bike safety

Union Station's Front Street reveals a total lack of knowledge of traffic dynamics

The new Front Street design is based on vague planning ideas about "shared space" as if some fancy brick on its own would solve traffic problems between drivers, taxis, pedestrians and cyclists. At least as pedestrians we got some solid bollards, revealing that the City didn't really believe in the magic. Meanwhile as cyclists we get nothing but a few sharrows and a narrow strip between moving cars and the door zone of cabs. Photo: Cycle Toronto

How is this any different from all the other downtown streets that are urban hells for cyclists? Anyone who rides on Queen is very acquainted with the feeling of fear being squeezed from the left and worrying about the day when their number is called and a door suddenly swings open in front of them.

It's even worse that the "shared space" fairy dust is being advanced by the "progressive" planners. They're doing it with a distinct sparsity of data and in contradiction of other jurisdictions that have put specific limits on where shared streets makes sense and where they don't make sense.

Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has been enthusiastic about the space, and seems unconcerned about the implications for cycling:

Toronto's first 'shared' space - a mid-block 'welcome mat' for all in front of #UnionStation #TOpoli HT @haroldmadi

Some welcome mat. More like the door got slammed in cyclists face (the City even ignored recommendations from Metrolinx that better cycling infrastructure be considered).

Harold Madi, by the way, is the guy who led this design as well as the controversial changes on John Street. This is how they imagined this urban utopia in the EA:

Remarkably different from what we see now that it's finally reality.

We need rules for shared space!

The best example of sensible restrictions on shared space are just south of the border in New York City where their Street Design Manual spells it out clearly:

Consider on narrower streets (at most two moving lanes), or outer roadways of boulevard–type streets, with little or no through–traffic, and which are not major vehicular or bicyclist through–routes or designated truck routes.

Front Street, and even John Street for that matter, do not meet these criteria! There is lots of through-traffic and it is a major vehicular route. At least with John we still have the opportunity to take different measures for traffic calming and diversion (such as making sure only local traffic will use the street by diverting cars from going through the entire street). But Front Street is supposed to be a through street and is therefore is a completely unsuitable candidate for shared street.

That is, if we use New York's guidelines. We've got nothing else to go on.

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.

Contraflow plans crossing Dufferin are dangerous, argue West end ward groups

The City had planned the Florence/Argyle and Lindsey/Dewson contraflow plans as a "quick win" back in 2008 as part of a west end bikeways plan. That was before everything got shelved due to (self-imposed) "contraflow legal purgatory". Now City staff are working hard to get the backlog of routes approved and painted, but local cycling groups are arguing that in the hurry they're leaving out the safe crossing bit.

Original 2008 West End Bikeways plan

The west end ward groups of Cycle Toronto—18, 19 and 14—have identified two bike routes where they cross Dufferin at Florence/Argyle and Lindsey/Dewson routes, in particular, as dangerous. In each case they were told that the crossings were too close to other traffic lights, so the staff won't put in additional lights. (Though it boggles my mind that it's perfectly acceptable for Loblaws to get a traffic light merely one block away from Church just for their parking garage, but it's unacceptable for safer bike routes. Clearly Loblaws has a lot of pull with the City. The City has lost the moral high ground on that point.)

Enough of my babbling, the ward groups say it better:

Specifically, we have serious concerns about the proposal to install these bike routes without providing for safe bike crossings at Dufferin Street in either case. While we understand that there is pressure to “get the lanes painted” as soon as possible, we believe that it is irresponsible to proceed with installation without addressing the route deficiencies at Dufferin. We have waited five years for these routes to be installed and, after all this time, it seems reasonable to expect that the designs incorporate safe, signalized crossings for cyclists travelling in both directions at Dufferin. Indeed, this issue was highlighted when City staff engaged in a walking tour of the Argyle contra-flow route with Ward 19 and 18 cyclists in March 2013.

Allow us to put these two routes in the context of what cyclists have actually sought by way of safe cycling routes in Toronto’s west end. Recall that these side-street routes were approved as “quick wins” to be installed after a 2008 public consultation that clearly demonstrated a preference for bike infrastructure on uninterrupted streets with signalized intersections, such as Dundas and Queen.

Florence to Argyle

Always looks easy when looking from above. Lindsey to Dewson

Where Florence meets Dufferin there is a pedestrian-activated crosswalk and a school on the east side with a path going through the school grounds. At Lindsey there is nothing. I expect that many people crossing at Florence will bike through the crosswalk—after activating the light—and then either bike down the sidewalk or through the school grounds. While not ideal, it's workable and we can fully blame the City for forcing this situation. And by City I don't mean to pick just on cycling planners, but the forces that be in Transportation Services that hold back more appropriate cycling infrastructure in favour of their golden calf, automobile throughput.

