07 February 2012

Coroner's Inquest into Cycling Deaths in Ontario

Wow, it's been a long time since my last post!  I have been writing blog entries all along in my head, I assure you, but I guess it's harder for you to read them that way.

Earlier this year, as a result of public pressure and unfortunate cycling tragedies, Ontario's Chief Coroner announced an inquest into cycling deaths in the province.  You can read about some of the details in this news article from October.

A call for submissions went out to the public and I took the opportunity to work with my local Toronto Cyclists Union ward group and draft a set of proposals for increasing safety on our roads.  We developed a set of nine suggestions based around our three pillars of safety: infrastructure, education, enforcement.

Continue reading for our proposals.  We welcome your comments and feedback.

1.     Separated bike lanes

The safest and most thriving cycling cities in the world – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bogotá, for example – have all built physically separated bike lanes because they are proven to work.  Closer to home, Montreal, Vancouver, and even Guelph have installed or are in the process of installing separated bike lanes.  Toronto has started to look into a small network of separated bike lanes and we support this effort.  Separated lanes that abut the adjacent sidewalk increase safety by preventing cars from stopping or parking in bike lanes, and prevent open car doors from interfering with cyclists and causing collisions.

In addition to building the proposed network of physically separated bike lanes in Toronto’s downtown core, we recommend the City to build physically separated lanes on all major arterials outside of the core.  Further still, we recommend the City start to convert all painted line bike lanes into physically separated lanes. It is our position that having a robust, well designed, and well-integrated network of physically separated bike lanes in Toronto will have a transformative effect in increasing ridership and safety.

2.     Bike-specific traffic lights

Bike-specific traffic lights increase safety and regulate traffic in the exact same way that traffic lights for cars, streetcars, and pedestrians do.  They have been installed in cities where there are also physically separated bike lanes – for example, New York City, Vancouver, Montreal, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.  Bike-specific traffic lights are a visual regulator and reminder to other users of the road who has the right of way.  In Copenhagen, bike traffic lights typically turn green a few seconds before car traffic lights to allow the stream of cyclists a head start in crossing the intersection.  Visibility, priority, and regulation provide safety to cyclists.

3.     Mandate side guards on large trucks

We support the proposal of Olivia Chow and others to require side guards on large trucks to prevent cyclists and pedestrians from being pulled underneath.  We understand that this was a recommendation of the last Coroner’s Inquest in the late 1990s and we support its renewed call.

4.     Improve painted line bike lanes

Painted line bike lanes are an improvement over nothing, but they are a half measure at best.  Their most important function is to carve out space for cyclists, and reserve the physical space on the street for when the City is ready to convert them into physically separated lanes.

In the mean time, these lanes can be improved in a very simple and inexpensive way.  At all of these lanes, when they approach an intersection, the solid line becomes dotted to allow and encourage cars to merge into the bike lane in order to make a right hand turn.  This is a key zone of insecurity and collision for cyclists because they must always contend with cars making right-hand turns from the bike lane.  Cyclists are forced to make a last minute decision to continue on the right of the car, swing into traffic to go around on the left, or end up being suddenly stuck behind the car. All of these options can be very dangerous for cyclists and encourage avoidable collisions.

To change this, we recommend requiring that all painted line bike lanes be solid lines up to the intersection.  This idea has worked well with bike boxes recently installed, which prevent cars from merging into bike lanes and from making right hand turns on a red light.  There is one example of a solid lane, which is that heading westbound along College at Bathurst.  Cars at this intersection now overwhelmingly stay in their lane and make right-hand turns only when the bike lane is clear.

5.     Remove on-street car parking

Though contentious with car drivers and erroneously contentious for local businesses, no city will have a safe and thriving bike culture and ridership if we continue to allow on-street car parking.  The main issue, as you see on the recently re-designed Harbord Street, is that cyclists are constantly forced to change direction, go in and out of lanes and sharrows, and swerve around parked cars.  Removal of on-street parking will free up space to install new bike lanes and will reduce the occurrence of cyclists being hit by opened car doors.  Where on-street parking remains, bike lanes should be designed so that they are adjacent to the sidewalk, with parked cars as the buffer between cyclists and moving traffic.

6.     Rationalize right-of-way rules

Whether or not there are clear right-of-way rules that include cyclists, users of the road do not universally know what they are.  This causes confusion and collisions.  We recommend that right-of-way rules be rationalized to prioritize users of the road in a hierarchy of vulnerability.  Pedestrians will have right of way first, then cyclists, and then cars.  This means, for example, that right-hand turning cars must wait for crossing pedestrians and cyclists before they make their turn. 

7.     Cycling education in schools

A big part of improving safety for cyclists and all users of the road is to teach children how to safely ride bikes on city streets; that is, to raise the next generation with the know-how, confidence, and experience of city cyclists.  As there used to be drivers’ education in high schools, we recommend implementing cycling education into elementary schools.  In Copenhagen, for example, elementary school children are required to pass cycling tests at school.  This provides for a supportive environment in which children can learn the rules of the road and gain experience and confidence riding on the street.  Of course, we recommend that this be implemented along side the installation of physically separated bike lanes, which is an element of making cycling safe for children.  The age at which children start this education may be debated, but we recommend around the age of ten.

8.     Amend the Highway Traffic Act

One of the greatest obstacles to developing safe cycling infrastructure is that the definition of “vehicle” in the Highway Traffic Act (“Act”) is defined to include bicycles, which ends up treating bikes as if they were cars.  This causes a variety of problems such as making it legally difficult for cities to install contra-flow bike lanes on one-way streets.  We recommend that the Act be amended to create a unique legal category for the bicycle.  This is important in recognizing that a bicycle is a vehicle fundamentally different from a car, bus, or truck, and should be afforded different treatment.  We already see unique legal categories for vehicles such as streetcars, which, in Toronto, have right-of-way lanes and specific traffic signals as a result.  We believe that amending the Act in such a way will affect a shift in how we think of and treat bikes in Ontario.

9.     Enforce traffic laws

While we accept that the rules of the road apply equally to cyclists – though an amendment to the Act may have a positive effect on this – there is almost no enforcement of other vehicles that park in bike lanes.  With some regularity, municipal police forces implement blitz days where they ticket cyclists.  This type of action does not happen with respect to ticketing other vehicles on the road vis-à-vis cyclists and bike lanes.  Enforcement will improve safety by ensuring that cars are not parked in bike lanes and will send an equally strong message to motorists that they must obey the rules of the road when it comes to cyclists. 

1 comment: