Is there a way to make public pathways safer for everyone?

IMG_0060_0by Kathryn Hunt

Whether it’s because the people of Ottawa as a whole are getting more active, or because the pathway network is being continually improved with connections and links to destinations, the multi-user pathways through Ottawa’s greenspaces and waterfronts are getting crowded.

And that increases the risk of collision, whether it involves a driver, a cyclist, or a pedestrian.

As the name implies, the pathways are used by thousands of cyclists every day, alongside joggers, rollerbladers, recreational walkers, people with children or strollers, and dogwalkers.

And more and more people are using them all the time: according to the National Capital Commission (NCC), which maintains 280 km of the 800-km network, overall use of the pathways has more than doubled in the last fifteen years.

But, as some have pointed out, fast-moving bicycle commuters sharing a MUP with dogwalkers is only different in scale from fast-moving cars sharing a narrow street with cyclists: the risks of collision are high.

It just takes one dog—or worse, a child—unexpectedly running across the path in front of a fast-moving bike to cause a crash. As well, drivers exiting parking lots or on streets where the paths cross may not be looking for cyclists or expect them to be moving as quickly as some do.

The City of Ottawa reports that between 2009 and 2013 there were 1,568 collisions, 1,245 injuries and 15 cyclists killed on city roads. According to the City of Vancouver’s Cycling Safety Study report, published in January 2015, between 2007 and 2012, Ottawa had the second highest number of annual cycling fatalities (2.7) among six Canadian cities studied.

According to Citizens for Safe Cycling Ottawa, in the summer, there are about 80,000 to 90,000 cyclists per month on the Ottawa River path alone.

A bicycle counter installed along this path demonstrates that it’s a commuter route during the week, with thousands of cyclists going downtown in the morning and leaving it in the late afternoon, the group said.

Cyclists who commute typically ride between 20 and 30 kmh and some go even faster. Guidelines posted on the NCC website state the pathways are for “recreational use,” with a maximum speed for cyclists of 20 kmh.

While “faster cyclists and groups of cyclists are encouraged to use other, more suitable routes,” there is no enforcement of these safety measures by the NCC.

Recently, Ottawa Centre federal candidate Catherine McKenna made a public call for the NCC to address growing safety issues on the 236 kilometres of pathway network it manages.

Among her suggestions were four main measures: create bike-only lanes in the busiest areas, for the use of higher-speed bike commuters; improve the places where the pathways intersect with traffic, such as where parking lot entrances or streets cross the path; coloured paint, similar to the green paint on Laurier, where paths and roads intersect; and the creation of a reporting and assessment system so that, when collisions do occur, the NCC can be sure of having the right data to analyze what happened.

She’s not the first to suggest some of these ideas: on May 6, The Ottawa Citizen’s Kelly Egan posted a column suggesting a bikes-only lane in a new river path being contemplated along the Ottawa River (“Path rage – NCC should create bike-only lanes in new river park”).

In the wake of that column, suggestions abounded.

“I would put the segregated, bike-only lane on the road, not adjoining the pedestrian pathway,” said cyclist Chris Lawson via Twitter. Others noted that if there were a bikes-only lane, there would still be nothing to stop small children, pets, or pedestrians from using it anyway unless it was strictly controlled, or at a considerable distance from the pedestrian path.

Some cyclists, particularly the ones that ride at higher speeds, might welcome a cyling “superhighway” which would allow them to ride at higher speeds.

But as another remarked on hearing the proposal, “I ride a slow, upright, urban bike at around 10 kmh. Will I be expected to ride on the ‘bikes-only’ path, and annoy all the faster riders? Or do I stay on the regular path with the pedestrians?”

A separate path system is also unlikely simply because of the cost, both in time and financial, of designing and implementing a new pathway network just for bikes.

It’s taken about seven years for the bike lanes planned for O’Connor Street to be approved, and they won’t be completed until 2018 at the earliest. The same kind of timeline could probably be expected for a network of paths, which would have to either run along widened roads, take up space on the roads, thus taking away space for cars, or cut through established greenspace.

Any of those options would involve months, if not years, of consultation to put in action.