Forgiving streets: shouldn't "forgiving" for all users be the overriding principle?

Grist in the mill

Winter gets me thinking about how our streets are unforgiving. While riding on streets covered with fresh snow I sometimes imagine what would happen if I make a small mistake. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind slipping on snow. And Toronto winter streets are often clear of snow. When there is snow or ice, little slips sometimes happen but I just keep going. There's a difference in feelings of comfort, however, between slips on quiet side streets and slips on main arterial streets where we are typically forced into a narrow space between parked and moving cars. On arterial roads it feels like I'm grist in the mill, being ground into flour. Here we are an annoyance to drivers, but provide a valuable service of "friction" to calm traffic down. This seems to be our lot as Toronto cyclists.

Forgiving highways

The concept of "forgiving roads" first arose amongst traffic engineers as a way to design roads to forgive mistakes made by drivers. The reason our highways have wide shoulders and grassy areas with few obstacles, for example, is to allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if they leave the road. If for someone were to accidentally drive off the road they would have lots of room to slow down. It was only natural for traffic engineers to start applying the forgiving highway principles to all rights-of-way. During the 1966 National Highway Safety hearings, national road safety expert Kenneth Stonex, who began his career at General Motors sought to apply the highway principles to urban streets. In this way North American urban environments began to be reshaped entirely for the automobile.

“What we must do is to operate the 90% or more of our surface streets just as we do our freeways… [converting] the surface highway and street network to freeway road and roadside conditions,” Stonex testified. It sounded logical at the time… and a great political solution, because the responsibility for fixing the problem once again fell on government, not the individual. We dove deep into the Forgiving Highway philosophy and still have not come up for air.

Why should forgiving roads only apply to auto drivers?

While highways have been designed so that drivers can maintain a high speed in relative safety, urban streets that are forgiving in this sense completely ignore the safety of everyone who isn't in a car. An urban street that accounted for people walking and cycling would require much different parameters. There is no way a pedestrian or a cyclist can compete with the speed of drivers. And yet urban streets are too complex to match highway driving. There are too many intersections with decisions to make to allow drivers to reach highway speeds. We are left in an awkward position where drivers complain of urban streets of being too congested and slow but engineers still have a predilection towards enabling drivers' ability to go fast. Drivers can still reach speeds - during the non-congested times of day - that are clearly unsafe. Cyclists are still forced to bike in the narrow space between parked cars and streetcar tracks, which only gets narrower and more dangerous in winter. Pedestrians are forced to scurry across crosswalks in the hope that drivers see them. That's not useful for anyone. The streets, instead, should be forgiving enough so that the most vulnerable person is able to safely use it, with a very low risk of death. Too much to ask?

The dark age of cycling advocacy is over

Cycling advocacy, however, has only recently begun to become more vocal in asking for an alternative to roads that prioritize high speed motor traffic. Cycling advocacy went through its own "dark age" when it was dominated by a ultra-libertarian and elitist ideology called "vehicular cycling" which put all the onus on cyclists to keep up with motor vehicles around them. All unfit, slow, young, old cyclists be damned. Harold Munn, who invented the term, defined vehicular cycling as "The task is to convince [cyclists] to operate their bicycles as they do their automobiles."

"Say what you will about vehicular cycling, but nobody is going to argue that it’s “forgiving," writes Bill Lindeke, in an excellent article on very same topic of forgiving streets for all. Lindeke read Bruce Epperson's interesting history of the vehicular cycling ideology (at least interesting for a bike nerd). Vehicular cycling was born in the United States in the 70s and 80s when the idea of creating bikeways had a stillbirth, leaving just university town Davis, California with a network of bikeways. The advocates and planners in Davis, Epperson describes as being a "third stream of egalitarians", alongside the vehicular cyclists and a middle stream of pragmatists.

Epperson writes that in Davis, the planners and advocates emphasized the vulnerable:

The third-streamers openly advocated policies that specifically targeted the weakest and most vulnerable bicyclists and involuntary users who rode strictly out of need, not choice. Together, these comprised cycling’s lowest common denominator, and for the third stream planners, they formed the yardstick by which to measure success or failure. If high-end recreational cyclists couldn’t live with their solutions, well, there were lots of other sports in the world they could turn to.

Lindeke asks the key questions that North American cities are only now beginning to ask:

Do you design bike lanes with the assumption that all the cyclists will be fast, efficient, well-trained, and “educated” about how to ride in traffic? Or do you design bike lanes for people who will move slowly, dawdle, and are perhaps younger or older or riding in groups? Do you design lanes for people who occasionally fall down?

Cycling advocacy in North America has made a sharp turn away from elitism of vehicular cycling and has started demanding cities designed for the vulnerable, the dawdlers, the old, the young. And some cities like New York, Portland, Chicago have heard the call. Toronto?


