Important Number Missing From Toronto Police Bicycle “Blitz”

Toronto Critical Mass - April 25, 2008 066

Every time the Toronto Police launch a “blitz” campaign, all we seem to care about are the numbers.

How many tickets were issued? How many law-breakers were brought to justice? How many scofflaws now have to pay a hefty fine?

But when all is said and done there is one number that is almost always absent. This is probably the most important number, the one that ultimately frames the true issue at hand. The one number that could reveal whether or not these “blitzes” actually yield results at all.

Let’s look at the numbers we already have: Prior to the “blitz,” Toronto Police warned 250 cyclists that they were breaking laws in relation to the Highway Traffic Act.

During the “blitz” 367 tickets were issued to cyclists. (PDF: http://is.gd/eF3q0)

Without the missing number though, these totals are meaningless. Alone, these totals can be spun to mean whatever you want. And that’s exactly what is happening…

You see, the missing number from this scene is the number of people on bicycles that the Toronto Police actually encountered. With this number we’d have an idea of possible problems. We’d have a percentage, one that would carry over to future campaigns. We’d have context.

However, without these numbers we have generalizing. We have people jumping to conclusions based solely on their limited experiences. Is 367 tickets a lot? Since we do not know how many cyclists passed by Toronto Police during these 3 days, then we cannot know. Did they ticket 90% of the people on bicycles they encountered? Or was it just 10%?

If the Toronto Police really want to influence positive change, then include this vital missing number. Every cyclist should follow the rules of the road. But how many do? We want to know! Do not let anecdotal evidence, the kind that runs rampant in news article comments, distort the facts.

Photo via the BikingToronto Flickr Pool

Handling Street Car Tracks and Difficult Intersections With “Indirect Left Turns”

Indirect Left Turn Sign on Bloor at Sherbourne

What is an indirect left turn and how can it help you navigate streetcar tracks and other awkward intersections?

Making a left turn through a busy intersection can be a very tense situation for many cyclists. You’re worried about getting hit from behind, you’re trying to watch for oncoming vehicles, you’re watching the sidewalk for pedestrians, you’re hoping to cross streetcar tracks at a 90 degree angle and you can’t be sure everyone around you actually sees you waiting in the middle of all this.

To help make left turns a less stressful experience, the indirect left turn allows cyclists to proceed through an intersection on a green light in the curb lane (or bike lane should one be there) and join the curb lane of the cross street to wait for the next green light. This eliminates the hazards of waiting in the left most lane and allows cyclists to remain in the right most lane completing a left turn in a two part process.

In Toronto, there are 2 intersections where indirect left turns are suggested through existing infrastructure.

Heading West on Bloor Street in the bike lane extending from the Prince Edward Viaduct, an indirect left turn allows cyclists to turn from Bloor and head south on Sherbourne. Here’s an explanation from a 1997 issue of Cyclometer:

As you cycle west on Bloor St. towards Sherbourne St. there are two blue signs with a pictogram describing an ‘indirect left turn’ for westbound cyclists wanting to turn left onto Sherbourne. Cyclists can ride straight through on the westbound green and stop at the far curb in the white painted ‘box’ to wait for the southbound green light. To ensure that waiting cyclists aren’t in conflict with right turning drivers, the southbound ‘right turn on green’ has been prohibited. Also the crosswalk was moved north just enough so that cyclists don’t have to block the crosswalk while waiting for the southbound green. The ‘box’ is large enough to accommodate 2 or 3 cyclists at a time.

The bike lane and sign still exist (although the sign is hung exceptionally high for cyclists):

Bloor Street Bike Lane Sherbourne indirect left turn

Unfortunately, the past 13 years have not been kind to the “box”:

Box location for indirect left turn Sherbourne

Early Bike Box location Sherbourne

The second location where an indirect left turn is suggested for cyclists is at the awkward intersection of Dupont, Dundas Street West and Annette.

In order to get to the bike lane on Annette from the bike lane on Dupont, simply follow the sharrows. While I did not notice a sign explaining the turn at this intersection, the sharrows quite clearly illustrate a path for cyclists:

Sharrows for indirect left turn at Dupont Dundas Street West

Sharrows connect Old Weston Road to Annette bike lane

The indirect left turn is also popular with motorists at this intersection as I witnessed 4 drivers make a similar move on the underused Old Weston Road to avoid waiting in the left turn lane.

Indirect left turns are a great way to help people on bikes build confidence on busier roads where turning left can be both nerve-wracking and dangerous. In fact, the Toronto Cyclists Handbook even recommends this strategy, calling it a “two-part left-turn from right of lane”:

I’ve used this turning method at intersections with streetcar tracks and multiple traffic lanes and you’re bound to witness it at many intersections along Spadina. However, is it legal to make this type of turn?

I contacted Sgt. Tim Burrows of Traffic Services and here’s what he had to offer on the subject:

Why I like the indirect left turn.

1.) Avoid potential conflict by trying to cut through traffic to move into
proper turn position. (safer)
2.) Most drivers expect to see bicycles on right side of road adding to the
‘predictability factor,’ (safer)
3.) Riders can always keep eyes forward, with glances to left/right for
safety instead of turning back to get a ‘big picture.’ (safer)
4.) Faster (better for cyclist)

Intersections are one of the most dangerous areas for all our road users
and especially so for our vulnerable groups such as cyclists.  Anytime we
can find safer means for them to travel…its better for all of us.

The Sherbourne site has one draw back. The sign shows a painted stop line,
but there isn’t one.  Maybe this is a given, but I wouldn’t want cyclists
to think they are supposed to drive into the pedestrian walk way, nor have
officers ticketing a cyclist for riding too close to the crosswalk.

As long as you stay out of the crosswalk indirect left turns are a perfectly acceptable and possibly even faster way to make a left turn on a bicycle at busier intersections.

While I’m uncertain if there are plans to add indirect left turn infrastructure in the current Bike Plan, Toronto may soon see something similar in the form of “Bike Boxes.”

Over at Giddy Up Toronto, a blogger has suggested that we use indirect left turn boxes instead of the proposed bike boxes. The planned bike boxes would allow cyclists to move to the head of the line at red lights and position themselves for a left turn from the centre-most lane. While this clearly marks a space where cyclists will be turning it doesn’t address the issue that you’re still in a position that makes it difficult to cross streetcar tracks at a 90 degree angle. Both our planned bike boxes and indirect left turn boxes work best when right turns are prohibited on red lights, but only the indirect left turn box positions cyclists to safely cross streetcar tracks.

The most important aspect when considering any piece of infrastructure, and this is something that Sgt. Burrows also mentions, is that we create an environment that promotes predictable behaviour. Intersections, especially busy ones with streetcar right-of-ways and multiple lanes (including bike lanes) provide the greatest opportunity for serious collisions. Clearly marking paths for all users helps to promote predictable behaviours and can keep all road users “on the same page” reducing the possibility of confusion and ultimately collisions.

Update November 12, 2010: A sign explaining indirect left turns has been posted at the Dupont/Dundas/Annette intersection. Although to make this sort of turn here as indicated means you’re now blocking the bike lane. Here’s the sign as photographed by Martinho:

P1010685

A Google Street View Tour of Bike Lane Parking on College Street

At the Begining

The College Street bike lane is quite possibly one of Toronto’s most used. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists use this east/west bike lane to go to work, school, shop or simply get across town. Unfortunately, this bike lane is also a perfect place to let your car idle while you quickly run into one of the many shops and businesses that line this busy street.

The bike lane starts at Bay Street at its east end. In the image above we see a cyclist using the lane, a parked bicycle and another cyclist peaking into a window, a nice little slice of daily life.

Heading west, we pass the long intersection of University Avenue. And we find our first bike lane parker. Sure, a delivery truck may only park for a few minutes at a time… many times a day, every weekday… oh I guess that adds up:
Special Delivery

Moving further west, we see things are as they should be at Henry Street:

Bikes in the Bike Lane

But then we spot a van on the south side of the street just east of St. George:

The White Van

A little further west and it’s another white truck, only this one is much larger:

Big Delivery

On the north side of College, east of Spadina, the bike lane ends as the road narrows. On the South side we see the bike lane makes the perfect place to park or wait for your next fare:

Double Parked

Even when not parked in the bike lane vehicles pose a risk… watch out for the “door prize”:

