The Time is Now for Cycling Infrastructure

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 03, 2009

The Spectator reports that a cyclist was killed today on Barton Street. A city garbage truck travelling east on Barton struck and killed the cyclist at the corner of Weir Street in the curb lane. Police "have been inspecting a bent and crumpled bicycle thrown up on the southeast corner of the intersection".

The report describes the cyclist as an "elderly" man, but police have not released his name.

This tragedy comes on the heels of last weekend's carnage involving two separate collisions that resulted in fatalities.

On Friday, June 26, a motorist driving an SUV north on York Boulevard near the High Level Bridge collided with an 81-year-old cyclist, throwing him through the air and dragging his bike for fifteen metres, and then rammed headlong into a small sedan carrying a newlywed couple and a pickup truck. The cyclist and the couple were killed.

Then on Saturday, a motorist going northbound on Centennial Parkway on Centennial hill south of King Street lost control and crossed into the oncoming lane, crashing into a southbound van. One man was killed and five others were sent to the hospital.

Police have charged the driver of the SUV with three counts of criminal negligence causing death and three counts of dangerous driving causing death. In the second collision, police report that the driver of the car that collided with the van appeared to be speeding.

Something Needs to Change

At the risk of accusations that I'm politicizing tragedy (as if there's something unseemly about studying a disaster to determine whether it can be prevented in future), I'm appalled that our society accepts this predictable toll of carnage and devastation as an acceptable cost of running an automobile-dependent transportation network.

It's particularly sad that two of the casualties are cyclists, given that our Council recently deferred the matter of paying for decent cycling infrastructure to next year's budget process.

Opponents of investment in cycling infrastructure will likely point out that the cyclist killed on York Blvd was riding in a bike lane, but this misses the larger benefit of bike lanes: there's a very strong inverse correlation between the number of cyclists on the road and the number of cycling casualties.

It's much easier for a motorist to miss noticing a cyclist when cycling is infrequent and cyclists on the road are rare. As cyclists become more common, motorists become more attuned to cyclists and come to expect that they will be sharing the road.

Amazingly, as the number of cyclists goes up, the number of cycling casualties does not merely rise more slowly: it actually drops.

In New York City, the annual number of casualties (injuries and fatalities) decreased by half during the same seven-year period in which the number of cyclists increased by two and a half times. The injury rate fell by a factor of four.

The same pattern holds across Britain:

Cycling has almost doubled on London's main roads in nine years and increased by 30-50% in cities such as Bristol, Leicester and Leeds.

But it's really remarkable that despite the increase in cycling, casualties suffered by cyclists are still down by around a third. To anyone who doesn't cycle this might seem a bit odd. Shouldn't more cyclists mean more crashes and injuries? As those who cycle will know, however, the more cyclists there are the safer it will be for everyone.

CTC (the UK's national cycling organisation) found that the same phenomenon occurs if you examine different areas within the UK. Cambridge, where a quarter of people cycle to work, or York where it is about one in eight, have a much lower risk of injury for cyclists than places where you hardly ever see a cyclist on the streets.

Why does this "safety in numbers" effect occur? The vast majority of cyclist injuries result from crashes with motor vehicles, and most of these appear to be primarily because the driver "looked but did not see". Cyclists (and motorcyclists) have even given this type of crash a name - Smidsy, an acronym for the drivers' refrain, "Sorry, mate, I didn't see you!"

These type of crashes start to decrease as cycling levels rise.

I'm sure someone will argue that if there were more cyclists on York Blvd, more people would have been killed when the SUV lost control. Here's a different speculation: what if the person driving the SUV had been riding a bicycle instead?

Another part of the reason for the steady fall in casualties as more people ride bikes is that as a necessary result of more cycling, fewer people are operating massive, deadly vehicles.

As Jack Wolters, Amsterdam's chief traffic safety officer, explains:

The target of the police is not to control cyclists and pedestrians. It is to control the most dangerous part, motorcar drivers. [emphasis added]

We have two situations here in which a very large, heavy, powerful motor vehicle killed a cyclist. It boggles my mind in such a tragedy that anyone should suggest that the problem is the presence of the cyclist - and not the vehicle actually responsible for the killing.

