Thursday, September 22, 2016

Four-way flasher

At about 10:30 tonight, I was soaked through and shivering, and starting on my way home along Laurier. It hadn't been the most brilliant evening: I'd been caught in the pouring rain, with a barrage of back-to-back commitments to get to, and I had a thrown-out, painful back and very wet feet, so I was not in a mood to take any bullshit when I saw, up ahead through the dark and drizzle, the SUV parked in the bike lane with its running lights on.

I pulled right up behind it. The guy in the car was just sitting there. I planted my feet.

"Excuse me!" I shouted, as loud as I could.

And you guys.

No listen, really.

But listen.

He put on his four-ways.

For real. Like "hey, it's cool, I got flashing lights that say I can be here."

I almost laughed. "Four-ways don't cut it!" I shouted.

And his four-ways went off. He revved his engine once, almost half-heartedly, like he thought "yeah, man, this'll freak her out," but without a whole lot of conviction.

I folded my arms.

He tapped his reverse lights, again without any real intent behind it.

I cocked an eyebrow.

And then he yanked the wheel sideways, lurched forward and out into the traffic lane, and sat there dumbly, while I rode past him and on over Elgin to the canal path.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

O'Connor preview!

It is perhaps only fitting that the first I heard that the O'Connor Bikeway was nearly finished was this tweet, showing that even before its official opening, oblivious drivers were . . . well. . . it was inevitable.

And may the odds be ever in your favour.

But never mind that: the O'Connor Bikeway is nearly complete! Complete enough, anyway, that I checked it out for my commute home from work this evening.

Quick refresher: this is the bidirectional bike lane that will connect the downtown core to Lansdowne Park, via the Glebe. It will give cyclists an option other than the chaotic and cramped Bank Street to travel north/south. And yes, it has already caused, and will probably continue to cause, much pearl-clutching, NIMBYism, #neversatisfied and automotive indignation from various corners. That's okay. That's how we move forward.

I caught the Laurier lane (newly furnished with staggered stop lines for bikes and cars, thank you City of Ottawa) west to O'Connor. When I realized the bikeway really was open, I hung a right onto it. Turning right onto the lane is a little odd, since you have to bike across O'Connor, then cut through crossing pedestrians on the green. But I managed it okay and got myself behind the poured-concrete barriers (not laid-down bars of concrete like the ones on Laurier).

And then I was on this bikey highway!

For most of the downtown core, the lane is separated from motor traffic by poured concrete dividers. Green paint alerts drivers to the danger points at the intersections, and there are bike boxes to allow turns to the west. At the intersections the concrete barriers are cut down to near road level, presumably so left-turning vehicles don't wreck their tires.

At the first red light, a man rode up, stopped just behind me, and said, "Is this really for bikes?"

"Yup," I told him. "It's two directions all the way along O'Connor. Going to go all the way to Lansdowne."

"Really?" he said. "Wow! That's amazing!"

"Yeah, it's pretty good, huh?" I said as the light turned green and we started pedaling again.

It's definitely still a work in progress (if the traffic cones didn't give it away). At one point I had to avoid a tipped-over construction sign that had fallen into the southbound lane, and at another I rode through a set of cones blocking off the lane. But I wanted to see what the whole thing was like, so I weaved between the cones and kept going.

I went on alert when I crossed side streets, assuming that people wouldn't be used to the lane being there, and not seeing a whole lot of signage about how the intersections should work. But for the most part, they're quiet streets on that side of Bank.

I don't know how the intersection at the Queensway is going to work. I have heard the solution is good. It's not installed yet, though, so when I got to the block before the highway underpass, I had a moment of doubt.

That intersection has always been terrible. Four lanes of motor traffic, one-way, come to a set of highway on-ramps, and turn right to go west, or left to go east, while one lane continues south onto a small, residential, two-lane street. A cyclist is forced to merge left into the second-from-right lane to go through, or to duck to the sidewalk and use the pedestrian crossing. Meanwhile, the pedestrian crossing is a desperate, two-stage game of Frogger across an east/west street (Catherine), then the highway on-ramp (these two crossings are separately signalled), and then under the highway and across another street (Isabella).

