herb's blog

The best separation for the job: making the cycle tracks safer and beautiful

First off, a belated happy new year! As my first post of 2015 I'd like to talk about turning over a new leaf. It seems like my former nemesis, ex-Councillor Adam Vaughan and I can finally agree on something. In this case on beautiful, sturdy dividers for protected bike lanes. Here's what Vaughan had to say about an example in Vancouver:

What separated bike lane should look like. Try parking a truck here! Beauty should drive planning.

Vaughan has now left municipal politics for federal, but I reminisce of the days he and I had a spat about putting in protected bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide. (Really I shouldn't be such a solipsist, the spat was with everyone who wanted protected bike lanes on those streets). Vaughan opposed the project claiming that it was building "bicycle highways" (those words must have sounded worse in his head than when I say them).

Vaughan had a romantic idea that if we just widened the sidewalks and put in some plants that we'd have a street for everyone and stop the speeding traffic. Funnily this was also former Mayor David Miller's approach as well.

So Vaughan even argued in my blog and cornered me at a public consultation meeting. Vaughan took the approach of talking about "complete streets", "two-way streets" and "beauty" on Richmond and Adelaide all of which seemed likely to preclude the possibility of protected bike lanes. But when Vaughan noticed that the project was going ahead, he shifted his focus on just making the "barriers" as beautiful as possible.

Vaughan now makes a good point about beauty though he does take it a bit far; it's not "beauty" itself that is stopping a truck from parking in the bike lane, it's the concrete. The beauty adds civility to the whole street and that's where I believe the cycling community and Vaughan can join forces on this one against those who think paint or flimsy flexiposts are enough.

When our Transportation chief, Stephen Buckley, former Philadelphia transpo chief of the city no one looks to for great examples of cycling infrastructure, pretends that "cycle track" actually means just more paint, it's good to have politicians like Vaughan supporting great infrastructure. The flexiposts have been a great success for the pilot, but didn't take long for them to look beaten up:

This might be fine for a pilot project but for the final cycle tracks we need something much more durable...and beautiful.

So MP Vaughan, I'm letting bygones be bygones and I hope you'll support cyclists in creating safe, beautiful protected bike lanes on our streets.

Fixing the Adelaide and Bathurst approach to the new cycle tracks

I'm digging into improvements for the new protected bike lanes on Richmond, Adelaide and Simcoe. These lanes, known as cycle tracks by the planners, are currently a pilot project and are part of an environmental assessment that still needs to be approved by City Council. Previously I looked at better protecting cyclists at intersections.

This is part 2: Doesn't help if it's hard to get to the cycle tracks

Coming from the west end Adelaide is a great street to take. It's quiet and direct to Bathurst. But we get stuck at Bathurst because there's no easy way to get to the cycle tracks on the other side. For those in the know they might go up to Richmond and then back down but that takes longer. Instead most people just end up riding on the sidewalk for a few metres and cross at the crosswalk. But we think the City has to do better. So we propose this:

The City doesn't need to do all of this, but it would be good if they serious considered how cyclists are supposed to cross Bathurst when going eastbound.

So maybe that means allowing cyclists to turn left from Adelaide which would likely require moving the southern traffic lights on Bathurst; or maybe it could be a contraflow lane around the north side of the Catholic church so that cyclists can end up on Bathurst where they can make a left turn. (It's easier to draw then describe). I think the default option for most cyclists will be former.

You can post your comments to a forum that City public consultation staff set up, which they've called IdeaSpaceTO. A bunch of my suggestions are already up there. Feel free to copy and expand on the following suggestions which I think are pretty important:

  1. Extend protection into the intersections by extending the barriers to the corners and installing refuge islands to reduce chances of drivers turning into cyclists.
  2. Allow eastbound cyclists on Adelaide, west of Bathurst, cross Bathurst safely and legally to the cycle tracks.
  3. Make the crossings on Simcoe at Richmond and Queen safer by installing traffic lights. And if that's not possible, ban right turns on red at University so that the gap in traffic is much longer.
  4. Fix the bus stops by keeping the barriers and implementing an island for bus passengers to disembark before crossing the cycle tracks.
  5. Eliminate the right-hand turning lanes on Simcoe and Richmond to improve the safety of cyclists at these intersections.
  6. Extend the pilot project so it goes all the way to Parliament.

In the next instalment I will be talking how former Councillor (now MP) Adam Vaughan can finally see eye to eye on these cycle tracks. It comes down to one word: beauty

Winter is here-ish! Getting my brain geared up for snow, ice and cold

Me biking in snow and cold. That's actually near Penetanguishene, a place where this is actually considered a light sprinkling. We thought it was going to be still fall but—surprise!—it snowed.

