Making cycling safer

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!

17 Responses to “Making cycling safer”

  1. July 20, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    The cause of this collision has as little to do with the safety of cycling in Ottawa as last year’s incident where a grandmother was struck and killed waiting at a bus stop at Lincoln Fields was a transit-related collision. This is a very rare type of collision, and statistically, getting hit from behind is the least common type of cycling collision–you’re more likely to get seriously injured falling or hitting a pothole. Physically segregated corridors only protect you from getting hit from behind, and don’t protect you at intersections, where collisions are far more common. In fact, with cyclist traffic in both directions on one side of the street with these segregated facilities, they can even make it more dangerous at intersections.

    Ottawa is a safe place to cycle, and to insist that cyclists must be segragated and ghettoized only makes it more dangerous for cyclists when we’re not riding on these facilities (which we have to do, because you can’t make 7800 km of segregated pathways to match our road system, and you can’t segregate it completely), since motorists will be less accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, and motorists will be more aggressive to cyclists who aren’t sticking to pathways.

    Compare March Road where this incident took place to the Ottawa River Parkway, where there are separated pathways, and no bike lane. This incident would have been even more likely, because those cyclists would still have been on the road (as is their right). The fact of the matter is, the motorist was inattentive, for whatever reason, and hit the first thing that was there–In this case, five cyclists.

    Maybe instead of fearmongering that cycling in Ottawa isn’t safe until we have entirely separate pathways, we should instead ask why there are no more cycling programs to teach people who want to ride defensively, why roads like March have a design speed 20 km/h higher than their speed limit, and why Ottawa isn’t investing fully in the Ottawa Cycling Plan approved in 2008 to expand the cycling network?

    Charles Akben-Marcand
    Past President
    Citizens for Safe Cycling (CfSC)

    • 2 David McClelland
      July 21, 2009 at 3:53 pm

      I understand what you’re saying, but I have to disagree. The physically separated-style of bike lane was actually introduced in Copenhagen, Denmark, which has the highest percentage of cycle-commuters in the world. 30-40% of the population cycles on a daily basis, and uses bikes as their primary method of transportation. And while I’ve never been there, every video I’ve seen shows some pretty courteous relations between drivers and cyclists, even if they’re “segregated” much of the time.

      The truth is, I don’t think we’ll get drivers respecting cyclists until a *significant* percentage of Ottawans cycle on a regular basis, and we won’t get that happening until people feel safe doing so. While you or I might feel reasonably comfortable in a bike lane, I know many people (some of whom are quite good cyclists) who genuinely fear riding in the street. And that’s not going to change until they have a good reason to feel safe riding about the city.

      Now, I do agree that this incident is not indicative of cycling safety in Ottawa, and there are many places where I would feel much more uncomfortable riding a bike. However, since everyone is now talking about bike safety, I do think this is the time to seriously consider some of the alternatives.

      I also have to agree with you on your final points, those would all be good moves.

  2. July 20, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    David – I agree with all of your suggestions on physical improvements to make bike routes safer. Education has to be another priority – teaching drivers and cyclists how to share the road. For drivers, it has to be a bigger component of driver training and testing. For cyclists, safe cycling should be part of the school curriculum for every kid growing up.

    • 4 David McClelland
      July 21, 2009 at 3:39 pm

      A very good point. That’s something I meant to touch on more, but the post was getting long and I didn’t want to start to ramble. Educating people on how to ride safely and drivers on how to safely deal with cyclists is vital.

  3. 5 jennyjag
    July 20, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    I feel so badly for those cyclists, my heart goes out to them.
    I do a lot of cycling in this City and was a member of the City’s cycling advisory committee many yrs ago. I’m also a “graduate” of the Citizens For Safe Cycling CanBike course. These courses are great, but I agree that it would be even better to see it built into curriculum. In absence of that, my kids are definitely going to take the CanBike courses as soon as they are old enough. And I will continue to recommend it to everyone. That being said, while details are yet to come out in the case of this accident, if a cyclist is hit from behind, there isn’t a course in the world that can prepare you for that.

  4. 6 Mike
    July 21, 2009 at 11:14 am

    I agree with Glen G. Safe cycling should be taught in school. I see so many kids riding the wrong side of the road. It is far MORE dangerous yet I get the impression that many parents are mistakenly advising their kids to do it. Riding a bike is not the same as walking. The closing speeds are added instead of subtracted and drivers just don’t think to look in the WRONG direction for cyclists – they often don’t think to look in the RIGHT direction!

    I know from painful experience that the knowledge of having been in the right does not compensate for the suffering caused by being knocked off your bike.

    Another note to cyclist riding on sidewalks. If you must ride illegally on the sidewalk, DISMOUNT at crosswalks! Drivers are only looking for pedestrians, not a bike coming out of a blind spot at 20 km/h. Also, it is a LOT easier to get out of the way of a car when you’re on foot than on a bike. The same applies where a cycle path crosses a road at traffic lights. Even if the driver appears to be looking at you, there is no guarantee that they have SEEN you, especially if they are making a right turn on a red light.