Now, as it happens, the unfinished bikeway ends, and you have to merge to the right across two lanes: I waited for traffic to get a red light before I even attempted it.

And then you get into the second-from-right lane as you would normally. Not shown: the transport truck in the right lane that I was waiting beside.

I ducked to the other side of the traffic cones at the orange sign with the arrow, assuming that is where the bike lane will eventually be. None of it is marked or built yet, though. But on the other side of those traffic cones, there's a space and a separate traffic signal for bikes on the far side of the underpass. 

On the other side of the highway, O'Connor becomes a sleepy, two-way, residential street, and the segregated lane turns into a painted bike lane, or maybe just an advisory, I'm not sure. But the pedestrian bulb-outs that used to cause cyclists to merge in and out of the motor traffic lane have been smoothed out and the bike path continues across them now: this is an improvement, in my opinion. 

Also, at all the four-way stops, the bike stop line (laughable though that idea is, because almost no one comes to a full stop at these intersections, car or bike) is set ahead of the car stop line. A nice touch, if kind of pointless: it shows a general standard that's being adhered to for this kind of infrastructure. 

As you get closer and closer to Lansdowne Park, the lane gets less distinct. However, where O'Connor jogs at Fifth, there is an existing contraflow bike lane that takes you up the rest of O'Connor, counter to the car traffic, and gives you a lane to travel west toward Bank Street (the motor traffic is one-way east here). 

At Bank Street there are bike sensors, and a bike signal to let you turn. After that you're on your own with the "super sharrows" over the infamously terrible Lansdowne Bridge, the traffic pinch in front of the Mayfair Theatre, and claiming your lane all the way down Bank Street to where the bike lane starts at Billings Bridge Mall, just past Meg's ghost bike. And south of Ohio Street, godspeed. 

Still. Unfinished as it is, it looks good. There were already a considerable number of people riding on the lane downtown, and that one guy was pretty excited - and surprised - to know it was there. The education period is going to be interesting, seeing as we already have people parking on the lane, and I'll watch what happens with the intersections. Left hooks are still a bit of a threat too.

But it's a step. 

Interestingly, Strava tells me it doesn't cut any noticeable distance off my commute (usually I take the canal MUP) and it's actually a little slower because of all the stop lights. I also have to ride on Bank through Old Ottawa South if I take this route, whereas when I take the canal I can skip that stretch of Bank Street and come out at Riverdale, near the bridge over the Rideau River. So I don't imagine I'll be commuting along O'Connor much, except maybe in the winter if it's better cleared than the canal path. 

I can see a lot of people finding it really useful to get to the Glebe though. If I don't need to go further south than Lansdowne I'll use it, for sure. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

The classic Laurier Avenue moment

This morning I was on the Laurier lane, riding along at a reasonable speed (I don't go particularly fast on Laurier for all the obvious reasons) and approaching a green light at Metcalfe.

Just as I reached the intersection, a blond woman, probably in her forties, in an SUV, turned directly across the lane. No turning signal, no warning. I hit the brakes and screamed, "STOP! STOP!!" at her. I heard a couple of the pedestrians on the corner scream too - distinctly. I don't think I've ever heard another person scream like that before except in movies. There were screams all around me and the side of a bluish-grey vehicle right in front of me.

I came to a stop inches from her car: she continued around the corner without even looking in my direction. I couldn't even be sure she'd heard me scream. She must have; but I saw no sign of it.

I remember looking through the whole car at her and, oddly, thinking how far away from me she looked, separated from me by the side of the car, the passenger seat, the huge wide cabin space. She looked like she was twenty feet away from me and very small behind the wheel. Insulated from everything.

Her car passed, and I kept biking because I needed to get to work, I didn't have a license plate, she hadn't actually hit me, and there was no point in reporting it.

I wasn't the only one to go through this on Laurier today.

I guarantee I wasn't.

We have got to do better than this.

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.