Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Conversations on the bike lane

I was on my way home a little late tonight - around 7:15 or so - and heading along the Laurier lane. I stopped at a red light on Metcalfe and a woman crossing the street called out, "Please be careful when you're turning!"

I wasn't turning. I wasn't doing anything. I was just sitting at a red light with my foot on the curb. And for a fraction of a second, I went into "defense against the concern trolls" mode. But then I realized. This was her reaction to the death of Nusrat Jahan.

In case you aren't in Ottawa and don't know, Nusrat Jahan was on her way to school last week on the Laurier segregated bike lane - Ottawa's flagship piece of bike infrastructure - when she was right-hooked by the driver of a dump truck and crushed under its back wheels. She died at the scene. She was 23 years old, the daughter of a Bangladeshi diplomat, and a student at Willis College with plans to go on to study business at Carleton University. She was only a couple of blocks from home. Her death appalled the whole city.

The woman who'd called to me to be careful was hurrying across the street. I said, "I always am," and gave her a smile. I figured that would be it. But she came over.

"I don't mean to hold you up, I'm sorry," she said, "but really, if there was a truck next to you, and it was turning, wouldn't you stop?"

"Yeah, I would," I said. "I'm always very aware that I need to watch what other vehicles are doing."

"But why would you - even if you have a green light, you wouldn't just assume you can go right through because you have right of way, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't," I said again. "I know I have right of way. But I also know the cars are bigger and heavier than me."

"Well, you do," she said. "And I know that poor girl didn't deserve to die. But with a truck right there, wouldn't you stop?"

I knew she was trying to figure out how this could happen. Why making a simple mistake would have to end one life and horribly impact another. How a lapse of attention on the way to school, or the way to work, could turn deadly. We all want to figure that out. We all want to stop it from happening. Somehow. How?

She'd heard the coverage, she'd heard cyclists saying that drivers don't care. She was a driver, she told me: and she cared. She wasn't just going around blindly mowing down cyclists, but there were so many chances to make deadly mistakes. Didn't the cyclists have some responsibility?

I assured her that most cyclists don't think drivers don't care, that the anger she'd seen wasn't about drivers, it was about the failed infrastructure. I talked to her about how the intersections on Laurier fail: the signs telling motor vehicles to yield to bikes are too far away, too hard to see. The blind spots on large trucks are dangerously big, and the trucks don't have side guards. The intersections put right-turning cars and cyclists in dangerous proximity all the time. "What do we do to fix it?" she asked me, as another light cycle passed and she apologized - "I don't want to hold you up, but - "

"There are things we could do," I said, and we talked a bit about protected intersections, advance signals for bikes.

"What about putting the bike lane in the middle?" she said. "Then you'd have to stop." I tried to explain that getting in and out from a bike lane in the middle would be every bit as dangerous and complicated - probably more. To be honest, I couldn't really picture how you would do it, and couldn't come up with a single example of where something like that had been tried. But she seemed to think it was the best solution.

Eventually, agreeing that there had to be something we could do to make things safer, the two of us said goodbye and she went on her way, telling me to be safe.

Riding home, I thought about what that conversation was really about. I'd just spent a few minutes talking about the fine points of street design with someone who probably doesn't normally think about it. Someone who was beginning to see where the deadly gaps are in our infrastructure, the places where it fails. And someone who was genuinely, deeply concerned about it now, because Nusrat Jahan was so young and her death was so senseless, and suddenly she could see very cyclist and pedestrian, and the danger they were in. And she was impelled to talk to one of us about it and try to understand.

And if there is anything good at all that can come out of something as terrible as Nusrat's death, that might be it. We are talking about our streets right now. The whole city is talking about them, to complete strangers, while the traffic light cycles through another sequence.


  1. There is somewhere that has center line biking. It works well. I will see if I can remember where. Momentum magazine had an article...