Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thin yellow line: update!

On the way back from the office, I stopped to take a picture of the construction site, because I had the camera handy (I'd just been doing some photography for the Centretown BUZZ.) The pylons were all still there and the same woman was even standing there with her sign.

It's your general construction chaos zone.

But look! Look there in the middle!. . . someone actually tied little flags onto the rope, just like I suggested! (And if I'm seeing it right, they moved the poles holding the rope a little further toward the curb so the area where you can't ride isn't right in front of you coming off the bridge, giving bikes a bit more room between the cordon and the cars.)

So maybe the woman I talked to wasn't actually as dismissive as I thought she was. Or maybe some other cyclist had the same problem after I did, and they realized it really was an issue. I don't know. But: hooray, steps were taken to make it safer for us cyclists! 

The thin yellow line doesn't cut it: construction signage FAIL

There was a brief shining moment there when both lanes of the bridge at Lansdowne, and the road in front of the big shiny new Lansdowne Park, were open. No lanes closed, no pylons, no construction workers.

That brief shining moment coincided with the launch of the Redblacks and the football season. It was wonderful. I crossed the bridge without fear or stress: I didn't have to worry about jockeying for space in a single lane, drivers who would try to pass me, or choking construction dust.

Today, though, on my way downtown, I got to the top of the hill in Old Ottawa South, and thought to myself, "ah, dangit, not again." The pylons were back: the northbound lanes were down to one; the lefthand, centre lane  was blocked off.

There was a minivan behind me that was fantastic as we crossed the bridge: never even considered passing me, let me take the lane because it wasn't wide enough to share, and held back behind me, staying way outside my personal space. I waved on the other side of the bridge as the minivan turned left off Bank on the other side of the bridge.

But, then the lane closure got complicated. There were pylons all over, blocking the right hand lane this time, and a construction worker with a "slow" sign diverting traffic into the middle lane. I was following another cyclist, and we both came down the other side of the bridge at a decent clip, passed the sign holder on the right, and rolled along a stretch of pavement between lines of pylons. Then I saw the guy ahead of me swerve sharply, like he'd lost control, and slam on the brakes. I hit my brakes too, and then saw that he'd run straight into a length of yellow rope strung between two pylons to block off that section of the road. It had been caught up on his front wheel and a section was wrapped up under the fork.

He untangled it, then lifted the rope so I could get under, but I looked ahead and saw that there was a length of tape closing off the other end of that section of the lane, so we went around, on the inside. At the far end, I stopped to talk to a worker standing near the far barrier. "Have you had any cyclists crash back there?" I asked her.

"No," she said, "it's kind of obvious you're not supposed to go there." (She sounded pretty confrontational about that.)

"I don't see how they would know that," I said, "it wasn't at all clear to me that you couldn't go that side."

"Well, I didn't build it," she said, dismissively. "But you're not supposed to go there. It's there because the trucks need to get in to access the site."

"I'm just saying it could have been a lot more clear," I said. "And cyclists are usually going to try to stay out of sharing a single lane with cars in a construction site, so it's just natural for us to go in where there's less risk. That rope across there really isn't visible. I didn't see it at all until that guy hit it. You could make it more obvious with some bright tape, or maybe just some flags along the rope."

And she made some "mm-hm, yep, thank you," noises which clearly indicated to me that she was just waiting for me to shut up and go away. Which I did. Wishing that she'd seen why I was so concerned. Why that length of rope was a hazard. Wishing that she gave a crap whether cyclists were safe (and pretty sure she didn't, and wouldn't say anything to anyone about my concern.)

I know that when I can, in a construction site, I'll get myself out of the pinch point where the cars are being diverted into a narrow lane because the drivers might be confused or distracted by the signage, the pylons, the directions, the people waving flags at them to tell them where to go: and I'm pretty distracted by all of that too. Trying to change lanes, negotiate cars, and worry about whether an impatient or inattentive driver is going to blow past some marker or other, is pretty stressful. So, if I see something that looks like a clear space away from the cars, I'll naturally head for it.

If the entrance to that section of the lane had been blocked with bright tape, I and the other guy would have seen it, and we'd have gone around. But that stretch of plastic yellow rope didn't cut it - and could have caused a really serious accident. That cyclist in front of me reacted only just in time: he ran into the rope and got it caught up on his bike. Luckily, he didn't go over.

I'm not sure if there are any rules about how traffic diversions need to be signaled and marked, and if this would count as a violation, but I think I'm going to write to the City about it anyway.

And yearn for the day when there are no longer any pylons, or lane closures, or ripped-up sections of road, or confusing signs, or dump trucks backing up, or blowing clouds of grit and tar fumes, in front of that park. Because it's on my commute, and I'm utterly sick of dealing with it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Observed, but not understood

I've been trying to come up with a charitable explanation for the actions of a driver I saw this morning.