Tom Babin's new book Frostbike—The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling—arrived just in time to help me prepare for this year's cold, snow and wind. Frostbike is a book about Tom exploring the history cycling in winter, how cities with strong cycling cultures deal with winter, and how he himself, as a suburban Calgarian, evolved his own thinking and behaviour around taking a bike to work. Tom shows us that cycling in winter is not complicated and that the cold and snow is not a problem. The biggest barrier to good winter cycling are the cultural barriers and lack of good cycling infrastructure found in North America compared to Europe.

Both my wife and I cycle all winter, except for the crappiest of days. The difference between us is that my wife has to get to her workplace everyday whereas I have the privilege of staying at home in my sweatpants if I don't feel like hoofing it over to the CSI office. So it's much more critical that my wife has a good commute than I have one. For instance, just last winter I outfitted her bike with a front brake so that she'll have more control.

Mind you, I still bike way more than the average since we don't have a car and taking transit is just boring and exasperating. We do our shopping, errands, visits and so on all by bike. So we both know full well how to dress for the ride. Clue: just dress warmly, especially the hands, and if you think you're going to sweat then dress more lightly because you want the body heat and sweat to escape.

But, we're nothing special. You don't have to be an athlete or superhero to bike in the winter. In cities where Tom visits in his book, such as in Finland and Denmark, everyone from young to old bikes in the winter. Even here in Toronto, where many people put their bikes away at the first nip in the air, I see everyone from young hipsters on their ironic ten-speeds to elderly Chinese-Canadians biking on the sidewalk in the winter. The decision to bike in winter seems to be just as much a function of habit and culture as anything.

Did you know the world's best winter cycling city is Oulu, Finland? I didn't until Tom explained how he stumbled upon this fantasy city at Velo-City, Vancouver 2012 when he ends up at the least popular seminar there: winter cycling where people get into heated discussions about salt. But when a visiting Finn describes Oulu, it seems to be from a different world.

Tom gets a bit obsessed with seeing Oulu and travels for the first Winter Cycling Conference to get a first-hand look at what first-rate winter cycling cities look like. (This year's Winter Cycling Conference was actually in Winnipeg). From the way Tom describes it, Oulu is like heaven for the bundled up cyclist. They have well-maintained trails but they don't plow them per se. They groom them like a ski trail. Instead of copious amounts of salt, their trails all have a nice layer of packed snow that is surprisingly easy to bike on and isn't slippery at all.

"The Winter Cycling Capital of the World"

As much as I don't like thinking about having to go through winter, once I'm in it, I, like Tom learned while writing his book, appreciate being outside in the fresh air. We spend too much winter indoors. Being in an urban environment doesn't always help, but my wife and I like to be a bit active: skating and skiing. In the book, Tom describes how he made a conscious effort to enjoy winter more:

No more would I suffer through winter and revel in the outsider status it gave me. My mission was to romp through it, and in my sheer joy would change my own attitudes and convert those around me into winter believers.

Like all experiments, he has mixed results (partly thwarted by southern Alberta's warm Chinook winds) but the idea is sound.

But with substandard urban infrastructure it's difficult to enjoy some activities. Skating rinks are crowded and have limited hours; there are very few continuous trails that we can use for skiing in the city; and the City doesn't plow or groom the vast majority of the park trails and bike lanes.

Calgary, interestingly, actually plows most of its trails. The story behind it is equally interesting as Tom relates. Calgary trail plowing was a DIY/protest plowing by a bunch of volunteers using at first their own bikes outfitted with makeshift plows and later with their own truck. Eventually the truck broke down and the citizenry, which had become quite used to the nicely plowed trails, started complaining in large numbers to politicians and City staff. The volunteers in essence forced the City's hand.

But Toronto staff is working hard on improving things here. Christina Bouchard of Toronto's cycling unit presented at the Winnipeg winter cycling conference on creating a "snow cycling network".

To plough the entire on-street cycling network would cost an estimated 3 Million CAD, but the plan developed will only cost $650,000. This is because the Transportation Services Department was able to prioritize the most-used cycling routes. Using data from spot and cordon counts, the city identified the routes with an excess of 2,000 cyclists in a 24-hour period during the summer.

But Calgary's example is still a good lesson for Toronto cyclists who want to keep prodding the City to start plowing more of the trails. Plow it and they will come.

