Do we need a Vulnerable Road User Law in Ontario?

Did you know that Canadian provinces are falling behind many of our American cousins who have been creating Vulnerable Road User Laws, that is laws that provide additional legal protection for those who are more likely to be injured on the road?

(Aren't we all vulnerable road users at some point every day? Everyone takes crosswalks and sidewalks. Many people cycle at least some time of year. This applies to us all.)

Patrick Brown, a lawyer for Mcleish Orlando, a law firm that specializes in litigating on behalf of people with critical injuries, including injured cyclists, has been arguing that Ontario should have such a Vulnerable Road User Law here. Fellow lawyer and cycling activist Albert Koehl and Brown were both involved in the Coroner's Report on cyclist deaths.

They approached the coroner in 2011 about holding an inquest into cycling fatalities — one of the hottest political buttons in Toronto — and a rash of 14 pedestrian deaths in 14 dark days of January 2010. That run of fatalities wasn’t so different from the spate of deaths in recent months in Toronto.

Since then Brown has been motivated to help address the plight of vulnerable road users through provincial legislation:

Vulnerable Road Users [VRU] account for a quarter of traffic fatalities in Canada. While the rate of emergency department visits in 2012 for road traffic injury in Ontario has decreased overall, this is not the case for pedestrians and bicyclists based on a report released by Public Health Ontario.

Since we know that pedestrians and cyclists injuries are not dropping at the same rate as overall road traffic injuries, Brown asks that the government consider a law to protect vulnerable road users.

On behalf of Cycle Toronto, Brown investigated the typical punishments dealt out by the police and courts to drivers "who hit, maimed and killed pedestrians and cyclists".

When I reviewed just what was in my cabinet, I was alarmed to find that many go unpunished or only get a slap on the wrist. For those who are punished, most of the fines being paid are less than $100.00. The Coroners Review also showed a very low percentage of charges being laid after a pedestrian or cyclist is killed due to driver behaviour.

Even worse Brown says that when victims go to court to read their Victim's Impact Statement, drivers are typically not even present to hear it. Victims have the alternative of a civil case to claim monetary compensation. But civil cases are just not enough deterrent and don't hold drivers accountable. This is how the proposed law would work (similar to eight US states where similar laws exist):

When a Vulnerable User is struck by a reckless driver, the legislation would require the court to impose greater penalties against the driver which reflect the fact that the driver struck a vulnerable road. This legislation would provide general deterrence and require the driving public to take greater care when travelling near pedestrians, cyclists and other at risk road users. The legislation would also make it mandatory for the careless driver to attend personally in court at the time of sentencing. The penalties when a driver has seriously injured or killed a VRU would require the court to consider increased monetary fines, suspension of licences, and jail if necessary.

The current Liberal government seems to be more open to new legislation for improving road safety. Let's see if we can get the ball rolling.

Local designer helps us visualize what protected intersection can look like in Toronto context

I've spoken about protected intersections before. They're really common in the Netherlands and some other parts of Europe. The concept is catching on in the United States (tested on a street in Minneapolis but no permanent installations yet as far as I can tell).

Iain Campbell, Cycle Toronto volunteer and designer, has created a way for us to visualize how a protected intersection would work where Richmond and Peter streets intersect.

Peter and Richmond would be a perfect test case (Cycle Toronto agrees). The intersection is much wider than it needs to be and it allows cars to make turns at high speed. Since there are plans for bike lanes on Peter and protected bike lanes on Richmond the two can be configured to improve the ways motor vehicles and bicycles will intersect.

Protected intersections provide an alternative to the "disappearing bike lane" approach of most North American intersection planning:

In North America, planners figure the best option is to let the cyclists and drivers "intermingle". The big downside is that a cyclist is only as safe as the least safe portion of their trip. Most injuries and collisions happen at intersections. The forced intermingling at intersections is challenging and stressful situation for cyclists. And I daresay it is also less safe given that the Netherlands has worked steadily in removing these types of intersections. A disappearing bike lane creates uncertainty for all road users: motor vehicles don’t know whether to wait for cyclists to pass on the right, or proceed, potentially cutting off cyclists.

