On cycling infrastructure (an update)

A couple years ago, in a series of entries I wrote about my time in Australia, I wrote an entry about cycling infrastructure in Australia and Canada.  At the time, it had been ages since I’d actually owned and used a bike as a regular mode of transit – many observations were based on what I saw, and not necessarily what I actually made use of. That’s changed a lot in the last year and a bit that I’ve been in Vancouver.  In the last year, I’ve cycled quite a bit more in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Sydney, and Melbourne.  I figured it would be appropriate to update my thoughts.

Vancouver

IMG_0086

Despite its hills, Vancouver (my new-ish home) is a bit of a cyclist’s dream.  Purpose-built infrastructure abounds – since I last wrote, the dedicated cycleways on Hornby and Dunsmuir have been made permanent.  There are tonnes of bicycle routes that criss-cross the city and are actually controlled in a way that they’re pleasant to cycle on.  While many routes are off the major roads, making them sometimes less convenient, it’s truly a pleasure to ride on routes like 10th Avenue or Off-Broadway, and the network is big enough it will take you pretty well anywhere.  There are lots of improvements to be made, of course, but compared to everywhere else I’ve been it’s hard to complain.

The one thing that regular cycling has brought to the front of my mind, though, is the way roads are shared amongst drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians — something I didn’t focus much on the last time I wrote on this.  Pedestrians often step into the cycleways, particularly in tourist areas (like anywhere on the seawall), which is at minimum an annoyance and at worst a safety risk to both parties.  And the drivers are absolutely nuts.  Of all the places I’ve been in the world, Vancouver has the absolute worst drivers I’ve ever encountered.  It’s not so much that they’re aggressive, though that is sometimes the problem – I was once almost run off the road by a driver who clearly saw me and decided to pull into my lane anyway, and drivers here regularly honk at cyclists who are in their way (even if the cyclist is riding safely and the driver is simply impatient).  It seems more to be an ignorance of the basic rules of the road.  It’s very common here to see drivers go straight through red lights (I’ve almost been run over as a pedestrian by such drivers).  I often see drivers pull into an intersection to turn left and then fail to complete the turn when the light changes, blocking traffic in all directions.  Turning right on red  here is generally acceptable unless signposted, but such signposts are frequently ignored.  And while we have bike boxes, they’re frequently occupied by stopped vehicles (though less so than in other cities that have them, like Toronto or Melbourne).  And while we have roundabouts (“traffic circles,” which are otherwise quite effective alternatives to bicycle-frustrating stop signs), no one knows how to use them. I regularly see drivers stop in the roundabout to let people in, or turn left by driving clockwise through the circle.

On the upside, there are so many cyclists in Vancouver that most drivers are at least aware we exist, and are somewhat alert to us.  They’re also fairly respectful of bike space – bike boxes excepted, it’s uncommon to see drivers use bike lanes as a pick-up/drop-off zone.  I think a big part of that is due to bike lanes frequently being offset from the curb – many of our painted lanes are separated from the curb by a parking lane, which drivers who are stopping briefly use instead of stopping in the bike lane as they do in other cities (though this does increase the risk of “dooring” – opening a door onto a cyclist riding by – which leaves cyclists rather cautious in these areas).

And when you’re not fighting off angry and/or ignorant drivers, or climbing a steep hill, Vancouver is a really great city to cycle in.  I live sandwiched between two major roads (both are one-way four-lane roads, so I effectively live in the middle of a highway), so every trip I take involves some traffic-fighting.  But once I get off those streets, the segregated-lane and/or painted-lane and/or traffic-calmed routes get me pretty well anywhere I need or want to go, quickly and efficiently.  A lot of middle-distance trips are actually fastest and easiest on a bicycle, and it’s really quite a pleasure to take those trips.  And it’s rare to take a trip on the busier bike routes (like 10th) without encountering dozens or even hundreds of other cyclists – it’s rather uplifting.  The one thing we’re missing is a bike share, which is coming this year despite predictions it will fail miserably due to British Columbia’s mandatory helmet laws.

