Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Odd and hostile, or hostile to the odd?

Balloon Juice recently linked to interesting comment on the Virginia Tech murders. In an unusually lucid piece, the Wall Street Journal's Opinion web site weighs in on preventative involuntary commitment. I don't oppose all involuntary treatment, particularly for people giving serious indications they may commit violence. But I do have a very fussy attitude about the spirit in which we provide this treatment.

...the worst-case scenario would've been a minor league civil liberties goof: an unpleasant semester break for an odd and hostile young misanthrope who might've even have learned to be more polite.
When I read this in a proposal for involuntary commitment, I see an entirely unacceptable willingness to disregard the civil rights of "odd" (not like us) and "hostile" people. If we can justify locking up people who pose a threat, we should lock up polite conformists whom qualified evaluators judge a threat, no less than the rude, odd, and defiant.

Apart from any other considerations, a political nonconformist, for example a passionate supporter of George W. Bush in Berkeley CA., will appear "odd" to the people in their vicinity. And when someone flatly disagrees with views you cherish, they generally appear pretty hostile. When you dismiss the rights of the "odd" and the "hostile", you lay the foundations for social repression, and political repression does not follow far behind.

Level crossings -- levelling industrial infrastructure

Spacing wire linked to an interesting article from NOW, proposing an expanded number of level railway crossings for pedestrians and cyclists. I applaud anything which promises to make walking or cycling easier, and if we can make pedestrian or bicycle level crossings safe, I see nothing wrong with them. However, the article contained a couple of passages which displayed a disturbing skepticism about the future of railways in Toronto:

The insistence on a lofty 7-metre height clearance (in case the railways ever get around to converting from diesel to overhead electric) dooms walkers and cyclists to climbing up and down a hundred stairs or following winding, fenced ramps like rats in a maze.

Obviously, bridges built with less than the required clearance for overhead wiring would complicate efforts to electrify the railways, leaving us with diesel pollution (and carbon emissions) from train traffic for a long time.

For better or worse, rail-based industry in the 416 is in full retreat.

Considering that people who live in Toronto have not yet stopped shopping, that means the trucking industry continues to advance. That, in turn, means that we continue to depend on one of the most carbon-inefficient means of transporting goods. I don't see a "better" side to this; I see it as unambiguously worse. If we can make level crossings work safely, the article in NOW makes a pretty good case for them. However, that case should not include an argument that we no longer need railways, or that we can give up on electrifying them.

The comments in Spacing included an even more explicit demand that the railways "adapt" to the needs of the city. I see this refrain too often in discussions of city policy; in the name of banishing industry from the city, too many people seem willing to destroy less polluting transportation systems. We have already seen plenty of calls to make the port lands into residential neighbourhoods and vandalize the turning basin with a "promenade". Now, apparently, we should not worry about destroying the rail corridors. If we carry on like this, the trucking industry will inherit to sole ability to deliver goods to Toronto, at a serious cost in local and global pollution.

In the NOW article, Roger Brook speaks of the Wallace Avenue Bridge which crosses the rail corridor in the West End. I cannot speak to the utility of the bridge for pedestrians, but as a cyclist, I cross that corridor regularly. I have written about the intersection between Annette, Dupont, and Dundas and the railway underpass. In my opinion, the Dupont underpass offers most cyclists the best possible place to cross the West End rail corridor, or it would if the city would take just a few measures to make the intersection safer.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Drivers... about left turns (and signalling)...

Recently, I had occasion to make a left turn onto Runnymede Road from a two lane local street. To allow cars making right turns to pass me, I had pulled over to the left side of the lane, then a car pulled onto the right side of my bike with its left turn signal going.

I accordingly pulled out in front of the car, and when the road cleared, I pushed off, making sure I stayed in front of him.

The safe and courteous way for cyclists and cars to share the road in a left turn goes like this: the cars and bicycles go in the order they arrived at the intersection. When a bicycle turns, the cyclist rides ahead first, making a wide, "L"-shaped left turn, which leaves room for the car to proceed through the intersection. That way, the car turns into the left lane (or the left side of a single lane), and the bicycle turns into the right lane.

A car which tries to pull out to the right and turn to the left will cross paths with the route the cyclist would normally take to turn left and reach the right lane. Experts on bicycle safety warn cyclists to avoid situations such as this. As the diagram to the left shows, the car and bicycle tracks overlap in this situation.

So why insist on proceeding in order? Why not just allow cars to go first? Two reasons: I ride my bicycle for much the same reason most people drive: I have somewhere I want to go. I want to get there safely, and I also want to get there today. If I get off the street and wait for all the cars to go by, I will never get anywhere. Also, the rules of the road, including having vehicles proceed in order, makes traffic movements predictable and therefore safe. When some cars queue up safely to turn, and others pass in violation of the laws, other road users lose the ability to anticipate the movements of other vehicles. Treating cyclists as vehicles (as the Highway Traffic Act requires) simply makes everyone safer.

On the subject of safe turns... if you pull up behind me while I wait at an intersection, I will look to see if you have your right turn signal on. If you do, I (and most cyclists) will move left or right if we can do so safely so that you can turn. If you do not signal, I can't tell what you want to do.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Requiem æternam...

Some time ago, I spent a short time in a community where one young man beat another to death. I and a colleague brought flowers to the parents of the young man who had died. I thought of that (no surprise here) today.

To see a murdered child in a grieving parent's eye
Opens a wound at the end of memory,
Faces the blankness of road now dark
Nothing more to say, no word but sorrow,
No sorrow out of place.