Yet we continue to hear people claim that the answer is to take the bicycles off the street, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Overcoming Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

In an interview with the Infrastructurist on his book making a conservative case for electric rail and public transit, William Lind says, "most of the people who oppose rail transportation have never ridden on a train."

I suspect the same is true of cyclists - either they have never ridden or haven't ridden since they were children. Much of the opposition to multi-modal transportation amounts to straightforward fear of the unknown, unsupported by any actual evidence, meant to prey on people's insecurities.

The multi-modal transportation opponents can't imagine why anyone would use a bike lane because they haven't used one themselves, can't see what the big fuss is and are afraid that rebalancing the transportation framework would threaten the status quo, which may not be perfect but is at least predictable.

Most of the people in Hamilton I've met who support LRT, for example, are people who have experienced it firsthand while traveling to other cities. To them, its potential disruptiveness to the status quo is a benefit, not a threat. As Mayor Eisengerger likes to put it, such a change is transformative in a city that desperately needs transformation.

Likewise, the biggest supporters of cycling infrastructure are people who have travelled to cities like Groningen, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which already have extremely lively cycling cultures, or to Portland and New York, which are busy proving that a city can change its transportation culture.

We Need Cycling Infrastructure Sooner, Not Later

Cycling is not for everyone and no one here is claiming otherwise. However, driving is also not for everyone, which is why we defend a balanced transportation infrastructure.

We live in a city with extensive car infrastructure and huge subsidies, both monetary and non-monetary, for driving. Change the balance of incentives and people will change their transportation choices. This is true of all humans always and everywhere, and there is nothing exceptional about Hamilton or Hamiltonians to suggest that human nature should not apply here.

A continuous network of bike lanes will be used, just as such networks are used everywhere they are built. Since bikes take up less space than cars, there will probably be less overall traffic, not more, as cycling increases its share of total trips.

There will also be fewer large, heavy, fast, dangerous vehicles on the road and fewer opportunities for such carnage to occur. Those people still driving will be more attuned to the presence of cyclists and will not be taken by surprise when they come upon someone riding a bicycle.

There will be fewer casualties and fewer deaths - and cleaner air, quieter streets, healthier residents and more vibrant neighbourhoods in the bargain.

What on earth are we waiting for?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Bicyclism (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 16:22:50

Sad you feel the need to stick in a caveat about you're intentions. The people that are holding this city back from fairness and social justice ought to be ashamed.

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By realitycheck (anonymous) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 16:26:37

Ryan wrote: "It boggles my mind in such a tragedy that anyone should suggest that the problem is the presence of the cyclist - and not the vehicle actually responsible for the killing."

It is neither the presence of the cyclist nor the vehicle itself responsible for the fatal accidents: It is the driver of the vehicle that is responsible.

Rejigging streets to have bike lanes alongside wide lanes with high speeds is not enough. The roads need to be designed to slow traffic down. More importantly, the driving skills of Canadian motorists needs to be placed under closer scrutiny and regular review. No matter how many bike lanes are introduced, or how many traffic calming measures are implemented, the core cause of traffic fatalities will continue to be driver error and/or negligence. Until this is addressed, fatal accidents will continue to take place no matter how our streets are laid out.

(As an aside, the sequence of events describing the horrible accident on York Blvd is out of whack. The SUV, after striking the cyclist, rammed the rear end of the sedan, sending the sedan across the median and into the path of an oncoming pickup truck, resulting in the fatal head-on collision between the sedan and the truck.)

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 17:31:10

I was on bicycle on York Blvd a minute or two after the crash just as emergency vehicles were arriving. Seeing that wrecked car sitting in front of me was deeply disturbing. Now it feels spooky riding to work past that spot every day. A week before that a car almost rear ended another on Plains Road and the driver reflexively swerved ... into the bike lane 10m in front of me. A cyclist in Vaughan was killed the same day. Many horrific accidents in recent days/weeks. Bollards or a curb between the road and bike lane may have saved the cyclist on York but would not have saved the sedan ... an SUV careening out of control presents a logistical difficulty at best.

Vehicles have commanded a nearly total command of the public space ... how creepy though that it is a deliberate product of social engineering. But nothing is impossible to reverse, except people in this region are definitely having difficulty coming to agreements and it shows, whether it is roadkills or garbage piling up.

