Why separated bike lanes aren’t enough to protect cyclists

By David Reevely - Published on September 6, 2016
Ottawa hasn't followed up on suggestions to make its cycling network more safe, David Reevely writes. (olaser/iStock)

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The death of a 23-year-old woman on Ottawa’s proudest piece of bike infrastructure is making local politicians listen to the anger of the city’s cyclists.

Nusrat Jahan, whose father is an administrator at Bangladesh’s high commission, had been going to a private college downtown for just a few weeks when she was killed by a truck that apparently turned across her path on Laurier Avenue last Thursday morning

Jahan died cycling on Laurier Avenue, using the gem of the capital’s biking network, the first fully separated lanes installed on a downtown street in Ontario.

"I don't want my son riding on the streets of my ward because frankly, they're just not safe,” Coun. Jeff Leiper told a cyclists’ rally  he and fellow downtown politician Catherine McKenney organized on the lawn of city hall a few hours after Jahan was hit. Several dozen cyclists clapped and rang bells.

Leiper's the sort of councillor who rides a bike to work most days. He’s lost count of the number of times he’s nearly been "right-hooked" on the Laurier Avenue bike lanes, never mind the streets in his ward just to the west.

“We should be designing our system so mistakes don't equal death. They can no longer equal death.”

The commercial strip on Wellington Street — the street where Parliament has its address — through the heart of Leiper’s ward is marked with paint that tries to explain to drivers and cyclists how to share the road safely.

A deputy chief of the Ottawa police got knocked off her bike by a carelessly thrown-open door there a couple of years ago. She was riding home from work, wearing a bright safety vest.

"We should be designing our system so mistakes don't equal death. They can no longer equal death,” McKenney told the rally. Laurier Avenue runs through her ward.

McKenney (constantly confused with federal minister Catherine McKenna, who represents the same voters) gets around on a grown-up-sized kick scooter, with inflated wheels the size of a small bike's. It can move at a fearsome clip but is inconspicuous enough to lean in a corner of a community-centre meeting room.

Their rally was extraordinary by the standards of Ottawa’s polite city council. Councillors calling people to city hall to complain about city policy, asking them to pressure their own councillors, is just not done.

But Jahan’s crash was the fifth involving an Ottawa-area cyclist in just a week, and in a place specifically meant to make cycling safe.

The two lanes on Laurier Avenue went in five years ago as an experiment and by hard measures they’re successful: Bike traffic is way up; traffic studies suggest more people are commuting by bike into downtown, not just converging on Laurier from other routes. Collisions are uncommon and the one that killed Jahan is the first lethal one on Laurier since 2011.

However, anyone who has ridden Laurier Avenue knows there are plenty of close calls. In fact, a study assessing the lanes at the two-year mark found that the rate of the closest calls, where drivers cut across the bike lanes and missed collisions by less than a second, was no lower on Laurier than on comparable streets.

Ottawa is a municipality that includes not only its downtown core and inner suburbs but its outer ones and rural villages beyond. Not many things create as much tension in city hall’s council chamber as transportation and the constant struggle to balance the demands of different kinds of travellers in limited space.

When the Laurier lanes went in (after planners’ first choice of street got scrapped by protests from angry merchants), politics demanded they be inexpensive.

The lanes are delineated with low concrete barriers, the kind you’d find in a strip-mall parking lot, laid end to end; raising the lanes to physically separate them from traffic might happen after 2018. In the meantime, the barriers sometimes get knocked into the lanes by big vehicles. All the loading zones had to be preserved and all the parking spots the lanes took up had to be made up on nearby streets.

Significantly, city council was warned in 2013 that the signs telling right-turning drivers to yield to cyclists like Jahan weren't installed where drivers could count on seeing them; they’d been put on posts that were already on the sidewalks, wherever those happened to be. We probably ought to move them, the city’s transportation planners said, but it never happened.

The anger, maybe because of the cyclists’ rally, caught the attention of the powers that be. 

Mayor Jim Watson's typical response to complaints about biking safety is to tout the Laurier lanes and record-high (but still very low) spending on other bike routes. Half an hour after the crash was reported, he tweeted by rote: "city investing a record amount to make cycling safer,” and rhymed off a couple of projects.

Within a couple of hours, with a body in the morgue, he’d thought better of it. Watson tweeted that he was sorry Jahan had died. He called a meeting with the chairman of council’s transportation committee, to "help start a dialogue with all users of our roads in an effort to prevent these tragedies.”

It’ll take money and some nerve. Next year’s city budget gets set in the next couple of months. McKenney says there’s a big imbalance that needs to be fixed — hundreds of millions spent each year on roads, officially Ottawa’s lowest transportation priority, and single-digit millions spent on biking.

"Our most vulnerable users, who we spend the least on, we have to protect,” she says.

David Reevely is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

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