Door Prize

Just because you’re making deliveries in the bike lane doesn’t mean cyclists can get by you… you just make it more dangerous to do so:

Another Delivery

Another delivery truck, another squeeze out for cyclists:

Brown Truck Blues

Delivery trucks could use empty parking spaces, but, since they don’t buy parking permits they could get a ticket, better stick to the bike lane:

This Truck Gets Around

As we continue our trip we see things get back to normal:

More Bikes in the Bike Lane

Parallel parking also poses a risk. Sure, it is a temporary risk that does come with the added benefit that cars are equipped with reverse lights, so you know they’re coming. I assume this car was waiting to park:

Backing Up?

But after we pass by and look behind us, the car is still there and the way is perfectly clear. Possibly they are just very slow parallel parkers… hopefully:

Still There

On the south side it looks like a biker has met with a cyclist:

A different kind of bike

Is this a stand-off? I’m not sure what’s going on here, but that biker is quickly outnumbered:

Blocked!

And I bet you thought only parcel delivery trucks used the bike lane… All cube-shaped trucks are welcome of course:

The Bell Tolls

And just a few more metres beyond Euclid, it’s delivery time:

Purolator... PuroNow

And then we reach the end of the bike lane as College narrows and on-street parking is a must:

The End

For cyclists using the College Street bike lane, I’m certain that the above images come as no surprise.  The fact that the Google Street View car was able to capture this many bike lane parkers in such a brief amount of time shows just how prevalent this illegal activity is.

Why Some Cyclists in Toronto Break the Rules

Cyclists Dismount Sign

I’ve stopped reading the comments from readers on almost all news articles on the topic of cycling in Toronto.

The anti-cycling advocates make my blood boil:
“Once, I saw this guy on a bike and he was going the wrong way, he deserves to die!”
That’s not a direct quote, but I’m sure you’ve read the same sort of comment.
And, the pro-cycling team also has been contributing their own leaps in logic:
“Cars are destroying our planet and you are selfish for owning one!”
While, I tend to agree with this to some extent, this argument has nothing to do with the article on cyclists you were just reading. And it has nothing to do with expressing the fact that both vehicles of all manner and size and bicycles are allowed on Toronto’s streets.
As the major media outlets try to find more ways to talk about the Sheppard/Bryant case, we’re starting to see more articles on cycling in general. For the most part, I believe they all read like they were paid for by the manufacturers of automobiles:
“Cyclists deserve to be fined and imprisoned! There’s no room on OUR roads for them! They need to stop behaving like children and follow the rules!”
Why do some cyclists choose to break the rules? Please, note my wording here. Breaking the rules is a choice made by people riding their bicycles. We all know the rules. Two-year olds know what a stop sign means. Anyone who has ever even seen a road knows which side goes in what direction. Anyone claiming ignorance of the rules is lying to you…

A police officer on his bike chased down and fined the first-year U of T student yesterday on St. George St. after he ran a red light on his bicycle. The visibly upset student, who wouldn’t give his name, said he was from China and didn’t know the rules.

The above snippet is from an article in the Toronto Sun. The writer also adds this pull quote:
Cycling organizations should also speak out more against their “radical” members, Burrows added.

“We know that 99.9% of drivers will stop at a red light. We don’t know that with cyclists,” he said.

I ask again, why do some cyclists in Toronto break the rules of the road?

1) Safety

How can running a red light increase safety? How does not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign increase anyone’s safety?

It is unfair and unreasonable to assume that just because I’m on a bicycle, I have some sort of twisted death wish. If I really wanted to die in Toronto, I’d get in a car. When approaching a red light I know there’s going to be a stream of cars piling up behind me. Some of the drivers are going to try and push to get in front of me at the light, the rest are going to push me in the intersection as I’m trying to build speed again. This is why you see so many cyclists in crosswalks, when you’re being tailed by monstrous steel machines, you’re going to move to where you know they aren’t going to go.

Why then, would I run a red light? If the way is clear, running the red gets me through an intersection without impatient drivers riding my ass or trying to squeeze me out of the lane. Once through the intersection, I can now establish my line, so the drivers coming up quickly behind me can react and pass me safely.

