Are Segregated Bike Lanes the Best Way to Improve Bike-ability?

Letter to the editor, Ottawa Citizen (published Saturday, February 5, 2011)

The Laurier Avenue West bike-lanes proposal has moved another step closer to reality, at a price tag of $1.3 million.  The redesign of the street to segregate cyclists from motorists is seen as the only way to attract more people to this environmentally-friendly and space-frugal mode of transportation.  But there is a much easier, faster, and cheaper, way.

The elephant in the room is speed limits.  Speed is what automobile drivers place ahead of other values, and what is the advantage that drives the automobile’s large share of trips in the city.  Vehicles than can travel 50 km/h can easily travel 25 km/h, but the reverse isn’t true.  Further, injury to the human body struck by a car at 50 km/h is four times as serious as that at 25 km/h.  Why do we allow such speeds on roads where walking and cycling are not only allowed but encouraged, where minor mistakes, by the drivers or the vulnerable outside the cars, can have such major, fatal effects?

Cyclists are fearful not only of being struck from behind, but of being “doored” by motorists exiting their cars, thanks to the legal requirement that they cycle in the space between the moving cars, trucks, and buses, and the parked vehicles and pedestrians.  Even that minor kind of segregation falls apart at intersections and driveways; and the ‘hard’ segregation of the proposal won’t change that fact.

A reduction in speed limits from 50 km/h to 30 km/h, the top operating speed of cyclists, will also bring other advantages that are lacking in the proposal: faster, cheaper initiation, since only speed-limit signs need to be changed.

Before you say such lane sharing won’t work, you only have to look at Rideau Street from Sussex to Cumberland, where cyclist are directed to the centre lanes where signs above and below on the pavement show their position in middle of the lane, not wedged between cars and the ever-present buses.  The east-bound lane on the Cummings Bridge a little further east, which is downhill, facilitates cyclists to match the existing speed limit, thus justifying the lack of a bike lane, which the other uphill direction has (although signs must be added to identify the downhill curb lane as a shared lane).

These “slow-ways” should not just be on minor residential street, but our main streets, which attract the highest volumes of cyclists and pedestrians, and the need for high-turnover street parking.  All these can co-exist, but the vehicle speeds have to be lowered.

This will not hurt road capacity, since it has long proved that higher speeds do not allow a road to carry any more cars.  In fact, if the lower speeds shift more people to walking and cycling, less space-intensive modes, it will actually increase capacity — in terms of people, rather than vehicles.

Cyclist don’t need barriers as much as they need slower vehicles and the ability to be part of “traffic,” rather than near the gutters.

Chris Bradshaw

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