Monday, December 8, 2014

Deconstructing Heron and Bank

Easily, my least favorite intersection in all of Ottawa. Probably because, on the way home, I frequently have to go through it.

Coming home, I'm traveling on Bank, southbound. Traffic averages around 75 kph here, I'd say: faster at night, slower at rush hour with the high volume. To get onto Heron, I need to either a) merge across two lanes into the left turn lane and wait at the light (feasible at night or off peak) or b) cross to the southwest pedestrian island, then turn, join the traffic when the light turns green and head uphill eastward on Heron.

Check out the lines on that second option. Check out the way the road narrows, so that the southeast pedestrian island is further in than the one I just left. That pinch point is nasty. And if you don't bike with guts and fortitude, you get two pinch points: one at the pedestrian island, and another further up when the merge lane runs out. And by then traffic's gotten up a head of steam. And if you're really lucky, there's a bus at the bus stop that shares the merge lane. Or someone trying to turn out of the Tim Hortons parking lot.

The pinch point is made especially sketchy if you moved right to put a foot on the curb to wait for the light at the southwest corner, and if the vehicles behind you are accelerating away from their stop (and coming from a stretch of Heron that moves even faster, on average, than Bank does). There is also a lot of heavy commercial traffic on Heron.

So if I can, I like to merge over and use the left turn lane. It keeps me further right at that initial base of the small hill heading west on Heron, so I don't get crushed over into the pedestrian island, and it positions me so I'm already taking up space, and visible, without having to swerve further left (which is unnerving, against faster traffic).

However, the merge just isn't possible in rush hour traffic. Okay, maybe it's possible. I'm not going to do it. To signal, move over one lane, check again with traffic on both sides of me, and move over again, then check (again with traffic on both sides of me), and finally edge into a left turn lane? In bumper to bumper? Nope.

When the merge is possible - at 11:00 pm when the road is blissfully empty and I can just swing across - it's great. Except for the amount of time I spend waiting at the light and nervously looking behind me in case the person coming up through the long turn lane didn't notice the blinking taillights and reflective patches. Then I get the advance green and go. Right?

Unless it's the middle of the night and there are no other cars in the lane. In which case my bike doesn't trigger the sensor, and I sit through two or three light changes without getting an advance green, and have to figure out a way out of the intersection.

So many things about this intersection are Not Good.

I started thinking this afternoon about what would make this intersection less terrible. Obviously, bike lanes would be a start, but the streets are pretty narrow already and would need to be widened (involving rather a lot of dirtmoving) to get lanes in. Further east on Heron, any widening would really cut into the tiny patches of green space that make up most people's front lawns. And the last thing this part of town needs is another bike lane that only lasts for an intersection.

Moving that southeast pedestrian island - even only a couple of feet further south - would be amazing, removing the most hair-raising pinch point in my day.

Failing that, speed limits further west on Heron, slowing traffic before it hits the narrow, more residential areas west of Bank, might help.

Admittedly, I also thought about the fact that when you get out where I am, the volume of cyclists isn't that high, and so maybe cycling infrastructure isn't a huge priority. I mean, I've been riding in this neighbourhood for years, and aside from an early, nerves-induced spill, I haven't had any accidents. (Some scares, but no accidents.)

But there are, what, five schools in the immediate area? Could those kids be riding to school if the road design wasn't so deadly? Maybe. Take a look at the masterful way that suburb design in the area has caused the main roads - Heron, Walkely, Bank, Conroy - to slice between classic little self-contained street pods, all full of crescents and loops that only have one way out, onto the Regional Roads.

If you want to get from one of those little street pods to, say, your high school, you're taking one of the four-lane, commercial-traffic-laden deathtraps to get there. Or riding on the sidewalk. No wonder I see choking herds of cars around those schools at bell time in the afternoon. Or buses crammed with St. Pat's uniforms in the morning.

You can't change where those residential streets are: there are houses on them. But you could try to make Heron, Walkley, Conroy, and Bank less miserable. A start might be checking out where they intersect and noting little, teeny-tiny problems, like that pedestrian island that, if it was only two feet further south, would be so much less terrifying to a cyclist heading west on Heron.

The first five minutes

Whether my ride to work (or wherever) is good or bad often hangs on the first five minutes. I get my bike on the road, I swing out onto the main street by my place, and the enjoyment level of my ride gets determined within a few blocks. If I get rattled, I might not get my good mood back. If I have a smooth first few blocks, I'm zooming along humming "The Bike Song."

Unfortunately, the main street by my place is Heron Road, which looks kind of like this: 

Four lanes, bus bays, and oh, right, one end of this road takes you right to the highway exit, so some of these drivers are fresh off a 120-kph drive from Montreal (and also there are transport trucks). There aren't any bike lanes or even sharrows. And the pavement's not great. 

But that's not always a problem. Sometimes, Heron Road is just fine, and in fact, the "zoom" factor of being on a big road can sometimes start my ride off right, when I'm feeling bold and taking up my space.

And there can also be that one encounter that sets the course of your ride. Take this morning. I worked at home a bit, so as to let rush hour clear, then got on the bike to head to my office downtown. It was down below -10, with a windchill bringing it to -22, sunny, dry, clear. I was actually really looking forward to the ride.

But I was also having a strangely anxious morning, so I didn't know: would the ride help to relax me, or would a couple of close passes or a car rolling through a stop toward me reduce me to a ball of jangling nerves? 

About a block in, I was feeling okay. But I heard the unmistakeable roar of a big truck behind me. Maybe a dump truck, maybe a transport. I was at a stoplight, so I twisted right around to look (and to show the driver my face). 