Good for you, Tom, for helping me get over the dread of an upcoming winter on bike and back into the rhythm of dressing up for the weather. Mind you, the ice will still be an issue, but for that my wife and I will be soon reviewing this product I came across, the "Sneeuwsok" (a grippy snow sock for your tire). Here's what it looks like fresh form Hollandland (Zeeland snoepje kas—candy box—not included):

It only works on bikes with no rim brakes so my wife will be trying it out on her Dutch bike with rollerbrakes. I haven't tried out studded tires which probably work even better on ice but I hear they work poorly on dry pavement. The MEC site suggests adjusting the air pressure depending on the road conditions. Perhaps someone who's tried them out can let us know.

But still no snow sticking around. Snow already dammit! Snow!

Now that we are finally protecting bike lanes, we should make the intersections safer

I'm quite happy—like many cyclists—that we've got new protected bike lanes on Richmond, Adelaide and Simcoe. These lanes, known as cycle tracks by the planners, are currently a pilot project and are part of an environmental assessment that still needs to be approved by City Council.

But I think we can do even better. I'm going to do a few quick blog posts about various improvements I believe would make it a "world class" (who doesn't want to be world class?) protected bike lane. The first is intersections.

The majority of injuries happen at intersections. We need to fix the intersection, not just mid-block.

According to the City of Toronto's own study, the majority of injuries happen at intersections, driveways and laneways, and most of those involved motor vehicles turning. Yet, we can see from the following image of the cycle tracks on Adelaide and Richmond, they disappear as we approach the intersection and then it's just business as usual.


Disappearing Bike Lane. Photo: Iain Campbell

I would assume that we would see little reduction in intersection collisions (there might be some lowered risk of a collision because the hordes of cyclists on them raises the awareness of drivers).

As with most intersections in this city, a lack of infrastructure at the intersection creates confusion about the right of way. Is it the driver on the left who wants to turn right or the cyclist on the right? It's also difficult for drivers to move to the curb because there lots of blind spots while shoulder checking.

People are even more uncomfortable at intersections where there's a right-turning lane such as on Simcoe north of Front, and on Richmond east of Bathurst. At these spots the City is forcing cyclists and drivers to switch places on the fly and it all looks like chaos as drivers arrive at speed and some cyclists stick to the sharrows that show them where to cross and others stick to the curb where they feel safest.

There's got to be something better than the same old, same old. We need to start adding protection to the intersections. At the very least we could emulate Calgary with the barrier going all the way to the intersection, and with the barrier being made of something more solid than a flimsy flexipost:

This is how I imagine the City could make minimum changes to their current design:

I'll take mock planters over paint any day

The planters would provide a strong visual cue to the separation and will slow down car traffic by changing the character of the street from being a thoroughfare to a slower street.

How to do Protected Intersections excellently

But the City could take it even a step further and mimic what has been done in the Netherlands and a few other countries, which Nick Falbo of Alta Planning out of Portland, Oregon, is calling Protected Intersections. And this is how it could be applied to typical North American intersections:

This is how Nick describes the big benefit of this style of intersection:

A collection of design elements makes left turns simple and secure, right turns protected and fast, and provides straight through movements that minimize or eliminate conflicts from turning cars. With this design, riders will never feel stranded, exposed, or unsure of where to go and how to get there.

There are some challenges with the current regulatory framework and engineering standards, but we hope that the City can adapt the key elements to Toronto's situation: "refuge islands" at the corners, forward stop-bar, bicycle-friendly traffic signals, and setback crosswalks and bicycle crossing.

This will help better describe the various features:

If it can be done on the small streets in the Netherlands it can be done here with enough political will to reduce cycling injuries.

If you like this idea too, please send your comments to Jason Diceman, the guy in charge of public consultation for this project.

Next, I will talk about the poor connections to the protected bike lanes from the west.

Lawyer guides us on how to make a claim for a damaged bike after being hit by a car

Patrick Brown, a lawyer at Mcleish Orlando, has provided his advice for people who have been hit by cars and would like to make claims for damages to their bicycles. I often get emails looking for advice on matters such as this but I'm just an opinionated blogger. Someone had reached out to me asking about what to do after he was hit by a car, but I'm not a lawyer, so I passed on the email to Patrick who kindly provided his advice pro bono to the unfortunate person.

In short, Patrick advises it is possible to get compensated for a damaged bike in a collision or crash if it meets some conditions and if the person follows the steps closely. Note: make sure you do not sign anything that releases the driver from any claim you may have for bodily injury.

Please don't take this article as official advice by me or by Patrick Brown. Your best bet is to contact a lawyer and get first hand advice since every case is unique.

