Friday, October 21, 2016

In the early morning rain

It was still raining when my alarm went off at a quarter to six this morning. But then, I'd expected as much. It's apparently going to rain for about four days. It's October. These things happen.

It's also really dark that early in the morning. But at about 6:15, when I left the house, traffic was blessedly quiet, which was good, because I was out in the middle of the lane on Heron to avoid the puddles (you never know what's under the water, and the potholes on Heron are epic).

I took Bank past Lansdowne and only jumped onto the convenient shared sidewalk once, to skip past a bus picking up passengers. Then it was off to the corner of Catherine and O'Connor to meet up with Hallie Cotnam, from CBC Ottawa Morning, and JP (better known to Twitter as @MrOneWheelDrive).

I got there early, so I got to go a little further up along the lane, and then go hide out underneath the Museum of Nature's iceberg sculpture. I hadn't really been up close to it before: it's a beautiful piece. And it provided a little shelter from the chilly rain. I also pedaled around the new Museum gardens and read a couple of the information panels by the light of my headlamp.

One of the cool things about going places by bike: you can stop and poke around. Even if it's 6:45 in the morning, still dark, and raining.

After a bit, I headed back to the corner, propped my bike up against a wall, and then spotted JP rolling along O'Connor in my direction. We said hi, waited a little bit, and then Hallie appeared, toting the CBC field kit - a briefcase packed with all kinds of telecommunications stuff - and a transparent plastic umbrella.

We talked a bit about the lane while we waited for the green light from the station, and Hallie got a photo of the two of us to post on Twitter.

One kind of funny thing was that we all more or less knew each other from Twitter (well, and we knew Hallie from listening to her on the radio) but I'm not sure I had ever really been introduced to JP. Still, we all knew each other from #ottbike, so it wasn't like we were strangers.

We got a couple of other photos and tweeted them out before the interview actually kicked off. Then Hallie got the headphones out, and we all huddled under the plastic umbrella (which I was sort of holding over the field kit, although it wasn't raining hard at that point) and had a chat about the lane.

It's hard to know for sure yet where the problem points will be, and I'm sure there may be some. But for now, O'Connor actually feels safer than Laurier - mostly because there are fewer driveways and turnings but also, since O'Connor is one-way for cars, the cars aren't crossing the bike lane from all possible directions. It's less busy as well, with fewer pedestrians ducking across and fewer cars turning at the entrances to loading docks and parking garages.

And the advance lights for bikes actually made me giggle as I crossed Isabella and went from two-way South O'Connor to one-way North O'Connor, across the highway ramp. I honestly felt as though I was getting away with something.

After the interview, we talked a little longer and then I headed off northward in search of breakfast and coffee. On the way, I passed someone in a yellow vest who waved at me as I passed. I grinned and waved back, then stopped, turned, and circled back to ask what was up (seriously you guys not enough has been said about the fact that you can just change directions on the O'Connor lane and you don't have to use a crosswalk or wait for a light or anything you can just double back).

It was Kathleen Wilker, who I know through Citizens for Safe Cycling, but who was there with EnviroCentre. They had people stationed at the intersection to wave and welcome cyclists to the new lane, and also to explain the bike boxes, installed so you can make left turns, in case anyone didn't know how to use them. I think she said they'd be out handing out coffee the next morning, as well. Even in the chilly rain, she was still pretty cheerful.

Then I rode on to the intersection with Laurier, turned left and dropped my bike off at the Centretown BUZZ office, and went over to Minto Place in search of a hot breakfast and a very large coffee.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

O'Connor (legitimately this time)

The O'Connor lanes are open! Excitement is in the air! It's palpable!

Might be more palpable, to be honest, if on the day the lane officially opened it hadn't been slowly, dismally raining for hours.

And 3:30 pm might have been an odd time to open it. I saw a couple of friends posting on social media that they were looking forward to riding on it, then being confused that it was still barricaded.

