Abolish Segregation!

Cyclists riding down an enclosed glass tube.

Pipe dream or nightmare? (Marc Ngui for Spacing Magazine)

In 2011, an Afrocentric curriculum was announced for Oakwood Collegiate.

In 2013, a protected bike lane is being prepared for Harbord Street.

What do these two initiatives have in common? They both support intolerance. Both measures were conceived to mitigate a perceived threat to a vulnerable segment of society; black student dropout rate and urban cyclist injury rate. Both seek a solution by dissociating each affected group from their existing mainstream environment. Both do more harm than good.

The ‘good’ of separated bike lanes is injury prevention, as a UBC study indicates, suggesting that a separate bike lane on Harbord should result in about an 80% reduction in injuries along that section of road.

The harm is less obvious. For one, it locks down our infrastructure. This makes the road less adaptable to traffic around incidents and construction, and it impedes the success of a swath of transportation alternatives as I discussed in an earlier post. It reinforces the much too prevalent misconception that roads are not for sharing, and it sets impossibly high expectations for all future bike lanes. It also sucks up valuable cycling infrastructure construction time and money that could be much better spent elsewhere, while removing nearly half the available parking that small businesses in the area depend on. But the biggest problem is that segregation removes bicycles from traffic, which will have the effect of increasing injury rates across the whole cycling network by reducing the familiarity of bicycles to motorists, according to an analysis by the Injury Prevention journal in 2003.

Note that the painted bike lanes along Harbord are already very successful as they stand. There has been no massive clamouring for separated bike lanes. Those who cry the loudest for them don’t actually stand to benefit from them! A Toronto Star reporter tells of her fall crossing streetcar tracks last year. But that was in an intersection, where protected bike lanes obviously can’t be used. In another article, a city councillor (and head of public works, no less) praises segregated bike lanes even though he admits he only learned to ride two years earlier and never, “ever, ever” cycled downtown before! And our most infamous politician, the raging know-it-all mayor Rob Ford, has passed judgement from the comfy leather perch of his swerving Cadillac Escalade, declaring that he is in favour of separate bike lanes. His conclusion, I can only imagine, is the result of finding he has to lift off the gas pedal for five seconds when his righteous way is impeded by an infuriating cyclist. Poor mayor.

The push for separated bike lanes at city hall resembles their misguided drive for a Scarborough subway at the risk of losing the funded and approved LRT . Both the bike lanes and subway are nice-to-haves, not must-haves for the city (and they are both Rob Ford pet projects-cum-infrastructure disasters). We desperately need as much transit as we can get, rather than bits of so-called “world class” transit (aka stubways). Just as we need a greatly expanded cycling network rather than enhancements to the feeble existing network. Separated lanes should only be required in specific instances like allowing two-way cycling on a one-way street, or supporting cycling along busy, high-speed roads.

By and large, cyclists who support separation (many are against) don’t have the same soapbox that those public figures have. Looking at their arguments, they all seem founded on one common observation; drivers are terrible. Two things need to be pointed out about that. First of all there is a misperception that painted bike lanes are not to be crossed by drivers (the same misperception drivers have about their superior right to their lanes). In reality, drivers loading or unloading by the curb, or turning right or squeezing around stopped traffic on their left should all feel free to use the painted bike lane when safe to do so. Negotiating the road use with other vehicles is in fact one of the advantages of painted bike lanes, as it improves traffic flow and encourages awareness of other road users. Secondly, we don’t have to throw up our hands and accept bad driving habits, forcibly controlling them with the erection of barriers. Their behaviour can be corrected.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that drivers can learn to see the road as a shared space, allowing safe room for cyclists. But all observation and experience support this conclusion.

Believe it, because in cities with higher cycling densities like Amsterdam or Portland, and even Montreal, drivers are more aware and considerate towards cyclists because they all have to deal with each other frequently. Contrast this with my experience cycling in the suburbs of Thornhill, where drivers have either come to a screeching stop behind me, or needlessly swerved around me into oncoming traffic, and in one case a driver passed me cleanly only to drive straight into a four foot snow bank! All because they had no idea how to deal with me being on the same road as them. The behaviour of drivers in the ‘burbs is no different than I would expect if I were a pink elephant stomping down the side of the road. Clearly, this is not the same behaviour as drivers in the downtown area because they are more accustomed to negotiating the use of the road with cyclists.

Believe it, because even the world’s model for cycling infrastructure, Amsterdam, allows bike lanes to be shared by e-bikes, gas bikes, and even tiny electric cars. It works. Of course in Toronto we did the opposite and banned e-bikes from bike paths!

Believe it, because the ‘shared space’ concept works. Shared Space is an even more extreme scheme for eliminating barriers between road users compared to merely desegregating bike lanes, but even then drivers have been shown to adapt, making it a success wherever it has been introduced.

Believe it, because the Injury Prevention journal concluded as much from its study. “Where, or when, more people walk or bicycle, the less likely any of them are to be injured by motorists. There is safety in numbers.” It’s the same reason that drivers who are more often exposed to snowy roads are better drivers in those conditions. Increased exposure breeds increased awareness.

Drivers can indeed improve. The money spent on separating existing bike lanes could be better spent multiplying the number of cyclists by creating desperately needed new bike lanes within our pitiful cycling network. An expanded bike network would draw more cyclists onto the roads throughout the city, making us a more permanent fixture in the eyes of drivers and forcing them to recognise that the road is to be shared, not owned.

All of this demonstrates that we need to correct the bad driving behaviour observed around cyclists by exposing drivers to cyclists more frequently, not less. Up with integration, down with segregation!

