Critique of Uptown Waterloo Bike Lane Plan

This article was originally posted on WaterlooBikes, on November 12, 2013.

The City and Region of Waterloo are working together with IBI Group consultants to design a new streetscape for King Street in uptown Waterloo from University Avenue to Erb Street. There was a public consultation on Wednesday, at which I and many others gave suggestions to improve the design.

Its designers describe it as standard practice, and they are exactly correct. It represents absolutely no improvement over the design of our current bicycle lanes. In other words, it is only suitable for “cyclists”, not just any average citizen who may wish to cycle to their destination. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the population is not comfortable riding on busy roads along with buses, trucks and cars, and that the average person has never heard of concepts such as “the door zone”.

While it is great that cycling facilities are being proposed where none currently exists, there is also room for improvement in the designs.

Many people at the public consultation remarked that the bicycle lanes looked unpleasant. This cross-section got many comments, with people remarking that they would not wish to cycle between a bus and parked cars.

King St. cross section 3-lane

The design of the bicycle lanes also exposes cyclists to many unnecessary conflicts.

Buses must pull into the bicycle lane to load and unload passengers, forcing cyclists to either wait behind or pass it on the left in the traffic lane. This represents a common tradeoff in Waterloo’s bicycle lane designs. Those traveling by bicycle are forced to choose between speed and safety, rather than being provided with both. If the city truly wants to reduce car dependance, they need to take other modes of transport seriously.

The conflict between buses and cyclists could easily be eliminated with the construction of bus stop bypasses.

Where on-street parking exists, it is located to the right of the bicycle lane, so cars must cross it to park.

Once cars do to park, they then pose an even greater hazard. The bicycle lane is 1.25 metres wide, next to a 2.2 metre parking lane. The problem here is that an opening car door reaches up to 2.85 metres from the curb (0.55m door, 2.0m car, 0.3m from curb). That width would place the end of the door exactly in the middle of the bicycle lane! “Dooring” collisions are particularly gruesome, because there is no time for the cyclist to react, so they collide with an immovable object at cruising speed. To avoid such collisions, cycling infrastructure must never be within 0.93 metres of a parked car (the width of a door, plus half the width of a bicycle).

Working within the 23m street width, here is how we could adjust the proposed design to avoid dooring collisions. I have placed a 1.0m buffer between the bicycle lane and parked cars.

Uptown1_BufferB

The main issue with this design is that the buffer space is “wasted”, in the sense that it is not used for transportation. As a result, the sidewalk area is only 3.6m wide, of which 1.5m is used for the utility strip which contains the trees, lights and street furniture. The effective sidewalk width is therefore only 2.1m.

Rather than using a painted line as the buffer, we could use the utility strip, since that space is “wasted” anyway.

Uptown3_SBLB

This has the added benefit of putting cyclists on the right of parked cars, making them feel more comfortable and eliminating the conflicts with both parking cars and stopping buses. In this scenario, the sidewalk is a more generous 2.45m. The bicycle lane is shown in red to make it more obvious to drivers and pedestrians, and has been widened to 2.0m in order to allow faster cyclists to overtake slower ones.

Excuses from the City

If separated lanes would be preferred by the public, then why isn’t the city building them? I heard many explanations from officials over the course of the evening.

There’s no room:

One factor is the street width. King Street is constrained by buildings, so each type of road user cannot have as much space as ideal.  Instead, space must be rationed between modes of transport. Yet, I demonstrated above, it is still possible to fit protected lanes while meeting standard widths for other uses.

Looking at the plans, it is evident that the “shortage of space” is due to the convenience of motorists being prioritized over the safety and convenience of cyclists. Between University and Bridgeport, there are left turn lanes provided for even the smallest of side streets, to eliminate the possibility of traffic being stopped by someone turning left while maintaining left-turn access to those streets. South of Bridgeport, there is a narrow median with no apparent purpose at all.

Separate lanes aren’t actually safer:

The general attitude I got from the planners was that they are doing what is best for cyclists, even if cyclists don’t realize it. They see separated bicycle lanes as more dangerous than on-street bicycle lanes because cyclists are less visible at intersections. This is correct, unless the separated lanes are designed properly.  This issue can be addressed through measures such as having small corner radii, not placing any objects which obscure cyclists as they approach intersections and shifting the bicycle lane at intersections such that conflicts occur at a right angle.

But what keeps people from cycling around town isn’t the actual safety of cycling, it’s how safe they feel while cycling. The public’s response to the proposed design clearly indicates that they would not feel safe in the proposed bicycle lanes, and would therefore be unlikely to ride a bicycle for transport.

And even if separated lanes weren’t any safer than on-street lanes, they would increase the number of people traveling by bicycle, which in turn makes cycling safer everywhere because drivers become more aware of cyclists.

Lack of Experience

The final excuse I heard was that the city had no experience building separated lanes, and they would prefer their first try to be on a less important street. To me, this is the most convincing argument. When designed improperly, separated lanes can be dangerous by providing a sense of safety without actual safety. But when designed properly, they are actually safer than on-street lanes, and have a far more profound effect on people’s transportation choices.

If the city does choose to listen to public feedback and implement separated bicycle lanes on King Street, I’m sure that the city’s cycling activists, such as myself, would gladly assist them in any manner possible.

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