Thursday, 19 September 2013

Sorry about that, I was supposed to get right back to my safe riding post but I got inspired and posted about things that could be done to improve safety outside of changing the way you ride.

You have to chase the muse when it appears.

Ok, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Road Safety PART II

Sidewalk and Parking Lot Riding
Sidewalk riding is a touchy topic, hardcore cyclists dislike it as they see it as an admission of inferiority, giving up the road to the cars. Pedestrian’s hate it as fast moving cyclists are terrifying and extremely dangerous to them. Municipalities don’t like it and many have made it illegal in some way or another. I think most municipal planners would prefer if cyclists were either in bike lanes or nowhere at all, putting them on sidewalks just makes things more complicated.

Still, every urban cyclist rides on the sidewalk at some point or another. Even hardened road cyclists have found themselves on the sidewalk at some point. Sidewalks provide important connecting options for the urban cyclist, for example when construction blocks the lane entirely a cyclist can get around the obstruction in a way a car cannot. Urban cycling laws have interpreted sidewalk riding restrictions differently. In the city of Toronto for example, the size of your wheel decides whether or not you are allowed on the sidewalk. Essentially the bylaw restricts sidewalk riding to young people (with smaller bikes and thus wheel sizes) to allow them to learn to ride off road. In principle, sidewalk riding is illegal, in practice, things are different.

I think that sidewalk riding should be a part of the urban cyclists’ arsenal, but only with certain important caveats in mind, as riding on the sidewalk reverses the standard relationship between a bicycle and the surrounding traffic. Rather than being a slow moving vehicle, when you are on the sidewalk you are essentially a fast moving pedestrian. There is no reason why a cyclist on the sidewalk can’t ride in such a way that is perfectly safe for both the cyclist and the pedestrian, after all cars regularly drive safely alongside much slower moving cyclists, but to do so requires the cyclist to be attentive to certain things.

First and foremost, pedestrians always have the right of way on the sidewalk. If I find myself on the sidewalk and a pedestrian approaches me, I slow down, move over, and when I get closer to the pedestrian I put one foot down on the sidewalk and coast by them or hop off and walk by them rather than riding. The point here is to let the pedestrian know that you have seen them and that you are deferring to them. In essence you are doing exactly what responsible car drivers do when they see a cyclist on the road ahead of them; you are acknowledging their presence by giving them a reasonable amount of space.

If you are approaching a pedestrian from behind you have two options, slow down and wait until you have the space to go around them or ring your bell to announce your presence. Sidewalks vary in width, and sometimes have concrete strips beside them that allow you to circumvent pedestrians without hitting the road. A stretch of my regular commute up Keele Street has a strip of ashphalt, about 5 feet wide, beside the sidewalk for quite a distance, it is a convenient option to circumvent pedestrians entirely. Where that is not an option, if you do ring your bell keep in mind that you still have to go slowly around pedestrians, people with headphones in for example may not hear your bell and if they move from one side of the sidewalk to the other you could be in for a painful meeting. The general rule here is that pedestrians have to know you are there if you choose to ride the sidewalk, and the responsibility for doing these things lies with the cyclist, not the pedestrian.

What I generally do is look for a sign that I have been noticed. For example, most people turn around and look when I ring my bell, when I have been seen then they can react to me and I can steer around them. Runners will generally keep far right in the lane, those who run down the middle will often move over as soon as they hear my bell. Use common sense and don’t be going so fast you couldn’t stop very short. When the path clears up you can hotdog around.

It is interesting that one of the arguments Forest offers for cyclists staying off of sidewalks is that pedestrians are unpredictable, he makes a similar argument about bike paths. This seems strange, as he also argues that motorists for the most part behave predictably (they agreeably drive just to the left of you on the road for example), and bases his safe cycling method on this predictability. I agree with him about motorists, but I would extend this to pedestrians as well. Put in another way, given what I have seen on the road with drivers, I would say that pedestrians are about equally as predictable as motorists in terms of how they move around.

Given that Forest argues for riding on the road with cars, I can’t see the reason for avoiding the sidewalk due to pedestrians. I think the problem here is that Forest thinks of predictability in terms of how the motorist acts (e.g. how he or she drives), but I am thinking of predictability in terms of how the pedestrian reacts to my actions (does he or she acknowledge my presence, do they see me slowing down or  stopping). If I don’t get a reaction I slow down or stop, if I do I slow down a bit less and steer around.

Another good example of this (that applies to bike paths more than sidewalks, but is nonetheless of interest) is dogs. When you are on a bike path or sidewalk and someone with a dog is ahead of you it is important to ring your bell and see if the dog owner either brings the dog to heel, moves it over, speaks to it, etc. In some cases the dog owner won’t do anything with the dog at all, but if they turn and see you then do nothing it is likely their dog won’t bother you, the owner knows it, and you should just go past. A lot of what happens between pedestrians and cyclists comes down to interpretation, and interpretation can vary, but I have found it very simple to solve this problem by relying on common sense and going a bit slower. If I ring my bell and someone who was previously moving in a straight line swerves over to the right I am in good shape to assume they are letting me by. If they wave or signal, or if they turn, see me and move over, I think I’m good. Still, I will go wide around them, and I slow down for good measure. The primary cost to this method is time, you will be slowing down, but I think that’s a fair price to pay for the use of a sidewalk when the road is not a preferred option.

Second, sidewalks are interrupted regularly by driveways, intersections, etc. Sidewalks are not lanes like the road, they are intended for slow moving traffic that can stop easily to allow vehicles to cross and enter the traffic flow. As a result any cycling done on sidewalks should be done at a reduced speed, giving the cyclist ample time to react to any cars crossing their paths. Also, particular attention needs to be paid to intersections. When riding along the sidewalk it is tempting to continue at full speed through intersections, but this is a serious safety risk. When motorists see you on the road they are forced to react to you, but when you ride on the sidewalk motorists generally ignore you as you are no longer on the road. Thus when you blow through an intersection from the sidewalk motorists generally don’t see you coming, and as you are much faster than a pedestrian the combination can be deadly. A motorist may check the sidewalk for pedestrians, then make a turn a few seconds later, in that time another pedestrian couldn't appear, but a fast moving bike on the sidewalk could. So the rule here is that you need to go slowly and treat intersections as if you were a pedestrian, not a cyclist on the sidewalk.

