“Lane Pain”? What “Lane Pain”?

The actual front page of the Advocate last Saturday.

Despite the Advocate’s rather lurid headline and graphic, the story was  informative and well-reasoned. Both Councillor Cindy Jeffries and cycling advocate Mike Koslowski (and organic farmer and former RDC student, pictured above) explained why bike lanes are beneficial and how integrating bikes onto streets is a joint responsibility shared between cyclists, motorists, and government.

I agree. But I don’t think anyone should underestimate the importance and difficulty of getting (some) motorists to change their behaviour and there’s several reasons why.

First, motorists have been the most vocal and aggrieved opponents of the new  bike lanes painted this summer. City Council, environmentalists, urban renewalists, the  medical profession (represented by the Primary Health Network) and the cycling community, ranging from recreational to commuting to competitive mountain and road racing bikers, all are on board.

But motorists just want the bike lanes painted over and the bikes back on the sidewalk. Or they’re just concerned about the cost, and they’d be in favour if the bike lane budget was under fifty-nine cents. Or they’ve suddenly developed worries about our safety and think we’d be safer without bike lanes. Or they might support bike lanes on new roads, to be built sometime in the future, but with no connections to the centre of town. Or they should be covered with burqas for the sake of public decency. Or something. The following anonymised letter from one of my neighbours gives a sense of the level of panic and paranoia some motorists harbour towards these lanes.

 Those of us in Waskasoo who have lived here a year or more can immediately see the folly of this project.  With four schools in the area that all get convene and empty at approximately the same time we have seen the problems that the traffic causes if  a single thing goes wrong during peak times.  Who can forget last years jams when construction on the street was scheduled in September?  That construction only restricted one lane in one direction at a time.  With these new lane markings we are reduced to a single lane in each direction on a major artery that was formerly very busy with two lanes in each direction.  The turning lanes should never have been introduced without sequenced turning lights at each intersection which were needed (but absent) when we still had two lanes each way.  By doing it this way we are guaranteed to have gridlock when the turning lanes fill up and back up into the only lane traveling in that desired direction.  With close to 400 new drivers trying to leave LTCHS alone we are sure to see an increase in traffic accidents as spirited young drivers jockey for position to leave the area as fast as they can.  Add to that the 14 busses servicing Riverglen School, 5 busses for the Parkland school, numerous public transit busses and a host of other cars driven by staff members and you get chaos.  Heaven forbid that someone would be foolish enough to try riding a bicycle in those bike lanes at those times as they will be taking their life, and the life of any passengers they may have in tow, into their own hands.  Every school day the Waskasoo residents that fail to escape the area before the rush will be trapped here for what I am predicting will be ½ to ¾ of an hour, longer if there is an accident.  What if a fire should break out in that time or worse yet if someone should need medical help?  With our only egress (55th St.) locked up it will be impossible for EMS to get to any victims and transport them to the hospital within that golden hour which is so essential for heat attack or stroke victims.  What happens when the snow covers the markings and some people remember were they were and others don’t know they exist?

Secondarily, I am incensed that this Council would subject our whole neighbourhood to such a cavalier experiment without even consulting us first.  No noticed of change was posted, to give us the opportunity to discuss the effects in advance.  No chance for us to suggest modifications to these plans was given before these marking were made a fait accompli.  In other areas the City does not dare close a hockey rink with first consulting local residents and offering alternate plans.  But the people living in Waskasoo are treated like lab rats to be observed and monitored after the fact.  I don’t know about others but I know that I don’t need that additional stress that will end up reducing my quality and possibly quantity of life.

Seriously? Bike lanes will trap us and block emergency vehicle access?

So if many motorists oppose the lanes (and they’re currently circulating petition to force Council to ban them) don’t expect these opponents to willingly change their behaviour.
Second, while I’m embarrassed by cyclists who cycle inattentively or who flout traffic laws, motorists are the real threat on our roads. Traffic data from  the City of Red Deer for the years 2005, 06, 07, 08, and 09 (the most recent available) show we average about 4000 traffic accidents per year in the city. But only a tiny percentage of those (0.45%, 0.5%, 1.1%, 0.7%, 0.67%) even involve cyclists. About 80% of those accidents resulted in injuries; none were fatal. Unfortunately the data are incomplete so it isn’t even possible to say how often cyclist behavior contributed to the accident. Of the 130 or so cycle accidents listed, the stats assign specific blame to the cyclist in only 9 cases; in 14 other cases, the cyclist was “driving properly”.

Put another way, even if we prevented all traffic accidents involving cyclists, we’d still have over 99% of the accidents we originally had. So motorists, just by their numbers, speed, and mass, contribute to the vast majority of accidents. Pretending that all we have to do is modify cyclists’ behavior (Helmet laws! Get on the sidewalk!) won’t remove the motorist threat to other motorists and topedestrians.

Finally, we won’t see substantial environmental, health, and financial benefits from the bike lane program until many cyclists use them. And since there’s data suggesting that cyclist accidents decrease as  cyclists become more numerous, this may make our streets safer. But there’s lots of factors keeping potential cyclists off the roads, and one of them is fear of motorists. Most of us might be deterred from riding if we thought we might encounter a irresponsible 16 year old driving a three tonne SUV, but no-one is afraid to drive  by the thought of the same teenager piloting a bike.

Bike lane opponents know this, and they warn us over and over how badly we’ll be mangled if we ever venture off the sidewalk. When people heed their overwrought warnings and stay off the road, they gleefully point to the empty bike lanes as proof that no-one wants them. A nice self-fulfilling prophecy, but not very useful in this debate.

So that’s why a key to bike lane success has to be changing motorist behaviour. But too many RD motorists think  a successful road system should allow them to drive anywhere in town in ten minutes without any delays.

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