Friday, July 31, 2015

So, about stop signs. . .

Coming next week in my Metro column: a call to get rid of stop signs, for cars and for bikes.

In part, the column was written because I live right above an all-way-stop T intersection. Sitting on my balcony, I get to see exactly how people really treat stop signs. I've been there on the days a cop car has taken up position on Cedarwood and taken down car after car running the stop. I've also been there on the days when there's no cop. I have yet to see an accident.

This is a video I took in around four minutes earlier this week. I only cut out some lulls where there was no traffic. Otherwise, this is an average afternoon:

Why shouldn't that intersection be a roundabout? My friend Christopher Doyle has even helpfully supplied some visual inspiration:

Doesn't that look nice? And civilized? And would it change anything about the way people go through it? Not really. It would just codify it.

Anyway. There are a lot of things that people hold, dogmatically, to be true about stop signs that just ain't so. "Those damn cyclists" that roll through the stop signs are doing it right alongside an equal number of drivers that do. But a rolling stop in a car is somehow perceived differently.

And then there's the dangerous confusion that can happen because people have motor programs for stop signs that don't include bicycles.

Like the other day. I biked up to a four-way stop in Little Italy. The driver in front of me went through the intersection. I pulled up, and just as I started to pedal again to go through, a woman pulled up as well, on the cross street to my right. But I'd definitely been there first, so I kept going. The minute I was directly in front of her, she just started driving forward, straight at me. I yelled, "WhoawhoaWHOA!" at her, and I recall her sort of looking up indignantly at me, my bike, and my warding hand, and then I was out of the intersection, a bit shaken and pissed, but safe.

Many things contributed to that spooky moment: one, I had stopped and taken my turn, so I was accelerating very slowly into the intersection at a time when reaction time is a factor. Two, she may not have recognized that I was at the intersection first because she just didn't register the bike as a vehicle (we navigate stops on autopilot much of the time). Three, she may have thought she was starting to move at a perfectly reasonable time, if the other vehicle was a car and able to speed up like a car.

BAH. This is why stop signs should die. Replace them with yields and roundabouts. Let people use their common sense instead of applying a bunch of learned rules and motor programs.

Or, at least, accept - and codify - the fact that bikes and cars, at intersections, are very different vehicles.

In San Francisco, this week, a bunch of cyclists staged an ingenious protest: They rode according to the rules of the road.

This meant that when they got to a stop sign, they came to a full and complete stop, ensured they had right of way, then proceeded through the intersections. Just like you're supposed to. In minutes, they had drivers honking at them for holding things up, for clogging up the intersection - for behaving according to the law and not, frankly, in the most efficient manner.

I don't think I've come across a more effective demonstration of why the Idaho stop is a good idea. You know what? Cyclists have already, generally, come up with a means of moving around among cars that is safest and most comfortable for the majority. And its rules are actually different in different situations and for different vehicles.

And maybe the law needs to catch up.

Sure, you risk your life, but there are ducklings.

So, I saw a jogger nearly get hit by a car this morning.

I have been relishing the fact that a large portion of my path to work right now takes me on the Rideau Canal pathway. There are baby ducks, there are joggers, there are people fishing and kayakers and paddleboarders and people curled up on the grass with books at Dows Lake. The canal is a great way to get through town.

Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, it's decidedly less pleasant to get to, most of the time, and the places where bikes and foot traffic access it are often downright hazardous.

To get to the Colonel By Drive side, you turn off Bank at Echo (if you're turning left, just use the pedestrian signal, because Lansdowne Bridge north of you is a blind hill), go down a hill (if you're on a bike, you travel against the direction of traffic, illegally: if you're on foot you get a path), stop at the bottom, and then cross Colonel By at an unsignalized, unmarked intersection. Thusly:

Yes, Google Maps apparently thinks there's a Tim's in this intersection.
Sight lines to the left are terrible, as the road vanishes around a curve. And the bridge makes it pretty hard to see what's coming to the right, as well. And I watch people cross it pushing bikes. Or strollers. Skates in hand, in winter, through the snowbanks. With small kids in tow.

This morning I had just made it to the Queen Elizabeth Drive side (a whole other bad intersection in itself), and was heading west, when I heard a squeal of brakes. Looking across the water, I saw that a minivan had just nearly hit a jogger crossing Colonel By at Echo. An SUV, hot on its heels, had also had to slam on their brakes.

The minivan's bumper was maybe four feet from the jogger.

These crossings are all along the canal path. I get it, improvements are bring made. There's a bike/ped crossing at Clegg now. There's a stop sign and crosswalk at Somerset. But so many of these crossings are still not safe.

Colonel By and Queen Elizabeth were designed and conceived as "scenic drives." Pleasure drives. So they wind and curve and have few stops to interfere with the driving experience. All of those things make them extremely dangerous to cross - and yet we have to, to ride or walk or jog or skate along the canal.

On the up side, once you've made it across, there are ducklings.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

If I could make a request of the universe - just a little one . . .

