Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Near miss with a motorcycle

"Dear Momentum Magazine: I never thought it would happen to me . . . "

In something like ten years of riding, I don't think I've ever really had one of these. An all-out confrontation with someone else who did something incredibly dangerous. And, improbably, I actually had my GoPro running. It was a classic "YouTube bike moment."

Here's the setup: I was on my way to the office and taking my Cycle In route in order to get it on camera (I missed filming it on the actual day), which meant I had to take the construction detour from Main Street over to Echo Drive. The signed detour route takes you along Mutchmor, a wide, very quiet residential street. Detached houses with good-sized lawns, a school zone. Super quiet.

As you can see below, there's a Y intersection at the west end: bikes stay left, and in a block you're on Echo and can turn right and head for the new, lovely, bike-signal intersection to get you across Colonel By Drive and onto the Rideau Canal path.

I have never once conflicted with another vehicle on Mutchmor. I don't think I've even encountered anything but bikes.

Until this.

I sort of wish I'd thought to walk up to him, because shouting across a huge intersection did nothing but disturb the neighbours. Once you're yelling, you can't talk sense to anyone. He wasn't listening anyway, he just wanted to yell at me that it was my fault. (Because he was going under the speed limit. Still working on the logic behind that one.)

If I give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he assumed I was going right (though you can see the detour signs in the video, directing bikes left). I didn't signal: but that's because I didn't hear him coming and had no idea he was even there until suddenly he was in front of me. And did I mention it was a super quiet street?

Or maybe he pulled this dumbass move and realized a fraction of a second later how stupid it was - and that if he'd hit me he would have taken himself out too. Then, out of defensiveness and adrenaline, he decided to blame me and scream that it was all my fault. At the time, I thought maybe I had been way out in the road - but looking at the video, I wasn't really. I had just started through the intersection on the way to the left-hand street.

A friend who rides motorcycles said that an inexperienced rider can't brake quickly without spilling, so maybe that's why he cut me off rather than turning behind me. But if he was going "20 km/h under the speed limit" like he claims, I'd think even a novice would have had time to see me, slow down, and go through the intersection behind me.

I'll try and go through the video later and see if I can pull anything else to ID the guy, and I've reported the incident, but it's not like I expect the police to do anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Save me from the Good Samaritan left turn.

I was riding up the hill in Old Ottawa South this morning, amid the stream of traffic that there always is on the hill in Old Ottawa South, just behind a big white Dodge van of some sort. Traffic's usually slow enough there that I can ride just out of the door zone, usually just off the left taillight of the vehicle in front of me. 

Suddenly, the driver of the Dodge slammed on the brakes. Startled, I swerved so as not to run into it, then continued my climb, filtering past it. As I got to the nose of the van, I realized the driver had stopped to let someone turn left across their path, mid-block. I hit the brakes myself, because there was a car about to turn left into me, and the driver of the car waved her hand at me in a "go ahead" gesture. So I did, while the left-turning car and the waiting Dodge held up traffic. 

I get that the driver of the Dodge saw the woman waiting to turn and decided let her go ahead. And I get that I probably wasn't all that visible, behind the van, to the driver (though the van had passed me earlier, and so should have been aware of my presence), and filtering is a weird, liminal sort of space for cyclists to be in, albeit one they're in a lot. And maybe everything was going slow enough that slamming on the brakes mid-block wouldn't cause the car behind to hit the van. But come on - use your rear-view. People so often don't think about what's behind them in traffic - they react to what's in front of them.

I've seen people do the same thing in four-lane traffic: stopping to let someone turn without thinking about the traffic coming up in the left lane who won't know why you're stopped. It happens all the time further south on Bank Street, where people stop in rush hour congestion to let others turn across two lanes to get into the Farm Boy parking lot. I'll be cranking up the hill, passing the slower car traffic, and at the entrance to the parking lot I regularly see someone nosing through traffic to turn left. Often, by the time they get across to the section of the street where the cyclists are riding, they've decided "all clear" and hit the gas to get out of the street and stop holding everyone else up - and if there's suddenly a bike in the way. . . 

(I know some people will tell me that I shouldn't filter. But filtering is actually a bit of a grey area in Ontario law, and my rule is, if there's room and traffic's slow or stopped, I will filter until the last few cars before the light. If any of those cars have right turn signals on, I stop behind them. If not, I ride up right beside the first car so I'm in the driver's peripheral vision when the light turns green.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Happy New Highway Code day!

. . . or, not so happy. Since a lot of the coverage I've seen indicates that the police blitz, intended to inform drivers about the distracted driving laws, is actually serving to inform the police just how many people are driving distracted. All the time. And how little they care about it.

One driver was quoted on the radio this morning referring to the distracted driving fines as "just the cost of doing business." (Though, the host did mention that the demerit points might rack up pretty fast.) Wonder if the court case when he hits someone is also the cost of doing business?

And the blitz may not actually be stopping anyone. Apparently, the phone is so addictive, even getting hit with a $500 fine doesn't deter some people. In the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an officer reported that he pulled a guy over who claimed he couldn't be fined, because he'd just been fined for the same thing. Ten minutes earlier. So, apparently, the deterrent factor lasts less than ten minutes. (They didn't say whether his ass got slapped with a second fine: I sure hope so.)

What the hell is so important that it can't wait till you're stopped?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Easier said than done

Last week, I was on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning for a short interview about the new markings on Wellington Street near Parkdale. The city has painted bike sharrows, flanked by lane lines, down the middle of each lane, and the words "DOORING ZONE" alongside the street parking area. The idea is to encourage cyclists to go into the middle of the lane in that stretch, because there is really no room for a bike and car to travel side by side.

Since I've written recently about taking the lane, they called me up, and I rode down there and met up with a reporter on a corner and talked to her about it.

On the way there, in Old Ottawa South near the Lansdowne Bridge, I was squeezed and forced out of my space on the road twice.

I talk a good game about taking the lane. I believe what I say, too. It's safer. When I have the guts to do it, I feel the bubble of space around me expand. It's almost as though drivers coming up behind me see the distance between my tire and the curb, and match it, out of some strange instinct for symmetry.

(I would love to see a study backing up whether that's what happens: it probably isn't.)

But since my column and radio interview, I've been more and more conscious of the amount of will it takes to stay in the lane. And of the fact that if you waver, even a little, things start to feel very dangerous. You're either right out there about a metre from the curb, and cars are giving you some clearance, or you waver a few inches and suddenly you've given them the proverbial inch. You're being herded into potholes, squeezed into pinch points, and riding in the door zone, and it's really hard to get it back. I don't know what the sweet spot is, exactly: but I can feel when I've lost it.

And even though I am such a big proponent of taking up space on the road, often I lose my nerve. I let myself cringe away from the cars, and then it's happened again, and on top of being annoyed at the traffic, I'm annoyed at myself. For caving. For giving in. For letting my courage slip for just a second or two, long enough to let my wheel drift leftward, until suddenly that pickup driver thinks there's enough room to squeeze past.

But then I get mad because it shouldn't be an ongoing, conscious act of courage just to be in the section of the road you're supposed to be in. Sometimes, that's enough to get me back in position.

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.