By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the terrible hit and run in Kanata yesterday that left five cyclists injured, two critically. What’s especially terrifying about this, if you’re a cyclist, is the fact that this occurred on a road with a good, wide bike lane, and during a fairly quiet time of the week.
I hope that all those injured recover fully, but I also hope that something positive can come out of this as well: an examination of our strategy for cycling here in Ottawa. While bike lanes are nice, I’ve always felt that they don’t really do much to truly protect those of us that cycle on a regular basis. After all, what is a bike lane but a small reserved section of the road that is usually on the right side of the street? Or, more basically, where cyclists end up riding most of the time anyway.
I’ve often felt that bike lanes offer a false sense of security. Cyclists see them and think that since they have a reserved right of way, they’ll be safe from cars, and drivers see them and think they have to worry less about cyclists as they are “protected” between the solid white lines of the bike lane.
However, I think this sense of protection is mostly an illusion. As we’ve seen with this case in Kanata, it doesn’t take much for a vehicle to cross into a bike lane and strike cyclists (though, as yet, the police have not said why they believe the driver of the minivan in this case to have swerved into the lane). In addition to this, bike lanes tend to do little for cyclists at intersections, with the lines often becoming broken to allow drivers to move into turning lanes, or, in some cases, disappearing altogether to leave cyclists to their own devices.
So what can we do to protect cyclists? As I see it, there are a few major options. The simplest is to work on building a very extensive network of bike paths. The NCC already maintains a number of them, of course, but generally they’re only useful to a small percentage of cyclists, and many areas of the city go uncovered by this network, as the NCC focuses on destinations and routes attractive to tourists. Meanwhile, there are a number of places in the city where good bike paths could be constructed parallel to major arteries. March Road would probably be a good place for this kind of project, actually, given how much empty space can be found along both sides of the road.
Of course, this simply won’t work along somewhere like Bank Street for most of its route; it’s simply too heavily built-up. In cases like this, I think physically separated bike lanes are the best option. These would help protect cyclists from traffic, and give them a defined space on the road that can be called theirs, not something as poorly demarcated as a simple painted line. These aren’t perfect, of course: pedestrians can be a danger if they have a way to easily access the lane, and there are still issues surrounding interaction with motor vehicles at intersections, but overall it would represent a step forwards.
The other potential option would be to do something similar to Vancouver, which operates roadways with traffic calming measures in effect parallel to major arteries (such as the example pictured here). The main problem I see with this is that it would probably entail difficulties in finding good parallel streets—most of Ottawa’s major roads don’t tend to have streets which run alongside them for very long, due to the way our city is split up.
Ultimately, I think the best solution is a combination of all three of these methods. Bike paths are the ideal, but where they are not possible they should be supplemented by well-designed bike lanes or perhaps traffic-calmed side-streets which emphasize bike travel. No matter what, though, there’s no question in my mind that we need to seriously look at bicycle safety here in Ottawa, and come up with a long-term, comprehensive strategy for cycling in Ottawa.
Edit: I feel I should open a call here, as well: what do you want to be done to make cycling safer here in Ottawa? Are better bike lanes the answer? Better education for drivers and cyclists? Tell me your thoughts!