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Improving Ottawa’s Car-Cyclist Relationship

Improving Ottawa’s Car-Cyclist Relationship

17.07.2013.

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By Brian Clarke

It seems like a few times every summer we are hearing news about car-cyclist accidents in Ottawa.  In fact, a quick Google News search shows that just four days ago, police responded to two such accidents within an hour.

It is clearly a problem that everyone – car drivers, cyclists and most importantly, the decision-makers at city hall – realize is a problem.  But what should be done about it?

I recently read a great blog post entitled “You’re going to kill someone” by Albert McWilliams.  As you can probably tell from the title, it was a very one-sided and biased argument, but nevertheless advanced some great points.

I want to take a more neutral approach.  At different times in my life I am a cyclist that gets annoyed with cars, a driver that gets annoyed with bikes, and a pedestrian that hates everything under the sun.  I think most people – whether cyclists, drivers, pedestrians or public transit-users – get stuck into an ‘in-group mentality’ where they act with suspicion and contempt to other groups during their preferred mode of commute.  It’s a natural attitude that I know I have fallen victim to several times in my life.

That being said, I think this mentality comes through big time in the article by Albert McWilliams.  There’s the attitude that “If driver’s aren’t going to follow the rules, then us cyclists won’t either”.  And he hides this argument behind the ruse of ‘cyclist safety.’

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While I agree with him that the consequences of cars driving recklessly are more of a danger to cyclists than cyclists driving recklessly are to cars, this misses the most important point: if either one is disobeying rules (and common sense!) to the point it causes an accident, the cyclist will still likely be hurt, whether it was his reckless driving that caused it or the driver’s.  Both parties need to take responsibility – it’s a two way street (pardon the pun!). The only people that care who’s fault it is are the insurance companies.

Thus, I think one of the biggest issues and reasons we have too many of these types of accidents in Ottawa is this ‘in-group mentality’ and suspicion and ignorance of people using other modes of transport.

This attitude aside, McWilliams piece does a great job – albeit in the context of Michigan road laws – of outlining some things that drivers ought to know regarding rules of the road and cyclists.  I highly recommend it to read both to cyclists and drivers.  It is a useful first step in educating ourselves about what we (as cyclists or drivers) are supposed to do in certain situations, and more importantly what the other party is doing.  If we can tackle this ignorance and educate ourselves not only in the rules and practices of our own preferred mode of transport, but all forms of transport, I think we would greatly reduce the number of cyclist accidents in Ottawa.

I was actually extremely surprised when I recently went to get my driver’s license renewed that the test had nothing regarding situations in which cyclists are present.  I think that’s an easy and crucial step that our soon-to-be-new provincial government should fix.

That being said, it doesn’t matter how much education we can get, there’ll still be people who don’t listen.  All it takes is one crazy driver or one crazy cyclist to create a huge issue.  Thus, I really love the City of Ottawa’s approach of segregation – the bike lane on Laurier being a prime example. Obviously, this cannot be done everywhere – so the solution to the problem is a mix of education and tackling this ‘in-group mentality’ and segregating bike lanes where possible.

On this note, I’d like to finish off with at least one practical suggestion to the folks at City Hall: widen the bike lanes along the Canal.  I know there’s no room at certain locations, but at others there is lots of space to make the bike lanes along Colonel By and Queen Elizabeth four lanes wide –a walking/slow lane and a fast lane going each way.  These are by far the busiest bike lanes in Ottawa and are consistently filled with cyclists, roller-bladers, and pedestrians.  This clutter leads many serious cyclists to use the narrow, windy roads along the Canal, which, as both a driver and a cyclist, scares the shit out of me.

Given these two general themes – segregating bike lanes and tackling ‘in-group mentality’ and ignorance’ to improve car-cyclist relationship, what would you do if you were an Ottawa City Councillor?

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