Death is a normal part of cycling

With another death in our streets, comes a renewed focus on street safety. Last month, a pedestrian died after a collision with a truck at Somerset and Rochester. On Thursday, a woman died after her bike collided with a dump truck. This came after a bad week for bicyclists, with incidents on Ogilvie, Donald St. and Holly Acres.

The following day, Ottawa Paramedics would report at least two more bicyclists hit by cars.

In response to Thursday’s incident, councillors Catherine McKenney and Jeff Leiper called a noon-hour rally at City Hall to raise awareness about street safety, or more accurately, street danger. The councillors were joined by River Ward councillor Riley Brockington, members of the media and over a hundred concerned citizens.

At the rally, McKenney, whose ward hosted the most recent killing, noted that we average seven pedestrian and bicycling deaths per year. She was clearly fed up, and pledged her devotion to the implementation of the Vision Zero philosophy. She wants zero deaths in our streets, zero pedestrians flung from the grill of a pick-up truck, zero bicyclists crushed under a dump truck.

It’s a laudable goal, but pure, undiluted folly.

Stripping away the rhetoric, sorrow and tears, we are left with an unavoidable fact. Our streets are dangerous. It is not safe to be a pedestrian or bicyclist in Ottawa. Vulnerable road users need to be aware of the potential danger of every car and every intersection.

And there is only way to inform people of this reality: death. We need road deaths to remind us to tread and pedal carefully.

It’s the hard reality of life in Ottawa. Collisions and deaths are going to happen. We need city planners and politicians who acknowledge this and force us to trust no one. We can never believe that the streets are safe or that drivers won’t hit us. We can only rely on ourselves and ensure we follow the rules. Even then, it’s a bloody lottery out there. Sometimes, you’re going to lose.

Of course, the city makes modest safety improvements to appease activists, agitators and busybodies. We’ll put in a few pedestrian crossovers, but we won’t put in proper traffic lights to allow safe crossing. We’ll check to make sure that the pavement on our multi-use paths is smooth, but we won’t build a network to make sure bicyclists can safely get around the city. We’ll build a bike lane on Laurier, but we’ll erode it, bit by bit, so that it can double as a loading zone or taxi stand. When people complain about too much parking, we’ll ticket offenders, for about a week.

When you’re walking or bicycling, you are in mortal danger, and you need to know that. Unfortunately, thanks to countries like Sweden and the Netherlands that have successfully reduced street fatalities, people in Ottawa can erroneously believe that such safety can be achieved here, too.

The mayor is wiser than this. When confronted with another death in our streets, he noted that the city has had record spending on bicycling infrastructure while he’s been in office. Yes, yes, the spending is still disproportionately low compared to bicyling’s modal share, but the city has thrown a little money at half-measures without bringing our deaths down to zero. Why, then, would we think spending more money on proven safety initiatives would do anything to save lives?

Sure, we could mandate truck sideguards. We could eliminate right turns on reds. We could lower speed limits, narrow streets, enforce traffic laws and hold drivers accountable…but who really wants that sort of safety dystopia?

No, our streets will be eternally dangerous. Call it the Ottawa prophecy or the Watsonian Law of Street Design, but it’s undeniable.

I know, I know. It seems far-fetched, morbid and maybe a little slanderous to say that the city needs a few street deaths here and there, and that it serves the city, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians well to endure intermittent carnage. But look at our city, really look at it. This is what we want and clearly what we need.

The city has devoted itself to the Complete Streets model…but not really. It’s a great soundbite and may appease some of the safety-obsessed out there, but council and planners aren’t really going to support Complete Streets. That’s not feasible in a city like Ottawa.

The Complete Streets philosophy seems laudable. Design roads to prioritize the safety of the most vulnerable. This means that worrying about pedestrian safety should come before worrying about traffic flow. Our betters at City Hall saw through this malarkey. Ottawa’s Complete Streets philosophy eschews safety in favour of “balancing” the needs of all road users.

Because the need to drive 60+km/hr through a dense, pedestrian rich area should be given equal consideration to a pedestrian’s desire not to be dead.

This is really the best of both worlds. City Hall has put on a good face for the nannies and ninnies while ensuring that driving remains king, traffic is never clogged and BIAs support councillors’ re-election campaign.

