Because of everything that went on in my near dooring, I now had a better appreciation of the dangers of biking in Wellington West. I was so shaken by the incident that I decided to get a video camera for my bike, something like a GoPro, but being the frugal guy that I am, I managed to find a cheaper but just as good alternative. Then, on my first ride home with the new camera, I was nearly doored again! This time on Somerset near Lebreton, and by no less than an Ottawa bylaw services car.
I had seen the car come to a stop in front of me and as I approached I saw that he put the car into park, so I was getting ready for him to open the door. Luckily, if you watch again you’ll see that I am hugging the car on my left as much as possible as I approach.
I decided that I had had enough. When I got home I fired off an angry email to the mayor and to the city councillors for Somerset ward (Diane Holmes) and Kichissippi ward (Katherine Hobbs), where my incidents had occurred. I described everything that had happened, very similarly to my previous post, but without the pedantic rambling. I didn’t really expect anything to happen, but I felt like I had to do something.
To my surprise, I actually did get a response, first from Diane Holmes, and then shortly after from the mayor’s office. That got the ball rolling and shortly afterwards I heard from various city officials. Before long I got a very detailed and encouraging response from Philippe Landry, the manager for Traffic Services for the city. He described various things that the city was doing to address cycling safety through the City’s Safer Roads Ottawa Program, run by Rob Wilkinson. These were primarily:
- A program (along with the CAA) to distribute decals saying “watch for bikes” that people can attach to their car mirrors. All city cars are supposed to have them, and they were also going to give them out to people parking in the neighbourhood
- Enhanced enforcement by police in the area, including undercover police officers on bikes
- A programme to hand out surveys to cyclists to get feedback so that they could plan activities in the future
They also offered to meet with me and hear my concerns directly.
I decided to take them up on their offer, as I would love to tell them my thoughts, but I threw in a twist: I suggested that instead of meeting in their office, that they should come down and bike along the street with me and see for themselves. If that was too “out there”, I added, I’d drop by.
To my great surprise they did take up the offer and were willing to come down to meet me. I knew that the Ottawa Bicycle Lanes Project was also intensely interested in the same topic and far more knowledgeable than I, so I reached out to Michael Napiorkowski, the group’s co-founder, and fortunately he was able to join us too.
We got together and frankly, I was impressed. They (Rob and Philippe) showed a genuine interest in my concerns and a passion for making the city a better place.
This would have to wait for spring because to paint the road, the minimum temperature has to be at least 9ºC. Also, this solution is not very effective in winter, because the road is covered in salt and snow.
Because the cars were not yielding to bikes, and because it was a dangerous stretch of road, the bikes moved to the right hand side of the lane, into the dooring zone. So, the high number of doorings is symptomatic of another problem, but nevertheless needed to be addressed. One place that people pay close attention to when parking is the signs that say what hours parking is allowed, and for what time. I thought that under these, anti-dooring signs needed to be placed. I found this very effective sign by doing a simple google search:
I love the exclamation mark over the cyclist. There are challenges with the language, since the signs need to be bilingual, but a sign like this works effectively without any words at all:
My French isn’t that good, but I like how in Quebec signs often have double meanings, so I thought that I would have a go at it, and please write in if it doesn’t make any sense at all:
Some of you may be gnashing your teeth at this point, thinking “ARRGGHH enough with the paint and signs already! We need REAL INFRASTRUCTURE!!!”1. I agree, and what I’m talking about here is really the bare minimum. As in, if this can’t get done, then just close your browser and go outside because I’m wasting your time. The folks at bikelanes.ca have prepared much more comprehensive solutions that I would love to see implemented, and I am sure that others have proposed solutions as well.
As I talked about in my previous post, any real solution involves removing parking from Wellington St., but try to bring this up with non-cyclists and it’s a conversation killer. To their minds, you’ve just gone off into some make believe fairy tale bike wonderland. Adding signs, painting things on the road? No problem. Preventing people from parking? Yeah, whatever.
A lot of people say that they like the neighbourhood because it’s so convenient, that you can walk everywhere. But outside the school in the morning, how many cars do you see? And those are the people that actually live in the area: that’s reality.
The difficulty is that this stretch of road is trying to be different things to different people all at the same time. To cyclists, it’s a major thoroughfare, one of the commuter arteries going east-west into downtown. And while I poo-poo them in the previous paragraph, there are people that live in the neighbourhood that genuinely do get around by bike. Once I go west of Preston street I enter into the world of cargo bikes and long tails. People who want to get around by bike choose to live in a neighbourhood like this.
