Ontario Traffic Manual “Bicycle Facilties” draft edition. How not to design for cycling

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Source: A View From The Cycle Path

Someone just sent me a link to the “final draft” of Ontario’s new Bicycle Facilities manual. This is book 18 of the Ontario Traffic Manual, covering all aspects of design for all modes of transport. I have not read the other manuals and can only hope they are better than this one because unfortunately from the front cover page onward the manual for bicycle facilities demonstrates a remarkably low aspiration for cycling.

The good bit
Early in the manual people are divided into four potential types of cyclist and the authors recognize that 60% are “Interested but Concerned“. This is a reflection of a lack of subjective safety, a theme covered many times on this blog.

It is a good thing that Ontario has identified that future cyclists can only come from that part of the population who do not currently cycle. In order for cycling to grow, the experience of cycling has to become more acceptable to the masses who do not currently cycle. This is why subjective safety is important. Cycling has to not only be safe but it must also feel safe. For this to happen requires the frequency of conflicts between cyclists and motor vehicles to be reduced. It requires this to happen no matter where the cyclist is riding from or to.

It is also necessary for cyclists’ journeys to be efficient. It is often possible for cyclists to make shorter journeys than would be necessary by car or to have to stop less frequently for traffic lights than they would by car. It is possible for cyclists’ journeys to take direct routes which are not in the same places as those taken by motor vehicle. It is possible for cycling journeys to be pleasant free of stress. That’s the reality that we live in and it’s what this blog tries to present to the world.

But does Ontario actually intend to take this on, or are their proposed interventions too minor to make a difference ?

What the document actually says…
The language of the document is slippery. Some of it sounds quite reasonable on an initial reading, but when you look closely it becomes obvious that the authors have rather low aspirations for cycling. There is an expectation that cyclists can share the roadway when both speeds and traffic volumes are at higher levels than we would experience. The authors think that it is only necessary to “consider” building an on-road cycle lane even speeds of up to 100 km/h. The language of the document betrays the lack of ambition for cycling.

Diagrams like this have been produced across the world. However, to encourage cycling the bands need to be adjusted so that cyclists have their own infrastructure at far lower speeds and smaller traffic volumes than suggested here.

Diagrams like this have been produced across the world. However, to encourage cycling the bands need to be adjusted so that cyclists have their own infrastructure at far lower speeds and smaller traffic volumes than suggested here.

Similarly, when writing about “child cyclists” the authors say “This group generally requires separated facilities free of conflicts with motor vehicle traffic. Separated facilities should be considered near schools, parks and neighbourhoods. Children under the age of 11 should be permitted to cycle on sidewalks since they may not have the cognitive ability or experience to ride on roads with motor vehicles by themselves.” This also sounds almost reasonable until you realise how restricting this is. The need that childrens have for separated facilities is to be considered only near these specific locations. The freedom of children is thus to be restricted to routes between places that the road designers have decided in advance that they might like to go to. Canadian children “under the age of 11” supposedly need to ride on sidewalks because they lack some unknown cognitive ability while Dutch children regularly make school trips by bike from a far younger age. Indeed, my daughter rode 150 km out into the countryside on a school cycle-camping trip at the age of 11. Nothing special – almost all Dutch primary schools do this.A passage which considers the needs of “Experienced cyclists (commuter or other utilitarian)” reads: “This group generally prefers direct, continuous facilities with minimal delay as is generally provided by the arterial road Experienced cyclists (commuter or network. Experienced cyclists may be comfortable on shared use other utilitarian) roadways with low motor vehicle volumes and speeds. However, users in this group typically prefer on-street bike lanes or separated facilities where the context warrants it.” This sounds just fine until you consider what they’re talking about. Our 85 year old neighbour’s 80 years of experience is surely enough and her regular trips to the shops by bike are definitely utilitarian but I have never heard her express a preference for riding on arterial roads rather than the more direct, safer and more pleasant cycle-paths that we all use. Riding on road is equated falsely within this manual with making journeys which are direct and continuous and have minimal delay. There is no need whatsoever for that to be the case. There is a reason whyfast cyclists in the Netherlands ride on the cycle-paths.

