votes. You see them perpetuating a lot of myths that have already been debunked.

For example? Things like “bike lanes are bad for small businesses.” The data actually shows the opposite—when bike lanes went in on Bloor Street, the businesses along that strip reported more transactions. Or the idea that bike lanes get in the way of Toronto Paramedic Services vehicles. Toronto’s paramedics have come out and said that’s not true.

Okay, but there’s no arguing that gridlock in Toronto is worse than ever. Do the new protected bike lanes bear any responsibility for that? I’m not suggesting that gridlock is not a huge problem. I own a car. My mom lives in Guelph, and my dad is in Collingwood, so I know that trying to get out of the city is incredibly frustrating. I can’t imagine how hard it is for people commuting every day. But anyone trying to blame congestion on 1.5 metres of curb lane is either misinformed or disingenuous. What about a booming population? A workforce that drives from the suburbs due to ongoing transit cuts? The fact that we have construction on every corner? If anything, bike lanes are getting people out of cars, which are the real cause of congestion. In Ontario, we’ve been indoctrinated with this idea that you need to own a car. It’s not the most equitable approach, and obviously it’s not sustainable from a climate perspective.

With so many upsides to cycling, why do you think bike lanes have become such a hot-button election issue? We have a population that is stressed from the pandemic, inflation and soaring housing costs. These are very complex problems, and bike lanes have become a scapegoat—an easy way to get some media attention without needing actual policy positions. And this is not a new tactic. It’s straight out of the Ford brothers’ playbook. Remember when Rob Ford was mayor and he ripped out the lanes on Jarvis? He was able to rally his base around this idea of a “war on the car.” Now, 10 years later, we have candidates still focusing their road-safety discussion on bike lanes when we know that, in the first 45 days of 2023, there were 197 pedestrians and 32 cyclists hit and injured by motorists. So there is a road-safety problem that needs to be addressed, but it ain’t about bikes.

Personal injury lawyer Dave Shellnut of The Biking Lawyer says that these days, he’s seeing more anti-cyclist violence in Toronto than ever before. He blames a few of the current mayoral hopefuls, including Mark Saunders and Anthony Furey, who he says are stoking tensions between drivers and bikers as a politically expedient way of gaining support and media attention.

The other day, you posted a video of an anti-cyclist road rage incident caught on camera. Are you seeing more of that type of violence? These days I don’t go a week without a call from someone who has been the victim of that type of interaction, and I’m just one lawyer. The tension isn’t new, but we’re seeing it exploited and even stoked in this election. Then it spills out onto the streets. I’m currently representing a handful of clients who have either been physically assaulted by drivers or had a car weaponized against them. In that particular video, you can hear the driver using homophobic slurs, which is sadly more common than you’d think.

Mayoral candidate Mark Saunders says he’s not anti–bike lane, he just wants to see them removed from major arteries in the name of safety. Well, Mark Saunders was the chief of police at a time when they completely abdicated responsibility for road safety. People were injured and killed in staggering numbers under his watch, so why we would entertain this person’s point of view is beyond me. I would love to see even a bit of data that supports his take. People commuting on bikes are no different than drivers: they want to take the most direct and convenient routes. What are we going to do, divert hundreds of cyclists onto small residential streets with stop signs at every block? It makes no sense.

Are there any candidates the cycling community is backing at the moment? Olivia Chow rides a bike religiously and has a good understanding of how to juggle cycling infrastructure with other transit needs. Josh Matlow has also been very supportive of cycling initiatives. But I wouldn’t say there is one biking candidate because cyclists are not one kind of voter—despite some of the current messaging, which would have you believe that we’re a marginal fringe group or a bunch of lefty anarchists who ride bikes because we want to topple the entire system.

So total societal destruction is not on the cyclist agenda? Ha! No—we know that people from Scarborough to Etobicoke, from high-rise buildings downtown to huge private homes along the Humber River, ride bicycles for transportation, fun and exercise. We’re a huge, eclectic group.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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