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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?

One way streets as "destinations", just look at Manhattan

Councillor Vaughan has expressed his concern that the entertainment district (which includes Richmond and Adelaide) should be more than "thoroughfares" and need to be "destinations" as well. Though Vaughan doesn't mention it in this article, he has been championing the conversion of Richmond and Adelaide to two-way streets as the means by which to create a "destination". The two-way streets conversion may preclude the installation of separated bike lanes, and conversely, separated bike lanes would make a conversion to two way much harder.

This urge for two way streets doesn't hold much water. We only need to look at Manhattan where one way streets reign. The streetview photo above is of Broadway where the car lanes have been reduced to provide a meridian for safer walking and a separated bike lane as a safe, comfortable space for people to bike.

Two way street conversion is a popular idea amongst some progress urbanist types. Former mayor David Miller recently repeated the same refrain to a cycling advocate friend (they bumped into each other on the street and started discussing bike lanes). Miller, like Vaughan, presented the same notion that Richmond and Adelaide need to be converted to two way streets create destinations and that the bike lanes would prevent that from happening. This notion is not the consensus. Matt Blackett of Spacing recently spoke eloquently on CBC Radio in defence of the importance of separated bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide.

Manhattan is full of one way streets and has the liveliest street life of any city in North America. New York City has been working on calming its busy network of one way streets for the last few years, including adding plazas, meridians, and separated bike lanes. As far as I know, they haven't converted any of the one way streets, bucking the conventional wisdom of two-way conversions.

Converting a street to two way is not a guarantee of creating destinations, if that were true then Bathurst and Dufferin would be great streets to hang out on. Nor do one way streets in themselves automatically result in dead street life. If that were true, then neighbourhoods across the city would be outraged with their one way residential streets.

There are plenty of ways to add life to a street; to make it more comfortable to walk or bike on. Instead of sticking to a tired trope, let's look at the whole range of options.

Vaughan hasn't made up his mind yet on bike lanes for Richmond and Adelaide, even after 12 years in the Bike Plan

Councillor Adam Vaughan told the press yesterday, in regards to the news that the Environmental Assessment on Richmond and Adelaide bike lanes will be starting, that he is willing to consider bike lanes but that "he hasn’t made up his mind. The entertainment district needs to be considered as a destination, not just a series of thoroughfares". (Thanks to Tino for photo of Sherbourne.)

Vaughan hasn't made up his mind yet? Bike lanes are "thoroughfares"?! Bike lanes for Richmond and Adelaide have been in the City's Bike Plan for 12 years (some say it came up even earlier). Let's take a look back over the last 12 years.

2001 Bike lanes are proposed for Richmond and Adelaide in the Bike Plan (appendix, map).

2001 Bike Plan makes a promise that "All Toronto residents will be within a five minute bicycle ride to the bikeway network." The Bike Plan plans a grid of bike routes throughout the entire city. Even then there are gaps, even downtown. Progress is slow right from the start.

2001-present A smattering of bike lanes are built (and some stopped and some removed), most of them in the suburbs where roads are wider and don't require taking out car lanes.

2009 Councillor Kyle Rae declares Bloor at Yorkville a "destination" and didn't think bike lanes were "appropriate" (in his speech supporting bike lanes on Jarvis). The sidewalks are expanded and no bike lanes planned nor installed, despite protest from cycling advocates.

2009 A Ward 20 Cycling Committee is formed with the help of Councillor Vaughan's office. Many of the committee members eventually leave because of Vaughan's reportedly heavy-handed involvement but not before producing a report (see below).

2010 The City's Cycling Unit holds packed public meeting on the Bike Plan of over 200 people in February in Metro Hall. Dan Egan, manager of the Cycling Unit, outlines their priorities for the downtown bikeway network for 2010-2011. He mentions staff will advance Richmond and Adelaide bike lanes in their spring report to Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. The March report mentions nothing about bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide. It's not clear why not? As a Miller-controlled committee, PWIC could have pushed for bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide. It often happens that staff won't propose something if they know a local councillor is opposed.

2010 The Ward 20 Cycling Committee goes "rogue" and produces a report requesting protected bike lanes on Harbord, University and Richmond/Adelaide.

2010 Rob Ford wins election that fall.

2010 Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong proposes cycle tracks for downtown, including Richmond/Adelaide.

2011 Vaughan sends letter to residents condemning "barricaded" bike lanes and accusing the Bike Union of not working with the local "community". Through a Vaughan initiated process the community didn't identify any east-west street through the city's core. It's not clear how Vaughan defines "community" but presumably it doesn't include people who commute to work in the area or who have to travel through the ward.