Of course if you do create a bike ghetto for the slow, casual riders, you also create an impossible situation for the moderate speed (say 25 - 30km/h) cyclists who don't want to be stuck going 12km/h behind someone who can't ride in a straight line and won't signal, and who will be run off the road by aggressive drivers if they stray from "their" lane.

This has already happened to me twice this month (and at 30km/h I was only about 5km/h slower than traffic, with lights eliminating any advantage that the cars got anyway). I can easily foresee a situation where the more cycling infrastructure we have the less I will be able to safely, comfortably ride. "Vehicular cycling" is a nicely loaded derogatory term for people who can't afford to spend 2 hours commuting each way to work. It must feel good to be able to ignore the needs of cyclists who probably crank out a lot more kilometres in the saddle than you by tarring them with the brush of "elitism."

So are sidewalks "walking ghettos" to you?

You (and I) are in the minority of people who are comfortable riding faster in traffic. Despite your concerns I think that, one, you exaggerate the problem of passing on separated bike lanes - I haven't had the same problem wherever I've used them - and, two, it's not a concern that overrides the majority's concern for safe and comfortable space for them on their bikes.

"Vehicular cycling" is a self-imposed term by John Forester and company, who have adopted it as the name for their extreme, libertarian, elitist philosophy. I've had long bike commutes, including an hour commute each way to Mississauga from Toronto at one point. I would have been just as happy then to have a bike path or cycle tracks along the entire route. So I don't think distance has anything to do with it.

This article totally connects with two experiences I had on Tuesday. On my ride to work along Wellesley, I passed a slower cyclist on the left which caused a driver to honk at me, accelerate past me and brake hard for the already stopped traffic (quite embarrassing for the driver who was left stuck in traffic 30 metres from the honk point). That evening along Bloor W., I drove behind a cyclist doing about 30kmh for at least 8 blocks - and all the traffic behind me seemed just fine with that.

The two events left me to contemplate whether a driver's reaction to such situations is predetermined based on their experience. If drivers along Bloor are collectively used to the minor inconvenience of driving behind a cyclist, then their reaction is conditioned to an extent. The driver I met on Wellesley didn't seem forgiving at all, but is that because of their experience with other cyclists?

My question is simply this: Is a driver's response to a traffic situation predetermined relative to their driving experience?

It sounds simple perhaps, but I suspect it may be a governing factor in the psychology of drivers. And if so, that is something to consider when a driver honks at you - it's not your actions so much, but the collective experiences that dictate the driver's reaction to a given situation.

Toronto's painted bike lanes just need to be made a smidgeon wider and then they would be much more forgiving by allowing faster riders to pass slower riders without overly encroaching on the sacred road (assuming the velocity-impaired cyclist can keep a reasonably straight line). Surely not too much to ask.

Now, the new Sherbourne bike lane is wide enough, in spots, to allow careful passing, but let me relate what happened there last week:
I was northbound on the new bike at night, just past the Salvation Army mission, when I spied two people walking in the bike-lane side-by-side. I slowed down and rang my bell, politely at first, then more adamantly, because the pedestrians simply ignored me. I ended up going around the, a manouver which required me to 'exit' the bike lane. Now, the curb that 'separates' the bike-lane from the road is a concrete ramp, just an inch tall, and a cinch to negotiate, but as I went around these people and attempted to re-enter the bike lane I had reached a point where the bike-lane passes a TTC bus-stop. Here, the TTC requires a high curb, to reduce the step-up height for passengers boarding the bus. In the dark I couldn't tell that the one inch curb was gradualy rising, (especially since I glanced over my right shoulder to make sure I was making a clean lane-change), and so I caught my front-wheel against the curb and experienced a very sudden, and painful, unexpected dismount. I had discovered that the new separated bike-lane can be very unforgiving!!

(Luckily, my winter layers prevented what could have been a very serious injury had it been summer.)

The new lanes do not stop vehicular cyclists who enjoy combat from riding in mixed traffic
My prediction is most of those "casual cyclists" will evolve into more experienced ones and things will speed up over times as we are joined by more and more people who are no longer afraid

The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has agreed that building the Etobicoke Creek trail across their land is OK, pending some conditions. Negotiations with TRCA and Toronto have restarted. But, there is now an issue where the City's funding for the project may be threatened.

The newest problem is Councillor Milcyn wants to take the Section 37 money that has been set aside for this project and use it on other projects.

This trail has real potential in the western parts of the city. It would provide an immediate connection from Wards 6 to 5. Mississauga is interested in working with Toronto to extend the trail further. It could provide access to Centennial Park in time for the Pan Am Games and a link to the airport. There is even talk on the trail extending to Brampton. The key to getting started is the MTO 700 m. permission

Comments need to be made by the end of the month to the Councillors office. He needs to hear the project is important and the money needs to stay in place. Otherwise a very valuable opportunity will be lost.