Toronto

In my last entry, I wrote about Toronto: “Cars drive and park in bike lanes, pedestrians walk on the street (and not just across it), and cyclists ride on the sidewalk.  It’s a dangerous world out there and all the bickering isn’t helping anyone bridge these conflicts.”  It’s still true.  Since then, a poorly-designed “segregated” lane was built on Sherbourne Street (drivers frequently park in it), and the painted lane on Jarvis Street was removed at substantial cost in what seems to have been sheer pettiness.  BIXI is (very, very, very) slowly expanding and covers a reasonable enough area to get around easily.  I do think the increased volume of cyclists it has brought has improved the situation a little bit, though, and generally speaking sharing the road with drivers (even major roads) is not nearly as intimidating as it is in Vancouver – no one has ever tried to run me off the road, and even the unnecessary honking is less in Toronto than Vancouver.  But on the flipside, a significant number of painted-lane routes are made effectively useless as their position next to the curb means that drivers regularly stop, or outright park, in them.

Besides that, though, there’s not much to add about Toronto.  The cycling network is still rather patchy, and there’s very little political will to change that (though there has recently been a proposal to create an East-West route through the city).

Montreal

BIXI has become such a fixture in Montreal that I can’t picture the city without it anymore.  Sit near a major downtown street and watch the traffic going by and you’ll see that every second or third vehicle of any kind that passes is a BIXI.  It’s inspiring – it’s taken a city with a fierce cycling culture and made cycling for everyone.  Everyone I know who lives in the city uses BIXI for their regular commute, as a direct replacement for either public transit or driving.  The network of cycle routes will get you pretty well anywhere within a pretty big radius of the city centre, and you can go long distances in fully segregated cycleways.  The cycleways are frequently in ill repair, even the newer ones, but this is pretty common for any infrastructure in Montreal… you eventually learn to take it in stride.  And the new “occasional subscription” on BIXI (which gives you access to a key rather than dealing with credit cards every time) is incredibly useful for visitors – I wish other cities offered this.

As for the drivers, well, they’re nuts.  But so are the cyclists.  And there’s a a striking contrast between Vancouver’s crazy drivers and Montreal’s crazy drivers.  Montreal’s drivers (and cyclists) regularly break every rule you could imagine, and are incredibly aggressive when it comes to using the road.  But there’s a sense of self-preservation (and other-preservation) in Montreal that I don’t see in the same way in Vancouver.  Yes, people go straight through red lights without even slowing down, but they only do it when there are no other road users likely to have a conflict with them.  Yes, they drive straight towards cyclists and pedestrians, but as long as the cyclist or pedestrian asserts their use of the space, there’s no real threat of a collision.  A simple glare, ring of a bicycle bell, or occasionally a middle finger, is enough to stop a driver being more aggressive than they should be – they’re aggressive, but they know the rules of the road and will yield the right of way when another road user who is actually entitled to it asserts themselves.  And while tourists on foot occasionally wander into the cycleways, they quickly learn not to do it twice.

Of course, the one big downside is that most of the infrastructure is effectively shut down (and/or turned into motor vehicle parking!) in the winter – I’ve heard this is slowly improving, but it doesn’t stop BIXI from packing it in every November.

Sydney

Buses may stop lawfully (and annoyingly) across intersection.

When I last wrote, I had actually never ridden in Sydney.  Now I have, and I think it’s worse than I initially had reported.  Though I’m a bit biased – I had a collision (the first time I’ve had any sort of bicycling accident since I was a teenager).  It’s a long story, but I was cycling in the Bourke Street Cycleway (which I wrote about in a bit more length in my 2011 post) when a pedestrian crossing the road mid-block made a last-minute decision not to go the extra half-metre to the footpath, made a sharp turn into the cycleway and walked along the left side (i.e., her back to traffic) with headphones in her ears. I was already slowing to let her by but at this point it was too late and I ended up in the plants on the side of the path (I later went back to the spot and realised I narrowly missed a tree).  I’m not sure if I actually hit her or just fell while trying to avoid her, but it was definitely offputting.  More than three weeks later my scrapes and bruises are still healing.  I was staying near the cycleway and in the week or so I was there I regularly observed people walking in the cycleway.  The problem, it seems, is that the cycleway is built level with (not below) the footpath, and there are various places that are paved connecting the footpath with the cycleway – which is practically an invitation to walk in it.