    Also… Helmets should be mandatory for all cyclists (_especially_ parents cycling with children). I know they work – I was unfortunately in a position to test one out! Only an idiot rides without a helmet. It’s like seatbelts and airbags. It’s not about freedom, it’s not even about how skilled a cyclist you are, it’s for that moment when fate takes away your control of your own safety.

  5. 7 Rick
    July 22, 2009 at 8:19 am

    I must agree with David’s response to Charles Akben-Marcand, where he refers to biking in Copenhagen. While I have never been there, I have been to (and cycled in) Amsterdam, where there is also a high number of cyclists. They use segregated lanes using cement dividers quite effectively there. Closer to home, they are used quite a bit in Montreal, where I don’t believe they have even close to the same number of bicyclists as in Ottawa.

    But what really seemed to make a difference in Holland (I cycled into the country extensively) was that the law is designed there so that any accident between a car and a bike is ALWAYS the motorist’s fault, with attendant insurance considerations. That made a huge difference in driver attitudes. I was shocked again and again as motorists would stop and wait for me at intersections, even when they were clearly there first. We could use some of that in Canada.


  6. July 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I am distressed by the emphasis on “cyclist rights” – my rights stop where a bigger heavier faster vehicle meets me and my bike. Dead right.

    Personally, I stick to the NCC bike paths whenever possible as they are safe, IMO. With a bit of research, it is possible to find “parallel” bike-friendly streets to many major destinations without using arterials. I do feel the City is missing out on many opportunities to improve cycling experience: eg.1: the Albert St-Scott St path goes from the downtown to Westboro, in a straight line, yet is still missing a link a Bayview and needs upgrading, especially at intersections. It could be improved and made safer quite cheaply. Other cities would be jealous of a such a direct, lengthy, straight cycling ROW, Eg2: the OTrain corridor from Dows Lake to Bayview/Ottawa River is badly segmented, incomplete, and would make a convenient off-road link, but at the last round of LRT construction NO bike path improvements were in the plan – they were cut out as “too expensive”.

    We have dedicated high speed roads, no-trucks roads (most NCC commuter expressways), bus only lanes and roads (the transitway), and shared roads. I see it highly desirable to also have some bike & pedestrian routes that are not tied to car desire lines.

    -Eric Darwin

  7. 9 Elie Bourget
    July 24, 2009 at 11:13 am

    While segregated pathways are a great idea and, from a cyclists POV, probably the most comforting, Ottawa is unlikely to implement a thorough segregated path plan any time soon.

    I believe the biggest dangers are as mentioned earlier, potholes, parked-car doors and disappearing bike lanes. On downtown streets, this is a lot to look out for all-at-once and can be very stressful. It’s a lot to analyse in your environment when you’re traveling upwards of 20 or 25kmh.

    My big beef is that right now, bike’s don’t really “belong” anywhere. NCC bike paths are pedestrian shared so on the busier ones, such as along the canal, things can get very congested. sidewalks belong to pedestrians and they want no part of us. They say bicycles were made for the road, but all the speed limits(and minimums?) don’t really apply to bicycles. There’s absolutely no standard speed for a cyclist. People ride at their own pace and that just doesn’t jive well with several 2tonne beasts all moving in sync and going twice your speed… No matter how you look at it. Cyclists often have their own lane, but only for short and interrupted segments. Your lane comes to a stop and you’re back to your own devices again, navigating between the car’s world and the pedestrian’s world.

    Driver’s like to point the finger at the unpredictability of cyclists and absolve themselves of the blame a little. I think it’s the nature of cycling that it is unpredictable… The same way that pedestrian flow is unpredictable. There’s just too many things to factor into the movement of a cyclist; fatigue, age and fitness, reason for riding(leisure or destination), TYPE OF BIKE(don’t even get me started), confused right-of-way, confidence of the cyclist, etc. Then add to that all the typical human factors that can make any motorist’s movement a little unpredictable.

    A good cyclist in Ottawa makes due with the infrastructure he’s got while protecting himself at all cost and interfering with other types of traffic as little as possible. What more can you ask? There’s only so much you can regulate a means of transportation with no age-requirement, skill certification or purchase controls… Otherwise you can throw the cost-effective and convenience factors of riding a bike right out the window.

  8. 10 Mike
    July 24, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Regarding the unpredictability of cyclists, we do need to try to educate those of us who… ride on the wrong side of the road, run stop signs, run red lights, don’t stop before turning on a red light, don’t indicate, deke between road and sidewalk, hassle pedestrians, don’t have lights, or ride aggressively. This sort of behaviour (frequently displayed by obviously experienced and enthusiastic cyclists that should know better) just gives the rest of us a bad name and puts doubt in the minds of the public and emergency services if we get involved in incidents not of our making.