There is actually no need for this compartmentalism. Children benefit most from exactly the same infrastructure as fast and experienced cyclists benefit from most. i.e. that which allows direct and convenient journeys to be made in safety.

These two passages demonstrate the lack of ambition of the plans for Ontario. But this was just scraping the surface. Just look at some of their recommended designs for infrastructure…

Sharrows

Is this bike really in a safe place relative to the car ?

Is this bike really in a safe
place relative to the car ?

Something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time is the strange North American fixation with painting “Shared lane markings” on streets.

This is not infrastructure, it’s just paint. Sharrows do not give cyclists their own space. They also do not place any physical object in the way of drivers. Sharrows are a tokenistic attempt to pacify cyclists and are not a feature of the roads in countries which have a high cycling modal share. Sharrows give the appearance that something has been done but without any real change having been made to the road environment.

In Ontario, as shown in this picture, cyclists are to be encouraged to ride no further than 1 m from the kerb and drivers are actually to be encouraged to overtake cyclists within the same lane. The manual explains this in black and white: “if the travel lane width is 4.0 metres or greater, passing may be possible“. And what type of road would this be ? “roads with higher traffic volumes, low to moderate speeds (40 to 60 km/h) and frequent intersections or driveways.” This is not the route to mass cycling.

Faith in signage

It’s neither safe nor pleasant for a cyclist to be passed within the lane by a vehicle travelling at a considerably higher speed. So how does Ontario propose to deal with this problem ?

Answer: erecting signs which read “share the road” alongside the sharrows.

This does nothing to improve the subjective or actual safety of cyclists.

For narrower roads with less than 4 m lane widths, Ontarian planners suggest that the sharrows should be further out and cyclists be used as mobile traffic calming devices behind which motorists will have to wait until they can pass in safety. This on roads with 50 km/h speed limits. i.e. a speed which only a small fraction of the population can maintain for any period of time (the world one hour record for a reasonably normal bike is still under 50 km).

sharetheroadIf you have the guts to want to do it, then perhaps it is marginally safer to ride in front of frustrated drivers than to encourage them to pass within the lane. However it is unlikely to be a pleasant experience.

Drivers who are in a hurry, stuck behind a bike and tooting their horns haven’t necessarily seen a sharrow and don’t necessarily understand why you are obstructing them. In any place where cyclists are used as traffic calming devices the dream of mass cycling will remain a dream. This is not the hassle free cycling that is required to encourage the entire population to ride bikes. This experience will do nothing to convert the 60% of the population which Ontario has identified as being “Interested but Concerned” into regular cyclists.

Paved shoulders
The document refers to “paved shoulders”. The recommendations for widths are vague: “should typically have shoulders between 1.5 and 2.0 metres of pavement width depending on the volume, speed and mix of vehicular traffic” is followed in the same paragraph by “practitioners may consider providing a minimum paved shoulder width of 1.2 metres after applying good engineering judgement and consideration of the context specific conditions.” The lower minimum is available to anyone who thinks they have a “constrained corridor“, but of course as we all know already, every place in the world claims to have “not enough space” and that includes Canada.
I’m happy to say that we don’t have “paved shoulders” in the Netherlands. Or at least we don’t have them as cycling facilities. The idea that cycling is made attractive by providing nothing more than a stripe of asphalt at the side of a road which may carry large volumes of high speed traffic is quite remarkable. It takes more than this. The optional separation by buffer of width 0.5 to 1.0 m is inadequate to lead to a high degree of subjective safety.

Sometimes they make it too easy to criticise. Of the three examples that Ontario provides of real paved shoulders, two have a car parked in them.

Sometimes they make it too easy to criticise. Of the three examples that Ontario provides of real paved shoulders, two have a car parked in them.

