Saturday, 30 November 2013

On Contraflow Lanes and City Cycling Infrastructure

So they have finished the contraflow bike lane on Shaw Street. I have had the opportunity to see the final results, and I’ll admit to being puzzled.

The current set up from Bloor to Dupont has the contraflow lane on the East side of the street beside parked cars, and sharrows on the West side going South. This strikes me as bad placement, for a few reasons:

1. The contraflow lane leaves much less road room for cars and bikes going south, cyclists going South with traffic will have less room, if they ride where the sharrows indicate they will be directly in front of cars that will not be able to easily pass them without going into the contraflow lane.

2. The contraflow lane is beside parked cars. The BICE study ranks the safety of various shared use models on a risk scale. The ratings for areas with parked cars and no bike infrastructure are very similar to those with bike lanes and parked cars. It’s the parked cars that make it dangerous, no matter what bike infrastructure you use. It is always preferable to separate cyclists from parked cars where possible, to eliminate an accident vector.

3. At intersections, cars traveling West cannot see cyclists approaching from the South due to parked cars on the East side of the street.

From Bloor South to Dundas parking is on the West side of the street with the contraflow lane on the East side, so they avoid these issues.

I’m ignoring the set up South of Dundas and North of Dupont as one has dual lanes on either side and the other has no lanes at all. So my areas of interest are from Dupont to Bloor and from Bloor to Dundas.

I think the set up from Bloor to Dupont is less than optimal, and I wonder if it could have been done differently.

So I posted a question about this arrangement on IBikeTO, and Herb (the site’s main blogger) responded with a link to the proposal for the contraflow lane so I could see their rationale for setting things up this way.

Here’s what I found.  

 “This report recommends a combination of bikeway types (traditional bicycle lanes, contra-flow bicycle lanes and sharrows and signage) to provide a continuous, connected bikeway along the entire length of on Shaw Street.”

That is the target.

The report argues that,

“Between Dundas Street West and Bloor Street West, from May to October parking is located on the west side from the 1st to 15th of each month and switches to the east side from the 16thto the end of the month. From November to April, parking is located on the east side at all times. To accommodate the northbound bicycle lane on the east side staff are recommending that the alternate side parking regulations be rescinded and replaced with parking at all times on the west side of the street. The northbound bicycle lane would be located on the east side adjacent to the curb”

So first things first, before the contraflow lane, cars on Shaw from Dundas to Bloor parked on the east side of the street for half the year, and then for half the month of all remaining months. Thus the majority of the year cars parked on the East side of the street.

Switching the parking permanently to the West side is thus a significant change from the status quo.

Furthermore, the report notes that there is one stretch of the street, along Fred Hamilton Park, where parking is restricted, on the West side of Shaw. Before the installation of the contraflow lane, from the 1st to the 15th of those months you lost parking spots on Shaw in front of the Park on the West side. So the existing parking restrictions resulted in, “…24 fewer parking spots available for residents to park between the 1st and 15th of each month from May to October.”

After the lane installation, where parking is permanently transferred to the West side, there will be 24 fewer parking spaces all year round, rather than just between the 1st and 15th of the month for half the year.

So despite the fact that placement decisions are often made to appease parking, in this case the decision will negatively impact parking to a greater degree South of Bloor. I can’t say this with finality, as I don’t know if all West parking would ultimately deliver more parking than all East, despite the losses in front of Fred Hamilton Park, but what I can say for sure is that switching to all West will increase the impact of the parking loss along the park.

The decision to leave parking on the East side of the street North of Bloor and South of Dupont, despite this leading to a contraflow lane right beside parked cars, is stated in the report:

“Moving parking to the west side would allow the northbound bicycle lane to be located adjacent to the east curb consistent with proposed design south of Bloor Street West. However, there are substantially more driveways on the west side of the street and, as a result, relocating the parking to the west side would eliminate approximately 43 parking spaces. Maintaining the parking on the east side would preserve all of the existing parking supply.”

So here we may have a rationale for the decision, having the lane on the East side both North and South of Bloor means that you only lose 24 parking spaces all year round, rather than 43 parking spaces all year round.

However, this leaves out an obvious possibility: have parking on the East side of Shaw all the way between Dupont and Dundas, and keep the contraflow lane on the West side all the way up.

The parking South of Bloor was on the East for the majority of the year before this lane was added anyway, so this does not represent a major change. As far as I know no one in the neighbourhood was clamoring for the switch before the lane was proposed, so I’m not clear on why it is such a concern to simply assign all parking to the East side of Shaw all the way up.