To respond to a few of the many points in this post:

  1. The new bike lanes on Sherbourne are not "forgiving". They're narrow, and in the northern half the curb will dump you if you venture that far. I regard them as less forgiving that the painted lanes.
  2. I don't know exactly what battle all that business about the elite vehicular libertarian cyclist stuff is fighting. While I am able to be a vehicular cyclist, 99% of the time that's because the bicycling infrastructure is nonexistent (or, rarely, inadequate or dangerous). Where there is a bike lane or separate path, I will use it, though I'll duck out to avoid an obstacle, or maybe to make a left turn. Where there is no bicycle infrastructure, the choices pretty much are i) vehicular cycling (as much as you are up for); ii) sidewalk cycling; iii) not cycling at all. Painting cyclists as "elitists" because they actually try to ride where there is no infrastructure is not going to make friends with those riders....who are certainly more committed to bicycling than all those wannabe's who might ride, maybe perhaps, only if there are safe comfortable places to ride.
  3. Alliied to the lack-of-facilities problem is that, instead of extending cycling infrastructure throughout the city, the first couple of big "upgrades" are to already-existing facilities. And, from my experience 1998-2006, Sherbourne is a lightly-used route, especially compared with its western counterpart Beverly/St. George. All those people who are going to ride Adelaide/Richmond are, perforce, going to become vehicular cyclists when they hit Bathurst. Or I suppose they will walk their bikes on the sidewalk?

In the end, it's my opinion that we won't have good bicycle infrastructure until there's the will to give up road space and parking. The fact that we can't get parking removed from major east-west streets such as Queen is a symptom of the easy-way-out strategy that the City is pursuing, with the apparent support of the new-age advocacy. I rode Sherbourne often enough when I lived on Wellesley, and as a cycling corridor, it is way less used than Queen which is a more dangerous street that's a continual door zone. So what do we do? We upgrade the perfectly adequate painted lanes on Sherbourne. There's no will to do anything about Queen. (Or King, or Dundas, or Bathurst, or ....). That's got to change.

Hi Ed,

  1. That's debatable. The bike lanes were built to make the majority of people feel comfortable to bike on it. I believe it's done a much better job of that than a painted bike lane. I've heard of people who don't normally cycle on the road were using this street at least.
  2. Let me state it again, this is a discussion of a philosophy of "vehicular cycling" and not about cycling on the road when there are no separated bike lanes around. Vehicular cycling as a philosophy is anti-bike lane, anti-cycle track and even anti- most traffic calming measures. Vehicular cycling is geared towards people in the prime of their lives who [think they] can keep up with the average speed of traffic and boldly take the lane or make left turns across multiple lanes of traffic. But this excludes a lot of people. Thus vehicular cycling is elitist.
  3. These "upgrades" is right in line with a broader movement in the US to build "world-class cycling facilities" - Green Lane Project. Yes, there were already painted bike lanes over some of them, but so what. These are better.

Of course, it's unfortunate that the cycle tracks would end at Bathurst or wherever. But that's not really an argument against building something. The same problem exists with regular bike lanes. If we can't build bike lanes until there's political will to put them in everywhere than they'll never be built. That suits the vehicular cycling philosophy just fine.

"Perfectly adequate" - a weird term - perfectly so-so? Painted lanes are adequate for those who have the strong will and fortitude to battle it out with car traffic, but it's not going to be adequate for most. Sherbourne, Richmond/Adelaide, Wellesley/Hoskin/Harbord won't be upgraded for your sake but the sake of everyone else who currently is too afraid to cycle on Toronto streets (pdf):

do not base policies about cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk – as we have done – to non-cyclists, potential cyclists, former cyclists, and recreational cyclists to determine what would encourage them to make more use of this transport mode.

Though let me add, I've biked to all parts urban, suburban and rural, and I prefer separated bike lanes, or calm bike boulevards, to having to mix with motor vehicles on most streets.

"Perfectly adequate" - a weird term - perfectly so-so? Painted lanes are adequate for those who have the strong will and fortitude to battle it out with car traffic, but it's not going to be adequate for most.

I find this baffling because I just don't see see how you have to "battle it out with car traffic" with painted lanes, but somehow don't if there's a small concrete hump (at the north end) or nothing more than a sloping gutter (south end). The problems are with right-hooks and parking, all of which is just as likely with the separated lanes as implemented on Sherbourne..

The separation is more symbolic and psychological than anything else. It sure won't keep a car from running into you if the driver decides to park, or makes an ill-considered swerve.

If you're saying that this symbolic and psychological comfort is significant to some people, I can buy that. My position is that they should be worrying more about the actual dangers than be comforted by an inadequate symbolic curb.

As for "forgiving", one strong principle is that you don't put things close to the traffic that can cause a crash. With painted lanes, if we swerved too far to the right, we ran into the curb and crashed. Now, if we swerve too far to the left, we run into the concrete hump and crash. There's no more clear zone to the left.

A fine post, and I can't thank you enough for the Bruce Epperson link. His paper fills a major void in my understanding of the history behind vehicular cycling in the U.S., as well as the role played by the City of Davis, CA, in that period.

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