Why do so many cyclists chose to ride on a sidewalk rather than on the road where they are legally required? That is one of the questions we need to answer if we are to improve cycling efficiency and safety in the Province of Ontario.
Gorski Consulting has been gathering observations of cyclists in London, Ontario for many years. These observations are permanent since they were made with video or still photos. This allows for review of the observations to extract information that was not needed at the time of the documentation. As Ontario, Canada and other nations work toward increasing cycling as a mode of travel observations of cyclist characteristics and actions become vital to understanding how to accomplish these increases in cycling volume while also improving efficiency and safety.
In recent years London Ontario, like many Canadian cities, has been building various cycling facilities. Data from several in-street sensors also suggest that cycling volumes are rising. At face value these developments appear to be good news. Yet the vast percentage of roads in London still remain geared for automotive travel. This means that the increased numbers of cyclists are riding on roadways not built to accommodate cyclists. This leads to the likelihood that increased cyclist injuries and deaths can be expected in the future.
London and Ontario have never provided a detailed and public accounting of the number of cyclist collisions that occur in their jurisdictions. One reason for this is that revealing these numbers could place responsibility on these entities for those incidents where the infrastructure has been substandard. It cannot be ignored that both London and Ontario are the defendants in many civil suits and thus they have a reason to hide safety-related problems if those problems become the source of those civil suits. Yet, if these entities cannot be relied upon to detect and correct safety problems, who is left to do that essential work?
At no cost to the taxpayer, Gorski Consulting has been providing data to the public about a variety of road safety issues, including cycling safety, for many years. As we have no interest in the outcome of civil suits we are able to provide an independent and reliable assessment of what is occurring on our roads.
While Gorski Consulting cannot provide any information about cyclist collisions, we are able to provide a detailed study of the characteristics and actions of cyclists on London’s streets. This can help to unravel what causes may be involved in those cyclist collisions.
The table below is an example of two factors that are being tracked in our cyclist observations: cyclist gender and cyclist riding location. For a number years we have been noticing the small number of female cyclists that exist an London’s roads or adjacent to them. Similarly we have also observed that a large number of cyclists use the sidewalks of roadways rather than riding on the right edge of a lane shared with motor vehicles. The table below summarizes the status of these two factors over a nine-year period commencing in 2013.
Looking in the first column of the table we see the data referring to the years 2013 and 2021. It can be seen that there were a total of 1574 observations of male cyclists and only 277 observations of females, resulting in a total of 1851 observations.
Next we note how many cyclists were observed to be travelling on the sidewalk rather than on the road. There were 761 males and 160 females observed on the sidewalk. A limitation in this analysis is that there was no distinction made between cyclists who were walking their cycle versus riding on it, although the vast majority of cyclists were riding. Also cyclists who were observed within a pedestrian crossing were also coded as riding on the sidewalk regardless of whether they were walking or riding. We may update the analysis on some future date to distinguish between walking and riding cyclists.
Next we have a row of the table labelled “% Female”. This is the percentage of all observed cyclists who were judged to be female, over the total number of observed cyclists, so 160/1851 = 14.96 %. All the data in the table excludes cyclists whose gender could not be identified. There were 130 cyclists in the years 2013 through 2021 whose gender could not be identified.
Next we have percentages for the males and females observed on the sidewalk. As an example the number of observed males on the sidewalk, 761 was divided by the total number of male cyclists, or 761/1574 = 48.35 %. The same method revealed that 57.76% of females were observed on the sidewalk.
It was noted that a larger than normal number of observations were made in the year 2021 (564) compared to the nine-year total of 1851. In 2021 there also appeared to be a higher number of cyclists observed riding on sidewalks. Thus we made a column of data for the years 2013 through 2020 and a separate column for the year 2021, to show the differences. It is not clear whether the differences are genuine however it appears that the percentage of males (64.89) and females (64.94) riding on a sidewalk were higher in 2021 than the previous eight years where the males percentage was only 40.94 % and the female was 55.00 %. Differences could exist in the way that we made our observations in the earlier years such that we may not have focused as much on cyclists existing off the road surface. Never-the-less the difference is intriguing. We cannot see an obvious reason why cyclists should be using the sidewalk more often but this may be resolved with further studies.
We also created a separate column for data from the first quarter of the year 2022. Since there were only 83 observations made in this period the calculated values have likely been affected by small cell volumes. For example only 10 female cyclists were observed and 9 of them were observed on the sidewalk leading to a calculated percentage of females on the sidewalk of 90%. Clearly this value does not appear to be accurate. But we will see what develops once further data is obtained for the year 2022.
