This summer, the city of Los Angeles passed a law making it illegal to harass or threaten cyclists. I was amazed and pleased when it happened, even if a law like that is practically unenforceable – I mean, how would you prove it, or even track down the perpetrator, once he or she had sped off? And in subtle cases, such as when it feels to the cyclist like the drivers are deliberately passing them too closely, it’s even harder to prove.
But it seems to me as though that’s not the point – or the benefit – of the law. Perhaps there’s a very faint chance that anyone would be charged, but there’s value in just knowing that the officials of the city have encoded protection for cyclists in the laws. Sometimes a law is written and passed, not because you can enforce it, but because its very existence says, “we as a people have declared that you can’t behave like that.”
I thought of the LA cyclist harassment law when a friend asked me, a week or two ago, whether I thought segregated bike lanes ‘work.’ The Laurier segregated bike lanes are a bit over two months old, officially, and they were opened amid a huge furor – heated arguments for and against on both sides. But with a half season under their belts, can we say they ‘work?’
I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘work.’ In the same way as the LA law, I was happy to see them built – and happy to participate in some of the early public consultations – because their very existence says something about Ottawa. It says that according to Ottawa, cyclists are not oddities, road warriors, or an anarchist minority. It says that the city wants to make it easier to bike, and that someone up there thinks “if you build it, they will come.” (And it turns out they were right – according to a recent press release from the city bike trips have tripled on Laurier in the two months since the lanes opened.)
So, they certainly seem to work in terms of getting people who might not otherwise ride to consider taking their bike– maybe not as an everyday, rain-or-shine thing, but on nice days, in the summer. The prospect of riding in downtown traffic doesn’t deter me from commuting by bike, but I’ve had more than enough conversations with others who tell me there’s no way they’d ride in the street on Bank, or Bronson, or down Queen or Albert. I have to remember it’s a pretty steep learning curve, getting used to riding among the cars and trucks and buses, and for some the fear factor is just too high to make it worth it.
I admit that you have to take it as a given that more people riding to work is a good thing – for those people and for the city as a whole. But with overcrowded buses being all over the news these days, that’s an assertion that’s getting easier and easier to back up. And it does seem clear that the segregated lanes have actually, quantifiably, encouraged more people to ride. I’m firmly of the opinion that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the more everyone will get used to the situation and the safer things will generally get. The people that start out by riding along the pathways and on the segregated lane have a bit of a buffer zone where they can start to get more comfortable with traffic, learn the rules, and gain confidence. Drivers will get more used to seeing bikes, looking for them, expecting them. There will be a place in the city’s self-image for us. And that can only be good.
Last week, in a conversation, an acquaintance mentioned one technical detail that’s awkward: while right turns onto Laurier are no longer allowed on red lights (because a car waiting to turn right would block the bike lane) the pedestrian lights aren’t adjusted for the new pattern, meaning that cars trying to turn right have virtually no window to do it in, between pedestrians crossing and the light turning red again. She had a point, and it’s not something I would have noticed. One way in which the lanes could work better.
They could also have more connections to safer, quieter lanes through the city, particularly on the west end, where they end at Bronson, one of the nastiest roads to ride on in the city. But it’s a pilot project. They couldn’t parachute in an entire network. It was all they could do to get enough people to agree to one street. (And I hear rumors that the NCC is planning to create a bike lane through that snarl on Wellington below Bay, which might prove quite handy.)
The lanes didn’t really change much for me, to be honest. But they weren’t put there for me. I would be riding anyway – I’m one of those kooks that rides in snow or sleet or dark of night. I’m fairly comfortable in traffic, and my life at the moment takes me to other parts of the city than the downtown core. I have only ridden on them a handful of times since they went live – but that’s due to my habits and needs, not to any feeling for or against the bike lanes.
And yet when I do get on them, I have to admit my shoulders unclench a little. Running east to west through downtown pits you against bus lanes, crowded and impatient traffic, parked cars that suddenly pull out or open their doors, loading zones and random pedestrians. Turning onto the Laurier bike lane feels like ducking into a pleasant calm canal out of a busy shipping lane. You breathe a little easier. Last week, after a fairly hair-raising trip from Hintonburg, I stood on Bronson looking at the start of the segregated lanes – with their stretches of green at the intersections – and they looked as inviting as a big green pasture full of fluffy lambs. I started down the hill between the bollards and the curb, and could breathe again. I could pay attention to something other than the immediacy of the passing cars. The street suddenly seemed that much more airy and pleasant. I felt better about my city, and more forgiving about my fellow man. In that sense, they certainly work.
photo by Richard Akerman