All hail the Holy Car.

Council votes to allow e-bikes in Toronto bike lanes

In a controversial decision City Council has voted to allow e-bikes--both the regular-bike-looking and the e-scooter with vestigial pedals--in the bike lanes of Toronto. Council overturned the decision by PWIC which declined to allow the electric scooters in the bike lane. E-bikes are still banned from using trails and protected bike lanes. (Photo by Martin Reis)

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong's surprise motion barely passed with 21-18 votes. A few councillors were absent but it wasn't clear which way they would vote. Cycle Toronto, which had taken a strong stance on the e-bikes by stating that only "pedelec" should be allowed in the bike lanes, was caught off-guard by the motion.

A pedelec is similar to bikes in terms of speed and bulk, whereas an e-scooter is similar to a moped.

E-bikes is a controversial topic with people falling on either side of Cycle Toronto's stance, saying it was either too harsh or not strong enough. I trust my readers will not disappoint by being just as diverse. This is what Cycle Toronto said:

  • We’re supportive of e-bikes as an alternative to larger, less environmentally friendly motor vehicles, especially for people with impaired mobility.
  • We welcome Recommendation 1 to allow power-assisted bicycles which weigh less than 40kg and require pedaling for propulsion (“pedelecs”) in multi-use trails, cycle tracks and bicycle lanes.
  • But we’re concerned about Recommendation 2, which would allow electric scooters in all painted bicycle lanes across the City.
  • We support the MTO and Transport Canada addressing Recommendation 4, to split the existing power-assisted bicycles vehicle category into e-scooter and pedelec type vehicles, before the City considers the recommendation to allow them to drive in bicycle lanes.

Even though there is no crash data on e-bike/bike collisions, it's a valid concern. On the bright side, e-bikers, though still few in number, are potential allies in a fight for better cycling infrastructure. I'm not sure if that will make this decision palatable for most bicyclists.

Dr. Monica Campbell, champion for people on foot and on bike

Welcome to 2014! May we actually get some real, protected infrastructure this year!

At the end of last year I ruffled some Vehicular Cyclists' feathers by posting this: Avid Cyclists as policy makers are going extinct and they've no one else to blame but themselves (I still stand behind my analysis though I would probably now use the more accurate label of "Vehicular Cyclists" to better reflect the ideology and not just people cycling in car traffic because they have no other choice). Buried in the controversy was my mention of Dr. Monica Campbell, Director of Healthy Public Policy at Toronto Public Health, who had won an award at the 2013 Toronto Bike Awards.

(Photo: TCAT. From left, Dr. Monica Campbell, Nancy Smith Lea of TCAT)

Dr. Campbell is no Lance Armstrong. This is something which Vehicular Cycling seemingly holds as a prerequisite for a transportation planner - as in "If we all just rode at top speed all the time and never made errors then we'll be perfectly safe in car traffic". She is not that kind of expert, but one who knows how to bring science to the transportation planning profession; a profession that has notoriously avoided dealing with most injuries, deaths and health impacts such as obesity and asthma that are a direct result of our car fetish society.

The Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, who presented the award, describes Dr. Campbell's work thusly:

Dr. Campbell has city-wide responsibility for ensuring the development of evidence-informed public policies that best protect the health of Toronto residents. She was selected by a majority vote of the TCAT steering committee for her leadership in demonstrating the link between active transportation and health and for spearheading numerous evidence-based initiatives within Toronto Public Health to improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians in Toronto.

Under her leadership, Toronto Public Health has been producing reports such as the recent report "Improving Safety for Bicycle Commuters in Toronto" and has become more active in creating safety guidelines for cyclists and pedestrians (something which you'd think would have already been a higher priority for Transportation Services).

Some of the safety items that Public Health is pushing for, for which most cyclists will be pleased to have:

  • making construction zones safer for cyclists
  • stop using bike lanes for "storage"
  • review the "Watch for Bikes" by-law and improve it
  • advocate for side guards on trucks (only the feds can implement this but have been dragging their feet for years)
  • improve safety of cyclists at intersections

Her work, I think, is a signal that the underbelly of our municipal government is slowly understanding the new reality where fighting obesity and improving the safety and the comfort level of citizens is more important than obsessing about making cars go faster. Thank you Dr. Campbell for helping to make Toronto more equitable, safer, healthier and more fun in 2014.

American bicycle culture and infra from the perspective of a Dutchman

A Dutch "anthropological" look at American bicycle culture by Mark Wagenbuur of BicycleDutch. Much the same for Canada. Glimmers of change, but we're still so much in a car-fetishizing culture with space dominated by cars.