But that aside, it's worth celebrating - making a big deal out of, even - the opening of a major new piece of infrastructure. We've been waiting for this one. It's even open ahead of schedule. Pop the champagne!

Someone at work complained this afternoon about the concrete barriers, which make it harder to cut the corners on right turns. "You have to make such a sharp turn," he said, "or you'll scratch up your car on those things. And it'll just be worse in winter." He complained that traffic was already slow on O'Connor and now people making left turns were having to stop and hold it up further. Someone else mentioned that the adjustment period while drivers got used to looking for bikes coming northward on a predominantly southbound street would be dangerous.
But then I bumped into a friend this evening who told me that she had just driven through the mess of on- and off-ramps where O'Connor crosses Catherine and Isabella and runs under the highway, and she told me it was far less scary and confusing now. "You know which lane to be in if you want to get on Colonel By, and which one goes to the highway," she said. "The signage is a lot better. It's a lot clearer."

Anyway, this morning, my cell phone rang at work. It was someone from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning wondering if I would be willing to come downtown tomorrow morning to talk to Hallie Cotnam about the lane. I said sure, and then they told me the interview would be at 7:00 am.

(But I would have said sure anyway.)

They also asked if I could give the lane a test ride today so I could check it out. I had an evening meeting, so I started home on the lane at about 8:30 pm. It was pouring. The kind of rain that comes in around your glasses straight into your eyes and makes you blink constantly, and gets all over the lenses, which are already steaming up from your body heat and breath in the cold night air. And makes all the signal lights reflect off the pavement so it's hard to tell what you're looking at, and obscures road markings, and makes unlit cyclists and pedestrians damn near invisible.

So, when I set out on the O'Connor lane, I was doing it under the worst possible biking conditions. Go me.

First impressions, rain-glazed and unclear though they are: the intersections felt okay. Where cross streets enter O'Connor, the bike lane is marked out in green thermoplast. Stop lines are further back, "yield-to-bikes" signs are more sensibly placed. I had my head up and my antennae cranked at each cross street anyway, because I didn't know how they would work. But between the fact that it was late, so there were very few cars on the cross streets, and the fact that it was pouring rain, so there were no other cyclists (none), the ride was confusion-free.

The only thing that made me jump was the sheer speed of cars coming up beside me. Even though I knew they were separated from me by a concrete barrier, cars fly along that street and are noisier in the rain, and I flinched a couple of times as cars blasted by on my right.

At the Catherine/Hwy 417/Isabella crossing, I didn't know what to expect. When I rode this lane illegitimately, jumping the gun, this intersection was unfinished and baffling. Terrifying, even. But now it was kind of glorious. You just stay on the east side of the street.

How bafflingly simple is that?

The bike lanes continue straight, on the east side, across Catherine, under the highway, and across Isabella, with two different, very clearly defined, separate bike signals to allow cyclists to cross before left-turning, highway-bound traffic proceeds. The bicycle lights are even bike-shaped to make it more obvious, and the green thermoplast leaves no doubt about it. There's a bike signal before you cross Catherine, and another at Isabella.

(I haven't seen how the traditionally hellish pedestrian crossing has changed, if at all, on the west side of the street. I guess I will tomorrow.)

Once across Isabella, the bike lane continues for about a block, then the southbound half of it crosses to the west side of the street. It was very dark and rainy, so I couldn't see exactly how but, on a street as quiet as O'Connor suddenly becomes at this point, it's not such a crucial thing. Then there's a painted bike lane which runs up and over pedestrian bulb-outs at the corners, the rest of the way to Lansdowne Park. It was flooded tonight because of the rain, and my shoes got drenched: the pavement could be better, but at least there's not a lot of traffic.

At Lansdowne you have to turn up along a contraflow bike lane on Holmwood, which is scary in the dark and the rain: narrow, with cars coming toward you past a line of parked cars, and a narrowish bike lane. I was unnerved by it. And the less said about my experience of Bank Street past Lansdowne, over the bridge, through Old Ottawa South, and on to Billings Bridge, the better.