2011 Vaughan won't consider bike lanes on the well-used bike corridor, John Street, because he says it is meant to be a destination and not a transportation corridor (much as he's saying now about Richmond and Adelaide). Vaughan doesn't advance request to make alternative route on Peter/Soho safer crossing at Queen St.

2012 City Council approves an Environmental Assessment for Richmond and Adelaide.

2012 At the Harbord Village Residents Association meeting on bike lanes, Vaughan says to the group "Now when we build bike lanes they must be separated. Painted lanes are good but they aren't safe enough. My son needs something safer than just painted bike lanes." And he also says "People in this neighbourhood [Harbord] cycle but they can't do it safely. We don't accept such unsafe conditions for drivers, nor for pedestrians, but we accept it for cyclists. We need to change that."

2013 Richmond and Adelaide EA begins.

If Vaughan sees the big benefit of cycle tracks for the safety of cyclists, why hasn't he yet supported cycle tracks on Richmond and Adelaide? They were in the plan since 2001 and Vaughan was a major powerbroker when Miller was mayor. Richmond and Adelaide weren't brought to PWIC during that whole time.

And if Vaughan thinks Richmond and Adelaide aren't appropriate for bike lanes, then where? Richmond and Adelaide are nicely situated between two cycling corridors, King and Queen, but don't have the major drawback of streetcar tracks. The staff creating the Bike Plan were unable to find any other streets south of College that were useful for bike lanes.

Toronto seems to have a quite particular opposition to bike lanes by some progressives. The codeword is "destination", and it's been applied to a major arterial such as Bloor and now Richmond and Adelaide as a reason for not installing bike lanes. It's as if somehow the arterial road will cease to being a major street and turn into a residential street.

Vaughan says he supports cycle tracks. When will Vaughan make up his mind about Richmond and Adelaide?

Sherbourne cycle track is getting plowed: another step closer to normalizing winter cycling

The Sherbourne cycle track is being plowed! In one sense this is banal and hardly anything to get excited over. But since cyclists are routinely ignored when it comes to city services, this could be viewed as an important step in terms of normalizing cycling infrastructure. Where Toronto's road services staff previously largely ignored bike lanes and paths, they now have specific equipment and directives to clear the Sherbourne cycle track. Because the City had started clearing the Martin Goodman Trail (started under Mayor Miller) and purchased plows that could fit the width of a trail, it meant that it became that much easier to start plowing the Sherbourne cycle track.

@larrylarry tweeted this photo of the freshly plowed Sherbourne cycle track, the day of the Christmas storm. Some people have pointed out problems. While these are valid issues with using the lane, I'm more interested in how the gears at City Hall are slowly shifting. And where we can best put pressure for further change.

It is rare to find a bike lane that is being properly plowed. Almost all of them suffer from either not being plowed at all, or where parked cars entering and leaving will push it full of snow again, making them largely unusable. Sherbourne cycle track suffers from some of that and a new problem of pedestrians using it instead of the unplowed sidewalk. But these are not problems inherent to a cycle track.

Sherbourne is a mixed bag - not everything is working well, particularly the issue of cars parking in the cycle track - but this isn't the end of the story. The City will tweak it and cycling advocates will push for improvements both on Sherbourne and for future cycle track plans. The major improvement is that the City is setting higher standards for cycling infrastructure and this will have bigger benefits down the road.

Sherbourne cycle tracks completed, go try them

The first cycle track in Toronto is now complete! After all the politics and foot-dragging, Toronto is now in the club with the likes of New York City, Chicago, Montreal and Vancouver.

Christina Bouchard created a quick video and the City of Toronto released a press release (thanks David Juliusson):

The City of Toronto has completed construction of its first cycle track - a lane for bicycles that is separated from motorized vehicle traffic. The new lane is located on Sherbourne Street between Bloor Street and King Street.

Over the next few years, Toronto is creating a 14-kilometre network of cycle tracks in the downtown area.

The Sherbourne cycle track has new features that distinguish it from the City's painted bicycle lanes:
• Buses don't stop in the cycle track. It is raised to sidewalk level at bus stops to provide accessible passenger loading. Cyclists are required to stop for passengers getting on or off buses.
• Bike boxes have been provided to assist cyclists making left turns when connecting with east-west bicycle lanes on Shuter Street, Gerrard Street and Wellesley Street.
• Parking next to the bicycle lane has been removed and parking lay-bys have been provided at six key locations to facilitate pickup/dropoff activity and commercial deliveries

Toronto City Council has adopted a Cycle Track Bylaw setting out the rules of operation for cycle tracks. The bylaw provides for a $150 fine for drivers who stop or park their vehicle on a cycle track.