Visibility is a key issue here as well. In certain areas fences, trucks parked in driveways, trees, etc. can block your view of the sidewalk ahead. This puts you at risk for not seeing a car coming out of a driveway for example. There may also be pedestrian entrances that can introduce newcomers to the sidewalk whenever the building facades come close to the sidewalks. Visibility can mitigate many of these problems, but you have to think it through. When the sidewalk is close to the building facades then you might not have time to stop if a pedestrian walks out of a business into the sidewalk, so you have to go slow. However, on wider avenues with buildings set back and a lack of fences and hedges, etc., you can clearly see any new traffic well in advance. You still have to check your rearview for traffic approaching from behind that might want to make a right into an upcoming driveway, you are never completely insulated from cars on the sidewalk.

Third, re-entering the flow of traffic from sidewalks is tricky and should be done very cautiously. Again, motorists don’t pay attention to people on the sidewalk except at intersections when they have to check for pedestrians before turning or going straight through. If you are flying down the sidewalk then decide to re-enter traffic motorists are not expecting you and will not necessarily compensate for you when you re-enter the traffic flow. As a rule I only re-enter traffic from the sidewalk when there are no cars on the road, or if there are cars I re-enter at an intersection when the cars are stopped at the sign or light.

Because of the need to cycle more slowly sidewalk riding is not generally a viable option for the whole commute. As a practical matter, I generally only ride on the sidewalk when I’m “ditching” (e.g. leaving the main road due to safety concerns, then re-entering). This means that I tend to use the sidewalk along main arteries or busy roads for safety reasons, or along any road if there is an obstruction (e.g. construction), but otherwise I stay on the road.

So why recommend sidewalk riding at all? From a legal perspective the police seem to be fine with it as long as it is done responsibly, I’ve been riding on sidewalks for about 35 years and I have never been given a ticket or a fine. Having said that, I never ride the sidewalk in the downtown core as there are too many pedestrians on it and the traffic is generally so slow (due to congestion) that the road is a preferable option. Riding through slow moving downtown traffic is one of the joys of cycling in the city. However, the downtown core is only one part (and a comparatively small part) of the urban landscape, and it is a mistake to treat the whole urban cycling environment like it was in some undifferentiated, uniformly busy area. There are significant segments of urban space where pedestrian traffic on sidewalks is virtually non-existent, and these areas should be available to the cyclist. You still need to be aware, for example, while riding the sidewalk cars on the road might make a right in front of you to get into a driveway, so check your mirror regularly even though you are not on the road.

My regular commute takes me up Keele Street. Keele is a very busy street, with posted speed limits from a low of 40 km/hr to a high of 80 km/hr, and in rush hour it can be intimidating. I believe you can ride on busy roads safely, even during rush hour, and I have found myself on Keele at all different times. It is important for every cyclist to be able to handle busy traffic roads on a regular basis, as it is almost impossible to knit together a full route without some time on major arteries. Still, on occasion Keele gets too hairy even for me. The mile and a half or so segment of Keele from Lawrence boulevard north to the 401 (one of Toronto’s major highways) is particularly bad for a lot of heavy trucks, high a high posted speed limit, and until very recently, poor road conditions (cracked pavement, bumps in the road). For the longest time I soldiered on in the narrow 4 foot strip of badly broken pavement at the side of the road while the blowback from consecutive 18 wheeled trucks (why do they always travel in packs?) rattled my bike. Then one day I looked over and noticed that the sidewalk was empty for as far as the eye can see in both directions.

In circumstances like that I see absolutely nothing wrong with hopping on to the sidewalk and letting the traffic pass you by for a while. Once I started paying attention I realized that the sidewalks were for all practical purposes empty for the majority of my commute, it was only in the downtown core where pedestrians were present in any large number. Given that this is often the case, I think sidewalk riding is an important tool in the urban cyclist’s tool kit, and as long as it is done responsibly there is no reason why it shouldn’t be an option.

Not only that, but there may even be a legal argument for allowing some form of sidewalk riding in places like Toronto. Currently the bylaw restricts sidewalk use to bikes with small wheel sizes. The purpose of this bylaw is to allow new cyclists, in this case young riders with smaller bikes, to learn how to ride away from traffic. Well, adults can also be new drivers, so clearly the wheel size restriction is just a convenience. In addition, new cyclists are for the most part much more of a hazard than experienced cyclists, so allowing them access to sidewalks suggests that the authorities are willing to accept some degree of risk to allow sidewalk riding. Last but not least, the presence of the bylaw implies that there is some awareness that the road can be a dangerous place, and thus there appears to be an argument to be made that, at least in certain cases, cyclists have a legitimate reason to be on the sidewalk. Arguments like this, combined with the often thin pedestrian presence on sidewalks and the general lack of police enforcement suggest to me that some degree of cyclist presence on sidewalks is acceptable.

It is always good to know the law. It is illegal to ride on the sidewalk unless you have a small wheeled bike, so you can be ticketed for doing so. For the most part, I use sidewalks for very short hops when the traffic is not giving me "respect" (read space) and I don't feel safe. Sidewalks are like my safety valve, I don't use them for regular riding, but if I need to get off the road and there are no pedestrians around, I can get my bearings and go.

Parking Lots
Parking lots are a special case, it may seem mad to suggest them as a regular riding surface, but again, it’s all about context. In the busy downtown core parking lots are often full and there is a slow but regular flow of traffic inside of them. In less central urban areas, along strip malls and at shopping centres, community centres, etc. the parking lots are often quite a bit bigger, traffic is slower as the drivers have less room, and they can be empty enough to produce an amply large pocket. They also frequently ‘string together’ along major thoroughfares, allowing you to weave your way through them easily for long sections. They often have speed bumps and the like, and of course there are always cars, but taking it slowly deals with those issues well enough.

I find I tend to use them as "junctures" to get between two roads that I want to use. There is a large parking lot at the Rona at Castlefield and Caledonia that I go through every day, it has a road that skirts the lot going West then turns North and empties you just below the Tim Horton's. I like this route as it avoids the light at the corner where I often have to wait, and it is generally free of cars when I go through.

