Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bike Lane Fail #3

This one crosses my mind every morning, on my way to work down Alta Vista. Is there any logic behind having a four-way stop on a street that has a bike lane? Particularly a busy street like Alta Vista?

Generally, I'll obey the rules at a four-way stop when I come across it on a small residential street or country road (I'll pull up, and if I arrive at the same time as a car, the vehicle on the right goes first. Or, to be honest, all the cars go and then I go, because it's just safer and I don't want to hold anyone up, and stopped bikes seem to confuse some drivers.) But you wouldn't put a four-way stop on a multi-lane street. Would you? Just picture it. You arrive at the intersection beside another car, and there's a third car on the cross street. What would you do?

And that's exactly what happens to a bike. Except that you also add the fact that a bike takes much longer to accelerate away from the stop (hence our tendency to treat stop signs like 'yields' - slowing up and looking for oncoming traffic, and stopping fully only if there are other vehicles involved. Now you know.) And if you pull away from the stop at the same time as a car, you're hidden from half the traffic at the intersection... until the car speeds up, at which point you're  now an unexpected bike in the middle of an intersection.

Plus, as far as I know there is no rule governing which vehicle has the right of way at a stop sign if it's on a four-lane street.

What I usually do is go at the same time as the car next to me (making sure, of course, that they're not turning right - don't get me started on the guy that turned right, yesterday, at this very intersection, without signalling. I noticed the car's rightward drift and guessed that he was going to turn, so hit the brakes. But might not have, if he hadn't been clearly edging toward the corner.) I figure it acts as shelter if nothing else. But one day when I did that - slowed up, admittedly without fully stopping, and then cruised through the intersection beside a car that was crossing at the same time as me -  a driver who had been behind me pulled up alongside as I was continuing down the road, to roll his window down and tell me I should have stopped: "a car nearly hit you back there," he said, although I doubt it. Think I would have noticed nearly being hit by a car.

I don't know if there's a solution. But if you think of bikes as traffic, and bike lanes as traffic lanes, there is definitely something awkward and strange about putting a four-way stop in an intersection that amounts to a four-lane road crossing a two-lane. At this particular one, I'd say leave the stop signs up on the generally quiet cross street, and remove the stop signs from Alta Vista. Replace them with yield signs, maybe. Or a traffic circle; seeing as how that stop sign seems, in all honesty, just to be there as a traffic calming measure anyway.


  1. Fredericton's talking about (or, really actually beginning construction of) traffic circles. I'm not optimistic that public stupidity won't stop the initiative cold . . . but I wonder whether traffic circles are less impractical for cyclists? Any experience of that? (I wonder if your sister's got some thoughts about that from Aberdeen.)

  2. Looking at some of the roundabouts in Aberdeen *did* give me pause, and yeah, I guess traffic circles cause some of the same problems for cyclists. Namely, that whole issue with no one really being sure what anyone else is supposed to be doing. But then traffic circles seem to cause that problem for motorists too, at least around here where there aren't any.

    But, imagining a traffic circle at this spot on Alta Vists, I think it could work. I would come up, check for cars coming in on my right, and if there weren't any, swing on through on the rightmost edge. And you know that once you're in the circle you've got right of way. There's certainly less risk of an oncoming car turning left into me because I was hidden behind another vehicle.

    Although, in North America, there's always the risk of someone turning *left* into a traffic circle. (I once was in the circle on UNB campus in the Jetta when someone did that... sigh.)

  3. Here's what the Ontario Driver's Handbook (2002 edition) has to say about stop signs:

    "At an intersection with stop signs at all corners, you must yield the right-of-way to the first vehicle to come to a complete stop. If two vehicles stop at the same time, the vehicle on the left must yield to the vehicle on the right"

    I don't see how that can't apply to multi-lane intersections (which they have in Aylmer with no problems). The first vehicle has right of way.

    Do you ever ride on Bay or Percy? They have bike lanes and stop signs up the wazoo. Most streets have wide curb lanes that are intended for motorists and cyclists to share side-by-side.

    I frequently encounter the 'hidden cyclist' problem when riding along Somerset, which has signalized intersections and not stop signs. An oncoming driver turning right might not see me on the right of a vehicle. Or behind it. As a defensive rider, I keep an eye out on the oncoming vehicle to make sure he sees me before he turns left.

    As for roundabouts, they're definitely safer for cyclists so long as you take the lane, which you're supposed to do in a roundabout. Multi-lane roundabouts are more complex, and Ottawa's first (in Orleans) is still under construction.

  4. Hi Kate and Mike,

    My name is Hilary and I'm a third-year journalism student at Carleton University. I'm currently working on a radio story about how Ottawa cyclists are using blogs and other social media to raise awareness for bicycle safety. I was wondering if I would potentially be able to interview you sometime in the next week or so about areas of improvement, route changes, etc.

    If you are interested in speaking with me, please email me at

    I hope to hear back from you soon!

    Thank you,


  5. I've seen multi-lane 4-way stops, there used to be a few of them out in Orleans, along Jeanne D'Arc, and I've hit them elsewhere as well. You just cycle through them like at a normal 4-way, though sometimes 4-cars in parallel (rather than 2) will go at once for efficiency.