The only exemptions to the bylaw are the following three:
• emergency services or police vehicles actively responding to an emergency
• Hydro and utility vehicles in the lawful performance of their duties
• Wheel Trans vehicles actively loading or unloading passengers

Toronto Transportation staff are working with the Toronto Police Service and Parking Enforcement staff to ticket and tow vehicles that are illegally blocking the cycle track.

Frequently asked questions and other information about cycle tracks are available at http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/network/downtownupgrades/.

Toronto is Canada's largest city and sixth largest government, and home to a diverse population of about 2.7 million people. Toronto's government is dedicated to delivering customer service excellence, creating a transparent and accountable government, reducing the size and cost of government and building a transportation city. For information on non-emergency City services and programs, Toronto residents, businesses and visitors can dial 311, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Building on the good work already done: cycling policy in Ontario

The province of Ontario has finally acknowledged that we could use some cycling love. However, the current proposal put forth by the Minister of Transportation is slim and vague.

Two provincial groups have already prepared reports (STR 2010, COA 2008) outlining their own ideas of what they'd like to see the province doing. The ideas and policies in these reports are all very good ideas, and are also much more specific than what the Province is currently proposing.

However, the last of these reports was prepared in 2010. As we are currently approaching 2013 we need to look at what has changed in these past few years, and identify what other new ideas we need to bring forth that can be included in a Provincial Cycling Plan for Ontario.

I found three items which I think we should add as "priority items." These three are important enough that they should be included in any cycling plan adopted by our province.

In Sept 2011, the city of Los Angeles enacted a cyclist anti-harassment Ordinance (by-law) that was quite different than the similar laws which were passed before; This one is clear AND has teeth! It is important that the laws which we pass be reasonable, but laws are only effective when they are enforceable. Being clear helps the courts enforce what is meant to be enforced. And, by making the costs of suing payable by the driver, it makes it easier for cyclists to get a lawyer in order to sue those drivers whose behaviour is simply wrong. A law like this acts both as a deterrent, and also provides remedy to the afflicted. Other jurisdictions have followed LA's example and have passed their own, similar, anti-harassment legislation. Some jurisdictions have even extended this to include pedestrians and disabled people in their versions of this legislation.

I started with anti-harassment legislation for several reasons. First of all it reflects the first and fourth items of the Cyclists' Bill of Rights. It also defines to everyone very clearly those behaviours which are unacceptable and are not tolerable on our streets and roads. It is also a very clear reminder to Law Enforcement, as well as to our entire Judicial System, that our streets and roads must safely include other users besides motorists and motor-vehicles.

For the second of the three, I propose that we get a safe passing law passed. More jurisdictions have enacted safe passing laws since we last looked at it here in Ontario back in 2010, often known as three-feet laws. Ontario's current law [HTA 148(4)] is vague and only states that "Every person in charge of a vehicle on a highway meeting a person travelling on a bicycle shall allow the cyclist sufficient room on the roadway to pass." Bicycles cannot stay upright in a perfectly straight line for very long, we need to use the steering to help keep us upright, which means we always weave a bit when riding (although better riders will weave less). In addition, road conditions are never perfect, so we need to avoid those (usually) small obstacles in our path, even when being passed. Lastly, winds can make it much more difficult for cyclist to hold a straight line, and cars and trucks can do strange things with the wind, especially at higher speeds. Trucks, in particular, can have have a strong pushing wind at their front while also having strong sucking wind at their sides. These winds have caused cyclists to be sucked under the back wheels of the truck. In addition, passing too closely can simply be viewed as another form of harassment. The current driver handbook already states that cyclists need about a metre on either side for their safety (pg 38) and suggests to driver to give cyclists the whole lane (pg 59), so enacting legislation like this is not a big change from the current best practices. Further, both the Toronto and Provincial Coroners cycling reports highlighted legislation like this as a specific need. Setting minimum standards makes it clearer, and simpler, for Law Enforcement and Courts to enforce this law. It's also easier for drivers and motorists to understand and, therefore, follow the law. And this law would mirror the second item in the Cyclists' Bill of Rights, specifically that cyclists should have sufficient space on our streets and roads.

The third, and last item which has changed, and that I think is a "must-have" to be a part of our provincial strategy: "Protected Bike Lanes."

I say "changed" for two good reasons. First is that we've had increasing clear research which shows that protected bike lanes, like those found in Montreal and Vancouver (but not in Toronto!), are at least an order of magnitude safer than ordinary bike lanes, and at least two orders of magnitude safer than streets without any cycling facilities. And, secondly, because 1012 saw as many new protected bike lanes being built in North America as were built in the decade before. In the past year the number of protected bike lanes has doubled - sadly this was not also true in Ontario.