Knitting Together the Fabric
These six options, trails, bike lanes, wide and shared roads, secondary roads, off peak use and sidewalks and parking lots all provide alternatives to cycling on main roads during peak hours. One of the key challenges of urban cycling is that main roads at peak times are appealing as they often offer the most direct route to your destination, and by definition most people travel at peak times. However, I believe that for most people, the desire to travel a main route at peak times turns them away from cycling, as main routes during peak hours have many cars and are thus intimidating. To be clear, I believe it is possible to cycle safely on main arteries at peak times as well, I regularly use main roads as a part of an overall cycling route, so I am not advocating the complete avoidance of main roads. However, for many different reasons cyclists may prefer to minimize their exposure to heavy traffic, and the choices I have outlined allow for that.

The solution here is to connect together a patchwork of these options to make up an entire route. This “patchwork” approach is not a novel idea, cycling advocates have made this point about bike lanes for years, my suggestion is that it should be extended to include all of the options I have discussed above, not just bike lanes. I have spoken to many of my friends and colleagues who don't ride a bike to commute and the most commonly cited reason is safety, and many times they have also said that they couldn't find a continuous bike lane route, e.g. a route that was mostly bike lanes, to get to their destination. Extending your possibilities to other options besides bike lanes and main roads is thus a crucial part of making cycling more appealing to novices.

Let me give an anecdote.

Several years ago the City of Toronto installed a new bike lane along a busy North/South road in the West end of the city. This area was primarily residential with some small businesses at various clusters along the road. A local TV station sent a reporter out on the first day to interview cyclists trying out the new route. He was sent out some time in the late afternoon. The “joke” was that no one came by while he was there, and there ensued a discussion by the reporter concerning the waste of resources the project represented, and a questioning of the value of bike lanes at all. This is a common occurrence, you open up new bike infrastructure and it is underused in the beginning.

Local cycling advocates were correct to point out at the time that bike lanes are initially underused as it takes some time for new lanes to be incorporated into cycling routes by regular riders, as riders may not be aware of them, and they have to knit together options that aren’t always convenient to each other. I think that these advocates are right, but are doing themselves a disservice by thinking about this issue primarily in terms of bike lanes. Bike lanes are popular with the public as well, at least the cycling public. But for the reasons mentioned above I think that bike lanes are both not as safe as they are perceived to be, and far and away not the only option for safe cycling. Properly executed (e.g. on the inside of parked cars, separated) they are certainly useful, but this is by no means the universal approach to bike lanes being used by municipalities.

I think things get distorted as this is in part a political issue, bike lanes represent a formal recognition that bikes need space on the road, and that they belong there. This is part of the reason why they frequently raise such ire amongst drivers, but also why they are a preferred choice of many cyclists and cycling advocates. Here is your line in the sand, which is in this case a line of paint on the pavement. However, by focusing on bike lanes cyclists forget a host of other options that are as good or better in terms of safety. For many the issue of cycling safety in the city has been reduced to “should we have more or less bike lanes”, I think this is a profound mistake. It is a mistake as it overestimates the safety value of bike lanes, it places too much reliance on lanes and not enough emphasis on safe cycling practices, and it distracts cyclists from the real range of options available to them. And paradoxically it also contributes to the overall underuse of bike lanes as it is almost impossible to construct an entire commuting route, or even the majority of a commuting route out of bike lanes. This is one of the reasons you get reporters standing beside more or less empty new bike lanes.

Whenever I am asked about bike lanes (and as a regular cycle commuter many people have asked me about them) I point out that I only include bike lanes in my route if they are on roads that are already preferred for other reasons (e.g. lower traffic, wider roads) so I could do without them entirely. Forrest has convincingly argued that bike lanes appeal to bureaucrats as they are low cost options (just some paint and you’re good) and they separate cars and bikes, something that city planners and road authorities want. More specifically, he argues that city planners and road authorities want bikes off the road entirely, and if this isn’t possible they want them restricted to separate lanes. Bike lanes appeal to cyclists due to their perceived safety advantages, but in actuality they only formalize what was already there. My concern is that the undue focus on bike lanes obscures the full range of safer options available to the urban cyclist, and keeps new cyclists from knitting together a route that would give them the confidence to commute on a regular basis.

In addition, once you allow for the use of a wider range of routes you increase the value of each individual component, as there is more likelihood you can knit together a complete route out of “safer” options. For example, there is a particular bike path in Toronto, part of the Belt Line Trail that follows power lines for about a mile or so. It is unremarkable as a path on its own, but as a part of an overall route is in an invaluable connection, and I use it on my regular commute every day. I can link up about three of these bike path routes in my regular commute that won’t take me too far off course, but that’s about it. If you want to do the majority of your commute using bike lanes you will be disappointed, as they are not always concentrated enough to make that possible. In this scenario individual bike lanes are useful for short hop trips, but not useful for long commutes. However, if you are willing to use the full range of options outlined above, then bike lanes are just another tool in your box.

Having said all of this, bike lanes make up a comparatively small percentage of my regular riding routes (less than 15% of most of them), I vastly prefer secondary roads and wide roads to roads with bike lanes, and in the cases where I do use them the roads they are upon were already preferred options as they are wider or lower traffic volume. From a safety perspective the presence or absence of bike lanes in the urban cycling mix is thus much less important than it is presented to be, and I believe their omnipresence in the cycling safety dialogue has been a detriment to overall cycling safety.

Another advantage of using this wider range of cycling route options is that it opens up the entire city to your use. Sticking to designated bike lanes can be tiresome, and frankly a bit dangerous, as the more popular routes tend to be densely populated by bikes and thus (perhaps ironically) a hazard. A case in point of this is bike lanes on College Street in Toronto. On any given morning there is a horde of cyclists on College using the bike lanes, and it is usually quite chaotic. I tried the route a few times and found I preferred the road to the bike lane, a fitting testament to their value in certain contexts.

Over the last few years I have been trying an extended experiment, to see if there was any part of the city that was “inaccessible” to me by bike. Whenever I have to go somewhere new I try to do it on the bike, and see if I can stitch together a safer route from my preferred options. For example, I work in the North West corner of the city, and one sunny summer day I decided to cycle to the South East corner of the city to a bike shop that carried a product I wanted. Essentially I was going both the length and breadth of the city, the worst possible combination for the urban commuter. I was riding mid-to-late afternoon, so traffic was lighter than rush hour, but there were still a lot of cars on the road. If I had stuck to bike lanes and parks the trip would have taken a long time, as I would have had to go West to the Humber River trail first, then winding South on the trail, then cross the city back and forth to get there. Instead I used shorter bike trails, park trails, secondary roads, a shared road and at least one main road during off peak hours, and I made it across the city in an hour. By car the trip would have been about 45 minutes minimum. I’m firmly convinced that there is no place in the city that cannot be reached in a reasonable amount of time by some combination of the above safer cycling options.

