Friday, January 7, 2011

Right to turn

Yesterday, twice, I got honked at for doing something that was completely legal (in both cases on left turns: seems when a cyclist decides to obey the laws of the road, there are drivers that don't know that's what bikes are supposed to do. I've had drivers yell "get out of the road!" at me before, while I'm waiting in left-turn lanes, or making turns, even just while riding down the street.)

One of the cases I suppose I can understand. One of the only contra-flow, bike-only lanes in the city is on Cameron, a little one-way street that runs from Brewer Park (that park just across Bronson from Carleton University's Athletics department) to Bank Street in Old Ottawa South. In order to get to Carleton from my place I take Cameron, which involves a left turn off Bank at a stoplight. There are a couple of 'no-entry' signs posted at the entrance to Cameron, with 'except bicycles' tacked on underneath, and the bike lane is separated from the street for about 15 feet or so by a raised curb - after which it's marked off by a painted yellow line and bike-lane logo. Bikes going west are supposed to use the contra-flow lane: bikes coming east ride at the side of the car lane.

I've never understood the point of the 15-foot separated stretch, but as it's one of the only separated bits I know about, I sort of appreciate its fledgling status. It does, I suppose, help to keep bikes from turning left directly into oncoming one-way traffic.

The bike lane, naturally, has not been cleared of snow, forcing me to ride the wrong way in the car lane itself, but that's a whole nother gripe.

I made what, for me, was a particularly bold merge into the left lane to make my turn, got to the light, which was green, and saw that a large and elderly pickup truck was facing me with its turning signal on indicating it was turning left. As the truck started to turn left, so did I. That little do-si-do maneuver any car would have done in my place. But I realized that the truck was blocking my view of what was behind it, including any cars coming south down Bank Street that might choose to swing out around the turning truck and continue through the green light. So I stopped, waiting to get a clear view, halfway through my left turn. Again, what any car would do. Lucky that I did, too, because there was indeed a car coming down Bank. But the truck, instead of finishing its turn and getting out of my way so I could see what was coming, stopped to honk at me for being in the middle of the intersection. I edged forward, saw a clear spot, and rabbited across the street and into the safety of the segregated lane.

But it rankled that the driver had honked. It always does. And it bugged me because I had been making a completely legal move. I'd signalled my merge and I was in the inside lane - okay, in the middle of a left turn on winter roads in traffic, forgive me if while making the actual turn both hands were on the handlebars - and I was turning onto a road that was, for bikes, a two-way street. I wondered if he'd honked because he thought I was heading the wrong way down a one-way street. To be fair, I don't really expect drivers to read or notice the 'bikes excepted' signs that are on quite a few intersections, although it would be nice if they did.

In fact, come to think of it, it seems to me that 'bikes excepted' signs are a BAD idea. Why make bicycles even more unpredictable than they are? That's not going to improve relations, is it? Often when there's an exception for bikes, it means that bikes can turn where cars can't (sometimes into oncoming traffic, as in this case), or run the opposite way down a one-lane street (okay when there's a clearly marked bike lane, not so okay if, as in this case, the bike lane's obliterated by snow and ice.) And in most cases, those signs are pretty hard to see. Nearly as hard to see as the ones downtown telling you what hours of the day certain maneuvers are allowed (Hel-LO, Laurier and Elgin. There's a blinkin' textbook posted over the 'no right turn' sign. And I think there's an exception for bikes in there somewhere too. In an intersection that size? No wonder it's on the top-seven list of most dangerous intersections.)

Basically, as I keep saying, if drivers know what to expect of bikes, and bikes know what to expect of drivers, we're all safer and our blood pressures stay down as an added bonus. But every time I merge left I'm scared that the car behind me just won't know what my signal means, or won't expect me to move out into traffic. Every time I get into an intersection on a left turn, I'm scared a car won't think to look for me, or won't judge my speed properly, or will assume I'm breaking the law and try to scare me into staying on the sidewalks 'where I belong.' And I know that all around me are other cyclists either too reckless - running red lights and heading the wrong way on one-ways, or too cautious - riding along the sidewalks, with no regard for the direction of traffic, and popping out into intersections where cars aren't looking for them. And THEN they add some intersections - not all, but often the weird ones - where the bikes get different rules from the cars? It's not as though you'd put in signs saying "no right turn on red, except hatchbacks."


  1. Different classes of vehicles actually do tend to get different rules, and different accesses to roads.

    There are places where there are special exceptions, or more often restrictions, for trucks.

    There are places where there are special exceptions for buses.

    There are places where there are special exceptions for motorcycles (though, those are rare, I have seen them).

    And, there are places where there are special exceptions for bicycles.

    So, it does make sense to me that there should be special exceptions for bicycles.

  2. I have some photos of that section from when I went to take photos of the school bus at House of Paint.

    There is a short concrete median and the bike lane goes (paved in asphalt and level with the road) between the concrete barrier and the sidewalk. This is needed to deter motorists from thinking the contra-flow bike lane is a really narrow travel lane (which was the problem with the contra-flow lane on Gladstone for the block East of Cartier, and complaints from residents led to the lanes prompt removal). You can see a similar situation at Garland (connecting the Wellington West/Somerset West interesection with Armstrong), and on the street next to Immaculata that connects westbound contraflow cyclists coming from the canal emptying out on Main Street (across from Lees).

    Right after the short median, there are large signs on the post at the side of the road which read "Contra-flow reserved bicycle lanes do not receive winter maintenance use solely at own risk". The City should be clearing all cycling routes.

    One of the issues with contra-flow lanes is that it is technically no longer a one-way street. This is why it's illegal to take your bike from Bank Street to Clemow westbound: the first few dozen metres are one-way toward Bank to discourage motorists from using it as a cut-through. If a contraflow bike lane were added, they wouldn't be able to keep the foreboding "one-way" signs.

    Idiot car drivers honking at you are always jarring, but there are some ways to help get over it: first, if they honk at you it means they see you.

    The second one I got from Kanata cyclist Peter McNichol. Whenever he takes the lane through a narrow stretch of construction pylons and a motorist behind him honks impatiently, he'll stop, put his foot down, turn around slowly, then smile and wave. As he tells it, the wife in the passenger seat will then smack her husband, the driver, for making them even more late by honking. :P

  3. I usually offer a one fingered response. It is less dangerous than Peter McNichol's recommendation....

    I had one guy get out of his car to yell at me after honking. He was going in the opposite direction in an early morning snowfall. Apparently, he thought that my cycling in the snow was so stupid and reckless that I would be the type of person to benefit from his clear headedness.

    How else can you respond?