Saturday, October 09, 2010

Thoughs on cycling infrastructure

From my perspective, cycling downtown is relatively safe as motorists have come to expect bicycles and are (mostly) looking out for them. In the suburban areas of Toronto and in all of the 905, it's a very different story. When riding in mixed traffic, a bicyclist has the choice of riding on the side of the road and running the risk of a driver squeezing them into the curb, or taking the lane (as is their legal right) and running the risk of road rage by drivers who don't know what the Highway Traffic Act actually says. As such, bike lanes are safer than no bike lanes - there's no question about that. With a bike lane, everyone receives their own dedicated space; motorists are not impeded by slower traffic, and the safety of bicyclists is improved by removing them from faster and heavier traffic. Turning movements continue to be problematic, but overall, safety is improved. For the record, the proper procedure according to a CAN-BIKE instructor, is for the right turning car to treat the bike lane as a turn lane and temporarily block it entirely. This prevents a "right hook" collision, as the bicyclist cannot pass between the car and the curb. The bicyclist should go left around the turning car, as long as it is safe to do so.

While bike lanes are great, there are two problems associated with them:

First of all, they only work on streets where car traffic is travelling relatively slowly. Once traffic is travelling faster than 60 km/h, it becomes very intimidating to ride in a bike lane where a narrow line of paint is the only thing separating you from oblivion. York Street in Hamilton between Dundurn Street and the Burlington border is equipped with a double-wide bicycle space to address this problem. In this case, the bicycle lane is separated from car traffic by a no-mans-land equal in width to the bike lane itself. Compared to the bicycle lane on Plains Road, Burlington (the continuation of York Street), it feels safer on the Hamilton side. However, if the road cannot accommodate a single-wide bicycle lane, it probably cannot accommodate a double-wide space either.

Secondly, they are political. Generally speaking, there are three ways to put in bike lanes. Widening the roadway to add the necessary space is an option, but this is expensive if it means moving curbs and may be impossible in older downtowns. Narrowing of the lanes is an option, but only on roadways with slow traffic speeds. Narrowing the laneways on a suburban drag strip may actually make the roadway more dangerous. The final option is the reallocate general purpose lanes, and this is where the politics come in. Some drivers feel that it is their God given right to the road, and that a reduction in roadway capacity will lead to chaos. If a roadway can accommodate 4000 cars per hour but is reduced to 2000 cars per hour, it does stand to reason that the road will be clogged with the other 2000 cars (if you ignore that most will switch to a different travel window, a different route or a different mode all together). Either way, our planning practices over the past 50 years really haven't helped to dispel that myth, so it's easy to understand why it has been difficult to implement a coherent bicycle network.

Assuming that we are not going to put bike lanes on drag strips and that we are going to give in to the politics, how are we going to bring safe cycling facilities to the suburbs where they are needed most?

Since most suburban road allowances are much wider than the actual roadway, there is usually a large grassy area running alongside the roadway. One solution is to place a parallel bicycle pathway in this space by widening and upgrading the sidewalk to resemble a park path. A great example of this type of pathway is the Martin Goodman Trail, running along Lake Shore Blvd between Coronation Park the Humber River.


Image source: Flickr user Waterfront Toronto

These segregated pathways offer the safety of riding in a park or ravine, but actually take bicyclists to the places they want to get to (which are seldom in a ravine). They are fully signaled and legally designated as a bicycle-only road, eliminating the need to dismount and walk the bicycle across intersections. Unfortunately, a combination of physical design and human behaviour makes them potential death traps.


In this image, the Martin Goodman Trail's centreline is marked in green. While the path does run along Lake Ontario, access to attractions like Ontario Place (pictured) and the Boulevard Club mean that cars cross the trail at several locations. For bicyclists, the hazards come from three locations (marked by the red symbols).

For traffic turning right from Lake Shore into Ontario Place, there is the potential for a right hook collision to occur. At a normal intersection, a driver wanting to turn right can see easily see oncoming bicycles but may not be looking for same-direction bicycles. The effect is the same as a car making a right turn from the passing lane - a T-bone collision between the car and the bicycle will occur. The same is true for left-turning drivers (a "left cross" collision), especially with drivers hurrying to clear the intersection. While a pedestrian is slow and generally predictable, it is very difficult to gauge the speed of a faster object like a bicycle at speed. From my own personal experience, a driver making a left into Ontario Place nearly hit my side because he was trying to slip through a short gap in traffic. His priority was to clear the intersection and avoid a collision with oncoming vehicle traffic, human behaviour often causes us to have tunnel vision when face with imminent danger.