Another advantage of embracing this wider selection of options is that it allows you to both adapt to traffic complications and to customize your route to your particular needs. With respect to the former concern, if traffic is bad or construction has cut off a regular route, these 6 options give you plenty of choice in picking an alternate route. One of the most significant advantages of cycling is that you can skirt traffic problems, by example pulling up on the sidewalk and connecting to a nearby secondary road. Cars have to wait until the traffic moves forward; you can always ride up the side of the traffic line or exit the road at any point, not just a designated intersection. Route customization is also easier with a wide range of options. If you are interested in trail riding you can maximize that component of your route, if you prefer low grade riding (say you have knee problems) it is much easier to stitch together a route when you have more options available. 

This method of riding requires some patience, and the willingness to get “lost” on occasion in order to find a good route. Still, if you are willing to put in the effort it becomes possible to go pretty much anywhere you want in a comparatively safer way.



Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Ten Ways to Make my Ride Safer

We hear a lot about bike lanes, the City puts them in occasionally, and takes them out, cycle advocates call for more of them, and the public is ambiguous, sometimes for, sometimes against. However, they have become the go-to solution for improving cyclist safety. I have expressed my reservations about bike lanes in earlier posts, so here are some alternatives that would also improve my safety on the road. Some significantly. None of them involve any new bike lanes, although all are compatible with them. Some are cheap, some expensive but necessary, and some with corollary benefits for other stakeholders (e.g. drivers). All are particular to Toronto as that’s where I ride, but many will have applicability elsewhere. The list is neither exhaustive nor superior, merely tuned to my experience on the road.

Dear City of Toronto
Here are ten ways you, or you through your partners in the province, can improve cyclist safety on the roads of Toronto. I think all of these solutions (save perhaps 5 and 10) are acceptable to all stakeholders so should prove uncontroversial, if not popular.

1. Develop existing park, railway right of way and power line right of way paths. There is a proposal on the table to develop a continuous bike trail alongside a rail line that bisects the city. This sort of thing should have been done yesterday. These areas already exclude car traffic for the most part, so are ideal for cyclists. The land is there, it has already been designated, the only real concern is making sure the existing facilities are not exposed to damage. There is ample green space in the city, much of it has been used, but more can be done. The city should maintain heavily used trails in the winter. Yes, that would be expensive, but once you commit to that many riders would ride in the winter on dedicated cleared trails. Power line trails are expanding and I think the city is doing well on this, but I’m sure there is more.

2. Clean the roads. Crap in the gutter, where most cyclists ride most of the time, is the #1 cause of me diverting from path while riding. Just cleaning on roads popular with cyclists would be fantastic.

3. Fix the roads. It benefits everyone, but it helps cyclists a lot. Bumpy roads with cracks, holes and “pavement waves” are dangerous to cyclists, they have to go over them and risk crash or around them and risk collision. They recently paved Keele and it has made my ride up significantly safer as I can ride closer to the curb and further from the cars. Some holes you can ride over, some you can’t, patch the worst of them faster even if you can’t do the main road often.  

4. Don’t rely so much on that road tar you use to fix cracks. When it’s hot the stuff becomes slimy and slippery, I have felt my tire slipping when riding on this stuff. Either patch the road or find a new crack filler.

5. Rotate our opposed grill sewer covers periodically. Sewer covers in Toronto have a series of nested “V”s, their top open to the road and their vertex at the curve, these cut across your tire’s path rather than running parallel to it and risking your tire getting caught. The problem is that they rotate as cars drive over them, and eventually are out of alignment, and can become parallel to the bike tire.

6. Provide more “bike boxes”, square reserved areas for cyclists at the front of the lane queue. By giving them traffic priority at the head of the lane motorists have to wait for them, so the cyclist controls the traffic maneuver. You could even put these in where there are no bike lanes, just to indicate that bikes can always take priority at the start of the traffic transition. When the light changes these cyclists generally move right anyway, the point is to keep motorists from right turn collisions with waiting cyclists at the intersection. That’s a bucket of paint and a brush in terms of equipment costs, not bad.

7. Increase the cycle component of driver education. Include specific training on how to avoid the most common bike collisions and areas of misconception about the law (e.g. who has right of way at an intersection between a bike and car in the same part of the intersection). Cyclist car collisions follow some well understood patterns, we know where the problem areas are, teaching this to motorists explicitly. Testing them on it in the written and driving portion of the test would be ideal. Also increase the non-cycle component of driver education. For example, improved signaling would substantively increase cyclists safety on the road. Knowing what cars are going to do lets me get out of their way and let them go by. I like using my mirror as I can see a car with a signal on and react to that information in a way that makes me safer. A car in an intersection with a signal on lets me know if I can go. Signalling too late is another problem. I have come to intersections and stopped at the light. There is a car in the opposing lane with no signal on, also at the light. So as far as I know he is going straight through, as I am in the other direction, so I can go when the light changes. When the light changes I go forward and the driver puts on his signal and turns in front of me. Drivers need to learn to signal more often and signal earlier, turn signals off, not signal too soon, etc. Even simple things like this would make my ride safer, when I know what a car is going to do I can make sure I’m not in the way.

8. Place cages on trucks to keep cyclists from going underneath when they collide.

9. Change the laws to reduce restrictions on cyclists in certain areas. For example, bikes should be able to ride on the sidewalk, for several reasons:

- There are many areas of Toronto where the sidewalks are empty for long stretches, many of these areas have excellent visibility to see cars that will cross the sidewalks coming from driveways and such. Visibility is good, foot traffic is non-existent for long stretches, you should be able to cycle there.

- Areas with moderate foot traffic it should be possible to either roll through on your bike or ride with one foot touching or walk your bike past pedestrians. As a cyclist you can slow down, move over, if the pedestrian does not move to the space you are providing you stop and allow them to pass, if they do, you proceed through slowly. If a cyclist is ceding right of way to pedestrians and riding at a reasonable speed, there should be no infraction.

- In areas with dense foot traffic a bike must ride on the road or be walked.
I would argue for a law that said that sidewalk riding was lawful in areas of low to moderate foot traffic (defined in any way that is agreed upon)  at slow to moderate speeds. Any fast riding and any riding in areas of dense foot traffic would be hazardous and thus a ticketable offence. There are other areas where the law can be changed, open these up to public discussion and revision.