I wonder if Roman roads were like this ... picture the prince in his Chariot careening down the roadway, gold plated rims with spikes and all, trampling the farmer on his way to market on his ox-and-cart, while screaming at him to 'get off the road you * leper!' ...

That statement by the Amsterdam police officer is the best transportation related statement ever. People are kept off highways so that cars have high speed corridors between urban cores. The urban cores are filled with people of all kinds, who will continue dying horrifically if we do nothing to modernize like Europe and some cities here are doing. Why oh why can't we have a more progressive approach where anyone can still drive anywhere they need to, but cars are not allowed to overwhelm everything. We freak out about removing one lane but they are used to only having one lane. I think it is going to change eventually anyway but what a waste of life in the meantime.

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By twofjeff (anonymous) | Posted July 04, 2009 at 19:14:56

I think Mikeonthemountain is right "Bollards or a curb between the road and bike lane may have saved the cyclist on York"
Does the city of Hamilton need more bike lanes? Of course, but it is just as important how the bike lanes themselves are constructed. On busy roads a white painted line isn't enough to create any real saftey. Concrete barriers like the ones on king street crossing over the 403 or even a small median between the car lanes and the bike lane work well as evidenced in amsterdam. In bogata Columbia on streets which have on street parking the bike lanes are placed between the sidewalk and the parked cars whereby the parked cars create a barrier between automobile traffic and bike traffic. I think the incident on york boulevard clearly illustrates the need for a clearer seperation between bikes and automobiles especially on busy streets.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 09:04:06

I don't think that a physical separation is necessary. I think the building of a cross city cycling network of bike lanes will increase the number of riders which in turn will increase their safety and reduce the flow of traffic. In the incident on York, barring giant 2ft. diameter bollards, an out of control car will both jump the curb and crash through a bollard, especially when speeds are an issue.

The dangers to using on street parking as a shield are quite high. Cyclists will be popping out into the vehicle lanes of a road willy nilly to make turns. What truly chafes the ol' sackerooni is seeing cyclists use the sidewalk whenever they choose in order to avoid getting stuck in traffic. I'm all for those bike lanes Jason took pictures of in Portland. Clearly marked, with bike boxes at the front of traffic. Once they start using those, I'll bike to work again.

The problem we have is that infrastructure is built and bike lanes are put in as an afterthought creating smaller traffic lanes and cramping the two modes of transport closer together decreasing the safety factors involved in each.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 09:40:56

What truly chafes the ol' sackerooni is seeing cyclists use the sidewalk whenever they choose in order to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

Ergh. That's my pet peeve too. I don't think they're trying to avoid getting stuck in traffic, though. The ones I've spoken to say they ride on the sidewalk because it's 'safer'. I don't know what you do to counter that mentality (politely citing stats doesn't work with these people, I've tried). We have bike lanes in Westdale and you still see more cyclists on the sidewalks than in the lanes. Gah!

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 11:49:55


Narrower lanes tends to lead to lower speeds. Making driving uncomfortable is the best way to slow things down.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 13:59:33

Brandon, To a certain extent your right. However when the paved surface extends into the bike lane, a driver still perceives a roadway that fits their vehicle and will most likely take up part of the bicycle lane. Not to mention that a car's mirrors are at handlebar height for most bicycles which means that as nervous motorists swerve to avoid oncoming traffic, they mirrors project over the line into the bike lane potentially causing some serious accidents.

You say that making driving uncomfortable is the best way to slow things down...I disagree to a point as well. Making driving uncomfortable makes people edgy and more likely to display road rage with little or no provocation. There's a balance between forcing people to slow down and making them want to slow down. Providing a comfortable (but not Main Street width) lanewidth at the same time as improving the right of way to allow for more green space and other modes of transportation is the best way to do both.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 14:22:51

Bike lanes tend to be wide enough that if you're riding in the center of it or to the right of it, you shouldn't be in any danger of being clipped by a car. Those motorists who would swerve into you are less likely to do so if the bike lane is there than if it isn't, but they're the kind of drivers that you can't do anything about anyway. It's those drivers that cause me to take the full lane when things get tight when there are no bike lanes.