This would have cyclists away from parked cars for the whole route from Dundas to Bloor, and it would mean that you don’t lose the 24 spaces all year round near Fred Hamilton Park, indeed you would gain back 24 spaces you were losing for half the month six months of the year under the old arrangements, and you would lose nothing North of Bloor as the parking would stay the same.

But the biggest safety bonus would be at corners like Essex and Barton and Yarmouth, where visibility issues will be lessened by the placement of the bike lane on the West side.

This seems good for everyone, you gain back some parking South of Bloor, and you don’t lose any North of Bloor, and cyclists get a separated contraflow lane away from parked cars and with great visibility at intersections.

I guess the real question would be this. I am concerned about parked cars and visibility for cyclist safety. But maybe I’m worrying too much. I cycle by parked cars all the time, it can be done. Are there examples of contraflow lanes beside parked cars in Toronto?

The report provides one, there is a contraflow lane on Strathcona from Pape to Blake street, and that it has been in use without significant incident for 10 years. This suggests that my concerns might be exaggerated.

However, if you look at the Strathcona lane there are some important differences.

First, the Strathcona lane is about 1/5 the length of the Shaw street lane from Dupont to Bloor.

Second, the Strathcona lane has no intersections between Pape and Blake, the strip from Dupont to Bloor has 14 intersections between Dupont and Bloor, and 3 of these (Yarmouth, Essex and Barton) admit Westbound traffic and thus will have visibility issues that the Strathcona strip will not have.

I’m happy to have a contraflow lane on Shaw, many, many cyclists rode contraflow there anyway, and a painted lane makes it “official”. I’m also happy that the city is adding to our cycling infrastructure, that’s always a good thing. I’m just not convinced that this was the best way to do it.



Saturday, 23 November 2013

Road Hazards

I couldn’t make an exhaustive list of road hazards if I tried, there are too many. Not only that, but road hazards vary by geography, weather, road architecture, etc.

Still, I can make a list of the most common problems I have encountered on the road, and I suspect they will resonate with most urban riders. They are in no particular order.

1. Waiting to go straight through an intersection from the bike lane or curbside when there is a right turner beside you.

The primary issue is the driver thinking he or she is fast enough to “jump” you, e.g. turn in front of you in defiance of traffic law. My solution is to communicate my desire to ride straight through to the driver and get his or her assent.

Another common situation is the driver at the intersection in the right turn lane and you are in the straight through lane just to the left of it. On more than one occasion the driver in the right turn lane has made a last minute decision to go straight, and since it is hard to see their right turn signal when you are to the left of them, you may not know they have changed their minds. And anyway, as they are not supposed to go straight from the right lane, and most drivers don’t bother to signal when they are in a right turn lane, why would you even bother to check for a signal? When I have been in this situation and I’m not confident the driver will be making a right turn as they should I wave at the driver, point at them and point to the right, they generally nod to let me know what they are doing, or in certain cases turn on their signals. How do you know if a driver has changed his mind about the turn? You don’t, but I generally check the driver to see where they are looking when they are in the intersection. If they aren’t looking right then there’s a chance they may not be turning.

2. Waiting to make a left turn across traffic at an intersection with lights.

To make a left turn you have to be in the left hand lane, on the right hand side of it. So your first step is to switch lanes from the right lane, this involves shoulder checking before committing to the change and doing so between cars. Riding on the right hand side of the left lane is a position many cyclists find a bit unnerving, as they have fast moving traffic on both sides of them for a change. Nonetheless stay in the left lane and eventually you will come to the intersection. Stay on the right hand side of the left lane and indicate your left turn. If you don’t have an advanced green you move to the middle of the intersection like a car would and wait to make the turn in sequence. If you do have an advanced green then you cycle straight forward. Why not make a left turn right away? Well, there are cars that are going to want to make the tight left turn, so it is safest to cycle straight ahead (motorists will be turning away from you when you do this) then make a turn of 90 degrees further ahead, completing your left turn. I call this a “box corner” turn and it works very well to keep the cars and I separate on turns.

The chief challenges of this maneuver are getting into the left turn lane in the first place, which involves lane changes in fast traffic, and once you are there tolerating the presence of fast traffic on either side of you for a change. The actual turn itself is comparatively safe as you are never in the path of the left turning cars or the right turning cars.

3. Car approaching from behind with right turn light on.

The main idea here is that right turners want around you but may not want to wait for you to clear their intersection. If so, they may make a last minute decision to pass you and cut you off (bad) or ride your back wheel (bad). In the first case I recommended slowing down a bit when they pass you to ensure proper stopping distance. In the second case I recommended exiting the road if the driver was too aggressive and too close.