10. Enforce the law on both cars and bikes. People need disincentives to breaking the law, on a small, maneuverable thing like a bike, it is enormously tempting to ignore road rules because you can, and sometimes you have to do so to avoid being run over. So there needs to be flexibility in the law, but obvious and flagrant stuff needs to be addressed. Perhaps phase this in slowly, a series of blitzes before aggressive targeting is adopted. And it has to apply to both cars and bikes. I have seen many motorists running red lights, jumping the intersection turning before the oncoming traffic with right of way comes through, cutting off, speeding, etc. without being caught, and only a few times been there when they were pulled over for doing it. Subjective impression, but there it is. If safety concerns aren’t going to make someone follow the rules of the road, then costs are a good motivator. We have to be on the lookout for unfairness, for example ticketing cyclists for trivial things - missing one pedal reflector, but the current approach is very hands off.


Ian J Slater

Monday, 16 September 2013

Road Safety 

When I started to ride more often, and on roads more than trails, I started to think explicitly about how I rode on the roads. This was odd as cycling is the paradigm case of something you know intuitively, or to be more precise tacitly. That is why it is hard to describe riding a bike, but fairly easy to show someone how to do it. As a result there is very little in the way of riding instruction available for the newcomer to traffic. We have books telling us how to fix our bikes, and outlining routes to take, but very little in the way of discussion of how to ride in traffic. The prominent exception to this is Forester’s work, and I would warmly recommend his discussion of road riding. Perhaps it is simply assumed that if you know the traffic rules you will be good to go. However, the traffic rules don’t tell you anything about what to do about cars other than that they are fellow vehicles on the road. For me, it isn’t just a question of where you ride, on the road or on the sidewalk, but rather of how you ride when you are on the road.

I found when I gave it some thought that most of what I did on the road was heavily influenced by my cycling history in small town Ontario. I learned to ride my bike in a place with very little traffic and relatively safe roads. And since I was so young when I started to ride the bike, my early habits became “intuition” and I applied them more or less without thinking.

When I sat down to re-think the cycling process I decided to go from the ground up, looking for basic principles then extrapolating them to the cycling environment in question, rather than either evaluating my instinctive practices or using the traffic rules as the only guidelines. The resultant “system” I have developed is neither foolproof nor optimal, but it has contributed to my safe arrival on many long-distance urban cycling trips, and I recommend it.

Starting Points
When reconsidering my cycling methods from the ground up I wanted to have a few reliable premises to work from. The more assumptions you make the more risk you run of making mistakes, so I wanted a small number of assumptions to start with. I also wanted assumptions that are relatively solid and uncontroversial. I didn’t want to risk my life on wild ideas. As a result I started with three assumptions:
1 Bikes are vehicles (legal)
2 Bikes are slower than cars (physical)
3 Bikes are lighter than cars (physical)
The first assumption is legal, the next two physical, and a few words about all of them. With respect to assumption 1, for the most part I believe that cyclists should follow the rules of the road. While I’m not above a certain amount of latitude to ensure safety (e.g. if I have to cross a solid line on the road to avoid being crushed by a car I will do so, despite the fact I’m not supposed to), I want to be as responsible as possible. The law tells us that a bicycle is a vehicle, and thus should be on the road. There can be exceptions to this, and I will note them as we discuss individual situations, but you will be spending most of your cycling time on the road, as you are for traffic purposes a vehicle, not a pedestrian.

Assumptions 2 and 3 are also relatively uncontroversial, cars are for the most part faster than bicycles, and even if they sometimes are slower, for the majority of the time you are on the road cars will be faster than you. Cars are also much heavier than bicycles, to be precise orders of magnitude heavier than bicycles.
Individually these are unremarkable facts, but combined they structure the cycling environment. Cycling involves you sharing the road with a bunch of heavy, fast moving objects. Looked at slightly differently, motorists are presented with a field of light, small, slow moving vehicles they have to avoid while driving at significant speeds. The problem is that 2+3 imply that any impact with a car is dangerous. This is not to suggest that there are no dangers on the road outside of cars, weather complications, road conditions, cyclist error can all contribute to injury. Still cars are a meaningful risk to the cyclist and the main deterrent to new cyclists. This fact is the inevitable result of the physics of the situation, a large number of vehicles moving at different speeds in the same space are bound to be involved in collisions, and any such collision has the most likely outcome of being bad for the cyclist and only moderately damaging to the motorist. One might even be tempted to suggest that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, as it involves these conflicting components.

Given these assumptions, is there any way to change cycling from an inherently dangerous activity to one with an acceptable level of risk? I put the question this way for a reason, I want to be sure that I convey the idea that cycling can be more or less risky, not that it can be safe. It is possible that you can make your cycling safer, but not safe. The idea of safety is rather fuzzy to begin with, think of the Titanic for a moment. The Titanic was designed to be safe, and it sank into oblivion on its maiden voyage. Safety is an illusion, even if you do everything right and take every precaution you can still have an accident. If the driver beside me falls asleep at the wheel and veers right at precisely the time they pass me there is very little I can do to help myself. This is why I would encourage you to think of more or less risky cycling practices, or how to make cycling safer, not whether or not it is a safe activity.

The key to making cycling safer is to realize that, just like any other activity, traffic has patterns to its flow. Those patterns are based on a combination of social interaction (traffic laws, the interpretation and obedience to traffic laws, etc.) and the physical environment (automobiles, bikes, the road, the speeds involved, weight of vehicles, etc.) I spent a considerable amount of time observing traffic patterns on different kinds of roads and discovered that there are several general characteristics of traffic that you can use to your advantage.

Given the pattern of traffic (which I will discuss below) and physical environment in question my first realization is that my primary goal as a cyclist is to be wherever the cars are not present. That seems like a bit of a no brainer, but it is important to highlight. Cars are not everywhere, not every street is busy, not all times of day are busy, and not all parts of the road are used by the car. We tend to be so overwhelmed by the car that we can’t think of the road without cars on it, but once you start looking for the absenceof cars you will start to look at the road very differently. My goal on the bike is to occupy the “spaces” around the traffic. I alternately think of these spaces as ‘gaps’ or ‘pockets’, and if this approach was to be given a name I would call it ‘pocket’ cycling.