Hopefully none of us will need to pay heed to this advice.

Yonge Street can easily accommodate protected bike lanes if we want

Previously on this blog I had panned a redesign of Yonge Street by young landscape architect Richard Valenzona, but which was given the prestigious NXT City Prize by a panel of judges which includes our Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmat.

As Schrödinger's Cat had pointed out, Valenzona's design was suspiciously similar to the Exhibition Place, London design which looks now like this:

Not exactly pedestrian and cyclist friendly. Pedestrians are still afraid of crossing the roadway and cyclists have no space of their own.

But to stray from just being negative I'd like to describe an alternative vision, which would balance the needs of cyclists with those of pedestrians and drivers. I believe there is enough space to protect cyclists while also providing more space to pedestrians.

My design is approximate since the roadway width varies along Yonge's extent. But if we follow Valenzona's cue that we can reduce car lanes by half that would mean we could dedicate about one car lane to a bidirectional protected bike lane and the other to expanding the sidewalks.

Since we're putting in a bidirectional bike lane we should probably also make the other lanes one way for cars, which makes intersections safer for everyone. Urbanists, don't get your underwear in a knot about one-way roads. Netherlands, one of the world's safest country for transportation is full of them; so is NYC. If done in combination of reducing speeds and lane widths and providing bike lanes and wider sidewalks it is a safe and friendly solution.

Maybe I'll enter my design into next year's NXT City Prize. But first I have to choose some nice looking brick if I want a chance of winning.

Use the Cycling App enough and you could win!

If you're using the City's cycling app to track your routes (or even if you haven't started yet), here's some added incentive:

PRIZES!

I asked for this very thing when I reviewed the app. You're welcome.

The contest runs from Oct 6 (yes that was two days ago but I just got the email so get off my back) to Nov 31. So you've got just under two months to amass a contest-worthy number of trips. Then you actually have until Dec 3 to send in your entry.

This is how it works: there are three contest levels for which you can be eligible depending on how many trips you do. The app itself will let you know if you're gold, silver or bronze worthy. You then send in a screen capture of your trips page to the City: email bikeplan@toronto.ca, or hashtag #TorontoCyclingApp via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Open up the app now to My Trips (or install it now if you haven't yet). You'll see that gold, silver and bronze match up to 50, 35 and 20 trips. The length of the trip doesn't matter. So that's doable right? Plus there are some nice prizes, including a new bike.

I'm only at 9 trips so I've got to start using this myself.

Designing nice streets is easy when we pretend cars do not exist

Young urban planner Richard Valenzona just won the $5000 NXT City Prize for his project YONGE-REDUX A New Vision of Yonge Street. Valenzona's entry pleased the judges by showing how he'd expand Yonge's "pedestrian access and transforming the street’s visual appearance". This is how he imagined it:

Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmat, thought it was a great idea. "This is an idea that would actually work in this location in part because it's an area where there are vastly more pedestrians than cars," said Keesmat.

I say it sucks.

I don't want to pick on Valenzona, who I'm sure is a smart, young man with a bright future in planning and picked some pleasing elements for his design here. No, my problem is that Valenzona's design is representative of a growing planning movement that could be considered quasi-"shared space".

Valenzona's design, which the judges were so pleased with, exists in a fairy land where downtown car traffic has virtually disappeared. So I took the liberty of fixing Valenzona's design by putting the cars back in:

Instead of that idyllic picture of pedestrians meandering on wide sidewalks and cyclists weaving to and fro on empty streets, the finished product will look more like another recent "shared space" mess in Poynton, England that did nothing to reduce car traffic and told cyclists to go screw themselves.

This is Poynton now:

I assume there's nice brick under all those cars.

Valenzona also received another $10,000 to continue working on his design. "Over the next year, Richard will work closely with Distl and a team of industry mentors to implement his vision and improve one of Toronto’s most famous public ultimately transforming it into a globally recognized street spaces."

You can add as much fancy brick as you like but you can't make traffic disappear. And if your solution for cyclists is to force them to sit behind heavy traffic and breath in heavy fumes, in ride in front of angry drivers forced to travel at bike speed, then your solution is actually worse than what we have right now on Yonge.

With no space for cyclists, and faced with the only option of sitting in car traffic, cyclists will probably do what this man ends up doing in Poynton: take to the expansive space set aside for pedestrians.

Will Yonge be yet another project like John Street or Front Street where designers decide to ignore all the concerns of cyclists? Is this what Toronto will interpret as a "complete street"? I guess we'll find out.

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