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A terrible incident was the catalyst for The Biking Lawyer

Find out how David Shellnutt became a powerful voice in cycling advocacy

Photo by: Robin Pueyo

When David Shellnutt remembers New Year’s Eve 2018, he can recall kissing his partner in a bar at the stroke of midnight. He remembers pushing the door to leave. Outside, two men in a car shouted at Shellnutt’s partner. Following that, an altercation ensued that would result in Shellnutt being severely hurt.

At the time of the attack, Shellnutt, a Toronto-based lawyer, was working at a personal injury and human rights law firm where he represented a mix of clients: personal-injury law, injured cyclists, sexual-assault survivors, as well as victims of police violence. He started working there after after having graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School.  “I came out with all this debt, so I took the job doing personal injury insurance defence. It was downtown Toronto and I lived on the west side and I remember thinking that the streetcar was just, well, it had too many people, you know, and also it took forever,” he said.

The solution? Skip transit. “I picked up the bicycle and just started commuting every day. I instantly saw what we were up against: getting clipped almost every day, not even every day but every couple of blocks. In those days, in 2018, there weren’t nearly as many bike lanes as now.”

After the New Year’s attack, Shellnutt suffered two jaw fractures as well as an epidural hematoma–which is bleeding between the inside of the skull and the outer covering of the brain–that resulted in a coma for a week.

“My surgeon excavated the blood from my brain,” Shellnutt said. “He said 30 minutes longer and I would have been dead.”

The horrific event would change his life in profound ways. He had always thought about starting his own firm, with a progressive voice, one focused on the vulnerable citizens in cities such as pedestrians and cyclists. So he did just that. Exactly one year after the attack, with a clean bill of health, he opened The Biking Lawyer.

Since then, not only has he represented victims of traffic violence or collisions, but has become a key voice in the push for better cycling infrastructure. He’s very active on Twitter with pushing for safer streets and better bike infrastructure for Toronto cyclists. Shellnutt often sends messages to city officials via social media to make them aware of dangerous conditions for vulnerable road users.

At the start of the pandemic, he also co-founded the Bike Brigade, a volunteer group that helps deliver food to the city’s vulnerable. “My mom was in Florida, and when the pandemic began, I told her on March 13 to get back here as soon as possible,” he said. “When she got back, I knew I would have to deliver groceries to her as she was a senior and at a higher risk. I realized there must be lots of people in the same situation, so I reached out to community organizers, and suggested a safe way to deliver goods by bike. The byproduct was that the volunteers could get out and be active as well as help the community.”

The volunteer group, which has now grown to a stable of 600 riders, works alongside a variety of organizations such as FoodShare, the People’s Pantry, and several food banks across the city.

It’s not all work, no play for Shellnutt. He has also recently tried bike racing, trying his hand at a cyclocross race in October, and has vowed to do more races in 2022, including the long-running gravel race, Hell of the North, which takes place north of Toronto.