The Faltering Introduction of E-bikes Part 2 – A Solution

In my last post, I discussed Toronto e-bike users riding helmet-first into a wall of opposition from city officials who are empowered by the complaints of other road users. E-bikes aren’t fitting seamlessly into the existing infrastructure of road design, nor can that infrastructure be adapted to accommodate this radically distinct vehicle type – “OMG a bike with batteries!?!”

Animation of a spinning bicycle pedal

Animation of a spinning bicycle pedal (Wikipedia)

As a result, laws have been piled high to put the squeeze on e-bikes in an attempt to resolve this disharmony. No riding in bike lanes… pedals must not be removed… electric assist cannot exceed 32 km/h… blah blah blah. These may help, but I have a much neater solution; make e-bikers pedal. They’re supposed to be bikes for crying out loud! Do this by taking away hand-operated throttles and making their speed dependant on pedal movement. Full speed could be obtained at a very race-like cadence of 120 pedals per minute. Halving the cadence to a sedate 60 would halve the speed to a nice relaxing 16 km/h. Note that the pedals wouldn’t have to actually drive the wheels, they’d only need to trigger the electric motor.

Yes, this would be a restriction on e-bikes but guess what; all those other restrictions could be thrown out the window. Like sharing bike lanes. Since a pedaling requirement would clearly bring their behaviour closer in line to that of bicycles, they would be less confusing for motorists and no more dangerous to cyclists than… cyclists. No need to worry if they remove their pedals or upgrade their motors either; they would have nothing to gain as long as the level of electric assist is fixed to pedal cadence. Yet, all the existing benefits would remain, with the added benefit of forcing the user to move! Those who don’t want to pedal can go and earn their license and insurance and get the lazymobile of their choice, just like the rest of us.

The elegance of the solution is that it requires no changes to infrastructure, nor does it impose any new driving rules. It only marginally limits the technology of e-bikes but does so in a cohesive manner with respect to other transportation modes. Additionally, making e-bikers pedal distinguishes them from motorcyclists, for the sake of easing both traffic enforcement and collaboration between different road users.

Two ebikers contrasted side-by-side

Which of these e-riders is more likely to have a suspended driver’s license?

As things stand right now e-bikers are getting the best of both worlds; cheap speed for no effort at all. In fact, e-bikes in their current form have gained a reputation for giving an easy transportation solution to both alcoholics and road warriors who had previously lost their licenses. Now I hasten to point out that those types aren’t representative of the majority of e-bikers, who are undoubtedly as civil and considerate as, well, drivers (wait, did I just say that?), but it only takes a few bad apples to ruin an image for everybody.

Yes, e-bikes are the fresh-faced new kid on the block and they already need some image rehabilitation. So consider this post my pro bono image consultancy to you, e-bike world. Get your act together because I would like to see you flourish on our streets.

The Faltering Introduction of E-bikes Part 1 – The Problem

English: An electric bicycle chained on West 3...

An electric bicycle chained on West 34th St. Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

Have you noticed them? They can be easy to miss since they look like your average bicycle or motor scooter, but they’re neither. They’re e-bikes; low-powered electrically driven bicycles, whose popularity is soaring all around the world and is only expected to accelerate.

In concept, e-bikes should be nothing more than bicycles with a limited amount of electrical drive to expand their appeal to a broader segment of the public. In principle this would provide most of the benefits of cycling over driving – reduced fuel dependency, congestion, pollution and costs – without forcing people to work up a sweat on the way to work. This seems like a laudable goal but in Toronto, and presumably in other similar markets, this surge in popularity is beginning to cause friction between e-bikers and other road users, who were beginning to give e-bikers the stink-eye for their speed and/or recklessness. This left officials with no choice but to intervene before things started to seriously degrade into outright stare downs! This article in the Toronto Sun illustrates quite nicely the frustrations from different perspectives.

So what’s going wrong?

Consider that our transportation infrastructure has been designed for generations mainly around just two modes of transportation; driving and walking. So we have streets, and sometimes we have sidewalks. The way we’ve always thought about mobility makes it very difficult for new transportation modes to be easily added to existing traffic. Road users in many developing countries have grown accustomed to sharing the road with a broad variety of vehicles, whether they be horse carts, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, bicycles, or farm vehicles. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the conflict with e-bikes doesn’t seem to exist there.

In recent decades, there has been a trend to attempt just that (more options to get around is a very good thing) by adding finer and finer levels of segregation to our roadways for each vehicle type. These are seen in the form of dedicated streetcar lanes, exclusive bus ways, HOV lanes and bike lanes, all of which carve up the landscape alongside regular roadways and sidewalks.

This variety can be liberating in that it offers choice, but the approach has limiting side effects as it can lead to confusion about the rules, and it forces us to choose only amongst options that have been anticipated and accommodated for by urban planners. With their highly structured approach, they have the impossible task of trying to provide just the right type of road that suits each neighbourhood’s preferred travel modes, looking ahead several decades as best they can.

In effect, the transportation network is locked down, unsuited to anything new like the e-bike. City councillors have been trying to accommodate them with, of course, nothing other than their own specifically disjointed set of rules and limitations. For example, e-bikes present similar risks to road users as scooters due to their speed and weight, but they aren’t required to have licenses or insurance. Similarly, riders are supposed to follow the same rules as cyclists, but they are banned from cycling lanes. Where’s the rationale?

In a nutshell, there are three components to this transportation problem. We have first of all a fixed infrastructure, which is at odds with the second; ever changing technology, mediated by the third; layers of administration in the form of imperfect new road rules.

What matters though, is a solution. What might it be? This question will be the subject of our next post, so stay tuned!