Nick Falbo of Alta Planning, borrowed the concept from the Netherlands and is promoting the "Protected Intersection" as a safer alternative. The protected intersection slows drivers down because of the tighter turning radii. When the driver does cross the cycle track they are better able to look straight ahead to see if a cyclist is there (as opposed to straining to look over one's right shoulder around a blind spot). The cyclists are more visible. And it provides a clearer cue to who has the right of way, just as pedestrians have the right of way in the crosswalk.

I hope City planners will take the opportunity of the pilot project on Richmond and Adelaide to try out this really innovative idea; an idea that already has widespread positive data in other countries. Here's our chance to lead in at least one thing in North America.

Does Toronto deserve its silver ranking as a Bicycle Friendly Community?

A few days ago I posted this photo on Twitter after coming across the sign last weekend in the Rouge Valley in Scarborough.

The organization who gave this silver award to Toronto, Share the Road, defended their program. The majority of the people responded, however, were not convinced. The average person in Toronto would probably be surprised that Toronto got a silver rating as a Bicycle Friendly Community.

The average person will probably think of sports medals of gold, silver, bronze and all those who didn't podium. A silver, in many minds, is just one step away from being awesome; best in the world. Most Torontonians, however, will never bike in most parts of Toronto, because cycling is perceived as dangerous. This is not surprising even the almost complete lack of cycling infrastructure in most parts of the city. So the silver award is very incongruous to the facts on the ground.

The fact, remains that it's very easy to travel between most destinations in Toronto and not see any cycling infrastructure. Even downtown the majority of our arterial roads have little to no bike lanes. And even the ones that have bike lanes are discontinuous. A bike lane that ends is not much more useful than nothing at all, and sometimes it hurts since it raises the expectations of safety for the cyclist and then just leaves them for the wolves.

The Share the Road program is derived from the League of American Bicyclists' program which operates nation-wide in the US. While the LAB program openly publishes its ranking criteria, Share the Road says theirs is "proprietary" so we don't really know how they rank.


NOT Share the Road's. Theirs is mostly a mystery.

If we go by LAB's criteria it would highly unlikely that Toronto could meet a silver rating. It falls behind in modeshare (less than 2%); number of bike staff per 70,000 residents, and the ratio of bicycle network to roads. (Though I suspect that in the latter category they probably allow for roads where all it takes is slapping up a sign that says "Bike Route".) But we'll never know for sure since Share the Road neither publishes their criteria and grading, nor published a report card of how Toronto has met or not met the criteria. Meanwhile LAB publishes report cards for many American cities, such as this one for Seattle, which breaks down Seattle's ranking into each category and also describes what the city can do to reach Platinum level. Looks like Seattle needs to do a lot.

I'm not a fan of LAB's ranking system either, but compared to LAB, Share the Road's program looks amateurish and looks more like just giving out gold stars to everyone who wants them. #goldstarsforeveryone Perhaps that's not true, but Share the Road has its work cut out to convince me otherwise.

A peek at the end of winter: Allo Vélo showing off Danish cargo bikes at Toronto Bike Show

Allo Vélo will be at the upcoming Toronto Bike Show (March 6-8, booth 650 at the Better Living Centre at the Ex) showing off the Danish cargo bikes they carry, namely, Triobike, Bullitt and Butchers & Bicycles. Allo Vélo, unless you count my wife, is the biggest sponsor of this blog. Thanks!

Lamar Timmins of the Montreal-based bike shop, has been working hard to expand their distribution beyond Montreal (thus willing to advertise on this blog). Given the small (but growing) market for cargo bikes, it makes sense to work on online retail since there are many potential customers in other cities where bike shops are not carrying cargo bikes. It's difficult for bike shops to sell cargo bikes; they are typically much lower turnover than regular bikes and take up much more space.

Anyway, Allo carries a few Danish cargo bike brands—the family-oriented trikes from Triobike, the courier-favourite, speedy and light Bullitt, and Butchers & Bicycles. Lamar will be showing off the "MK1 tilt-action" cargo trike, which you can see in action in this video.

I look forward to trying out the MK1; I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Stability is the biggest reason to get a trike, but the biggest drawback of trikes is putting up with slow turns and having to fight centrifugal force that is otherwise easy with a two-wheeled bike. By tilting, the MK1 seems to help provide a more enjoyable ride on a trike.

New Liberty Street but the same old crappy car-centric traffic engineering

Ugh. Toronto is building new roads, but despite all the talk about making the city more pedestrian and cycling friendly, cyclists and pedestrians are still second-class citizens.