The goal is simple, find the “pocket” or space without cars and cycle there. Sometimes this is the gap between “packs” of high speed traffic, sometimes this is the narrow band beside the sidewalk to the right of the lane, the “ditch”, where most cyclists spend most of their time. So if the goal is to find the pocket and avoid cars, how do you maximize your time “in the pocket”? Two possibilities will be considered, one, pick where you are going to ride, and two, change how you ride. I will discuss both.

Where you Ride
When people think of “safe” cycling they often think about bike paths. This is unfortunate as bike paths don’t actually add much to cycling safety, there are many other ways to reduce your road risk, and some of the other options I would argue are significantly better. In no particular order, here are six ways you can increase your cycling safety by varying where you ride:

Locations for Safer Cycling
1 cycle on designated trails + in parks
2 cycle in designated bike lanes
3 cycle on wide roads and 'shared roads'
4 cycle on low-traffic or secondary roads (residential or service roads)
5 cycle major roads but in off peak hours
6 cycle on sidewalks, in parking lots

I will discuss each of these individually, then say a few words about how they can be combined in my next post.

Bike Trails
Bike trails are, in principle at least, the best option available. With the exception of service vehicles, bike trails are empty of motor vehicles, and for the most part they have a low volume of people, other bikes and animals as well. This “pocket” of obstacle free space makes trails a preferable option for those uncomfortable with traditional road riding. Since most cities are near rivers, and most cities have park systems, most cities have some sort of trail network as well. Trails are generally wide enough for two bikes to ride side by side, or for one car.

Still, you are not alone out there; even if the trails aren’t “thick” with traffic, other cyclists, pedestrians and their pets use trails as well, and this presents some interesting challenges. With respect to pedestrians, keep in mind while on trails that bikes are comparatively silent, so pedestrians will be startled if you whip by them from behind without sounding your bell in advance. Sound it too early won’t help, sound it too late and you will terrify someone. Still, sounding your bell is an absolute requirement to alert slower moving pedestrians to your presence. I have personally asked scores of pedestrians over the years (usually dog owners taking their dogs for a walk on multi-use trails) and they have all responded in the same way, ringing your bell is always preferable to whipping by silently.

On the subject of dogs, people walk their dogs on park trails, and dogs will often chase bicycles. Well trained dogs won’t, but you don’t know the story. And make no mistake, dogs are pack animals, and evolution has fashioned them in such a way that they chased prey down in packs to eat. A dog will catch up to you if it isn’t sick or old. For the most part people who take their dogs on trails have well behaved dogs, otherwise their owners would not be comfortable allowing them off leash. Still, caution is always wise, I have been chased a few times and it is disconcerting.

In addition, bike trailsare only safe if they are well maintained and clear of debris. Since many trails are in parks and green spaces, there are frequently branches and leaves lying about. Trails can be closed in the winter if they are not cleared throughout the year by the city. Although you can certainly ride on a snow covered trail, it is not a pleasant option. For that matter, in the fall leaves are everywhere, and wet leaves are a major safety concern. When you hit a patch of wet leaves you can lose your grip with the road entirely, and given that most cyclists tend to speed up a bit on an empty bike trail, this can be very dangerous.
Also, trails often follow rivers and creeks, and rivers and creeks are low elevation (water seeks out the lowest route), and do not tend to follow straight lines, meaning that you have to climb in and out of river valleys to follow trails, and taking a trail can add time to your trip. 

Finally, many trails go through parks, and for better or for worse, some people go to parks and green spaces for the privacy they can offer in order to do less than socially acceptable things. I have cycled past people shooting drugs into their veins, people engaged in, how you might say, close coupling, and people exchanging money and unmarked packages from the trunks of expensive cars. Also, when you are on a park trail you can often find yourself in a situation where there aren’t a lot of people around, there aren’t a lot of people in earshot, and you are suddenly passing by someone who might make you uncomfortable. As a result I do not recommend riding bike trails at night (there is also a visibility concern here, as most park trails are not lit), and I do recommend exercising a degree of caution when your instincts tell you that someone you see isn’t “right”.  So, trails are not perfect, still, being in the trail pocket significantly reduces risk, so they qualify as a safer option.

Bike Lanes
I posted on bike lanes below, so I won’t repeat what I’ve said, but suffice it to say that non-separated lanes are still risky, particularly for novice cyclists, and separated lanes, though a tougher sell for the non-cycling public, are safer in most circumstances.

Wide Roads and Shared Roads
Wide roads are “unofficial” aids to safe cycling. Although they lack formal line divisions on the road, wide roads are often safer than roads with bike lanes as bike lanes in many ways just formalize what was already happening, people were riding off to the side of the road anyway, and bike lanes just paint a line to the left of the cyclist on the road to mark out this area. Thus a wide road without an “official” bike lane can present you with a larger and safer “pocket” than a narrow road with one.

Wide roads are often found in new housing developments or in areas where there is heavy vehicle traffic. They are, for the most part, not indicated on maps in any formal way as, for example, one way streets are indicated on some maps. This is unfortunate, as along with secondary roads, wider roads provide the cyclist with an optimal riding experience, lots of space while still sharing the road with vehicles. The main disadvantage to wide roads is location, they may not be convenient to your commute. Still, once you have found the wider roads in your commute you will likely keep them as preferred options as they allow you a significantly larger pocket.

Shared roads are roads where there are prominently placed signs indicating to motorists that bicycles are encouraged to ride on these roads. Formal recognition of the “shared” status of roads is sometimes linked to frequency of use, e.g. when a critical mass of cyclists has been using a road for a period of time it may receive this designation before lanes are formally introduced. In other cases wide roads are often designated as “shared” as this will be less of a burden on motorists as there is more room on the road. Whether it be due to the fact that the road traffic is less intensive, or that the road is particularly wide, formally shared roads alert motorists to your presence and provide a larger pocket for you use. The main disadvantage to shared roads is, again, location.

Secondary Roads
Low-traffic or “secondary” roads (primarily residential roads, commercial service roads or in downtown areas neighborhood back alleys) are a little discussed option for the urban cyclist. They are not without risks of course; residential secondary roads can be poorly maintained depending on the area of the city where they are located. Commercial service secondary roads (roads used by commercial vehicles, for example in industrial parks) have a lot of heavy vehicle traffic. Still, these secondary roads are “cycling gold” in my experience. They are low traffic for the most part, and commercial service secondary roads tend to be wide as they have to accommodate large vehicles backing in to docks and making sharp turns. Residential roads may have parked cars and such, but their general levels of traffic tend to be much lower, and thus they are much safer.

