Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ottawa cyclist brainstorming session

Saturday (Nov 25) I attended the City of Ottawa’s Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee’s “Public Brainstorming Session”. Hosted by the RCAC’s Mike Powell, the session had the goal of coming up with some safety recommendations to be presented to the Ontario Coroner. (The Ontario Coroner had announced it would be looking at recent cycling deaths.)
The brainstorming session was well attended and Mike had us divided up at four tables with six or seven people to a table. At the tables were some familiar faces and quite a few Citizens for Safe Cycling members. The local media were well represented with CTV, CBC, Centretown News, Ottawa This Week and CBC Radio Canada all present. Councillor Marianne Wilkinson sat in, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity. Was she there simply to give her opinions like anyone else or was she acting on behalf of the city? I don’t know and I would’ve liked to have known at the start. Having said that, she did make some interesting comments and I was glad a city councillor took the time to participate.
Each table was given a question and we were asked to come up with concerns and potential solutions to problems. As you can imagine, there were many areas of concern and just as many ideas about what we could do about them. So, each table discussed a question and after twenty minutes of brainstorming we’d shuffle ourselves randomly at the other tables. There was a little overlap, but for the most part the tables changed membership.
I shall say here that the following ideas are not all mine, nor will I make any judgements on whether I find the ideas presented good or not.

Question 1. What are some of our safety concerns as cyclists?

It’s no surprise with the recent cycling death on Queen Street that dooring was a major concern. Closely related was the use of window tinting on cars. Many cyclists, and all safe cyclists, make a point of making eye contact with drivers. You're looking for signs of driver awareness and signals that a door is about to open. Window tinting, of course, makes this difficult to impossible. Window tinting is legal up to a point, but many felt that some after-market window tints are darker than legally allowed and that this creates a hazard to cyclists.

Proper maintenance of bike lanes is required to encourage winter cycling.

The right-of-way at right hand turns was another safety concern. Sharing the roads in close proximity to large construction vehicles and too fast traffic were noted often. Narrow roads that put cars and bikes too close together were also noted. Somerset Street West is a good example of a street that's much too narrow. The south side allows for car parking, but if you ride along Somerset heading east you need to take the lane or else you will be much too close to the parked cars. This inevitably irritates impatient drivers. Debris and poorly maintained bike lanes was mentioned. Cycle lanes that appear out of nowhere and end just as surprisingly are a major concern that was expressed at every table at some point. Last, but perhaps most importantly, was the lack of respect that's shown to cyclists and admittedly the lack of respect that some cyclists show to car drivers. It was great to see that at no time did there ever appear to be an “us vs them” mentality in the room. Everyone seemed to recognize we have to work together in this.

Bike lane in Copenhagen

Question 2. What changes to infrastructure would we like to see?

Again, dooring came up. It was suggested that more angle parking may help in this regard. The connectivity of our bike lanes was questioned and everyone agreed we need to fix this problem. Lanes that end at bridge approaches or that just fade away need to be fixed. Traffic light signal timing was a possible change that most agreed with. Advanced greens for cyclists and turning boxes that give bikes a head start seem to be things most would like to see. Very important, and something that is very prevalent in many jurisdictions in Europe is the slower speed limit along bike routes and in the more densely populated downtown area. As someone who was recently rear-ended by a speeding truck I’m strongly in favour of slowing vehicles down in the core of the city. Safer zones around schools was another idea that I actually hadn’t heard of before. Some suggested as much as a three block radius around schools should be parking free zones to allow for safer commutes by children to school. Lastly, but probably only because so many seem to take it as the most important idea, is the use of more segregated infrastructure. People generally feel safer away from heavy traffic and segregated bike lanes continue to be a strong favourite of most people. But not everybody!

Cyclists in Ottawa's Laurier segregated bike lane.

Question 3. What can we do about cycling awareness and education?

There were many interesting ideas including a “think bike” campaign targeting bus, cab and large truck drivers. Signage when entering areas with bike lanes was brought up. As well, the idea of the "John School"* for drivers involved in accidents with cyclists and reckless cycists was a popular suggestion. Rather than being ticketed the charged motorist/cyclist could opt for some cycling education. Another well received idea was having city officials involved in road planning spend four hours on a bike in city traffic. This would likely change how they see things from a cyclist’s perspective. I would love to see that! It was also suggested that the Ministry of Transport put some information in their packages for driver licence renewals reminding them to be aware of cyclists and the Highway Traffic Act as it applies to cars and bikes.

Question 4. What legal and regulatory changes could be implemented to make cycling safer?

