Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tactical urbanism, and the cycle track we didn't know was there

Allow me to wax enthusiastic for a moment.

I live in one of the city's "rough" neighbourhoods. When I tell people I live in Herongate, I get that raised-eyebrow look and an "ohhh. . . yeah. . ." Sometimes, in certain company, I say I live at "Bank and Heron" or "Heron and Alta Vista" instead, because of the "H-bomb" effect.

Allow me to dispel some of that. Yes, the landlords have been sketchy and the buildings have their problems and the pavement is cracked and falling apart. Yes, the police Guns and Gangs unit gets called out here more often than many neighbourhoods. But this neighbourhood is full of young, extended families and good people. Lots - really, most - of them are new immigrants. You can't be certain your neighbour in the elevator with you will speak English - or French. People in my building come from all over the world. A lot of them are from northern Africa and the Middle East, but you'll also hear Russian and African-accented French and Creole.

Sandalwood Park is busy in the evenings.
Summer evenings around here are great. People come outside in the evening and find places all over the neighbourhood to sit together in the cool air and talk. The kids play in Sandalwood Park till they can't see the ball anymore. Groups of men bring out folding chairs and card tables and play backgammon by the disused baseball diamond: groups of women bring out thermoses of tea and sit on the grass to talk while they keep an eye on the kids in the play structures. When it gets too dark, they go back inside. There aren't a lot of raucous parties around here.

I like this neighbourhood. The only thing I don't like is that it is shit to get around in without a car. Walking and biking and busing are awkward and uncomfortable. Herongate is hemmed in by Walkley and Heron Roads on the north and south, and Bank Street to the west. They're big, fast, four-lane streets with few crosswalks and narrow, unpleasant, cracked and uneven sidewalks. Biking is brutal: walking is no fun. Bus stops don't have shelters. Add to that the fact that many people here are living on lower incomes and car ownership is expensive. Busing is getting to be too expensive for many.

Enter the Healthy Transportation Coalition and their working group project. The HTC is running a program which coordinates local working groups in specific neighbourhoods to plan "pop-up projects" aimed at improving walking, biking and busing. The idea is that a temporary installation or event would give people in the neighbourhood a chance to see what's possible, and demonstrate to the city where there is a need for something permanent. I participated in a walkability audit of the area as part of the leadup to this last summer, and there have been a couple of local "sharing circle" meetings. I found out that there was a working group being put together for Herongate and came out to the first, priority-setting "dotmocracy" meeting a month ago.

Dotmocracy in action.
One thing about having these kinds of community meetings in Herongate is you need someone there who can do simultaneous translation in Arabic: half of the participants in that initial meeting didn't speak English very well. They were there in part because the president of Imam Ali (AS) Masjid, the mosque around the corner from me,  had volunteered the space in the mosque that we've been using for meetings, and had been encouraging members of the congregation to get involved. That did mean that things moved a little slower, as everything that was being explained in English had to then be translated into Arabic, but we managed, thanks to one member who volunteered to translate.

So we picked some priorities, and tonight we got together to think about what we could actually do (with limited budget and peoplepower). The start of the meeting was a little confused, what with some translation issues and a number of people who had to come late. But eventually a little band of us set off to check out Sandalwood Park, just east of Herongate, and see what we might be able to do.

The pathway through the park is one issue. It's not paved and it's not cleared in winter. It's muddy in the rain and downright dangerous when it's icy, and it's the main route through the park between the apartment buildings and the nearest grocery store.

It's also unlit, and the path ends at Sandalwood Drive, where it just runs to the curb. There's no curb cut to let people with strollers or wheelchairs access the path. There are also no signs to warn drivers that there are kids crossing the street from the apartment complex to the park.

Ideas we jotted down: we could put down some rubber matting to demonstrate where the pavement should go. We could get warning signs put up to alert drivers to the fact there are children crossing the road to the park from the driveway of the apartment buildings. (We can't put in a crosswalk because you're not allowed to construct a crosswalk within a certain distance of a bend in the road, and Sandalwood curves.)