Better still, while the city talks a good (if dishonest) game, they know better than to walk a good game. A while back, council passed a motion that every new street would get the Complete Street treatment…well, no, a Complete Street design would considered. No promises.

Oh, and it wouldn’t be every new street. It would be every time we re-built a street. Except it wouldn’t be every time we re-built a street. It would be every street re-construction, a re-surfacing wouldn’t count. So, for some new streets City Hall promised to consider, maybe, not prioritizing speed over safety. No promises on implementation, though.

Because the need to drive 60+km/hr through a dense, pedestrian rich area should be given extra consideration over a pedestrian’s desire not to be dead.

Don’t believe me? Look at Kent Street. It is getting a ton of work done on it…but it’s not a re-construction, just a re-surfacing, so the city doesn’t even have to pretend that we’ll implement a watered-down Complete Street design that would do little other than providing safety, rejuvenating the street, reducing congestion and slowing cars down a bit.

No! We know that such measures aren’t good for our downtown core. Instead, the city has intentionally made the street more dangerous. We’ve added pinch points to deter or kill bicyclists. We’ve eliminated curb cuts to make crossing the street extra-dangerous for those with mobility issues. We’re looking out for the most vulnerable. We’re optimizing their vulnerabilities to make sure the street is as safe as we want it.

Oh yes, sure, other streets have received the Complete Street makeover. Churchill has a cycle track, as does Main Street. We’ve plopped these down without sufficient connections, without a grid, so that we can be leaders in providing bicycling infrastructure without changing the car-centric nature of Ottawa.

We’re currently building the O’Connor Bikeway from Wellington to Fifth…except we’ve eliminated it south of the Queensway. There will be some sharrows and bulbout ride-overs. There will also be pinch points, a wide road and speeding cars. One of the bulbouts won’t even be a ride-over. It’ll be a little surprise for the bicyclist who goes crashing over the curb on the other side of it.

And we’ve done this For The Children. There’s a school there, so why would we want bike lanes? There’s a pediatrician’s office, and he wants parking on the side of his business instead of in front of it. Who are we to argue with that?

We’ve added bike lanes to streets like Coventry, only to install guy-wires, traffic signs and light standards into the middle of them to give bicyclists that touch of danger that will help keep them on their toes.

Hell, let’s go back to the Laurier Bike Lane. We built it, then we took parts of it away. We received safety recommendations and we ignored them. We built what has turned out to be a very safe bit of infrastructure, but we still did all we could to make it dangerous.

The city knows what it is doing. It is building danger into everything so that we will never feel too secure, that we’ll never be too trusting, that we will always—always—understand that we are accepting to forfeit our lives in service of traffic every time we choose not to drive a car.

We were told to put the yield-to-bike sign at Laurier and Lyon in a place where vehicles would actually see it and then maybe remember not to kill people. We didn’t do that. We chose not to do that. It was intentional. The city did not want that level of safety and security.

And it’s taken a while, but we finally have our death on the Laurier bike lane, possibly thanks to poor signage, possibly thanks to the lack of sideguards on trucks, possible thanks to doubling bike routes and trucks, but definitely thanks to our indifference and our valuing of automobiles over people.

The city has added just enough danger to remind us of our mortality, but not quite enough to make us demand actual safety. It’s a delicate balance, but we have achieved it wonderfully.

Everyone now knows, you aren’t safe anywhere. This is the only way people will be sure to be a little more cautious, a little more scared when they’re out enjoying the city. And we shouldn’t want it any other way.

Recently, I was crossing the street, legally, with my 8-year-old daughter when we were buzzed by a police car speeding through a left turn. You might think such an action irresponsible, dangerous or borderline criminal, but I thank the officer for ensuring that my daughter and I remember that even crossing a residential street is a crapshoot…Ottawa roulette, if you will.

The city does us a service by tolerating a certain amount of bloodshed in our streets. We need a death now and then to remind us that life is fragile. If we eliminated street deaths, how would people ever be able to keep themselves safe?

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One thought on “Death is a normal part of cycling

  1. Pingback: Jim Watson’s Trump Moment | Steps from the Canal

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