That said, even without that incident Sydney is a very difficult city to get around by any method of travel.  I was hopeful that having access to a bicycle on this visit would change my opinion of that, but it didn’t.  There were, indeed, some areas that were ideal for riding, and some of them were quite wonderful.  But even where there was cycle-friendly infrastructure on the surface, it only took a small amount of use to realise the problems. For another example, I rode over the harbour bridge, which was one of the city’s first cycleways and naturally has a beautiful view and was a pleasant ride.  Pedestrians have a dedicated path on the East side of the bridge while cyclists have a dedicated path on the West side.  But despite the countless signs and warnings of multiple cyclists (myself included), I still encountered pedestrians willing to put themselves and others at risk by walking in the quite-narrow route.  But the strangest part was that at the North end of the bridge, one must use stairs to get up or down.  There is a massive amount of room at the North end of the bridge, which is mostly municipal parkland, so I can’t understand at all why there would be no ramp.

On top of that, there’s also a surprisingly aggressive (and angry) anti-cycling movement in Sydney.  And in addition to the anti-pedestrian signal problems I mentioned in my earlier post, the signals aren’t very favourable to cyclists either — besides dodging pedestrians, one of the worst parts of using the cycleways is that the bicycle light takes a really long time to turn green.  This is a problem in Vancouver too (particularly on Hornby when cycling in the opposite direction of car traffic), but at least in Vancouver when you’re stuck at a red light there’s usually other traffic actually using the road. In Sydney, you just sit at the red light on an otherwise empty road.

On the upside, though, the mayor is trying quite hard to improve the situation, and to build a more complete network.  And even the conservative state government’s planning minister has realised the advantage of cycling infrastructure.  Sydney might become a good city to cycle in. But right now, it’s not.

Melbourne

A complete street

Since I last visited, Melbourne has really stepped up its cycling infrastructure. Everyone there seems to own a bike (and no one uses the bike share), and $5 helmets mean everyone wears one and doesn’t really care if they lose it.  In some more recent street designs they’ve gotten things exactly right — like in the photo above where the bike lane is segregated where possible and protected from stopping drivers by a parking lane with a curb.  Melbourne also has a lot of street-centre parking, which is helpful in reducing the chances of being ‘doored’ in a painted-lane route.  In other cases, they’ve gotten it horribly wrong — further South on this street (Swanston Street), the roadway is only accessible by bicycles and trams, and the layout is such that bicycles stop multiple times per block either for traffic lights or to let tram passengers on/off.  Despite it clearly being built with the intention of being a through route for bicycles, I (and other cyclists I spoke to in town) avoided it after my first trip.

People regularly turn to Melbourne Bike Share as an example of why mandatory helmet laws and bike shares don’t work well together — but I think there’s more to it than that.  The bike share has a very small footprint – it doesn’t quite go to St Kilda, a popular inner suburb, towards the South, and going North it barely covers ground outside the city centre.  There were numerous trips I wanted to take there that I ended up walking or taking public transport on because the Bike Share didn’t cover the area.  That said, the cycling network itself, with some segregated lanes, some painted lanes, and some traffic-calmed routes, is pretty extensive.

I bemoaned hook turns the last time I wrote about cycling in Melbourne, and since then they seem to have solved the problem with bike boxes.  Instead of fighting cars for the hook turn space, many major intersections on bike routes have bike boxes so you can make a hook turn (also referred to as a “Copenhagen left,” though of course in Melbourne the hook turns are for turning right) by riding straight on a green and waiting for the straight-through light in the perpendicular direction.  That is, when cars aren’t stopped in the bike boxes, which they frequently were.  That said, though, this was such commonplace that it was normal to see cyclists just pull in front of the cars stopped in the bike boxes, which seemed to work generally.

There were still elements of the ambiguity and strange phenomena I noticed my last time in town, though.  Like bike lanes with trees in the middle of them, and bike lanes that were actually under parking lanes.

That said, getting around Melbourne by bicycle is generally pretty easy, and despite drivers that take space they aren’t supposed to take I had very few road conflicts.  The fact that it’s mostly flat is a huge plus, though, and I’m sure that contributes to the high volumes of cyclists in the streets.

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