We could also buy some cheap solar LEDs to light the path, and mount them on the baseball net and other fencing along the path. We noted a few big lights on poles, aimed at where the skating rink is set up in the winter: I went by later that night and discovered that those lights don't come on in the summer. In a community where so many kids play soccer and basketball, and so few play hockey, it seems like those lights should be on in the summer too. Not to mention they'd make the park feel a lot safer at night.

The path really needs paving. And winter maintenance.
Then we walked over to Heron Road, thinking about how we might be able to host a weekend evening in the park to unveil the solar lights and the "pseudopaving," and then we started looking at the road and got pretty excited about the possibilities.

Heron Road is big and fast, but it has these inexplicable paved strips right beside the road, separated from the sidewalk by a strip of grass. I'm not really sure what these "kill strips" are for. But as we looked at them. . . well . . .

That's basically a cycle track. Pre-made and ready to go. All it needs is a lick of paint and a couple of bike symbols. And there's one on each side of Heron, between about Baycrest and the point where Heron and Walkley converge - a couple of big blocks. Beyond that the hydro poles start to encroach and get in the way but, right next to the Herongate complex, Heron Road is flanked by two unobstructed, segregated cycle tracks that just aren't official.

As we started picturing it painted green, we started getting practically gleeful. It was just too perfect - at least for those few blocks - and, to me at least, the image of a raised, protected cycle track along a high-speed car corridor in this scrappy, low-income neighbourhood was just beautiful.

Next steps: we try to figure out what kind of paint would be allowable. We price it out. We try to set up a meeting with Councillor Cloutier. We check into costs on solar lights we can rig up on the fences and light posts that already exist in the park, and what kind of rubber matting we could get to mock up pavement on the path.

Gonna be fun. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How do you solve a problem like Bank Street?

Rode home from dinner with friends tonight from the Gabriel's Pizza at Bank and Hunt Club. It went like this:

Coming out of Gabriel's, kicking a leg over the bike, getting the last bit of chatting in with my friends, I watched a guy lean on the horn for something like 10 seconds behind another driver who was waiting at a red light to exit the parking lot. My friends and I looked at each other, baffled. The cars were both in a separate lane which only had the option of going straight through, or left. The light was clearly and obviously red. The driver in back was clearly very, very angry that the driver ahead of him wasn't turning left through the red light.

This is an encouraging thing to watch, when you're about to head out of the parking lot, across six lanes of road, and turn left to head down Bank with a right-turn lane on your right. On a bicycle.

Once I'd left the parking lot, I continued on Bank, past South Keys Mall on my left. At this point, Bank is two or three lanes wide, depending on the turn lanes, which come and go. The posted speed limit is 50 km/h.

The posted speed limit is a joke. This road was, until 18 years ago, Ontario Highway 31.

Past Johnston, I get to take the bridge over the train tracks. Fun! These train tracks cut across the north end of Gloucester-Southgate Ward, slashing a line of blankness through the roadmaps, cutting off one community from the other and leaving a wasteland between them of abandoned ravine, unused "park," empty lots, a drainage lagoon, hydro towers, and some industrial buildings. Oh, and the paved desolation of the Greenboro Park-n-Ride.

You see that one road, just about in the middle of the image? You see how it goes right up to the tracks, stops, then starts again just south of the tracks? That's Albion. That road is the sign and emblem of the whole severed, truncated, isolated neighbourhood. Mon pays, c'est that road.

The bridge has lousy pavement and the added spice of knowing that cars might come flying over the crest without seeing - or expecting - a cyclist. Is my taillight working? Is it bright enough? Should I have more taillights? Can they even see me? Speeds here, as further south on Bank, are usually much higher than the posted 50 km/h limit.

On the other side of the bridge, I can duck right on Kitchener Ave, and after that things are pretty calm. And then I'm home.

Traveling north/south in this city, by bike, is orders of magnitude nastier than traveling east/west. The city's mostly strung east to west along the Ottawa River: that might be it. There's also the uncomfortable truth that the south end of Ottawa - particularly Herongate/Alta Vista/Ledbury, the neighbourhood I'm getting increasingly militant about calling mine - is economically disadvantaged, with a high proportion of minorities and new immigrants. But Bank Street is the major north/south road in the city of Ottawa. And sooner or later, if you live near it, you have to deal with it. In my area, that means if you want to go to South Keys Mall, or the Greenboro Community Centre, or to visit a friend in the South Keys neighbourhood, there is no reasonable way to get there without taking Bank Street, whether you're in a car, on a bike, or on foot. Ditto if you want to go north, toward downtown.