So I may not be taking the O'Connor lane every day. Mostly because it's lovely until you get to Holmwood, and then you're dumped onto Bank Street at Lansdowne. Which is not great at the best of times, and terrifying in the rain. If I take the canal to get to South Ottawa, I get to skip all of that horrible crap and get onto Bank down by the Rideau River, avoiding the whole stretch between Holmwood and Riverside. So I'll probably keep taking the canal for my commute.

But that's not to say that O'Connor won't be my very first choice if I'm going to the Mayfair Theatre after work, or to Lansdowne Park, or if I want to get to the Glebe Community Centre or McNabb Park. Or if I need to stop at Kettleman's Bagels on the way home. (This is a need that could happen.) And if I need to get north/south in the downtown core, this and Lyon will be my go-tos.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

What's the opposite of microaggression?

Crossing Billings Bridge this morning, I was in the middle of the outside lane. It's a four-lane bridge, with sharrows painted on the outer lanes, but it's wide enough that if you ride along the sharrows some drivers will still think they can squeeze by you, so I always claim the full lane. 

I had cars behind me, but I figured the drivers wouldn't mind, since I was still going faster than all the cars lined up bumper to bumper in the inside lane. (Just after the bridge the outside lane goes over to parking.) I was just thinking how it was kind of ironic that I was going faster than all the cars and had the lane to myself when -- 

-- Someone in a white Golf suddenly pulled out of the lineup and nearly right into me, cutting me off. 

"Whoa! WHOA!" I shouted at the top of my lungs (the only way to make a noise loud enough that you have a hope of a driver hearing you), first as I saw the car begin to turn and then as I realized it wasn't going to stop and I swerved and braked a bit. The car continued on, and I did the large, arm-sweeping "what the hell, man?" gesture, but kept pedalling along behind him.

He turned right onto Riverdale just past the bridge, and as that was where I was going to turn anyway, so did I, thinking, now that guy probably thinks I'm trying to chase him down. 

And then he slowed down, and pulled over to the side of the road. 

A few things went through my mind. First, here he was doing something else I couldn't interpret. Was he parking? Pulling over temporarily? What was he going to do next, and could I get clear of him before he did whatever it was? Second, I saw his window rolled down and thought: ah shit, he's going to try to bawl me out because he thinks I wasn't supposed to be in the middle of the lane or something, and this is going to be one of those stupid yelling matches. Third, I thought: well, okay, but I need to say something, right? 

Anyway, the window was down, so I stopped beside him. Not caring if I was jamming up the cars behind me or anything. They could wait or go around: presumably they'd seen what had just happened between the two of us back on the bridge. And the driver looked up at me through the open window and said, "I'm so sorry."

Which was unexpected, I'll admit. I'd been bracing for all the usual recriminations.

"I'm really sorry," he said again, "It scared me too. I honestly didn't see you till I heard you yell, and then there was nothing I could do about it. The sun just blinded me and I shouldn't have pulled out like that."

I assured him that I was okay - I was, after all. I'd seen him start to turn so I'd had time to react: he hadn't even really scared me as much as he'd clearly scared himself. It was all a lot more sudden for him, after all. And, being aware that we were stopped in the middle of the street, I said thanks and yes, I was fine, and to have a good day. And really, I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell him that I hoped the rest of his day was utterly confrontation-free, and that I wished him nothing but good people and kind interactions, in return for his having stopped to talk to me. But all I really said was something like, "Have a great day, man," as I got rolling again.

So, to that guy: thanks. Genuinely, thank you. For the kindness of stopping to speak to me, and for reminding me that it's very possible, in those cases where I shout, gesture, and mutter, "asshole," at someone for cutting me off or whatever, that maybe that person actually drives away feeling remorse for their moment of thoughtlessness, and just doesn't have the presence of mind - or the opportunity - to pull over and try to apologize. 

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.