I have to drive to work a few times a week, because it's so far out of town. So I was doing that, this morning, on a bright, sunny, 20-degree day. Perfect for biking, and I was clearly not the only person that thought so, because there were a lot of bikes out.

One was on Heron Road heading west. I had two whole lanes to work with, so I moved over into the inside lane to pass him. I admit to sometimes making big, deliberate, obvious, signaled lane changes to give bikes room when I'm in a car, because I feel like I'm setting a precedent for the cars around me. So I did that. And I admit, I watched in the rearview to see what the little white sedan that I'd seen coming up a bit quickly in the outside lane would do.

And so I watched as the little white sedan moved even further right, toward the curb, got in behind the cyclist, slowed down to the speed the bike was going, and continued along behind him. Close(ish) behind, pulled way over.

I swear I saw him flash his headlights (which, if it was intended as a "speed up" signal to the cyclist, is both nonsensical and not very useful, since cyclists often have no way of watching what's happening behind them).

And I couldn't figure out what was going on. Was the car slowing up behind the bike as an exaggerated, "you're holding everyone UP!!!" kind of gesture (in which case, fail)? Or was the driver being some weird form of passive-aggressive? Or did they think if they slowed up behind the bike, they'd force passing traffic to change lanes, and so were, oddly, trying to protect the cyclist? (In which case, thanks, I guess, but you really don't need to mess up the flow of traffic for someone who was doing just fine without you. We're good, really we are.)

I couldn't help watching in my rearview, until it got distracting and I had to stop. It was too weird. Two or three blocks later I had to turn off, so I lost sight of them, but the sedan was still, to the best of my knowledge, crawling along behind the cyclist.

You choose: Misguided aggressive driver? Or misguided considerate driver?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Apparently they get it in Idaho

I found this awesome article on the “Idaho stop” today (my friend Jon-o posted it on Facebook) and it was like a bolt from the blue. For years, I've been arguing that cyclists should be allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs: they should be able to slow down but roll through them if there is no oncoming traffic. It seemed totally sensible to me. Especially at this one 4-way stop on Alta Vista, where there's a bike lane on either side of the street. At that point, if bikes and cars are all equal in the eyes of the intersection, who, exactly, has right of way if I stop at the sign at the same time as the car right next to me?

I've dealt with confusion at stop signs where drivers have clearly not known what to do with me being there. I've waved drivers angrily through when they had the right of way. I've had drivers shout at me for heading out, alongside another car, into a four-way, and then being there in the middle of the intersection when my “shield car” accelerated faster than me, so a car turning left suddenly had to deal with a cyclist who was hidden behind another car and was now unexpectedly in front of them. I've cursed stop signs so many times.

And – rather often, I'll admit – I've executed a rolling stop, looking side to side for anything oncoming, seeing there was nothing, and cruising through without coming to a full stop.

Then I discover that in Idaho, this is totally legal (and in some other states variants of the law apply). What? Logic, apparently, has infected their legislators. I had no idea that what I already, instinctively, knew was the smarter and more efficient way of dealing with intersections, was actually legal in some parts of the continent.

But, interestingly, after I reposted the piece on my own wall, I discovered that, while my cycling friends mostly respond with a “well, DUH, finally someone gets it!”, responses like this one (on Facebook) are also rife:

“What is this now? Bikers want the same treatment and now you want more? If it was a good idea, shouldn't they allow cars the same privilege? It just infuriates drivers to see a blazen [sic] disregard for the law. The same laws which, if we break, we drivers get heavily penalized.”

Where do I start with this?

This is not “special privileges.” This is not, “oh, damn, those pesky cyclists want to use our roads and now they want to butt in front of us in line TOO?!?” (Although, if you feel that way, brace yourself: nearly all smart bike infrastructure allows bikes to filter up in front of cars at intersections.)

Bikes and cars are two different modes of travel. They have different speeds, and necessitate different intersection behaviour. Rolling through a stop sign is not a “privilege,” if that's what the rules say you should do: it's just the rules. And no, they shouldn't allow cars “the same privilege,” because of some basic stuff.

Like, cars approach an intersection at about 50kph if they're doing the speed limit in most places (80kph on rural roads, usually). Bikes, in contrast, approach the same intersection at about 12-20kph.

Approaching the intersection at 50kph, you really don't have time to see another car, at about the same distance from the middle of the intersection, also coming in at the same speed. Reaction time to hit the brakes (about 1.5 seconds on average, in braking tests) is probably about the same as a cyclist's. But your braking distance is much longer than a cyclist's (it will take you about 14 metres to stop once you hit the brakes, if you're going 50kph. That's roughly 40 feet).