There are a few little things on my wish list. My personal, if-a-genie-popped-out-of-a-bottle wishes. (That is, if the genie was offering me only urban-design-related wishes, because otherwise, sorry, I would wish for the Nile or my own personal pet unicorn or something: I like nicely built streets and all, but come on.)

Anyway, today I realized that one thing, one tiny little thing, that would make me happier as a cyclist, would be a standardized sign letting me know that an intersection has got one of those magnetic loops controlling the lights.

Some intersections have got the three yellow dots for bikes, yes. But you have to know they're there, and know what to do with them. The new bike intersection at Clegg and Riverside, for example, has a wordy sign explaining how to use the dots.

But there are loop-controlled signals for cars, too - 70% of the city's traffic signals have detector loops - and not only is it hard to position over them, because you usually can't see where they are and bikes are usually over to the right anyway, but I have absolutely no faith that my bicycle, with its paltry metal content, will trigger them.

There has been more than one occasion, biking home late, when I've wound up waiting in the left turn lane from Bank to Heron through multiple cycles, because after a certain time at night the advance green reverts to a loop-triggered signal (or maybe it's triggered by a detector all the time, and it's only in the middle of the night that I notice because there are no other cars to set it off). I could sit there all night: it doesn't think I'm a car, and so I don't get a chance to get out of the intersection unless I duck out - against the light - through a gap in the flow of traffic, or use the pedestrian signal when it comes up.

I'm getting good at inching my bike forward until there's enough space behind me that a car could get up to the stop line. Using the metal content of the car behind me to trigger the loop. If there is a car behind me. On quiet nights, you can wait a long time for a car to come along that triggers the signal in the direction you actually want to go.

I don't necessarily need the detectors to be senstive enough to pick up my bike (though that would be great). All I really need is for the intersections that are controlled by a detector to be indicated, so if it's 12:30 am and there are no other cars in sight, I know not to try and wait, invisibly, in traffic position, for a green light that isn't coming.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Incidental Cyclist abroad!

I just got back, earlier this week, from a trip to Scotland to see my younger sister and her family (and climb a mountain). My older sister and I also stopped off in Iceland on the way because, well, heck, we were going that way anyway.

Naturally, among all my photos of geological wonders, historical places and my family, there are pictures of bike infra in both countries. It's a thing. My big sister kept laughing at me for stopping and taking pictures of bike lanes and woonerfs and traffic barricades.

A moveable traffic barricade in Reykjavik.
But I'm always interested in how other countries are doing things. And to be honest, with all the worshipful eyes turned from Canada toward the Netherlands and Denmark, I think I "look to like" in northern countries like Iceland and Scotland: I hope to see good things happening. Especially since both countries have a sizeable "outdoorsy tourism" industry. People travel to Iceland and Scotland expressly to go out into the wilderness, to hike, walk, climb mountains, camp. They take along mountain bikes and touring bikes, or rent them. So, is that reflected in their infrastructure?

Reykjavik looked pretty good, given the conditions. Reykjavik is not a big city. It's not a particularly populous one, either (pop. 119,000 and change). And the rest of Iceland, well. . . there are only about 320,000 people total. So the volume of cyclists is probably pretty small, really. Add to that, it's very dark and fairly cold - though not as cold as Ottawa - for half the year, which probably discourages cycling. (We were there in early July, and while there wasn't midnight sun, it didn't actually ever get dark: even at 1:30 am it was still twilight, maybe even light enough to read by. So I can imagine that in December it must be light for only a few hours a day.)

But the priorities seemed to be in favour of walking and cycling. The streets downtown (I didn't get into the outer areas of the city) are relatively narrow, and twisty, and not at all on a grid. Many of them are one-way with only room for one car at a time to squeeze past a line of parked cars at the side. This pretty much slows down car traffic by default, and it was quite calm and tame. Added to that, the "high street" areas, a set of about three shopping streets radiating downhill from the central Hallgrimskirkja church (in the background of my picture above) were blocked off, when we were there, with moveable car barriers, turning them into pedestrian and, I presume, cycling zones. The pavement and brickwork on some of those streets were brightly painted as well. 

One barometer I have is whether there are stylish cyclists: people just looking classy as hell while riding along. There were classy cyclists in downtown Reykjavik: not a scrap of Spandex to be seen, and plenty of immaculate pea coats and accent scarves. No helmets that I recall.

Down by the harbour I noticed this: separate bike and pedestrian paths. This is something I wrote about in Ottawa Metro a little while back as a spitballing excercise in what-if. Here, they did it. Bikes on the right: walkers on the left. There was also a separate bike traffic signal.  

There were also segregated lanes on a few of the streets, with sizeable medians (and lines of parked cars) separating them from the cars. 