Adopting a mandatory minimum distance that cars must give cyclists (1 metre suggested) was easily the most noted change that people would like to see. Again, the issue of the tinted windows and why police seem to be ignoring some tints that are clearly illegal was talked about and it was suggested that the police themselves would have an interest in enforcing the laws that are already in place. However, some suggested that the maximum tint standard allowed today is too dark and should be changed. The lack of side guards** on trucks were another concern. A recent accident in Toronto where side guards may have prevented a cyclist’s death has highlighted this again. With the rapid pace of development in downtown Ottawa now we are seeing a large number of trucks in the heavily congested core and this summer we had a pedestrian death involving a right-turning dump truck. Some work needs to be done to make trucks safer. Another change many wished to see is the so-called Idaho Stop. This is where a stop sign can be treated as a yield sign for cyclists. It’s a very practical idea.

A bike "launch pad" on Laurier Avenue

These are just some of the topics that were discussed. There were far too many for me to put in this post (the infrastructure table had over 9 pages of notes!) but it does give you an overview of what we talked about. If I could pick five highlights for the session I would say that number one was the need for more separate/segregated infrastructure. This was the first item brought up at the infrastructure table. Number two would be the posted speed limit downtown. Most feel this needs to be lowered. Public awareness campaigns would be number three. Connecting the bike lanes we have to form a solid integrated network would be number four. It was unanimous that we have far too many dead links in this network. Number five concerned right-hand turns. Given this is where most accidents occur the participants had strong feelings about the need for advanced green lights and turning boxes (that put the bikes ahead of the cars) to keep cyclists safe when turning.

* What is “John School”?

**What are truck side guards?


  1. Just my 2 cents... this is all very interesting, but I think they missed the MOST important topic of all: how to protect cyclist from THEMSELVES by giving them a course on proper road rules and regulations. Sensibilisation works BOTH ways, it's not just for motorists.

    EVERYDAY I see cyclists putting their life in danger by running red lights, going on the wrong side of the road, not using dedicated bike lanes, listening to loud music with headphones, not giving any indications before they turn, etc... This is by FAR the easiest problem to fix and the one that would give the most results in terms of cyclist safety.

    I would go as far as having a system similar to the driver's license system, where they would have to follow a course and then pay an annual fee for a bike plate. This would allow to recover some of the costs for dedicated bike lanes, as well as give tickets to those who disregard the laws or do not have the minimum safety equipment on their bike (reflectors, warning bell). Oh and while we're at it we could also enforce wearing a helmet for all riders, it never hurts to have additionnal protection in place.

    I agree there is also work to be done with motorist drivers, but it would be wrong to put the only focus on them as the core problem really is the behavior of too many cyclists.

  2. Anon, thanks for your comment. Regarding your first comment...we did discuss cycling classes or licencing. As I say in the blog, it was a brainstorming session and we hit on many things. Regarding paragraphs two and you really think so? We licence car drivers now and they must pass a drivers test yet all the anecdotes you mention are also things drivers do. So why would cyclists be any different. I think there is a percentage of cyclists (as there is with drivers) who will always disregard rules and common sense. We can't protect them or do anything about them. They have statistics on their side though as riding a bike is not a dangerous activity. As for making helmets mandatory that is a non-starter. We actually want to make cycling safer for all cyclists and every study done to date shows that mandatory helmet laws significantly decrease the number of people biking. Since there is safety in numbers, reducing the number of cyclists makes things more dangerous for everyone. There are several reasons it is safe to ride a bike in Denmark or the Netherlands (the two safest places to cycle) and one of them is the sheer number of cyclists. Drivers are aware of cyclists because they are ever-present. Feel free to wear one if you are comfortable doing so but it is a personal choice. I should also say that with more than 30 people present (many helmet wearers) no one brought up the subject. Because if you do your homework you will see that helmets have as much going against them as they have going for them...but thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. I agree with all the ideas and comments mentioned. I would like to add that in The Netherlands cycling safety is taught to children in elementary school as part of the curriculum. At age 11 or 12 before a child moves up to next level of schooling, he/she is required to pass an exam. This is a policy that the provincial government should implement here in Ontario schools. I visited The Netherlands several years ago and NEVER saw cyclists riding through red lights and stop signs, nor in the wrong direction on one-way streets.

  4. Thanks 2nd Anon for your comment. I agree that cycling safety should be taught at a young age. I think we learn our lessons for life then.

  5. As one of the recorders at the session, I can assure you we talked at length about cyclist behaviour too and we talked lots about education in schools. Referring to a John School for drivers, the idea was for road users in general. The cylists in the room cared about proper road behaviour by all parties (including hipster bike courier dudes, who are destroying a lot of the cyclists goodwill btw -as I see downtown nearly every day). I was amazed how much press coverage it got, I guess as it was all in a very positive, constructive and friendly atmosphere.

  6. 3rd Anon, yes, I totally agree. As I noted above, at no time was there ever any anti-car attitude and there was a very friendly attitude in the room. I think it's safe to say that we are all aware that problems exist with both parties. I was driving yesterday and waiting at a red light when two cyclists came up and went right through it. I cringed. It was embarrassing. All the good will and education won't stop it though unless it's started at a young age. I think.