Please understand that It's not like I expect the province to build protected bike lanes, that's usually the municipality's job. However, the province can adopt the appropriate plans, policies, legislation, and programs (incl funding formulas), as well as the sharing of the appropriate expertise, in order to force, encourage, coax, and cajole Ontario's municipalities to build these types of facilities for all of us.

I know that I'm not the only one with ideas like this. What are your ideas? Do you think that I'm overlooking something important? What have you told our province that you'd like them to be doing for cycling?

When bike lanes disappear: are they just for show?

Even when the City tries to do right (let's ignore for the moment where the City does wrong - as with the Jarvis bike lanes removal), little stubborn facts show the City (except for the tiny Cycling Unit in the Transportation Services aka Department of Motor Vehicles) still isn't taking traffic safety seriously.

With the ongoing construction of Strachan for a new overpass to accommodate more frequent GO Transit service, a temporary bypass road was constructed, complete with bike lanes and sidewalks. Mostly. I recorded myself taking the bike lane. The bike lanes are quite nice, but quite inconveniently disappear completely and without warning at the most critical points, where the road narrows and curves. And, like in the video, the bike lane can disappear right next to a large truck, forcing the person to figure out how to avoid being crushed.

Neither cyclists nor drivers are given any warning nor direction on how to act or merge. It appears that no thought was given by planners or contractors on how cyclists are supposed to behave just outside of the reconstructed road. They may have followed the plan to the letter, but somehow someone didn't think to see how the reconstructed bike lanes would meet up with the existing ones.

If the City truly had a plan for improving the safety of cyclists -- if it considered bike lanes an important aspect of increasing safety (and there is more and more research that this is true) -- then they probably would not have created this mess on Strachan. But as it stands it's a symbol of how bike lanes tend to be seen as just gimmicks.

Province will clarify contra-flow bike lane legality by year end

Contra-flow bike lanes have been stuck in legal limbo in Toronto for the last few years. Looks like this might soon end as the province may clarify the law by year end for hesitant Toronto City Staff who've held off on putting in the bike lanes.

Though it's welcome news to have this issue resolved (hopefully in the affirmative), it appears to be a made-in-Toronto problem as Transportation Services staff in Toronto have held up the council-approved contra-flow bike lane while Ottawa City staff have continued to install them. Ottawa has interpreted the Highway Traffic Act as allowing for contra-flow bike lanes.

A contra-flow is a one-way bike lane that can be installed on one-way streets so that cyclists can use the street as two-ways while motorized traffic must continue to follow the one-way restriction. A few contra-flow bike lanes were already installed in Toronto before this became an issue (Montrose, Strathcona).

Cycle Toronto (in particular the Ward 14 group with Laura Pin) got the support of MPP Jonah Schein and Councillor Mike Layton in making a request to the province for clarification. [Updated: it was ward 14, not 13 as comments note]

InsideToronto.com has more info:

David Salter, press secretary for transport minister Bob Chiarelli, confirmed the province was working alongside several municipalities, including Toronto, on updating Ontario Traffic Manual guidelines in regards to cycling issues. Part of the update, according to Salter, includes examining contra-flow lanes, which allow cyclists to travel in both directions on some one-way streets.

“We’re looking forward to receiving the project team’s recommendations and will review them as quickly as possible,” wrote Salter in a statement Tuesday morning.

The city has approved the installation of 13 more contra-flow lanes as part of its official bike plan, including a series of lanes on Shaw Street in 2013.

But to put in the lanes, the city requires clarification from the province regarding a section of the Highway Traffic Act, which prohibits two-way traffic along a one-way street, said city councillor Mike Layton.

Layton said technical issues related to signage for the lanes may also be holding up the process.

“What we’re seeking is we want to make sure they’re safe and no one is bending the rules, and that’s going to take some clarification on the side of the minister,” said Layton, who represents Trinity-Spadina.

City council voted last week to adopt a motion seeking clarification by the end of 2012 from the province regarding the legality of contra-flow lanes.

Last week, provincial transportation critic Jonah Schein said over 600 people have signed a petition asking for clarification from the minister regarding the lanes.

“It doesn’t require a legislative change, it just requires the minister to let us and the city know when we can move ahead with contra-flow,” said Schein, who represents Davenport for the NDP.

He said approving the legality of the lanes would improve safety for cyclists, especially those who make use of one-way streets to avoid main arterial road traffic.

“That would provide proper lane markings and there would actually be a bike lane on a one-way street,” said Schein. “By making the lanes legal and providing proper signage we could essentially create a safer way for cyclists to commute the city.”

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