How cycling thrills a bureaucrat

I don’t know about you, but when I get on my bike I get a quick thrill, a little shot of adrenalin and excitement. A ride! (maybe this is what dogs get when the sense a walkie is coming up). If its a short, local ride, it may be without helmet. Somehow these runs are more fun. Longer runs, that might involve busier streets, require the helmet. The road warrier bravely mounts his stead … that sort of thing.

A short while ago the City held a public meeting to review what officials had learned from a trip to the cycling conference in Copenhagen.

Throughout the meeting, our cycling coordinator Robin Bennett could be seen leaning forward, getting excited, sometimes anxious to get in a word … which he seldom did, since the show belonged to more senior bureaucrats, Councillors, and Chairpersons.

Beside him his boss sat very calmly throughout the meeting. No frowns, no opinions, the rare hint of a smile. The consummate self-effacing, retiring bureaucrat. Yet at one moment in the event she got excited. Well, as excited as senior staff get. She sat up straighter, looked up, eyes bright, and actually broke out in speech to contribute to the conversation and lessons of her European cycle tour. And what moment of insight did she respond to? What brilliant observation or lesson from those superior Europeans??

She grew animated and expounded on the consistency of the Copenhagen intersection treatments. And the key point was the consistency. Every intersection was treated the same! ( I know there are some real advantages to this, but indulge me for a moment…). Of all the elments in the tour, of world class speakers, of the lessons in NYC to London to Amsterdam … she got excited about consistency. I thought it a telling moment.

Will Ottawa be experimenting with new intersectiont treatments to see what works best here? Will we try out new path designs? Will we innovate with crowd sourcing our priorities or safety audits? Nope, the head of the cycling program gets animated about consistency.

Now the Copenhagen consistency that excited her is one that doesn’t thrill me. Cyclists proceed straight through the intersection from the right curb lane. (if you are a gutter bunny you might get run over here by a right-turn-on-red vehicle…). As you get to the far side of the intersection, cyclists pull into a bicycle box, a painted square space forward of the cross-traffic stop line, where you rearrange your bike to the new cross direction, and wait for the green light, then go. So turning at an intersection for a cyclist always takes two cycles of the light, as s/he does a L-shaped crossing, just like a pedestrian. The motorist, in contrast, makes the turn in just one light. And the cyclist must cross over the pedestrian crosswalk at an oblique angle, sort of mixing with the ped traffic, to get to the bike box waiting area. Cyclists that are accelerating through the intersection mix with cyclists who are slowing down to slip through the peds to get to the box. It is one way of crossing an intersection, one that I use myself on busy streets where I don’t want to move into a left turn lane due to too many vehicles, or too fast movements, or too many on-coming vehicles. But I don’t thrill to that being mandated as the only way to turn at the intersection.

We don’t have one size fits all traffic intersections for motorists. Or peds. And we shouldn’t have them for cyclists either.

5 thoughts on “How cycling thrills a bureaucrat

  1. I know! I was at that meeting (I sat near the front in the middle) and I remember thinking that, while I also use that two light left turn option when traffic is crazy, I don’t want it mandated. For example, even at the busy Merivale/Meadowlands intersection, I always get in the dedicated left turn lane because you get the advance green and there’s only one lane of cars turning left and I always immediately bail into the far right lane and get out of cars’ way. However, at Hunt Club/Woodroffe, I do the two light tango.

  2. Robin’s a dude? I didn’t know that. I’m gonna throw down for consistency here, because consistency really is important in traffic. Motorists and cyclists should have a reasonably good idea of what the other is going to do at any given intersection. If the rules have cyclists zigging at one intersection when they zagged at the last one, it could lead to a motorist expecting a zag and then zogging right into you.

  3. I think I’m with rodionx on this one. I think that part of the reason that motorists think cyclists ignore the rules of the road all the time is that the rules are often ambiguous or different from one place to another.

  4. There is a distinction between consistency — which can be desirable — and rigidity which can stiffle innovation. We are at the beginning of seriously treating cycling and pedestrian desires on their own merits and not just as add-ons to car-centric planning. This means we need to be open to new ideas, try various solutions, take advantage of local opportunities (eg Scott St corridor, the Otrain corridor)and see what works for us. I fear bureaucracies that decide “this is how intersections will work, this is how we will treat cyclists. Period. End of discussion. Go away.” We need standards and some consistency, balanced with seizing opportunities and some innovation too.

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