For those of us who believe, let us keep the dead, and even more the living left behind, in our prayers.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Safe Riding, Safe Routes

The city can provide for safe, comfortable, and effective cycling in three ways: by ensuring safe conditions along common cycling routes, installing bicycle lanes, and building bicycle paths.

  1. By bicycle routes, I mean the routes through the city which cyclists actually take, because overall they offer easier or more pleasant cycling, and because they take us where we want to go. It makes sense for planners to focus on these routes when they work to remove or mitigate hazards to street bicycling. Bicycle routes may or may not have bicycle lanes.

  2. By bicycle lanes, I mean half lanes reserved and marked as reserved for cyclists.

  3. By bicycle paths, I mean paths separated from roads, through parks or dedicated bicycle rights of way.

I intend to write a series of posts in the next few weeks on all these provisions for cycling, and especially for bicycle commuting. In this post, I intend to focus on bicycle routes, and some of the things which make a bicycle route easy and safe, or difficult and dangerous, to negotiate.

Living in the West End, I frequently cycle downtown by way of Annette Street and either Dundas Street or Dupont Street. This route has several major advantages: Annette has on-street parking, which usually leaves a half-lane for cycling; it has a 40 km/h speed limit; it has no hills. Annette provides an ideal route, until I reach Dundas. Whether I go East on Dupont or South on Dundas, I have to get past the intersection which joins Dundas, Annette, and Dupont. That intersection has three features which make it hazardous for cyclists:

  1. High speed; Dundas between Bloor and Annette has few residential or commercial buildings to calm traffic, which consequently approaches the intersection moving quickly.

  2. An open ramp, which allows cars traveling North on Dundas quick access to Dupont, and which allows traffic moving West on Dupont access to Dundas southbound. This ramp creates a large open space in which cars move both rapidly and unpredictably, which creates a dangerous situation for cyclists.

  3. A railway underpass on Dupont, with bad sightlines.

Four measures which might improve the situation for cyclists include:

  1. Bike lanes in the railway underpass on Dupont.

  2. A traffic island at the ramp between Dundas and Dupont.

  3. More economic development on Dundas South of Annette would calm traffic.

  4. Either extend the traffic signals at Dundas and Annette to control the ramp between Dundas and Dupont, in effect creating a “long intersection”, or else install a separate signal to control access to the ramp.

When aiming for safety on bicycle routes, I believe it makes the most sense to focus on intersections. According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, accidents at intersections account for about 50% of all bicycle crashes. In some cases, such as the Bloor, Kipling, and Dundas intersection, it probably makes sense to provide cyclists with an effective bypass, since the designers of that intersection clearly intended it for high-speed car traffic. In all cases, traffic planners ought to ensure that bicycle routes offer: safe conditions, well-maintained pavement, and good sight lines, and safe intersections, either through signals, traffic calming, the provision of bicycle lanes, or (where these prove impossible) effective bypasses for cyclists.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Upholding our Right to Cycle: a Few Measures

Cycling alone will not make Toronto a green city. However, making cycling an effective option for shopping, commuting, and just getting around will make Toronto a greener city. For those eager to discuss these things in economic terms, it will also mean that we will have to spend less on the roads and will have a healthier, more motivated, and quite probably a more productive work force to draw on. For those of us who like to focus on important things, cycling unquestionably offers more enjoyment than driving. Simply put, you get more out of life on a bike.

So why do relatively few Toronto residents cycle? Why do I see lines of smoking cars with steaming drivers in so many places? They surely don't all suffer from physical disabilities. Something keeps them in their cars. Some of these things the city can, possibly, do something about. Some of them it can't. I offer this list of things the city could begin to do, today, to make cycling safer and more appealing.

  1. Offer tax breaks for businesses which support commuting by bicycle. That doesn't have to mean just the business which employs the cyclists; it also means offering support to health clubs which offer “cycling memberships”, basic deals that include a locker and access to a shower in the morning.
  2. Connect the bicycle lanes in the city. A set of unconnected bike lanes and paths does no more for cyclists than a set of unconnected chain links does for an anchor. Bike lanes have to get us somewhere. In fact, they have to get us where we want, or need, to go, and do it by a relatively direct route. Shopping areas, commercial and industrial complexes, transit stations, and recreational areas; we need ways to get to any and all of them by bike.
  3. Make intersections work for cyclists. Over the next little while, I hope to post on some of the conditions which make intersections dangerous, or at least intimidating, for cyclists, and what the city can and should do about them.
  4. Connect the cycle lanes to public transport. Right now, almost all of our commuter facilities have policies that say you can take your bike on the GO on the TTC subway, as long as you (and your boss) don't mind you sticking to the schedule they find convenient. Of course, they don't find it convenient to allow cyclists to use the system in peak commuting hours, the time most people actually have to get to work.
  5. Maintain bicycle paths in the winter. I know the big argument against it, money, but if you don't maintain bike paths in winter, I don't think you will ever see a significant increase in bicycle commuters. Not maintaining bicycle paths in winter also sends a terrible message: it tells everyone that the city regards cycling as recreation. To plow the Don Valley parkway while leaving the Don Bicycle paths under half a meter of snow confirms what Rob Ford says: bicycling belongs in a park, a form of recreation not transportation.
  6. Reduce the amount of salt on streets with bike lanes. Salt ruins clothes, shoes, and bikes.

The city could do a lot more, and I could write a lot more, but in accordance with normal blogging practice, I will break my comments up into chunks, and this one will do for now.

[edit] In the comments section below, Geoffrey mentioned this link to the Ontario Coroner's report on bicycle safety. Have a look; it contains some excellent recommendations for changes to the highway traffic act.