And Bank Street is a highway. It's Ottawa Route 31. Formerly (until 1998) Ontario Highway 31. You can dress it up with 50 km/h speed limit signs but face it: it was designed for 70-80 km/h and it feels downright silly to try and drive down this sweeping, six-lane thoroughfare at 50 or even 60 km/h. You really can't expect people to go that speed on a wide, multilane road past big-box stores, sound barrier walls, car dealerships, and park-n-rides.

So what do you do? You take bikes (and pedestrians) off it. If you can't make your main north-south artery - for the whole city - reasonably safe for cyclists and pedestrians, then they shouldn't be forced to use it. Nothing that comes with a little shield with a number on it on the road maps should be considered acceptable for bicycles. Build a parallel bike track.

Or, if your bike track is too hard to build onto your train bridges and overpasses, find other routes nearby that connect the same key nodes. In this case, Albion. (Remember Albion? Up there in the image? Hi, Albion!)

What we need is a pedestrian and bike bridge connecting the north and south stubs of Albion Road. This is my route to a friend's place in South Keys, as it stands:

That huge diversion over to the west, onto a former highway, and then back (via a left-hand turn across three lanes that puts my heart in my mouth, by the way) could be cut out entirely by a pedestrian/bike bridge on Albion, over the tracks. 

I'd be able to just go straight across on Albion, without that big U-bend in my trip. I wouldn't be trying to "share the road" with 80 km/h cars. Pedestrians could get from one side of the tracks to the other without walking the laughably narrow sidewalks over the bridge with trucks thundering past. The parkland on either side of Albion might actually get developed into something other than an overgrown and underused ravine full of vines and blown-in garbage. 

And one more connection between neighbourhoods, in an area sadly full of isolated and cut-off neighbourhoods with roaring car-dominated streets between them, would be made. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring checkup!

I have been working on a few other posts, which are varying levels of grumpy, but I'm less grumpy right now, because it's a sunny warm day and I took a long lunch break from work, grabbed my bike, and rode up to City Hall to have it tuned up for free, courtesy of Right Bike and Cycle Salvation.

The tune up station will be outside City Hall from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm every day till the 23rd. You might have to wait a while: bring a magazine or something. But I could do worse this afternoon than soak up some sunshine, watch the mechanics work, and lean on my bike.

Long John, the summer commuter bike, really doesn't show his age or the miles logged in Europe on him by my friend David. But when I got him this spring I discovered that the brakes were a little off, the front tire wobbled a bit, and I could only coax about three gears out of the 21-speed shifter system. I meant to get around to figuring out the trigger shifters but what with everything this spring I hadn't gotten around to it. I had enough gears that I didn't grind to a panting halt on the Billings climb. And I was getting thighs of steel out of it. So I muddled through.

But I wasn't going to pass up a chance to have someone more competent than me take a toolkit to it.

I arrived to find about five people standing around waiting, while two mechanics worked on bikes. Leaned on the bike and read a magazine in the sunshine. The lineup was on the honour system - we just kept track of who arrived after who and waited our turns. A couple of people decided to try again later and headed off. I don't know how long it took - 45 minutes? it was a while, but I didn't mind - before they got to me. And the tuneup itself was maybe 10 or 15 minutes, plus a pump up on the tires (needed: I tried to top them up this morning but my Presta adapter is inefficient), and then I was on my way. With a bike that now has a full set of gears available to me, hurrah! 

Get on down there if you can (and if your bike could use it). The tuneups are free but I think they take donations for Cycle Salvation if you feel you want to give something back for the mechanics' time and talents. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A brief encounter, and the damn sensor loops

Tonight, on my way home fairly late, I was too tired, stressed and hungry to deal with the infamous Heron/Bank intersection. The one where you have to merge left across three lanes to get into a left-turn lane. So I did what I usually do when I can't face that move: I rode along on the outside of the intersection and used the pedestrian crosswalk on the opposite corner. As I waited on the pedestrian refuge for the light, I saw another cyclist pull up to wait in the left turn lane.

