Cycle safety, ticket crackdown and Burrard

News last week of the catastrophic crash in Ottawa, that saw five cyclists badly injured has highlighted all that’s right — and wrong — with the state of cycle safety in our own city.

Although the Ottawa cyclists were very safety conscious, they were travelling in a high-speed section of road, exposed to traffic. Their fate might have been different on a dedicated bike lane. The incident underlines the hard fact of the matter:  truly safe cycling requires good infrastructure and responsible behaviour by cyclists.

Since June, my e-mail in-basket has been crowded with two kinds of mail.

On the one hand: protests from cyclists angered by a VPD “crackdown” on cyclists’ traffic violations, including riding without a helmet.

On the other: fury directed at unsafe or reckless cycling by drivers who know the rules of the road apply to cars and bicycles equally.

Kari Hewett, the tireless chair of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, agrees that a program of cycling driver education is overdue. She recently took Cst. Jeff Schwenneker, of the VPD’s traffic unit, on a walk across the Burrard Bridge to discuss the lessons that are emerging.

The two agree that the city urgently needs a co-ordinated approach to driver education — for cyclists! The VPD has not engaged in a “crackdown,” but a June blitz of  “information tickets” — and some real ones — has produced that impression. What’s missing is good communication and a single message.

Again from the e-mail, this typical letter from a cyclist loving the benefits of lane separation:

“As a West End resident, I’ve always felt cut off from Kits and the West side of the City because I was too chicken to cross the Burrard Bridge by bike.

“Despite my destinations being within easy cycling distance, I would always take the bus because riding on that narrow bit of sidewalk with impatient cyclists behind me, meandering pedestrians to one side, and speeding traffic on the other…. it just wasn’t worth the risk/stress.

“I rode over the bridge for the first time in years yesterday and it was a lovely.   I can’t thank you enough.

“I am one of those cyclists who won’t be a regular rider unless there is a safe, marked route for me.   To be honest, if it’s not a separated bike path (i.e. seawall, Carrall St), I rarely ride it.

“I’ve taken cycling skills courses, I know HOW to ride in traffic, I just don’t enjoy it and don’t feel it is worth the risk of bodily harm that seems inevitable.

“I’m really heartened that this Council seems to understand that the vast majority of people will not ride unless it is safe and comfortable, and that mixing cyclists with 2 tonne, 250 hp vehicles is neither!

“I look forward to a network of physically separated bike routes, especially through downtown!   I’d like to put in a special plea for an east-west bike connection to the West End, as there is currently no way to get in or out of the West End by bike (not even a painted bike lane or sharrows).

“Thanks again for putting together this trial, I hope to see it made permanent (or perhaps expanded to 2!)”

This cylist now has it all: skills and safe road design.

Lane separation is desperately needed now in Vancouver, but will only come slowly.  (In Toronto, the battle for cycling safety is equally slow — a block by block struggle for improvements that has one critic proposing provincial action. There, as elsewhere, Copenhagen is touted as a cycling nirvana, where segregated bike lanes are the norm.)

The fundamentals of safe cycling behaviour are straightforward, but poorly-designed, fragmentary or non-existent cycling networks encourage bad behaviour by cyclists and drivers alike.

To be really successful, the Burrard trial should have two legacies: safer roads and a more safety-savvy cycling community.