On Road Cycle lanes
We move on now to on-road cycle-lanes. These do exist in the Netherlands but they’re generally older facilities and are not nearly so common as properly segregated cycle-paths (just 5500 km exist vs. 37000 km of segregated paths). You would expect to see such lanes in the Netherlands mostly on streets with fewer vehicles or occasionally in places which simply haven’t yet been updated to remove them. They are found infrequently on busy roads or with frequently used parking because they are not suitable provision in such areas.

In Ontario such lanes are to be “1.8 metres wide, measured to the face of the curb or, in its absence, the edge of the roadway. Practitioners may provide a 2.0 metre facility on roadways with higher bicycle volumes to facilitate overtaking within the bicycle lane.” and “bike lanes are typically no wider than
this so that they are not misinterpreted as being for general traffic use.

However, the diagram later on shows a slightly different idea. The desired width for a bicycle lane next to parked cars somehow shrinks to just 1.5 m, with a 1 m buffer (which may be reduced to 0.5 m) to protect from “dooring”. This is simply inadequate. There also appears here a mention of the oft-mooted idea of cycle-lanes between lanes of cars. These apparently need to be just 1.8 m minimum in width.

However, on the subject of cycle-lanes, the drawings of proposed road layouts provide the most entertainment. Almost every one of their examples is flawed from the point of view of cyclist safety and most of these flaws are obvious at the first glance:

Problems caused by this arrangement include: 1. dooring due to opening of doors of parked cars 2. cars passing being too close. 3. cars wishing to park swerving across the cycle-lane 4. cars turning the corner swerving across the cycle-lane 5. Nothing is done to protect cyclists at the junctions - the most dangerous places for riding. 6. How does a cyclist make a safe left turn at these junctions ?

Problems caused by this arrangement include:
1. dooring due to opening of doors of parked cars
2. cars passing being too close.
3. cars wishing to park swerving across the cycle-lane
4. cars turning the corner swerving across the cycle-lane
5. Nothing is done to protect cyclists at the junctions – the most dangerous places for riding.
6. How does a cyclist make a safe left turn at these junctions ?

Another example of designing in conflict. Cyclists heading straight on should not expect drivers turning right to merge into their lane. This arrangement of lanes requires both cyclists and drivers to be able to see behind themselves to avoid colliding with one another while they change lane while they must also look forwards to see what vehicles in front of them are doing as they may be adjusting their speed to merge or slowing for a red traffic light. From the point of view of sustainable safety  this design is extraordinarily bad because it relies on everyone behaving perfectly at all times. For this to work without injuries, no-one must ever be tired or distracted. It's the precise opposite of the Dutch principles which seek to make roads safer despite their users' misbehaviour or mistakes and self-explanatory so that users do the right thing without having to take notice of excessive signage.

Another example of designing in conflict. Cyclists heading straight on should not expect drivers turning right to merge into their lane. This arrangement of lanes requires both cyclists and drivers to be able to see behind themselves to avoid colliding with one another while they change lane while they must also look forwards to see what vehicles in front of them are doing as they may be adjusting their speed to merge or slowing for a red traffic light.
From the point of view of sustainable safety this design is extraordinarily bad because it relies on everyone behaving perfectly at all times. For this to work without injuries, no-one must ever be tired or distracted. It’s the precise opposite of the Dutch principles which seek to make roads safer despite their users’ misbehaviour or mistakes and self-explanatory so that users do the right thing without having to take notice of excessive signage.

In this example a cycle-lane disappears right at the most dangerous point - where the roadway narrows. The Ontarian designers place all emphasis on avoiding a collision on a cyclist who can turn his head by 180 degrees and judge the safe moment to pull left into other traffic. This is simply not a safe arrangement. I've added a blue triangle to show how kerbs on the road could be used to make this merging safer by forcing drivers to pull to the left.