Transport. And in the outside lane - my lane. I tried to give it the old "I am here" eyebeams, then turned and started pedaling when the light turned green. The sound of a truck working its way up through the lower gears behind you is really unnerving, but I try to remind myself they're not doing it to be aggressive, they're not revving, they're just gearing up freaking enormous diesel engines.

And then I looked back and saw that the truck was hanging back - way back - and waiting for a line of cars to pass on the inside lane before changing lanes entirely to pass me. I grinned and waved as it went by, hoping the driver saw me. I thought I heard a little "toot" in answer, but then again, I don't think truck horns do "little," so it might have been something else. Whatever: at any rate, I felt a moment of friendly connection with that driver, whoever he or she was, just because they'd pulled over and given me a ton of space.

One courteous transport truck driver, and the rest of my ride was fun, confident. The cold air was invigorating, merging through traffic was easy, and I got to the office in a much better mood than the one I left the house with. Even with the taxi who crowded me for space on Bank and the pickup that crowded me at a red light by the highway underpass. None of that fazed me much, because of one friendly transport truck driver in the first five minutes. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Honk if you - wait, no, don't.

Saw this on Twitter just now and chuckled, and retweeted:
Although, to be fair, I don't think I run into many drivers who do. I haven't even heard the vague and faint "friendly tap on the horn to alert them to your presence" argument in years. Maybe that's just Canada, or Ontario, or Ottawa.  I don't remember it being mentioned in my drivers ed class way back when (though, really, I don't remember any advice at all regarding cyclists in my drivers ed class). But someone in the responses to this tweet did:
So apparently the misconception is still out there. I think I was honked at the other day for being in the left turn lane, but it was a quiet honk. Maybe that was a driver "letting me know" they were there. Though I'd already turned around on the saddle, while waiting for the advance green, to look back, so they should have known I knew they were there. (I'm a big believer that eye contact and seeing a cyclist's face goes a long way toward humanizing us in the eyes of drivers, so I do it when I can.)

Drivers, I gotta tell you: if you think that you're drifting up quietly behind us, more lightly than the zephyrs of spring, and we have no idea you're there. . . you're wrong. We know you're there. Most of us - with the exception of the hearing impaired, I guess - have been listening to you with half our concentration for the last couple hundred metres, and we're trying to calculate based on the sound of your engine how big your vehicle is, how fast you're going, and how much of an asshole you're likely to be. (We can also hear - and hate it - when there are two of you rolling up behind us side by side, incidentally.) So yes, the horn is pointless. And honking will almost always be read as aggressive by cyclists. It will also startle them, which is hazardous. So don't.

The best things you can do?

Give us lots of space. If you have a free lane on your left, what is keeping you from moving into it for a few seconds as you go by me? What magic forces you to keep your tire on the right side of the painted line?

Be patient if you have to slow down for a bit to wait for the right moment to pass. I promise you, you won't lose more than a few seconds. Stop and enjoy your surroundings for a moment. It'll all be over soon.

And for the love of Pete, wait until you've completely passed us before you hit the accelerator. I jump so often when a driver hits the gas right beside me, assuming they've "cleared" me and can now race on ahead.

Don't worry about letting us know you're there. Believe me. We know.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Winter is coming . . .

Hell, it's here. This is the view out my window as I type:

It's been fun watching the conversation online as winter comes in: do you get studded tires? When? One or two? Why are the bike racks on the 4-season Laurier lane taken out in winter?

And who's still riding? Defiantly?

Somehow, it feels like a switch was thrown about a week ago. Round about the first day the cyclists started warning each other via Twitter about black ice on the morning commute.  I had a conversation about winter gear with a friend in Ann Arbor over Facebook, reminded myself, reluctantly, of the location of my splash pants, and climbed on a chair to dig in the upper shelf of my front closet and look for a matching pair of gloves or mittens (a failed search: time to go shopping again) and my Toque of Sending +2, which also serves as my early-winter under-helmet hat.

Last night, I biked home from the Mayfair in blattery, sloppy big snowflakes, in the dark, at 6:00 pm, and remembered the way your bike gets quieter in the slush. Here we go!

One win of the season: I can't believe I didn't get one of these before, but I was at the moving sale at Tommy & Lefebvre on Saturday and they had North Face down mid-layers for 40% off. There was one left - and it just happened to be in my size.

Review time!

Vamping a little on a hike.
A hardcore back country backpacker I know raved about his a year ago or so, but I never really thought much about getting one. I'm a makeshift kind of person. I'm notoriously slow to adopt specialized gear. But then one of my climbing buddies got cold while at the base of the crag on belay, late in the season, and she borrowed one from another of my friends. The next weekend, she had gone out and bought one. Instant convert. And I was at the T&L sale with another friend who had also borrowed the jacket and had decided she needed one. And it was 40% off. . . so I got one. And wow. Why didn't I have one before? It's like when I discovered merino.

So far, I've worn it on its own, rather than under a shell, in temperatures around freezing, on a hike and a couple of bike rides. And I love it.

The thing about the down insulation is that it warms up fast with body heat, and it holds heat really well, but it also breathes and dries out really fast. So I'm warm, but I can stop moving, and not have that sweat-cooling chilling effect. I also wore it on the above-mentioned blattery, snowy ride home, and it's waterproof enough to shake off wet snow. Plus it's light and it packs down, so the idea is, I can put it under another jacket or a shell when it gets colder. With the merino underneath I kinda get the feeling I'll feel invincible once the thermometer plunges.

So, bring it, winter.  I got my big tires, I got my Toque of Sending, I got my thermal jacket.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TV time! Adam Savage geeks out over bike riding in San Francisco and New York. And Cannondales.

It's geeks talking about bikes! (More specifically, it's Adam Savage from Mythbusters talking about bikes with a couple of buddies. . . and points to anyone who spots the Dune reference!) It's like they made this episode for me.

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.