Even if cars slowed down approaching stop signs (assuming the roll-through law applied to them), they'd probably slow to about 40, maybe 30kph (5m braking distance). You're still coming at that intersection faster than me, on my mountain bike, doing about 18kph.

Meanwhile, I have time to see the stop sign up ahead. I can look up. Listen for the engines of unseen cars approaching (something a driver can't do). I begin to brake, slowing up preemptively. As I get closer, I look up and down for cars that might be getting to the intersection at the same time as me. If I see none, I release the brakes, accelerate back up, and cross the intersection at about my usual cruising speed, which gets me out of the danger zone much faster than if I'd come to a complete stop and had to pedal hard to crank back up to speed. But, if I see that I'm going to reach the intersection at the same time as a car, I come to a stop. Then the usual rules about right of way kick in (the vehicle on the right has the right of way). If that's me, I go first. If that's the car, I let it go first.

If there is a car, the predictable rules (in the driver's experience) apply. If there are no cars, I don't spend unnecessary and dangerous extra time in the line of fire of an intersection. And in what way is this inconveniencing any drivers?

Much of the same logic applies to red lights. As the rule stands now, at a red light, the cyclist has to stop with the rest of traffic, then try to get back up to speed (a time when even the most experienced cyclists can experience some wobbling, especially on an uphill) in the midst of traffic which is also accelerating right next to her. If I could approach a red light, come to a stop, look around, see that it's clear and head on through the intersection, I would be clear of the intersection when the car traffic started collecting at the light, and when the intersection is at its most crowded, right after it turns green, I wouldn't be there on my bike adding to the crush. And I wouldn't have to stop and wait – which I've done – for all the cars to roar past me before I stepped on the pedals and started off. And the drivers wouldn't have to worry about the cyclist so close to them at what is so often a pinch point in traffic flow.

As for the last point about how ”it just infuriates drivers to see a brazen disregard for the law” - well. That's the point, innit? If the law encodes the smarter, more efficient behaviour at stop signs and red lights, then it's not a disregard for the law to execute a rolling stop, because it's legal. Or to cross a clear intersection when the light's red. This law would only legitimize what is already the smarter thing to do.

Oh, right. And cyclists get penalized for breaking the law too, by the way. Besides, I watch drivers run red lights on literally a daily basis. Usually many, many times a day. I don't then turn around and assume that all drivers are flagrant scofflaws.

The upshot is, cars and bikes are two different modes of transportation with different physics and practical considerations. And the rules of the road shouldn't be designed to make them equal: they should be designed to make both as safe as possible. If that means the rules are different for different modes, so be it. That's not special privilege, that's logic, and this isn't a pissing match about who gets to be first through the intersection.

I for one would be happy to see the Idaho stop come to Ontario: I've argued many times that bikes should treat stop signs as yields. I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. But it's nice to know that there are jurisdictions out there that have realized what I knew instinctively from a season or so of riding, and had the guts to put it into the law.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spring cleaning and n+1

I had the day off today, so I took Mike out to the balcony for a cleanup: degreasing and relubricating the gears and the chain, washing off all the accumulated crap on the frame, that kind of thing. It went fine until I got to the rear brakes: they were seized up and barely moved. So I sighed, and went into the apartment to wash off my hands and look online for the best way to fix them (even though I knew it was probably going to involve wrestling the entire brake system apart, washing it, and reassembling it).

But, in the process, a friend popped up on chat, and I bemoaned having to tear down the brakes. He promptly offered the loan of his bike, which he bought several years ago and never really got around to riding. So I suggested that I'd been thinking of asking if he wanted to sell it, since I knew he wasn't really into riding it, and he practically said I could have it for free, although I will pay him something for it.

It may actually be the case that I will soon have a summer bike and a winter bike. Or at the very least, a road bike and a mountain bike.

And I realized that the joke I've been repeating for a while now, and which I repeated while being certain it didn't apply to me, now actually does apply to me: "The number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number of bikes you already have." I feel like this is some kind of rite of passage.

Friday, April 4, 2014

So I was wrong.

I was riding down to South Keys to see a movie this afternoon. To get there I have to go over a bridge, crossing some train tracks, and it's a bit harrowing on the best day. Right now, in early spring, the whole "bike space" area is coated in grit, broken pavement and mud, so it's a little sketchy to ride on. And traffic along this road usually goes somewhere around 70 or 80 kph. So I was on edge as I headed down the far side of the bridge, and toward the first right turn into the parking lot in front of the big-box strip mall.