I had a moment of guilt - she was being a "better" cyclist than me, following all the rules, brave and determined, unlike my tired, schlubby self who couldn't face the extra fear and tension at that hour - and then I realized, as the light changed for me and I rode across the crosswalk, that she wasn't going to get the advance green.

She was even signalling a left turn, bless her, waiting patiently and properly, just the way I hadn't, doing all the things she was supposed to, and she wasn't going to get that green light.

I stopped. Turned around, rode back to the intersection, crossed on the pedestrian crosswalk, and in a lull in the traffic noise, I shouted over to her: "That light is on a sensor. Bikes don't set it off. You could get stuck there for several cycles."

As soon as she heard me, she said, "Thanks so much," and, with a certain amount of relief, I think, took the pedestrian crosswalk out of the middle of the intersection. We crossed with the pedestrian light, she went her way and I went mine, up the hill.

Good deed for the day done. She coulda been stuck there half the night.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bike donation bonanza!

So this is what the back of a Suzuki Aerio looks like when you have five bikes loaded in and on it. . .

It was a Wheels4Refugees pickup blitz tonight. I've just started a new, full-time, regular-people-working-hours job, which is making it a little trickier to get around to pick up bikes but. . . people keep donating them. And I think I'm now the only person driving around to do pickups. So I work it out. Tonight, that meant emailing back and forth with three different donors and arranging to do a circuit, from Maitland and the Queensway to Sandy Hill to Alta Vista, picking bikes up and loading them onto an increasingly groaning bike rack.

First was that little blue bike. That was donated by Katie, who I think was maybe about ten or eleven years old, and her father Al. Her dad was out in front of the house with her and (I presume) her brother and sister when I got there, and he made a point of asking whether I knew who, specifically, was getting the bike (I didn't) for her, and bringing her along to help get the bike out of the garage and load it into the car. She told me it would be a "third-hand" bike now, since she got it second-hand in the first place.

Next I stopped off in Sandy Hill, where Peter unloaded two solid old bikes, and helped me get them onto the rack, then asked if I wanted one that was missing handlebars and seat. I said it could at least be used for parts, so we loaded it into the back of the car too.

Then it was off to Alta Vista, where Elaine and her husband were already waiting outside their house with a silver road bike, which just fit on the rack behind the other two, and I hitched it to the other two with a spare climbing sling and a carabiner. And then I drove very, very carefully home.

This is what the outside of a Suzuki Aerio with five bikes on and in it looks like:

Next, to get them to 350 Sparks. That will probably entail driving downtown in the morning and dropping them off before I go to work. 

More donations are still needed! And if you want to volunteer to help pick up bikes, get in touch with them and let them know: they'll be happy to have you. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The street's so insensitive

Coming home from work, I almost always end up at the intersection of Riverdale and Bank. It's a T intersection, with a lane turning left toward Billings Bridge and a lane turning right, up through Old Ottawa South. I need to go left, so I roll over into the middle of the left turn lane and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Because the traffic light is on a sensor loop, and the sensor loop doesn't pick up my bike.

Yesterday I was sitting there waiting when a guy in a big SUV-style company car finally came up behind me. I edged the bike forward, to give him room to come up and set off the sensor, but he stayed - politely, respectfully, considerately - back. I turned and beckoned him up. He waved his hand, like, "no, it's okay, I'll stay back. "

I called out, "I can't set off the sensor," and made some incomprehensible gestures, trying to indicate by sign language what the problem was. He shook his head, then rolled his window down and leaned out. "I can't hear you," he said.

"If you move up, you can set off the sensor," I said. "It doesn't pick up the bike. This happens every time, it's a pain."

"Oh!" he said, and edged forward with the car. Within seconds the light had turned green and we could both go on our way.

But every day? I try to obey the traffic rules, but if I can't ever get a light to change, what am I supposed to do but use the pedestrian beg button and crosswalk? Or run the red light, from the left turn lane, when the coast is clear? (Which I will admit is what I usually do.)