Why unidirectional cycle tracks will likely work better on Richmond and Adelaide

Richmond and Adelaide unidirectional bike lanes

If all goes well Richmond and Adelaide will have protected cycle tracks by the end of next year. We don't get many chances like this in Toronto where we missed our Bike Plan's targets by a wide margin. Bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide are in the Bike Plan, which means it's been over twelve years!

There is some risk that we won't get them. Councillor Vaughan, for instance, still won't commit to supporting the bike lanes (I'll delve more into what Vaughan thinks in my next post) and who knows what will happen after the 2014 municipal election if the lanes are delayed. So I think it's imperative to build them efficiently, while still getting a result that is safer and cost-effective. As I'll argue below, I think it's justified for us to get nit-picky and traffic-planning geeky here. I think you should support unidirectional protected bike lanes as the best kind of protected bike lanes for this project.

First, let's get the definitions right. A unidirectional cycle track has one way bike traffic. Cycle tracks in New York are mostly unidirectional (the photo above shows a unidirectional cycle track as imagined on Richmond by Dave Meslin). Good examples of bidirectional bike traffic can be seen on the Martin Goodman Trail, or the cycle tracks in Montreal. On bidirectional cycle tracks or bike paths bike traffic goes in both directions.

One of the main things going for a bidirectional cycle track is that it doesn't require as much width and typically allows for more on-street parking to remain. Such might be the compromise on Harbord/Hoskin where the Cycling Unit staff prefer a bidirectional cycle track. Hoskin and Harbord are considered good candidates for bidirectional because there are few major intersections -- only Bathurst and Spadina -- unlike Richmond and Adelaide.

However, there are more reasons to consider unidirectional cycle tracks for Richmond and Adelaide as the preferred option:

  1. Makes it easier to extend the bike facilities west of Bathurst to Strachan and perhaps connecting to the West Toronto Railpath extension through the CAMH grounds to Sudbury.
  2. Is less expensive because it doesn't require new traffic lights. Thus less likely to be shelved because of cost.
  3. Results in less waiting at intersections for all traffic because there would be fewer light phases.
  4. Is generally the preferred, safer option where it is possible to install unidirectional (according to traffic experts in Denmark and Netherlands).
  5. Makes it more likely that the bike lanes are installed before the election. We don't know if a new Council will still have the willpower to install them.
  6. Allows for more predictable traffic movements at major intersections, of which Richmond and Adelaide have a few (Bathurst, Spadina, University, Bay, Yonge, Church and Jarvis).

Danish researchers Ekman and Kronborg found that unidirectional tracks were typically safer than bidirectional because they allow for merging of traffic at intersections:

Ekman and Kronborg (1995) conducted an extensive literature review and interviewed bicycle safety and traffic-engineering experts across Scandinavia and in the Netherlands to compare the merits of unidirectional versus bidirectional bicycle tracks. They found that bidirectional tracks on one side of the road are cheaper to build than two unidirectional paths on opposite sides of the road but that the former are less safe. Bidirectional paths are less safe, they argued, because they do not allow cyclists to merge with traffic lanes when near intersections. Merging with traffic lanes reduces the risk of being struck by turning vehicles. [Ekman, L. & Kronborg, P. (1995). Traffic safety for pedestrians and cyclists at signal-controlled intersections. Report 1995: 4E. TFK. Lund.]

Note that they say that bidirectional is cheaper than unidirectional but they are assuming both options are on the same street. We have a unique opportunity to build on separate streets with unidirectional which would likely preclude installing whole new traffic signals. Thus believe unidirectional would be cheaper for Richmond and Adelaide. I'm interested to see if the EA will confirm that.

We've waited long enough
I think there's a recognition by many people that we've been waiting too long for good cycling infrastructure. As of this writing the groups who've officially supported the protected bike lanes, with many also specifying unidirectional, include Hot Docs, MEC, Annex Residents Association, Moore Park Residents Association, Liberty Village Residents Association, and West Queen West BIA. See the letters of support on Cycle Toronto's site.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein of Chicago, noted at a recent talk in Toronto, that Toronto has gotten a lot of things right - streetcars, sidewalks, condos sprouting up all over. But the one glaring hole is a lack of cycling infrastructure. Toronto is exceptional among North American cities in that it has a significant cycling population but it has fallen way behind in providing protected bike lanes. While Chicago zooms ahead in installing hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes, cycling activists in Toronto are struggling to get just one cycle track that was promised years ago. So it's no wonder people are getting impatient.

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?

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