And naturally, asI was trying to negotiate the strip of grit and mud, the potholes, and everything else, with cars zipping past me, I was passed by a brown UPS delivery van. He honked his horn: I shrank as he blasted past me, and I shouted, got mad, and gave him the finger as I coasted on down the slope. He cut over and turned right into the parking lot, a little in front of me. I turned right at the same spot, and decided I was going to follow him: guessing, since the van headed off to the back of the strip mall, that he was going somewhere in the mall and I could catch him. I gave chase. For once, I thought, I was going to confront the driver. Make him look the cyclist in the eye and explain himself. Even if it was scary, I was going to do it.

I followed him around behind the mall, and most of the way along its length. He parked, and got out, and started walking, and I kept after him, and then rode up alongside him. "Excuse me, sir," I said, as I got close, and he stopped. "I just had to ask. Why'd you have to honk at me?"

And he explained. He'd seen me, started to move left to give me some room, and some other driver had popped out of his blind spot, and not given him space to get over. "I was thinking, are you nuts? Don't you see the lady on the bike?" he said to me. "So I honked, to tell him to get out of the way so I could move over, but he just didn't," he said.

I felt awful. For assuming that the honk was meant for me. For not having seen what was going on just behind my left shoulder. For not being able to see past the big brown van to the cars on the other side and what they were doing, and mostly for assuming that all interactions are directed - and with hostility - at me. I thanked him for making the effort to give me space, and I went on my way. Chagrined.

Something to remember: it's so easy to assume all drivers are against you. I try to smile and wave at the drivers I see making an effort to give me room, but I don't see all of them. I need to remember how many drivers do see us, and try to give us space, and how many of them we just don't notice, for that very reason: because they gave us space and didn't scare us. How many of them are just as freaked out by the convergence of bikes and cars as we are. And not every honking horn is aimed at us. In fact, assuming the drivers are on our side might make everyone feel a whole lot better.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How did she do this I don't even

I'll admit, I stole that title. It was a tweet by Cassandra Fulgham (@cfulgham) in response to this:

I'll give you a chance to look at that. Maybe another angle?

Or an aerial view perhaps?

(The pictures are courtesy @auxonic, @rjeschmi, and @chrisjschmitt, respectively.)

Yup, folks. That is someone who actually drove down Laurier Ave., needed to park, and somehow pulled up into the space in front of the alley on the right, between the concrete dividers, and verrrrry carefully backed into the segregated bike lane, between the divider and the curb. Then got out of her car, fed the meter, and headed off to do whatever she was on Laurier to do. (I say "she" because the license plate reads "CF MOM" and I assume she was doing something in the Canadian Forces office at 66 Slater.) 

Unless, of course, she'd been driving in the bike lane for the last couple of blocks, thinking it was just some sort of . . . collector lane. Who knows.

What goes through this person's head? "Oh, look, segregated parking, how nice!" I can't begin to go through the things that hurt my brain about this. For one thing, if it's "segregated parking," how in the name of all that's holy would anyone else get in to use it, now that she's parked in the opening? Also, how did she miss the bike lane signs? What did she think the concrete dividers were for? How tricky was it, exactly, to back in between them? Did she wonder why the other two cars were parked on the other side of the barriers?

It's a baffling (and giggle-inducing) mystery. But also, it really kind of points out to me: this is one of only two segregated bike lanes in the city that I'm aware of (the other being on Wellington near the War Museum). Like the green bike boxes, it's not something people immediately understand when they see it. (Apparently.)

I'll give this person the benefit of the doubt: maybe she didn't see the bike lane signs, in the cluster of street signs that are all over downtown. Maybe she doesn't come downtown often, and hadn't known that Laurier had an SBL. If this kind of thing were more common, people would know how to use it, but like any new system, there's a learning curve. The fact that this lady, when confronted with an SBL, had no idea what to do with it, is maybe more of a sign that there's still a long way to go in informing the general public about the increasing amount of bike infrastructure.

I'm reminded of my father's metaphor (from a totally different context) of having someone over for dinner and, when the dinner's over, they get up, thank the hosts, and stuff all the silverware in their pockets as they're getting ready to go. They're not being malicious or criminal, they are just from a totally different culture.

We're in a world where drivers still think bikes aren't allowed on the streets, where they're utterly oblivious to the existence and use of bike boxes, and where they think it's okay to undertake a bike on a left turn, as long as they leave a metre of space.

There's a lot of misinformation and ignorance out there. It's just that very seldom is it as obvious and entertaining as this bit of boneheadedness.

(It should also be noticed that this whole flurry of pictures and the resulting Twitter conversation also illustrated something: if you want to get Mayor Watson's attention, tweet him. He reads those suckers, and responds, and passes the information along to the right people. He's a bit of a twitterbeast.)