4. Traffic Exiting to Highway

If you are on a major artery that crosses a highway there will generally be an exit lane for highway traffic and one or two through lanes. The concern here is that traffic often has to “squeeze” to get into the exit lane (due to congestion) and traffic will often be speeding up to get to traffic speed. This is a bad combination for cyclists. Everyone involved should realize that a bike will not be going on the highway, so motorists should expect you to be in the straight through lane. So you have two choices. Either you ride at the right hand side of the middle or right straight through lane, or you dismount and ride on the sidewalk with pedestrians. The latter option is perfectly safe if you respect the pedestrian traffic.

The former option is also workable, but it is a bit intimidating for new cyclists. When you move forward in this situation you will have two lines of fast moving traffic, one on either side of you. I do this maneuver regularly on my way home down Keele and there are certain days when I decide against it as I’m not in the headspace to be between two lines of fast moving traffic. However, the method works just fine, and once you have lost your highway drivers to the exit things return to normal. There will be motorists who want to switch from the straight through lane to the exit, and they may be conflicted about whether to do it behind you or in front of you. I have been cut off on more than one occasion by someone who wants to switch to the exit lane at the last minute. The key here is to maintain your line and stay where you are supposed to be, the right hand side of the straight through lane, traffic will just go around you.

5. Four Way Stops

The general principle is to slow down, determine if you can see and hear well enough to assess the traffic situation, and move forward when the way is clear. If there is a line of traffic at the sign wait your turn in the traffic sequence and proceed when you have right of way. If you arrive to an intersection at the same time as a car in your lane, and you are both going forward, you can leave when they leave, using the car as “cover” against oncoming traffic.

6. Door Prizes

When you are cycling to the right of the curb and parked cars (whether in a bike lane or not) someone in a parked car can open a door suddenly and you can smash into it, going through or over the window, and potentially breaking your neck. There are a few options to reduce your risk in a situation like this. First, you can look at the driver’s side seat to determine if anyone is in the car. You can have false negatives (someone short was there and you didn’t see them), but you don’t get many false positives. When I see someone in the seat I slow down a bit in case they decide to leave suddenly. More generally I suggest slowing down whenever passing parked cars, and drive out as far from the cars as possible. In a bike lane area ride on the far left of the bike lane to stay as far away from doors as possible. Some cyclists ring their bells when they pass parked cars, this is a good idea but you can’t rely on it, as many drivers don’t hear you until they are already out of the car.

7. Driver in the traffic lane to the left of you slows down in front of you.

If a driver is in the left lane ahead of you (going in your direction) and they slow down while there is steady traffic in the right lane but no obvious left turn, there is a good chance they are planning switching to your lane, whether they signal it or not. Watch this kind of driver, as they will frequently feel they have time to switch to the lane in front of you when they are actually too close. You are safe if you are riding with the traffic, as the driver will not likely switch back into the lane when there is traffic there. For the most part cars underestimate how fast bikes can go.

8. Being last in the line of traffic.

Because bikes are slower than cars they are generally overtaken by them. The pack of cars passes you by, and when the last car passes a gap opens up between you. When you approach an intersection the distance between you and the last car matters a great deal. People waiting at four way stop intersections will often see the last car go through, not see you as you are too far back, check in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic, then go into the intersection without checking for you as they saw the “last” car go by already.
Anyone who has cycled in the city can probably tell of a time when they rode towards an intersection and watched as a car waiting to turn across their path decided to go as there appeared to be a lot of time left, but for longer vehicles (e.g trailer trucks) there can be close calls. When I approach a four way stop like this I slow down, stand up in my saddle to be seen, and if there is a car waiting at the intersection I ensure they have seen me (by making eye contact with the driver) before committing to the intersection. Ultimately, if a car is waiting at an intersection as you approach you can’t know if they are waiting for you or not. In my one and only cycling accident, many years before I regularly commuted, I was hit by a car which had been “waiting” at the intersection for quite some time after the last car went through. I assumed it was waiting for me, and didn’t bother making eye contact with the driver. But in actuality the driver was on the phone and had stopped there to talk. The driver looked at the last car going through, checked in the other direction and rolled out when it was clear. I wasn’t noticed at all.

One of the things I realized after this experience was that speed was a factor, if I had been going more slowly (as I now would in a situation like this) then the car would have had more of a chance to see me. I would also have had more time to make eye contact with the driver.