The right hook and left cross potential are already fairly dangerous conditions, but the drivers which I have dubbed "creepers" pose the greatest danger to bicyclists along Lake Shore. In the above image, these are the drivers exiting from Ontario Place who creep into the path of bicycle traffic. Some of these drivers simply fail to stop at the stop line and block all or part of the path. Others try to make a right turn on a red light (which is permitted here) and block the entire path as they creep forward to see if it is safe to turn onto Lake Shore. I believe that this type of intrusion is the greatest danger to bicyclists because of the frequency with which this occurs. Nearly every time I've been along this path I have seen some type of near-accident relating to a creeper, and it is only a matter of time before a bicycle collision occurs where the rider slams into the side of a vehicle fouling the path. In fact, a driver who had stopped a full car length ahead of the stop line (thus blocking the entire path and forcing me to make an emergency stop) was the reason why I decided to write this post.

Now, it's easy to say that bicyclists should slow down when they approach the intersection and make sure that no one will enter their path before they proceed. But, do we ask drivers slow down (on the green light) when they approach an intersection to make sure that another driver will not enter their path? On the road, the onus is on the driver who does not have the right-of-way to stop until it is safe. If a driver makes a left turn when it is not safe and causes an accident, the turning driver is at fault - the traffic heading straight through expects that no one will turn left until it is safe.  If a driver makes a right turn from the passing lane and collides with a car in the curb lane, they are at fault - the driver in the curb lane expects that no one will turn in front of them. If a driver fails to stop at the stop line and enters the intersection, they are at fault for the resulting collision - it is reasonable to expect that no one will run the red light or the stop sign. Why should it be any different when a vehicle road intersects with a bicycle road? Why should bicyclists expect that drivers will conduct themselves in ways which are reckless and illegal in any other circumstances?

In order to improve the safety conditions for parallel bicycle paths, we need to address driver behaviour and physical design. To encourage safe motorist behaviour, signs should be erected at all intersections warning drives of the parallel pathway. Signs in Irving, Texas could be used as a precedent.

Image source: Cycle*Dallas

To reduce creepers at controlled intersections, physical design plays a much larger role. Pavement treatments should be used to clearly identify that the vehicles should not stop on the pathway. The stop line should be placed far enough from the pathway so that cars cannot accidentally intrude, and right turns on red lights should be prohibited. Sight lines should be improved to give drivers and bicyclists a greater chance of identifying a potential collision and taking evasive action. However, this only works at controlled intersections where a red light can prevent drivers from proceeding. At one-way or two-way stop intersections, like the various parking lot driveways, I propose that a new design for the path be considered:


Currently, the trail curves towards the parallel street as it approaches the intersection. I propose that the opposite occur - the path curve away from the intersection where possible so that there exists at least one car length between the pathway and the parallel road. Traffic will stop before crossing the pathway and only cross when it is safe to do so. The driver can then wait to make their next movement without blocking the pathway. This design includes all of the previously mentioned modifications, and increases safety by minimizing the time vehicles block the path and encouraging vehicles coming from all directions to ensure that there is no bicycle traffic before crossing the pathway. As an added bonus, a driver who makes a left turn towards the pathway has safe space to stop should a bicycle suddenly appear in their path.

It is a foregone conclusion that the downtown core will have a network of bicycle lanes. The number of cyclists in the core has reached a level where the argument that such a network is a bad idea cannot be reasonably argued, but this is not so in the more suburban areas. Until there is the same critical mass of bicycles outside of the old City of Toronto, political support will not follow (unless you're in Burlington, perhaps). Ironically, the critical mass is slow to develop because of the lack of safe cycling facilities. Ravine trails are great for fitness riding and for getting across the city quickly, but they generally do not take bicyclists to their destinations - so they don't count. If we want to promote cycling as the effective means of transportation that it is, we can either choose to fight over lines on the pavement, or we can look at parallel pathways that can keep everyone happy. If we're going to choose the latter, then we have to make a sure that these paths are safe through better signage and better design. Failure to do so put the cycling cause no further ahead than it is today.

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