Edgy drivers tend to slow down, meaning there is less speed discrepancy between cyclists and cars, therefore less reason for them to get upset about being slowed down. A far larger problem is cyclists who veer all over the road regardless of how wide the road is.

I can recall driving behind a certain recumbent cyclist one memorable day. It was on Charlton, between Locke and Dundurn, so a very wide road by any stretch of the imagination, and our cyclist was making it difficult for the car in front of me to pass him. He finally moved over to allow the pass and as the car passed him and I accelerated to pass as well, he veered back in front of me, forcing me to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. There were no road obstructions, simply an inability (deliberate or not is unknown) to maintain a straight line.

Be predictable and drivers will have far less reason to get annoyed. This also gets back to Ryan's comments about increasing the number of cyclists to decrease the number of accidents involving cyclists. Exposure to more cyclists teaches drivers to look out for them.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 15:36:38

Funny that Brandon, just yesterday I saw a certain recumbent cyclist sounthbound on Dundurn near the LCBO swerve into the northbound lane (as he was trying to get a friend's attention) forcing the truck turning right off of Charlton to come to a full stop.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 16:00:28

Brandon, edgy drivers won't slow down. I think you mistake edgy for timid. Edgy drivers would be the teens or impatient drivers. The ones who have short tempers already...

You outlined my original statements perfectly... I said that when a road is designed without bike lanes and then has them added later it causes problems. When they're designed to accomodate cyclists from the get-go they are far safer in all respects and until a bike network is properly built, you won't find a dramatic increase in cyclists and therefore will continue the cycle (haha) we're currently in.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 06, 2009 at 21:46:26

I've always believed that there's a small percentage of drivers who will be idiots no matter what and that you can't plan around them. The vast majority of drivers will slow down though.

The other side of it (and this is a sore spot of mine) is badly set speed limits. People tend to drive at speeds that they consider to be safe, regardless of what the sign says. A speed limit of 100 km/h on our 400 series highways is ridiculous when the 85th percentile is up around 130.

Why is this relevant to this discussion?

Well, if I see a speed limit sign and know that I can add 30 km/h to it and still be perfectly safe, it causes me to lose respect for other speed limits, such as those in the city. Resetting speed limits to engineering standards instead of political standards will go a long way to improving road safety for all.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 08:36:55

Brandon, speeds of 130 on 400 series highways are actually what they're engineered for. Posted speeds are always always always lower. It's not a good idea to bring up speed limits on highways though because you open a can of worms (i.e. autobahns in Europe).

Also, IMHO the percentage of idiotic drivers is increasing drastically especially as the plethora of unproven driver's ed instructors "educate" new drivers. When I got my license there were 2 or 3 companies to choose from and all had reputations. Now you can just walk around the corner to talk to the nearest guy with a sign on his car... It's ridiculous.

I think that lowering speed limits is only part of a solution because if you don't make people want to slow down, they'll just double up on the speed. I'm all for bringing back photoradar with speed limits set at 40 and the radar set for 55. Anything 15 or over is ticket for sure. Have the real police concentrate on bad drivers.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 08:40:14

There are a few exceptions to the above design speed like the 403 through Hamilton and the 406 in St. Catharines which are designed for 90 and 80 km/h respectively.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 11:16:05

My point exactly. The speed limit of 100 km/h (engineered for 130) drops to 90 (engineered for 90) and we wonder why there are so many accidents there? If the limit jumped to 130, people wouldn't drive much faster, if at all faster, as they're not driving the limit +20 or 30, they're driving at a speed that feels comfortable. 150 is not nearly so comfortable for the vast majority of people. Not that I know from experience, or anything. Ahem.

Driving tests have always been a beef of mine as well. Education here is so pathetic that people have no idea how to drive beyond the basic commute. Once you step outside that comfort bubble people freak out.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 11:49:17

There would be far more accidents with roads engineered at 90 and posted at 90. The design speed has to be higher than the posted speed to accomodate passing and emergency vehicles (which should be going faster than the majority of people on the road). But this isn't a place to really discuss that.

What we should be talking about is why we aren't changing our design standards to suit the changing needs of society. The design STANDARD for all municipal road cross sections should allow for a full bike lane and STANDARD pavement markings should include bike lanes and boxes. It's time to stop pandering to the "what if" crowd and do something positive for a change.

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