Monday, 22 July 2013

Bike Lanes

I don’t like bike lanes.

There, I said it. I figured I should get this one out of the way first.
Historically the dialogue about cycling safety in Toronto has been linked to the question of bike lanes. Discussions of projected targets, and the failure to make those targets, have been common. Indeed, the “success” or “failure” of the City of Toronto in developing urban cycling infrastructure is frequently reduced to a statement of how many miles or KM of new lanes have been laid down in the past year.

Bike lanes can work well, and also provide a pocket or space comparatively free of obstacles. There are several prominent bike lanes in Toronto that work very well for the cyclist and the motorist, in that traffic of both kinds flows well in both directions, and there is a continuous bike lane for a good stretch of road. Harbord comes to mind, as does Annette St.

The appeal of the bike lane is that it makes clear on the pavement that there is a space for bicycles there. Bike lanes formalize the space you were already using as a cyclist; in this sense at least they are psychologically appealing to the novice cyclist and motorist as well. Motorists don’t have to think as hard about where to be when a bike appears, the lane markings do that work for them. For cyclists they are also reassuring, giving a clear indication of where they are to be.

Though bike lanes are certainly appealing, they are also not risk free. People often park in bike lanes, necessitating you weaving out into traffic in a place where motorists aren’t expecting you to be (you were in the bike lane out of their way after all, why are you now out on the road?). I can confidently say I get honked at most often by motorists who object to me being outside the bike lane when there is one present. I think they expect me to wait behind the parked car in the bike lane until the traffic clears before re-entering the road. In addition, cars parked on the inside of bike lanes can open their doors and give you the dreaded “door prize”. I have seen this happen before, and its ugly.

There have been some innovations in bike lane design that do add to safety. In Toronto, many of the bike lanes “disappear” near intersections (the solid lines become broken), requiring the cyclist to rejoin traffic in the lane (at least that’s the way I read the change of lines). Removing the bike lane right before an intersection forces the cyclist to take their place in the traffic flow and either go straight or turn in sequence with other drivers.

Another important recent bike lane innovation involves placing the bike lane between parked cars and the sidewalk. This puts a significant barrier between the vehicles on the road and the bicycle. There still exists the danger of “door prizes”, but the choice between diverting into moving traffic or hitting a door is removed.

Another option to improve safety is concrete barriers between the lane and the traffic: physically separated bike lanes. The newest development I have seen is the “bike box”, a box on the pavement, covering the whole width of the road and the bike lane, where bikes can stop before entering the intersection. The bike box forces cars to wait behind cyclists, allowing cyclists to have priority in the intersection when traffic starts again, and ensuring that motorists see the cyclists clearly. For the most part I have seen cyclists that use the bike box move from he centre of the road in the box directly to the bike lane ahead when they move forward, so the main appeal of the box is that it makes cyclists visible at intersections.

Despite these innovations, short of physically separated bike lanes, all of the above options have serious concerns, for a few reasons. The biggest problem is the issue of right turning vehicles. When you are in a car and the car in front of you indicates a right turn, short of weaving far out to the left (possibly into oncoming traffic if it is a single lane road) you have to wait for them to execute their right turn before you can go through the intersection. Not so for bikes in a bike lane, as they can continue forward when you are making the turn.

The upshot is that, if you drive in Toronto, you will discover that on streets like College, where there is a continuous stream of bikes, that cars are expected to sit and wait with their signals on until the line of bikes clears. So in one sense there is an informal “in practice” solution that appears on the roads. However, if there is any sort of gap between cyclists the problems start, as bikes move much faster than most motorists realize, and they are comparatively quiet. Also, motorists aren’t trained to look in their right rear view mirror before executing a right turn from a right hand lane, they look for pedestrians, but the backwards mirror check on the right is rare, as there is likely no room for a car there, so they don’t bother looking. So when a gap appears, a motorist might take the turn but not complete it before a cyclist comes through, or the cyclist might think the motorist is waiting when they are not.

Since the majority of bike accidents happen in or at intersections, this is a major concern. And note that the presence of a bike lane does nothing to help. Indeed, I would argue that it actually makes things worse, as cyclists often think they are protected when they are not, and motorists often ignore the bike lane when they are executing a turn.

My solution to this problem is to slow down, and go around the car with the right turn signal on the left side, and to pass on the left. If timed properly, the car will execute its turn when you are shifting back to the bike lane from the left hand side of the turning lane, and protect your flank as you do it. I never pass on the right anymore if someone ahead of me has a right hand signal on, even if they appear to be waiting for the bikes to clear.