    • 11 David McClelland
      July 24, 2009 at 5:00 pm

      Agreed. I think that’s evident from some of the drivers vs. cyclists wars I’ve seen going on in comment sections at the Citizen and CBC. The cyclists out there that flagrently disobey the rules tend to set drivers against us as a group, no matter how we ride.

  9. 12 Chris B
    July 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I don’t buy the “cyclists don’t obey the law” argument. Yes I only slow down for stop signs at Percy street. but, I have noticed one or two cars exceeding the speed limit. So, drivers also don’t obey the laws.

    Having done most of my cycling in Vancouver, I liked the traffic calming measures that they take there, so that on the cycling roads, it is difficult (or impossible) for a car to travel more than three or four blocks. Mini roundabouts instead of stop signs. Cyclist controlled lights, with buttons at curbside so you don’t need to get off your bike to push them. And a real effort made to integrate the network so that you can jump from one cycling route to another without having to leave the netork. The latter is the most important. Currently, Ottawa has no integration of cycling routes (for example, how does one get from Lansdowne Park to Place du Portage without extensive detours or leaving the defined cycling routes?)

  10. 13 Alison H
    July 26, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I think one of the worst detriments to cycling in Ottawa are the so called “traffic calming measures” – specifically the bits of curbs that jut out into the roadway to reduce the amount of road the pedestrians would have to cross. All these seem to do is funnel bicycles into car traffic at regular intervals. Holland used to be a great North/South route to travel. It was a wide, 4 lane road with two lanes devoted to onstreet parking. The lane was wide enough for a parked car and a bike – as long as you paid attention to opening doors. Now the sidewalk has been widened, the parking lane narrowed and the aforementioned curbs squeezing cyclists into heavy traffic. As for calming traffic? Not so much in my opinion.

    • 14 David McClelland
      July 26, 2009 at 4:20 pm

      I have to say I haven’t encountered those outside of Sandy Hill (where there’s so little traffic it doesn’t tend to matter), but I can certainly see how they could be dangerous. Interesting, and thanks for pointing it out.

    • 15 Chris B
      July 27, 2009 at 6:44 am

      I have noticed those when I bike down Booth. They are irritating, but that is why I try and stay a good distance out from the curb.

      And they also highlight why a SEPERATE network of bike streets is needed (Note that the city has tried this wih Percy, but a sign calling a road a bike route is not enough to actually mak a bike route – stop signs every 50 metres hinder the efficacity somewhat).

      Niels Torsalvn, the Head Traffic Engineer for Copenhagen, gave a talk a while back where he went over what is necessary to get more than the fringe out cycling, and the number one thing he said was a feeling of safety which can only come from two things – seperation from heavy traffic and sufficient numbers.

    • 16 Mike
      July 27, 2009 at 8:15 am

      I agree. “Traffic calming” is like “Ministry of Love” and other such fibs. Most traffic calming measures are too extreme and frequently put in to placate vocal minorities. Speed bumps are especially bad, they force drivers to slow down too far and that encourages them to go faster between the bumps to make up the time. They are also a hazard to emergency vehicles and cause excessive wear and tear on everyone’s vehicles.

      Coming from London, England, I have a couple of comments… Firstly, some city (and even some suburban) streets are in fact through-routes and should be recognized and treated as such. It’s tough for the residents but if you’ve lived on that street for less than 20 years, you knew what you bought into. London went bananas after the GLC was shut down. All the boroughs put in “traffic calming measures” to try to force traffic into neighbouring boroughs. As they were all doing it you will appreciate that the traffic was enraged rather than calmed. The other comment is that the one traffic calming measure that doesn’t cause make-up-speeding, doesn’t cause danger to emergency vehicles, and is highly effective is speed cameras. I know north-Americans aren’t keen on these (invasion of privacy? on a public road? purleeese!) but they work better than any other tool available. I know I’m in a minority but I think speed cameras and red light cameras are the only sensible solutions to a couple of major problems and I have yet to hear a valid argument against either of them.

  11. 17 Craig
    August 14, 2009 at 10:00 am

    There are great swaths of arterial roads in Kanata where it is rare to see a pedestrian on the 5 or 6 foot wide sidewalks. Meanwhile trucks and busses are whizzing by at 80 km/h.

    What advice should I give to my daughter for riding along the most dangerous sections?

    – “Bikes are illegal on sidewalks- you must be a good citizen and respect the law. If a motorist were to spot you riding on the sidewalk he might become enraged and mow down the next cyclist he sees. So even if it’s MUCH SAFER on the sidewalk for that stretch of your trip, join the trucks and SUVs on the roadway where you belong.”


    – “Your safety comes first- use the sidewalk if necessary. In the unlikely event you encounter a pedestrian give your bell a little ting and slow down or dismount. You’re a guest in their territory so you might even want to say thank you.”

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