In this example a cycle-lane disappears right at the most dangerous point – where the roadway narrows. The Ontarian designers place all emphasis on avoiding a collision on a cyclist who can turn his head by 180 degrees and judge the safe moment to pull left into other traffic. This is simply not a safe arrangement. I’ve added a blue triangle to show how kerbs on the road could be used to make this merging safer by forcing drivers to pull to the left.

Another example of designing in conflict. Cyclists heading straight on should not expect drivers turning right to merge into their lane. This arrangement of lanes requires both cyclists and drivers to be able to see behind themselves to avoid colliding with one another while they change lane while they must also look forwards to see what vehicles in front of them are doing as they may be adjusting their speed to merge or slowing for a red traffic light. From the point of view of sustainable safety  this design is extraordinarily bad because it relies on everyone behaving perfectly at all times. For this to work without injuries, no-one must ever be tired or distracted. It's the precise opposite of the Dutch principles which seek to make roads safer despite their users' misbehaviour or mistakes and self-explanatory so that users do the right thing without having to take notice of excessive signage.

Another example of designing in conflict. Cyclists heading straight on should not expect drivers turning right to merge into their lane. This arrangement of lanes requires both cyclists and drivers to be able to see behind themselves to avoid colliding with one another while they change lane while they must also look forwards to see what vehicles in front of them are doing as they may be adjusting their speed to merge or slowing for a red traffic light.
From the point of view of sustainable safety this design is extraordinarily bad because it relies on everyone behaving perfectly at all times. For this to work without injuries, no-one must ever be tired or distracted. It’s the precise opposite of the Dutch principles which seek to make roads safer despite their users’ misbehaviour or mistakes and self-explanatory so that users do the right thing without having to take notice of excessive signage.

These examples were all found within the first third of the manual. There are far more examples of bad design which I have skimmed over and while it would be amusing to go through all of them this would also be very time consuming so I’m stopping here (unless Ontario wants to sponsor me to continue, that is).

Conclusion – please think again
I’ve read a few design manuals in my time and unfortunately I have to say that this is one of the very worst. The examples above come just a third of the document. Flipping through more of the pages reveals seemingly an endless stream of material which is just as bad and in some cases obviously worse than that above.

It appears that no stone was left un-turned in seeking out bad ideas. Amongst these further bad ideas are two stage turns, bike boxes, cycle-lanes in the middle of the road, “jug handles” to make left turns, recommendations for separated paths to be too narrow, bus stops on cycle-paths, paths shared with pedestrians, awful ideas about what to do with cyclists at roundabouts, junction design which very probably will be proven to be “to die for” and the suggestion of signs, signs and more signs to try to explain the whole mess to the users of the infrastructure

Take advice from people with experience. Learn from best practice.
Ontario: don’t accept this document as your future guide to building bicycle facilities. It is inadequate to the task in more ways than I have time to document.

If your aim is to achieve a higher cycling modal share, encourage a wider range of the population to cycle and to improve the safety of your cyclists then you desperately need to start again on your manual.

Instead of seeking out only inexpensive “solutions” or inventing new ideas, and instead of being influenced by countries which have similarly low cycling modal shares to your own, please take a look first at what has been achieved here in the Netherlands. It makes absolutely no sense at all to ignore the most successful practices.

A good start would be to buy copies of the CROW manuals and read them thoroughly. These are the best documents that you’ll find anywhere about cycling infrastructure. However, don’t stop at just reading books and websites and be aware that the real life experience is only hinted at by what you’ll read. You also need to know how it feels to use the best cycling infrastructure in the world and you’ll find out how the best infrastructure explains itself and does not need the number of signs that you are planning to install.

You need to aim high in order to achieve future success. This is the reason why we offer tours – so that professionals such as yourselves can see what best practice is and avoid making expensive mistakes.

I really am willing to go through the rest of the manual for a fee. It could be instructive to point out all the problems. However, I think time would be better spent by Ontario setting about writing a proper manual for cycling facilities.