Seventy percent of the intersections in the city have these loops, but they are hardly ever indicated, or marked. Sometimes there are three little yellow dots painted on the pavement, indicating the most sensitive part of the loop, the bit that's supposed to be set off even by a bicycle. But a lot of the time the dots are worn off or may never have been painted. (At Bank and Heron I have no idea where they might be, if they even exist, to set off the advance green. Late at night, I can sit through a couple of cycles before realizing I'm never going to get the light. And then, I'm stuck trying to get out of the middle of five or six lanes each way.) And at this particular intersection, Bank and Riverdale, the dots are still faintly visible, but they are in the wrong place.

They're there.... do you see them?
By "the wrong place" I mean that the dots are smack in the middle of the right-turning lane. Which is stupid, because you don't need a green light to turn right, and if a cyclist, wanting to turn left, stations herself over the dots in order to trigger a green light, she is blocking any driver who comes up behind. And worse, the driver won't know why she's in the middle of the lane preventing all right turns. Frustration, horn-blowing, and maybe even nudging with a car could ensue.

Presumably they wanted to only have one cyclist position for both lanes. It's simpler. So the position marked out puts the cyclist on the outside of the left-turn lane, and the centre of the right-turn lane.

Yeah, they fit two lanes in that bit to the left of the median.

Legally, cars are not allowed to turn right past a cyclist who is stopped in front of them, regardless of whether the cyclist is over at the curb or in the middle of the lane. So, from a design standpoint, going only from what the rules are, and not from how people (who are bloody ignorant apes) behave, there's no problem.

Except that what a driver sees is one of those damn cyclists hogging the road and blocking their way. Except that very few people even know that you're not allowed to pass a cyclist to turn right. Except that when I sit at that intersection on the dots, hoping the light will change, I feel a huge target painted on my back because I'm right where the drivers least expect or want me to be. Except that even as I sit there, I have no faith the sensors will pick me up.

And in fact, that was proven tonight. I decided to test a theory, around 9:00 pm. I pulled up to the intersection. I dutifully stationed myself right on top of the three faint dots. And I waited.

And waited

How close I am to the right curb.
And waited

Yup, that's me. Just waiting smack in the middle of the wrong lane.

And then a car was coming behind me, so I scootched over to the curb to let it by. Seconds after it came to a stop, the lights changed. Proving, to me anyway, that the stupid yellow dots are less than pointless.

This is how far to the left of the yellow dots the left-turning car was. . .
by this point, I'd ducked to the curb to let him by.
Did you know that in 16 states in the United States, it is legal to run a red light if the sensor doesn't detect your vehicle? They're called "dead red" laws. They were enacted precisely because it's the safest thing to do in this situation and it gives you something you can legally do to get the hell out of the middle of the road when the lights have trapped you. And in a city where 70% of the signals have sensors, and a lot of those obviously don't detect bikes, we need those laws.

From now on, I will stop at that intersection and then "dead red" that MF, and if a cop wants to talk to me about it, I'll make him try to summon a green light by invoking the Triune God of the Yellow Dots with anything lower steel-content than a Yaris.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Movin' bikes: the continuing story

Got my first pickup completed this afternoon - all the way out in Barrhaven. It was a lovely classic 80s road bike, ram's horn handles and all. The donor said it had covered hundreds - maybe thousands - of kilometers and was still in great shape. "I just got older and stopped riding it," she said. "It's been in the garage ten years. Isn't that terrible?" But then she'd seen the CBC News spot on Wheels4Refugees and got in touch with them.

So I got it up onto the rack, and strapped down with some of the extra slings and biners I had with me. "Oh, are you a rock climber too?" she asked, and when I said yes she asked if I'd read Into Thin Air. I told her not yet but I'd heard it was really good.

She was getting started on a new phase of her life, she said. On her own and loving it, getting on with the next thing. Donating the bike seemed like the right thing to do. "I'm really glad a piece of my old life can go on and become part of someone else's," she said. And she asked me to thank everyone at Wheels4Refugees for "rolling out the welcome" and helping people get started on a new life. Including her.

So I headed off, keeping an eye on the rack in my rearview to make sure nothing was shifting in flight, and gingerly took the 417 downtown to swing by 350 Sparks and drop it off, along with the bike lock, helmet and lights she had given me as well. 

Pictured here, at the dropoff point. Come on, isn't it lovely? 

Got a couple more to pick up tomorrow and then we're just waiting for more donors. (If you want to donate a bike, get in touch with them and let them know!)