Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Putting the Brakes on Car Culture

I love biking and walking everywhere, but Waterloo Region - and many other places - sucks for cyclists and pedestrians.  I lived in Ottawa for a year, and it totally ruined me for any other city.  They have off-road bike lanes so cyclists don't have to dodge storm drains, garbage, parked cars, and the ever-feared, sudden and deadly driver-side-door-openings.  And when that wasn't feasible, at the very least they had barriers between bikes and cars (see photo - sweet, eh?).  A recent editorial in the G&M suggests that's most important:
"Designing bike lanes physically separated from other traffic – like those now popping up in Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada – is the key to shifting commuters out of cars or buses and on to bicycles."
But if we can't do that, because we're running out of room on the streets as it is, all it would take to make our city less car-centric is to enforce some existing laws and guidelines that have been forgotten along the way and to stop building multi-lane roundabouts.

The Ontario Driver’s Handbook suggests, “You must wait for pedestrians to cross if they are in or approaching your path” (43, also HTA144-7).  Trying to cross a nearby three-way intersection as a pedestrian, I often have a lengthy wait as many drivers zip right in front of me, oblivious to the rules. Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian has a set fine of three demerit points and $180 (or $365 in a community safety zone).  But it seems that nobody is ever stopped and charged for this in our city.  Imagine every car stopping in its tracks and waiting for you as you approach an intersection because they're afraid of a ticket.  It would make for a very different city:  people might walk more often and would certainly feel safer when they're walking with little ones.

Erecting signage to remind drivers that they can be charged for driving in front of people waiting at a crosswalk or intersection, and then actually charging a few of them to set an example, is a simple solution to prevent further tragedies.

The Handbook also clarifies how to share the road with cyclists:
"Bicycles and mopeds that cannot keep up with traffic are expected to keep to the right of the lane; however, they can use any part of the lane if necessary for safety, such as to avoid potholes and sewer grates.  Cyclists need a metre on either side of themselves as a safety zone.  When passing a cyclist, allow at least one metre between your car and the cyclist.  If the lane is too narrow to share, change lanes to pass the cyclist.  When turning right, signal and check your mirrors and the blind spot to your right to make sure you do not cut off a cyclist.  When parked on the side of the street, look behind you and check your mirrors and blind spots for a passing cyclist before opening a door" (38).
A metre on each side?  Luxury!  This practice alone would prevent almost every cycling fatality ever.  If I was assured that I'd be given a metre of space on either side, without being honked at and yelled at by people who don't like the rules, I wouldn't hesitate to ride in rush-hour traffic.  The police here are leaning towards coming down on cyclists and pedestrians for being in the way instead of car-drivers for not being cautious.  Hopefully it won't get as bad as New York (I can't help noticing nobody cares that he's without a helmet!) (h/t Rob):

K-W's proposes connected bike lanes (right beside the cars) which would be great, but a really quick fix is to just stop building multi-lane roundabouts.  They're made to reduce impediments to car travel, which encourages car travel (and speed), which is filling our city with smog.  Worse, they put the onus on pedestrians and cyclists to travel cautiously for their own survival.  Roundabouts reduce fatalities for car drivers because they take out the risk of T-bone accidents common at intersections, but multi-lane roundabouts increase fatalities (see 2.2) in cyclists and pedestrians.  It's hard to get around a heavily-travelled roundabout, and in some places in this city, they're impossible to avoid.

If we want truly to be an "Environment First" community, we need to encourage walking and cycling. And if we want to be a safe city, we need to encourage drivers to slow down and/or stop for cyclists and pedestrians. Nobody wants to cope with the trauma of an accident; it just takes an extra second of care to prevent one. And if we want people to get out of their cars and use the LRT coming our way, we have to stop making it so bloody easy to drive unhindered by stop signs, traffic lights, and laws!

While we're at it,  more places to lock bikes would also be nice, and it would save the trees from the wrath of chains.

Some people still think they can't possibly get around without a car.  I know people who drive the one kilometre to work because they have to carry a few things.  But check out this mother of six who bikes everywhere and moved to Portland because it's such a bike friendly city!  I don't want to move; I want to change our city.

We can look for solutions to problems by emulating people who have taken global concerns to the next level instead of settling on the easiest route of "that's just not possible for me."  If a mom can bike her six kids everywhere, then I really have no excuses.

In the U.S., during the 40 years from 1969 to 2009, walking and biking to school decreased from 48% to 13%, and one cycling parent suggested, "The most important part about getting to school this way is that our kids will grow up thinking that biking is a normal human activity, not something we do only during play time, or only on weekends."  I know at my school, there's a constant stream of cars dropping off kids every morning, and the school is right downtown, steps from a bus route.  But it's faster and easier, and convenience is winning over our health and well-being.  For now.

Check out Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord for more great suggestions.


Christine said...

Great article, Marie. I particularly like the link re: mom with 6 kids and no car. That's inspiring!

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks Christine!

Unknown said...

Brakes are really important!Regularly checking the brake status can help a lot!

Cloe from Brake O Rama

carmen said...

nice article marie..