9. Rejoining the traffic flow.

Getting back into traffic requires extra vigilance. According to Forester, 23% of urban car-bike collisions happen on reentering roadways. The watchword here is to either reenter at an intersection or reenter from the side of the road, but to only do so when there is no traffic in the lane you wish to enter. Riding the sidewalk at full speed then exiting on to the regular road (whether from the side or when crossing an intersection in the pedestrian walkway) is both highly illegal and very risky. I only reenter on to the road when it is empty, that way I can ensure that I do not cause any problems for the existing traffic flow.
On a related note, you are generally expected to dismount your bike and walk it across a pedestrian crosswalk. I have never seen someone ticketed for riding slowly on a mostly deserted sidewalk, I have seen cyclists ticketed for cycling quickly across a pedestrian crosswalk while in use by pedestrians. If I wait with the pedestrians to cross I generally ride just outside of the crosswalk so I can move as fast as I want to.

10.  Risks associated with different varieties of vehicle.

I have no official statistics on this, but many years of riding experience has made me amply aware of which vehicles tend to present me with the greatest threat on the road. In rough order of danger, here is a list of vehicle types I have encountered on the road
1. Large-commercial and non-commercial vehicles without specially trained drivers
2. Transit vehicles (buses)
3. Taxis
4. Small regular cars
5. Large regular cars
6. Large commercial vehicles with specialized drivers
7. High-Performance cars

I have had the most problems with people driving larger sized vehicles, commercial or otherwise (e.g. cube vans) who were not properly trained for those vehicles. For example, people driving moving vans; people who were not formally trained to drive these vehicles and don’t normally drive them. Larger vehicles such as mini-vans have also proven a problem, as many of their drivers are not used to their size either. Transit vehicles are a mixed bag, but for the most part I find that bus drivers are not good to cyclists, they have a tendency to either come up right behind me or to squeeze me out as they close to the curb. Taxis are a mixed bag too, but to be honest I have had more problems than not with taxis. I suspect this is due to the fact that many new taxi drivers take the job out of necessity, and may not have the driving skills.

Most truck drivers (e.g. pickup trucks) tend to be fairly competent, and trained and licensed drivers of commercial vehicles like big rigs tend to be the best drivers of all, as they have been trained to drive well and they risk losing their licence and their livelihood if they have a collision. This is one of the reasons why I advocate for using commercial and service roads to ensure safer cycling, they tend to be thinly populated and truck drivers are fairly good to you. High performance car drivers (e.g. sportscar drivers) for the most part are good at controlling their vehicles and desperately concerned not to get them dented or scratched, so they tend to be good to me on the road. I have detected no correlations in terms of driving quality and gender or nationality.

For the most part I tend to pay more attention to vehicles (whether they be behind or in front) when they are one of the first 3 on my list. If they are behind me and I’m not comfortable I may exit the road. If they are in front and concerning me I slow down. There is, of course, no absolute rule here, mini-van drivers can be exemplary and regular car drivers can be atrocious. Still, when I see one of the more egregious offenders I give them a wider berth. Case the n point on my regular commute there is an intersection (at St. Clair and Oakwood) where the section of Oakwood North of St. Clair is “offset” from the section South of St. Clair. The southbound portion of the road is further West, so when I am driving South on Oakwood approaching St. Clair the traffic beside me has to turn a bit to the right (West) to get over to Oakwood South of St. Clair. On a consistent basis vehicles in the first three categories misjudge the distance between the curb and their vehicles when they turn slightly to the right, squeezing me out. Now when I am approaching the intersection I check my mirror and if any of the worst offenders are nearby I slow down a bit so I’m not at the corner when one of those vehicles directly passes.

11. Cyclists disobeying the road rules

I could write a book on this one alone. I’m not talking about the cyclist who forgets to signal, or the one that rides a bit too far out from the curb. These are small sins that are easy to overlook. I’m thinking here of the cyclist who rides the wrong way down a one way street, or the cyclist who weaves in and out of traffic, or the cyclist who crosses an intersection on a red light as they think they can beat the intersecting traffic.

In addition to being at risk for collision with cars rogue cyclists are a risk to all other cyclists on the road. The accident statistics Forester cites bear this observation out, the percentage of collisions between bikes and cars is about the same as that between bikes and bikes. The problem is that it is often easier to determine what cars are doing as they are larger (so there are some places they cannot go, such as the sidewalk) and they have easily activated signals. You can also tell when a car is braking or backing up thanks to automatic lights. Bikes are the worst possible combination of speed, maneuverability, size and opacity of intent (e.g. it is difficult to determine what the cyclist is doing). Cyclists frequently don’t signal, they can go pretty much wherever they want, and they lack automatic lights.