Same goes for stop signs. I proceed safely without coming to a full stop and I preserve some momentum and get to continue on in a predictable fashion. And that’s what motorists want, isn’t it? Predictability.

2) Lack of enforcement

Even Toronto Police Services admits to this. They are lack on enforcing the rules of the road when it comes to cyclists. And, we can all see why. Cyclists very, very, very rarely kill people. Cyclists, even with our growing numbers, are still a minority. And what’s more dangerous? The guy in his car eating a breakfast sandwich and speeding along a side street, or a cyclist, going less than 20 km/h, who doesn’t fully stop at a stop sign? It’s not like either of these are rare occurrences on our roads.

3) Laziness

Even though it takes far more physical energy to operate a bicycle vs. a car, cyclists can be and are often lazy. We want to get where we’re going as fast as possible.

Motorists, doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that why we have drive-thru banks and coffee shops? Isn’t that why there are HOV lanes on highways? Isn’t that why your car can go 160 km/h when you legally should never reach speeds greater than 100 km/h, and much lower in our city?

We go the wrong way on streets because it is simply easier than trying to get into a turning lane, then wait for oncoming traffic while watching behind us for anyone who doesn’t see us and then get honked at because we turn too slow. We go the wrong way because our destination is on the side of the street we’re on and we don’t want to deal with street car tracks. The reasons are numerous, even if they aren’t in the name of safety and following the rules.

So, the next time you see a cyclist breaking the rules, ask yourself why they are behaving in this manner. There is always a reason for a cyclists behaviour. Cyclists aren’t always making the right choices, and we do need to address not only the problem action, but also the reason behind why this action was made.

What do you think of the rules of the road and why cyclists break them in Toronto?

Photo by ammiiirrr posted to Flickr

On Passing – What Are the Rules?

My Bike Wheel Meets A Useless Toronto Driver

A little room, please!

That’s all I ask. You, in your car, you’ve got airbags and steel and power brakes and power steering and mirrors. To pass me, all it takes is a simple set of movements. Check your mirrors, check your blind spots and slightly move your hands on the steering wheel.

Honest, that’s all it takes.

Why then, do the motorists who pass me on Keele, on Bathurst, on Jane, streets with at least 2 lanes running in each direction, fail to give me room?

When I confronted a driver about why he didn’t yield at all, he said, “You get 18 inches of space, you need to stop weaving.”

I was dodging pot holes and sewer grates, oh and I get 1 metre, that’s 40 inches of space. And I get an additional 1 metre of space around me to protect me when you pass.

Or do I?

The Ontario Driver’s Handbook suggests this of drivers (emphasis mine):

Bicycles and mopeds that cannot keep up with traffic are expected to keep to the right of the lane; however, they can use any part of the lane if necessary for safety, such as to avoid potholes and sewer grates. Cyclists need a metre on either side of themselves as a safety zone. When passing a cyclist, allow at least one metre between your car and the cyclist.

If the lane is too narrow to share, change lanes to pass the cyclist. When turning right, signal and check your mirrors and the blind spot to your right to make sure you do not cut off a cyclist. When parked on the side of the street, look behind you and check your mirrors and blinds spots for a passing cyclist before opening a door.

I like the sounds of that, sounds like a rule to me!

But, it is only just a suggestion. One that many drivers simply choose to ignore, or have forgotten. Aside from just now, I hadn’t looked at a Driver’s Handbook in over a decade. And for the drivers failing to give me space, who often appear to be much older than I am, well it’s probably too long ago for them to remember at all.

Perhaps there’s something more concrete in the Highway Traffic Act:

Vehicles meeting bicycles

(4) Every person in charge of a vehicle on a highway meeting a person travelling on a bicycle shall allow the cyclist sufficient room on the roadway to pass. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (4).

“Sufficient room?” To the motorist I encountered, the 18 inches I supposedly was to occupy, was his definition of “sufficient room” and by “weaving” I was forfeiting my access to more “sufficient room” when he passed me, so close his mirror passed below my handlebars.

What we need is a concrete definition of “sufficient room,” one backed by law.

Groups like 3feet2pass are working towards establishing such laws across the United States. Isn’t it time we saw this in Ontario?

Share your thoughts and developments on this issue in the Biking Toronto Forum

Photo from Erik Twight’s Flickr Photostream