At the same time, a lot of people who live here don’t get around by bike, and the recent increase in population density has meant that far more cars are on the road than there were previously. Businesses in the area, independent bastions competing against globalized commerce, see the difficulty in parking as yet another hardship that they endure to make ends meet. These are the innovators and risk-takers, trying to make it on their own. That said, people willing to take a risk to make their company succeed are strongly opposed to anything that might jeopardize that business, because they have the most at stake. They are willing to bet on their own resourcefulness and abilities, but (and here I’m generalizing) less willing to bet that changes out of their control will lead to improvements for them. To back any change, they need to believe that it will be to their benefit.
The good news is, I think it’s already been shown. Take examples like: West Fest, Taste of Wellington, and Art in the Park. All of these events are major successes, and parking (or lack thereof) has absolutely nothing to do with it. The first response is to say: “Well yes, but those are special events, people are willing to make an exception.” But that just proves my point. By making this part of town bike and pedestrian friendly, you are, in a way, making it the special event. I think that people will be willing to make the trip somewhere, just because strolling around, shopping, eating, and biking through on the way to work, can be an event in and of itself. If all you are trying to do is to mimic the shopping experience of the suburbs, then why would anyone go out of their way to come visit? But if it is special, people will find a way.
Back to our meeting: Rob and Philippe proposed that we talk to the BIA (a group that represents business interests within the area) next, because any significant change would require the backing of businesses. So that’s what I did2.
The local BIA is working hard to promote the stretch as bike friendly. They see it as a way to bring business, and recently it was designated as Ontario’s first Bicycle Friendly Business Area. The city has worked with the Wellington West BIA in the past on bike safety campaigns, promoting bike tourism, and so on. It was the location for two thirds of the bike parking corral pilot project, and like I said previously, the area’s best hope commercially is to brand itself as different from the big box malls, where the experience of shopping sets it apart. I think that some of the businesses get that, and the feeling is represented by the BIA.
I met with the executive director and he generally agrees with all that I’m saying. Yes, there is a lot of support in the area. Yes, more condos will mean that people will have to seriously consider a change in how people get around. Yes, any new construction has to include cycling. On the other hand, he’s not really in a position to dictate to the businesses what they should do, but is trying to represent their interests. It’s not his place to try to sell removing parking spots to anyone.
So, back to the city. After all, it’s the place of the city to push changes, when changes are required. And honestly, I think that we’re on the cusp of some good things. Nearly everyone that I talked to, be it businesses, planners, and regular people, realize that the area is special. It’s true that there are some holdouts, and they are very loud, but they are a loud minority. That majority is starting to make itself heard.
The area has the highest percentage of trips by bike and on foot in the city. I’m just guessing, but it seems like there are more bike shops per square kilometer in this stretch than anywhere else in Ottawa. In the last election, the ward elected as its councillor Jeff Leiper, who is touting a more bike-friendly agenda as part of his platform. The elements are in place for a major step forward, but the step still needs to be made.
Enough rambling. What will it take to stop doorings? More space on the street. What will it take to make more space? Getting rid of on-street parking. And what will it take to do that? Demand.
Next time that you are in a store in the neighbourhood, talk to the owner / manager and tell them that you don’t feel safe biking in the area. Tell them that they really need to do something because people are getting hurt. If you drove to the store, tell them that you don’t feel safe driving! That bikes don’t have enough room, and that your parking directly in front of the door isn’t worth risking lives.
Don’t wimp out. Don’t think “Oh, I’ll just wear my helmet in the store, and carry my panniers around, and everyone will know I’m a cyclist, and somehow things will get better…” Don’t say: “Hey by the way I came by bike, we exist too!” Demand: “You really have to get your #$*& together around here because it’s crazy outside and I don’t like it, it’s not safe.” You don’t have to justify yourself. Because how on earth can you imagine that a business owner will demand change if you’re not willing to demand it yourself? I know, you don’t want to be an asshole. But being outspoken gets results: just ask the manager of Saslove’s, whose loud opposition to the bike corral resulted in its early removal from the front of his store.
It’s not just businesses. Demand it from the city. Finally, demand it from yourself. Because the best statement that you can make starts with the simplest: hop on your bike.