There are always exceptions of course, certain residential roads tend to be busy by virtue of their particular location (for example near a school) but for the most part you can have them to yourself. In my experience secondary roads provide the largest, most consistent and most enduring cycling pockets that you can find. I have spent many an hour cycling on the road with no cars anywhere near me by using secondary roads. The chief disadvantage to secondary roads is their location, by definition secondary roads are not main arteries, they often wind or wander compared to larger, busier streets.

Off Peak Cycling
Cycling busy roads in off peak hours can be surreal, to say the least. One day a few years back I had to work late at York University, and when I left the office it was 3 am. Keele is a major street that passes by York. It is one of the busiest streets in Toronto and during regular hours it quite frequently has traffic jams. At 3 am however, it was empty. I rode down the top section of Keele, an area that is normally quite busy, riding on the dashed line between Southbound lanes with my arms stretched out in either direction, touching nothing but air. It is important to be guarded in your enthusiasm in situations like that. Even without traffic major routes can still be dangerous, for example, major routes get a lot of traffic, which means that the road is frequently in bad shape. Still, experiences like this opened my eyes to the value of off-peak cycling.

There are two ways in which off-peak cycling is more of a viable option than most commuting experts might realize. First, I think we need to rethink the assumption that many or most commuters need to be on the road during peak travel times. I agree that the fact these are peak travel times implies that they have the greatest traffic volume; that seems unproblematic. My concern is that there may be many people who don’t have to be on the road at peak times, and as a result there is more flexibility around travel times than might first be obvious. I have often thought that we underestimate the number of people who travel at non-peak times as they are distributed over the rest of the day.

For example, there are many people who do not work 9-5 jobs. Some work part time hours, those in the service industry that work in stores that don’t open at 9 am may be able to arrive to work later. Restaurant workers are a good example, but many retail workers fall into this category as well. People who work night shifts, self-employed people, people who work multiple jobs, people who go to school full or part time, custodial workers who prepare your workplace after hours, the list is actually quite long. For all of these people the option of riding at non-peak times is real and appealing.

The other way to think about off-peak cycling is in terms of “straddling” the rush hour. Leaving well before or just a bit after the rush hour can substantively reduce traffic on the road. Since we are considering long distance commuting, leaving a few minutes early won’t help, as you will still be spending the majority of your trip on the road during peak traffic volume. So if you want to leave early to reduce traffic you need to give yourself a decent buffer. Where I live the road gets busy around 8:15-8:30 and stays busy until 9 or so, then there is a precipitous drop in traffic volume. So if I want to leave early I need to be on the road around 7:30 or so to miss the majority of the rush hour. Leaving a bit later can also bring significant traffic volume dividends at a minimal time cost. You would probably be surprised at how much difference a small delay in departure can make. I know what some of you are thinking, “Maybe he can arrive late to work by I certainly can’t”. Fair enough, there will always be jobs that can’t tolerate tardiness, and for those late departures are out. Still, for those with flexibility late and early departure present the option of being on the road during periods of much lower traffic volume.

Next Post: Sidewalk and Parking Lot Riding and Putting it Together.

And here are a few pictures from the Don River Trail

South End of Trail Near Riverdale Farm Looking North

The Danforth Bridge, Looking North on Trail

Trail Looking South Near the Brickworks

The Don River Rapids, near Pottery Road

    Bridge just South of Sunnybrook Park

Me, near the turnoff at Taylor Creek Park 

Cheers, Ian

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Just a quick post.

I have been engaging in a debate about cycle lanes on Harbord at IBikeTO, if you find this blog interesting I'm sure you will enjoy the debate there as well:

There are a few threads:

IBikeTO - Harbord Bike Lanes

IbikeTO - Harbord Bike Lanes 2

I have also been debating the licensing of cyclists:

IBikeTO - Licensing Cyclists



Monday, 9 September 2013


In my second to last post I discussed how visibility and speed contribute to the safety of your ride.

Today I want to say a bit more about speed.

First things first, say you are driving a car. Your perception of speed is compromised in a car, for a few reasons.

First, get out on the highway and get up to 100 km/hr or so. Then roll down all your windows.

LOUD and WINDY isn’t it?

Now, pull off onto a dirt road, feel the tires slide a bit, realize that your regular driving surface contributes to your traction and masks your speed.

Here’s another one. Look out the front window as you drive, you feel like you are moving placidly forward. Look perpendicular to your path and see the hedges or fences whipping by, suddenly you are very aware of your speed.

Look at the cars passing you. Relative to your speed, they are not moving that fast, perhaps 10 km/hr, but total speed they are going say 110 km/hr, very fast indeed.

So the car does several things to mess with your perception of speed:

1. It blocks the wind resistance making your environment calm and quiet.
2. It smooths out your contact with the road with tires and smooths bumps being on paved surfaces, both mask your speed.
3. It masks peripheral visual objects that would more accurately convey your velocity (you look forward for the most part when you drive).
4. Your available reference points (passing traffic) are moving slowly, relative to you, giving the perception that you too are moving slowly.

What does this mean?

Well, car drivers aren’t always that good at estimating how fast they are going, and therefore how far they require to stop. Physics doesn’t help either, as in addition to misestimating speed, we tend to underestimate the weight of the vehicles in question, and the greater the weight at a given speed the greater the momentum… and thus the harder it is to stop.

Since the car does the work, you have no sense of how heavy your vehicle is.

Try this. On a flat suface, have someone sit in the drivers seat and put the car in neutral, they can ride the brake to ensure nothing untoward happens. Now push the car. Its heavy, you can probably get it rolling, but you still get a sense for how heavy it is.

Now picture it hurtling along at 120 km/hr.

Impressive, yes?

It is very easy to underestimate your speed and the relative difficulty of stopping in a heavy vehicle like a car. You can know your speed exactly on the speedometer, but you underestimate how fast that speed actually is, how much momentum you have, and how hard it is to redirect or stop the vehicle in motion.

How fast is 40 km/hr? It feels slow in a car, but it is not.