There are basically two situations of interest to you when you are getting close to other cyclists, either you will be passing them or they will be passing you. If you are passing them be sure to remember that you are silent on the road, so unless the cyclists ahead has a mirror and is using it they will likely not know you are coming. Thus if you plan to pass a cyclist up ahead you should ring your bell to let them know. When you start to get closer check your mirror to see if you will be able to pull out to go around them. Some more thoughtful cyclists will pull over to the far right of the road or bike lane to let you by, others will stay in place forcing you to get closer to traffic. In either case, take your time, you can always wait for the traffic to clear to make your pass.

If you are approaching cyclists waiting at an intersection do not attempt to “jump” them or squeeze by to take traffic priority, instead get into the line of bicycles at the end and wait for your turn. On that note I believe it is never a good idea to ride side by side on the roadway, bike lane or not, unless it is utterly devoid of motor-vehicle traffic. There is a temptation to “ride beside” fellow cyclists, but it significantly increases your “traffic footprint”, or conversely it shrinks your effective pocket on the side of the road as you are sharing it with another bike.

If the cyclist is passing you there are a few choices. First off, if you see someone behind you speeding up then you can either put the pedal to the metal and try and stay ahead, or you can let them pass. When I see someone approaching I move slightly to the right (to let them know I have heard their bell or seen them coming) and I slow down a touch, to get them past me faster. If someone is riding fast and then settles in behind me I will generally “wave them” on, letting them know I would prefer if they went ahead.

The watchword here is similar to that on the bike path or trail, when you are passing someone you have to make yourself known as you can’t be sure you have been seen or heard. In addition, if someone wants to pass you, make space as much as possible. In principle a fast moving bike is no different than a fast moving car, make space for it as you would for an automobile, and hopefully they will extend you the same courtesy.

Outside of these specific examples of potentially dangerous situations, I have two other general observations that will help you to drive safer. First drivers frequently misjudge the speed of approaching cyclists, in both directions (e.g. sometimes they think you are faster than you are, sometimes slower). There is of course no systematic way to compensate for this, but t I do have a few observations to make. First, if a motorist thinks you are faster than you actually are, they may change their minds about waiting for you to clear an intersection before making a turn. I have had this happen dozens of times, I approach an intersection without any cars behind me, and there is a vehicle waiting to make a left turn across my lane. They wait as I approach, and then when I am quite close to the intersection they decide to make the turn as they thought I was faster than I actually was. 

The only suggestion I have here is to slow down slightly as you get closer to the intersection so, if need be, you can make a sharp right turn if the vehicle starts up at the last minute. This is not without risk of course, you could go over if you are riding too fast, or you could overshoot the turn and hit a car waiting to make a right at the intersection. Still, anything is preferable to a head on collision with an approaching vehicle.  The other suggestion is to make eye contact with the driver waiting to make the left, when I do this they will frequently wave me through.

The other general point I wanted to reiterate is that, for the most part, drivers do not look at sidewalks as they drive. They rely on their peripheral vision with respect to sidewalks as that is usually sufficient to spot any pedestrians who might want to get on to the road. What this means is that they will not necessarily notice a bike if they make a right turn on to the sidewalk, especially as bikes can come up rather suddenly as the driver slows down before making the turn. And as mentioned before, they will not be expecting you to hop off the sidewalk back into moving traffic. Thus the best thing to do when encountering a right turner or when riding the sidewalk while there is traffic beside you on the road is to moderate your speed and watch approaching traffic in your mirror to spot potential turners.



Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Looks like they will not be installing a contra-flow bike lane on Shaw. I was crossing Shaw this AM and here is what I saw on the pavement:

"Sharrows" indicating where the bikes should be, not a painted lane nor a separated lane. 

 This is Shaw looking South

So as far as I can tell, there is no contra-flow lane planned for Shaw, instead it is sharrows indicating the expected place of cyclists, on the right hand side of the street cycling Southward.

I'm not sure the exact purpose of this. Those who were aware of the traffic rules either cycled there anyway or ignored them, many, many cyclists cycle the wrong way on Shaw. I don't suspect any of them will suddenly realize they should have been going the other way. 

Instead we now have an even more confusing situation for new riders, they have a clearly indicated pavement marking saying that they are to be traveling South. This will be all the more confusing when cyclists pass them going North.

A contra-flow lane would have been FAR safer for cyclists, given the tendency to ride the wrong way on this street.

Oh well...