Today we learned that a young woman in Ottawa lost her life after being hit by a right-turning dump truck. The loss of life is saddening and alarming. What is also alarming and aggravating is that this happened on what has been touted as a showcase for safe cycling in Ottawa, the Laurier Segregated Bike Lane.
To be sure, the Laurier Segregated Bike Lane is superior bike infrastructure by most standards in Ottawa. Concrete barriers and seasonal flexi-posts physically delineate the bike lane, which is between the sidewalk and parked cars along most of the route, with short segments that are at sidewalk level. This removes a significant amount of potential conflict between bikes and cars, although there are arguably too many driveways, and still too many cars that stop in said driveways, blocking the lane. However, the design of the Laurier bike lanes still leave one of the key areas for conflict relatively untreated: intersections.
Currently, there are right-turning prohibitions at intersections, that prohibit turning on red lights. Signage also exists indicating that cyclists have the right-of-way over right-turning vehicles. Paint indicates where bike lanes cross intersections.
Today, none of those intersection treatments proved effective enough.
While we don’t know what the precise chain of events were that ended in this tragedy, we can say with certainty that the current design does not offer adequate protection to pedestrians or cyclists when errors in judgement – on the part of any user – take place. Errors in judgement should not result in death.
We know that we can design a better intersection. We’ve seen them in other cities. Intersections that provide a safe path for pedestrians and cyclists, and provide safer sight lines for turning vehicles:
The design is simple: cyclists and pedestrians cross the intersection through a concrete bulbout, affording them some assurance that they won’t be pinned by a right-turning vehicle. This is accomplished by moving the zone for right turns into the actual intersection, after vehicles have crossed the first intersection. Vehicles are basically forced to cross crosswalks and crossrides at a perpendicular angle, allowing them a head-on view of traffic, rather than relying on mirrors and shoulder checks.
Also note that this design shortens the intersection for cyclists and pedestrians, which also improves safety.
I am not an engineer, but to my eyes, this is a solution that is elegant in its simplicity. We know this works. The Dutch use it, the Danish use it, and even some American cities appear to be ready to adopt it. It won’t be cheap, but it will help prevent injuries and deaths when people make bad judgement calls.
It can also be done today. See this example from Montreal:
Flexi-posts and paint are something that we have plenty of in this city. We can improve our intersections in days and weeks instead of months and years. We can also change intersections quickly so that vehicles can only turn on right-hand signals today. Tell your councillor, tell the mayor, and tell the chair of the Transportation Committee that you want safer intersections now. Find their contact information here.