So speed matters a lot. Drivers have to try to stay within speed limits, and use discretion when driving quickly around comparatively slower vehicles like bikes. Tailgating is out of the question, as stopping distances are easy to underestimate. Basically, you either pass or you maintain a respectful distance behind the bike. As a cyclist I would prefer you to pass and move along, but if you aren’t confident, just leave me space.

What about being on a bike?

Well, comparative speed is quite a bit lower, so you aren’t going as fast. Consequently you get more time to react to traffic problems, and it is easier to stop in a short distance.

The bike has some other interesting features:

1. It does not block the wind resistance, so it leaves you in a noisy environment full of traffic sounds. It is thus easier to perceive your speed.
2. Bike tires smooth out your ride, but less so than with cars, so you feel bumps and obstructions to a greater degree, and get a better sense of your speed
3. It also masks peripheral visual objects that would more accurately convey your velocity (you look forward for the most part when you ride).
4. Your available reference points (passing traffic) are moving quickly, relative to you, giving the perception that you too are moving slowly.

So cyclists have a mix of factors involved, in one way they are more aware of their environment as they are not cocooned inside a car with windows up. They feel the wind, the bumps on the road, and they hear what’s going on around them. I usually hear approaching cars before I notice them in the rear view mirror. In other ways cyclists are similarly challenged, they tend to look forward so don’t notice how fast they are going, and compared to passing traffic they appear to be moving quite slowly, when they are not.

These are perceptual limitations associated with the human senses and the human brain. We can’t do much to change them, but we can be aware of how they limit us. And here’s the thing. Cyclists have a bit of a split decision here in terms of good and bad, we feel  more of our speed but we still tend to underestimate it. So, by extension, the safest thing to do is to slow down, as we tend to underestimate our speed.

Slowing down gives you more time to react, means that when you do react you can do so in time, and reduces the forward momentum that can carry you into situations of harm.

Hold on to that thought. Slowing down might be a good idea.

Now forgive me a digression.

A respected American cycling advocate, John Forester, advocates that cyclists travel on main arteries, as main arteries get you there the fastest, and this is, according to Forester, the main concern of cycle commuters. He then proceeds to point out that many people do not choose to cycle as their commute time, compared to the car, is not good. So if faced with a choice of an hour long trip by bike and a 20 min drive by car, the bike loses. So Forester encourages cyclists to drive as fast as possible (20-25miles/hr is his target speed for urban commuting, approximately 30-40km/hr), and stick to the main routes despite the traffic. This is the only thing, according to him, that will make cycling desirable.

He does admit, that in certain cases, the congestion can be so bad that bike times are comparable to car times, but he treats this as an exception, and maintains that fast, main artery cycling is the way to go.

Well, queue my cycle commuting experience.

I have been working and living in the same places for about 10 years now. My job is about 18 km from where I live. When I first started working, I took the car. After that, it was the car and public transit. Then public transit for a while, then finally cycling, which is now my dominant transportation method.

I have tried many routes, on public transit, by car and by bike. And I have 10 years of data to go on. This has given me some fairly reliable comparative travel statistics. Let’s start with the car:

Car – Average time to/from work: 90 min round trip – 24 km an hour
Public Transit – Average time to/from work: 150 min round trip – 14 km an hour
Bike – Average time to/from work: 100 min round trip – 22 km/hr

Just for comparison, average round trip commute time in Toronto is 80 minutes. I have a long commute, so it’s not surprising I top the average time for all transport modes. I travel West and North through the city, from just North of Bloor at Christie to Jane and Steeles.

What is more interesting is the comparative data.

When Forester rejects cycling along side roads and bike paths he does so by citing speed considerations. But a look at my statistics should be illuminating.

In my car my average speed in my cross-city commute is 24 km/hr, public transit 14 km/hr, and by bike, 22 km/hr.

What this essentially means is that in Toronto, a city of long commute times and bad traffic, you are averaging around 24 kilometers an hour on a cross city trip in your car. Of course it can be less, and it can be more, but that’s the reliable average. If I can cycle at 22 km/hr, is that too slow?

So back to where we started. I have advocated for slowing down as it will increase your safety as you have more time to react to traffic situations, and you have a built in tendency to underestimate your speed.

But here is another argument, slow down as you will be competitive with the traffic, moreso for longer trips. Short hop trips can advantage the car if there are uncluttered routes, as long as traffic is not too dense the car can outrun you completely. But the longer the trip, the more likely the traffic back up, and the chance for the bike to catch up. And you tend to do better in rush hour, when the traffic is the worst, and you can pass beside cars that are bumper to bumper.

So the second argument for slowing down is that you are already doing well compared to cars if you have a long commute in a busy urban centre.

I know cyclists that would laugh at the suggestion that your average cycling speed should be around 20 km/hr. Forester targets a regular cycling speed of 30-40 km/hr. Why the discrepancy?

Two things, Forester is a touring cyclist first, he came to cycle commuting advice second, and he is pushing for touring cyclist needs. He advocates the swept down curled handlebar design to “reduce wind resistance”, and increase speed. He also advocates for the use of main arteries only, depicting bike paths as deadly spaces. They of course can be, but I suspect they would be less so if he wasn’t zipping through on them at high speeds.

I’m not going to insist that 20 miles an hour is somehow the target, it is an average by the way, so sometimes you go a lot faster, sometimes not. But the combination of bad speed perception and the reduced ability to respond to traffic problems makes for a serious safety concern. Slowing down helps with both, and in the end will not hurt your travel time as much as you think, particularly in areas were traffic is bad.

A few pics from my daily commute:

Beltline Trail, looking East. New cyclists have a tendency to want trails or bike paths for their entire commute, and that's hard to find, but there are still plenty of "short hop" trails you can use to supplement your road riding.

Caledonia Road, looking North. Caledonia is an excellent cycling road as it is one lane in both directions, with a seldom used turning lane in the middle, so cars give you plenty of space.

Lawrence Avenue, looking West. Here I am behind the traffic pack, so the road is empty.


Keele Street, looking North, and FRESHLY PAVED! So much better to ride on as the gutters are still clean and smooth.

Keele Street, looking North, at the bridge crossing the 401, thanks to the nice new "dead zone" between the exit to the highway and the right hand lane the approach to the bridge is considerably safer.

Keele Street, looking North just before Sheppard Avenue, notice that my lane is empty, and so is the left lane. The nice thing about long straight stretches like this is that the traffic quickly passes you and this can leave you with an empty road.