We usually focus on old streets and making them more bike friendly by slapping on some paint where expedient, or physical barriers if we really care. It's rare that an old city like Toronto builds new roads, but as it fills in its former industrial lands with condos, a handful of new roads are being designed and built. In the Cherry Street extension in the Don Lands. In each case—even though the City is serving tens of thousands of people who would prefer to travel by transit, foot or bike—it seems that the City refuses to get out of a car-centric frame of mind. In the Don Lands, for example, the City built an extension to Cherry Street that could have easily included proper physical separation, but they pretended that we still lived in the 90s and defaulted to paint. And in Liberty Village, it's even worse, there's no cycling infrastructure at all.

Over a decade ago as Liberty Village was first being filled in with condos, the City took a decidedly suburban, car-centric approach for such a population dense neighbourhood. This has resulted in a neighbourhood that is effectively trapped by railway lines and heavy car traffic. It's now quite uncomfortable to walk or bike into and out of Liberty Village. The main east-west street, East Liberty street has no bike lanes and is always jammed full of cars.

Toronto is undergoing an environmental assessment for New Liberty Street which will be just to the south of East Liberty. But even here, their old-school traffic engineering prioritized on-street parking over safe cycling. The City's proposed plan is to build a multi-use path that vanishes 300m from Strachan Ave. Multi-use paths are already a compromise, since they force two different travel modes that want to go at much different speeds to intermingle. And then to add insult to injury, the planners decided that at the intersection that it'll be all given over to cars.

Connectivity is crucial.

So states Antony Hilliard, ward captain of Cycle Toronto Ward group 19, who along with other Cycle Toronto ward groups and the Liberty Village Residents Association have been pressuring City staff and councillors to change an awful plan. Antony recently gave me a report they sent to the City detailing the problem and their suggested solutions:

Figure 1 shows how the New Liberty study area could connect to the:

  • Existing Strachan Ave. overpass painted bicycle lanes
  • Existing Martin Goodman waterfront trail, at bottom-right
  • Pilot Richmond-Adelaide cycle tracks
  • Planned phase II of the West Toronto Railpath to Wellington
  • Planned Fort York walking/cycling bridge

Cycling infrastructure in Liberty Village should provide safe, family-friendly links between:

  • Liberty Village Employment areas
  • Exhibition GO Station
  • Downtown employment / residential areas
  • Liberty Village Residential areas (including Garrison Point)
  • Nearby schools

It's not like this is just a cycling minority calling for proper cycling infrastructure here. The City's consultation in 2011, “New Street should have bike lanes”. And at the next consultation meeting, “Enhance pedestrian / bike access to GO station” was also strongly agreed, the 2nd highest after “heritage buildings”.

The groups have suggested changes to New Liberty Street so that cyclists can safely connect to Strachan and thus get out of the urban prison that is Liberty Village.

Instead of the proposed design for New Liberty St., shown as ALIGNMENT OPTION C(ia) drawing 8860WF23-13 as shown in Figure 2, the groups are presenting their alternative in Figure 3 below.

Some of the detailed problems with the City's plan, as detailed by the groups:

  1. Motor vehicle lanes widen to 4.1m and the multi-use path vanishes at the private road. Without connectivity, the multi-use path is useless to children / parents / seniors.
  2. New Liberty doesn't connect for northbound Strachan or eastbound Ordnance cycling traffic, and north-south parking garage access streets nor East Liberty St. have no bicycle accommodation.
  3. Two 5.5% grades are introduced at the private road. Such slopes are difficult for children / seniors to climb, especially without any safe right-of-way to balance in.
  4. The highway off ramp-like New Liberty / Strachan intersection introduces three bicycle-car turning conflicts, has poor sight lines.
  5. The turning radii for car lanes at the New Liberty / Strachan and East Liberty / Strachan intersection encourage fast car turns through conflicts. Normalizing at 11m radius is sufficient.

The bicycle mode share for Ward 19 is an incredible 12% considering the generally poor parking-door zone streets and the lack of bike lanes. Downtown is already completely car congested. An effort to eke out a fractional greater car capacity into and out of Liberty Village is myopic and a waste of time. A properly physically separated bicycle infrastructure would much more efficiently increase the transportation capacity.

Considering that the City is working on a Complete Streets plan, this makes this project seem like it's the last gasp of outdated, wrong-headed engineering. Or at least I hope it is.

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!

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