It would be helpful to know the law on this, so I went to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation website and found this:

When a motorist is making a right-hand turn, cyclists can either stay behind the vehicle or pass the right-turning vehicle on the left by shoulder checking, signalling, shoulder checking again and then passing on the left. Never pass a right-turning vehicle on the right.

Assuming this applies when the cyclist is in a bike lane as well, then the law appears to say that cyclists should be waiting for the car to complete the turn. For the most part, however, I find cyclists stay in the bike lane and continue through, expecting cars to wait, and cars sometimes wait, sometimes try to “squeeze” in to the gaps between cyclists.

The bike boxes help when the traffic has stopped and the bikes can take front position, but during an active traffic situation they don’t matter at all. Having the bike lane end right before the intersection should be getting cyclists to rejoin traffic (or to pass on the left as I do if there is a turn happening), but for the most part I have not seen this happen. I get the reluctance, switching from the right hand side of the lane to the left can be a bit scary, as you have to cross a lane of traffic to do it, so timing is important. Sometimes it’s easy as the traffic is backed up so you can just sit between cars without slowing anyone down, but it’s not always that easy.

In addition to these problems at the intersection, there is the additional problem of parked cars in bike lanes. I know there are bylaws about this, and tickets can be given out, but I can’t say I’ve seen that may delivery trucks with tickets on them, or being ticketed while I was around. There will always be cars parked where they shouldn’t be, at least in cases where the bike lanes are just lines on the pavement.

So for me at least, I find bike lanes to be negligible in their contribution to my safety on the road.

To solve these problems, we have a few options. The police could start to aggressively ticket those who park in bike lanes. They could also ticket more cyclists who try to pass on the right hand side of a right turning vehicle (assuming I am interpreting the law correctly on this).

However, these solutions will likely not work, as fines are after the fact deterrents, if you don’t believe that then look at the statistics on speeding or illegal parking. These measures might deter some, but nowhere near all.

Really the only solution here is either physically separated bike lanes, or physically separated bike lanes combined with separate lights for bikes and cars. The physically separated bike lanes take care of the parked car problem; the lights address the question of sequence when passing through the intersection.
In short, advocating for more “bike lanes” is pointless, as just painting lines on the road doesn’t add to your safety; it creates a false sense of confidence.

So if it were up to me, would I eliminate bike lanes entirely (unless physically separated?).

For the longest time my answer to this was “yes”, but recently it occurred to me that there might be another useful place for regular bike lanes. In short, it has been my experience that two variables contribute the most to your safety on the road, road space (width) and traffic volume. A road with low traffic volume is much safer as you are less likely to come into conflict with a turning car, and if you do you are less likely to have to negotiate other cars to get around it. A road that is wider is safer as the cars have more room, and you can often get around that right turning car on the left with plenty of room to spare.

So for example, Caledonia road in Toronto has a fairly high traffic volume, and lots of commercial vehicles. However, it also has a centre turning lane that is comparatively unused, so when I cycle on Caledonia to and from work, the cars just veer a bit more to the left and just into the turning lane to give me lots of room. It’s one lane in both directions, but the centre lane means I rarely get crowded out. Plus the parking is restricted in along the length of the road in various places. There is no bike lane on Caledonia, but I feel safer there than I do on College for example, despite the bike lane there.

To my mind the perfect solution to these problems is a combination of physically separated bike lanes and signals for busy, narrow downtown roads, and regular bike lanes on wider or lower traffic roads. In a sense you don’t need the bike lanes for the wider or less traffic intensive roads, but I envisage bike lanes in this model as indicators to the cyclist that the road in question is one that is forgiving for the novice. Non-physically separated bike lanes could be the signal to new or concerned cyclists that this route is comparatively safer, and physically separated bike lanes could be used when the road conditions themselves make regular bike lanes a liability.

In either case, I vastly prefer unmarked side roads and bike paths to roads with bike lanes, and I will take a busy but wide, or low-traffic but narrow road over a road with a bike lane any day. To me this means that we need to stop focusing on getting more bike lanes, and focus more on what kind of bike lane we make, and the possibility of using bike lanes to help identify safer routes rather than create them.

Now that I have discussed bike lanes, I will endeavor to remind everyone about bike trails in Toronto. Trails have the benefit of having no cars (though there are still pedestrians, dogs and other cyclists). During rush hour trails are often largely empty. And the views can be spectacular...

 View looking East into Downsview Dells Park, just South of Giltspur.

 View looking East on the Belt Line Trail just North of Eglinton.

View looking South on the Black Creek Trail just South of Steeles.