With all that, the city wasn't exactly jam packed with bikes (note: no actual bikes in any of the above pictures). I see far more bikes in use on any given day in Ottawa. But then, Ottawa's population is roughly seven times that of Reykjavik, and I only really had an afternoon to look around and get an impression. The thing was that it certainly did not feel like a city that prioritized cars in any way. (This didn't make it particularly bad to drive there, either, I noticed: we had a car and it was actually pretty easy to navigate.)

Outside of the city, the Spandex did return, but not aggressively. Lots of people bike tour along the "Golden Circle", and my sister and I drove past a lot of them, loaded down with backpacks and panniers. I caught this family out for a loop around one of the fells just outside of the city: 

And this was clearly another family, at Thingvellir National Park, 46 km or so from the city: 

Though this person seemed to be on their own (also at Thingvellir - and note that apparently you need to pack a lot of camping gear if you plan to camp somewhere as chilly as Iceland):

This guy was getting a snack in by his bike near the parking area, as well. 

Despite all the bike touring, the highway was generally narrow: there wasn't much shoulder to work with and no bike lane. Certainly there weren't the separate bike paths alongside the road that I saw later in Scotland. But, given how empty the highways generally were, even on the biggest tourist route in the country, I suppose bike lanes might not be a big priority. The highways also generally twisted and turned too much to allow drivers to get up to any major speeds. Speed limits seemed posted, generally, at around 80 or 90 kmh.

From Iceland we headed on to Scotland, via Glasgow, where I spotted the bright pink nextbike racks just outside Queen Street rail station: 

nextbike is like any other bikeshare system, really: you sign up online or by phone, pay by credit card, and return the bikes to any of 20 stations in Glasgow. It's also available in multiple countries, and once you're registered you can use a nextbike in any of them (they have locations in Europe, the Middle East, and the USA), which is cool. 

We were supposed to take the Harry Potter train (which really does run from Glasgow up to Fort William in the Highlands, and over that pretty viaduct at Glenfinnan) but unbeknownst to us there was a work stoppage among the drivers. So we had to take the bus instead. We wound up in the very front seat, with a view out the huge windshield, so I had a chance to watch Scottish bike infrastructure in action. Mostly, it seemed a little . . . nonsensical. There were bike lanes, some even with paint on the intersections to announce danger zones, but were they ever narrow:  

There just really is no way that bus could possibly get three feet over. At times, the bike lanes would just sort of end, too: I saw at least one "cyclists dismount" sign where the sidewalk/bikelane appeared to just terminate in a grassy verge. Just a "cyclists dismount" sign standing alone at the side of a road next to the hedges. 

You can't quite read it, but that's what it says. Just get off here, cyclists. Pthththtbth. 
Not that surprising, really, since I already follow the account @bollocksinfra on Twitter. 

And yet they ride in Scotland. They ride here: 

But they also ride here: 

And they ride on those single track roads that are pretty much all there is in the Highlands, and up some crazy steep hills. I didn't get pictures of the bike tourists and rec riders, but they were there. But having seen how narrow the roads are, and how aggressive and fast some of the drivers can be, I'm not surprised so many online UK cyclists seem a bit . . . militant. A little vigilantist. 

There was, to be fair, a decent network of these paths running along beside the roads, nicely separated. I think they were for bikes: I did see people riding on them. My older sister remembered using a network of these in Europe, back in the 80s. . . 

I didn't spend a lot of time in any major cities this time around. I remember Aberdeen, on my last visit a couple of years ago, having a few strips of painted lane and a couple of bike boxes, but not much for bikes and narrow streets. I saw nothing but the bike share in Glasgow (and space for bikes made on the trains). Fort William, Ballachulish, and the other smallish towns we visited in the Highlands didn't have anything that I saw (and in fact there were times we thought Fort William could have had a couple more intelligent pedestrian crosswalks, too).

So, Scotland's bike systems are fairly scanty and strange, but Iceland seems to be doing well. And that in a country that measures daylight in hours you can count on one hand in the winter, and where the average July temperature is somewhere around 11 degrees Celsius. (Take that, all you "cycling is impossible in Ottawa for eight months of the year anyway, so why build lanes" people!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A poem repost

I get a regular email from The Writer's Almanac, and it has a poem of the day at the start. This was July 5th's poem. I liked it. I love night biking. I love night biking in the cold even more. And I just spent a while in the mountains. All that sort of works into this poem.

Maybe Alone On My Bike 
by William Stafford

I listen, and the mountain lakes
hear snowflakes come on those winter wings
only the owls are awake to see,
their radar gaze and furred ears
alert. In that stillness a meaning shakes;
And I have thought (maybe alone
on my bike, quaintly on a cold
evening pedaling home), Think!-
the splendor of our life, its current unknown
as those mountains, the scene no one sees.
O citizens of our great amnesty:
we might have died. We live. Marvels
coast by, great veers and swoops of air
so bright the lamps waver in tears,
and I hear in the chain a chuckle I like to hear.

"Maybe Alone On My Bike" by William Stafford from The Way It Is. © Graywolf Press, 1999.