Cyclist observation data collected by Gorski Consulting between the years 2013 and 2021 indicates that approximately 50 percent of cyclists ride on sidewalks adjacent to the streets of London, Ontario. On higher hazard roads this percentage rises dramatically. For example, from observations obtained between 2018 and 2021, along the busy, 4-lane, segment of Dundas Street between Highbury Ave and Clarke Road the percentage of sidewalk riders was noted to be 82.6 percent.
It is peculiar that the City of London’s by-law prohibits cyclists from riding on a sidewalk unless the rider is under the age of 14. Presumably this is because it is deemed safer for children to ride on the sidewalk. Yet arguments presented by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation in various publications emphasize the dangers of riding on the sidewalk. For example, in Ontario’s Book 18 of the Traffic Manual the following dangers of riding on sidewalks are noted.
“Myth #1: Cycling on Sidewalks is Desirable
Cycling should almost never be mixed with pedestrian traffic on sidewalks. The only exception is for children (typically under the age of 11) who may lack the necessary skills and cognitive abilities to operate a bike on a roadway with motor vehicle traffic. Cycling on a sidewalk is strongly discouraged because of the mobility constraints and varying abilities of pedestrians and cyclists. Cyclists travel at much higher speeds than pedestrians, yet they cannot change their direction or speed as quickly as a pedestrian can. There are also numerous fixed objects on or adjacent to a sidewalk around which cyclists must navigate. These include parking meters, utility poles, sign posts, transit shelters, benches, trees, fire hydrants and mail boxes. In general, cyclists should have access to dedicated or bicycle-friendly facilities. Other conflicts that cyclists encounter while riding on a sidewalk include pedestrians alighting from buses, exiting stores and emerging from parked cars. Such situations do not allow enough time for cyclists to avoid a collision. Pedestrians, on the other hand, can find it difficult to predict the intended direction of an oncoming or overtaking cyclist. When cyclists use sidewalks to travel in the opposite direction to the adjacent motor vehicle flow, conflicts occur more frequently at driveways or intersecting streets. This is because drivers who exit these areas are not looking for cyclists, who travel at higher speeds than pedestrians. The risks to cyclists are similar to those for raised cycle tracks, in-boulevard facilities and separated bike lanes described in section 184.108.40.206. However, they are amplified since the lack of a formal cycling facility and associated signing makes drivers less likely to expect cyclists to be crossing. Finally, sidewalks are typically 1.5 metres wide which is the minimum width of an on-street bicycle lane. Thus, any manoeuvring by the cyclist to avoid pedestrians, fixed objects or oncoming cyclists would require them to either stop or leave the sidewalk. In residential areas, it is common for children to ride their bicycles on sidewalks. This type of cycling is appropriate, however these sidewalks should not be signed as bicycle paths or routes.
If cycling on the sidewalk is so truly dangerous why does the Ministry of Transportation and many municipalities allow children to ride on sidewalks? Do children’s cognitive skills really become better than adults when it comes to dealing with the dangers of riding on sidewalks? Or is it that riding on the road is more dangerous than officials wish to admit.
Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and Ontario’s municipalities downplay the hazards of cyclist travel on roadways. The two photos below show an example of a typical hazard. As shown in the first photo a cycling lane comes to an end on Hale Street just south of Brydges Street in London, Ontario. The southbound cyclist must now approach a parked vehicle with no alternative but to steer left, further into the southbound lane.
In other instances not all cycles are of the same width, especially when the cyclist is carrying cargo, as shown in the example below. Veering further into a traffic lane means that a potential is created whereby an unsuspecting motorist must steer away from the cyclist when that opportunity does not always exist.
There are other examples of the lack of practical understanding of how cyclists ride that results in the creation of cycling infrastructure that attempts to force riders to perform according to official dictates. In the example below the City of London created a one-way cycling track on Dundas Street in east London presumably in the belief that cyclists would follow the dictates of the signage and only travel in the direction indicated by that signage. The result, as shown in the two photos below is that cyclists just ride the “wrong” way in accordance to the way cyclists have always travelled despite what the signs say.
Those who design cycling infrastructure must understand how cyclists behave, naturally, in the roadway environment rather than dictating that their behaviours must change. Unreasonable theoretical dictates mean that there will be conflicts and a constant need for costly enforcement to subdue cyclists to confirm with those dictates. Many of these problems can be reduced by observing how cyclists behave in their natural state. Detailed documentations using video and still photos are objective ways of providing data of cyclist characteristics and motions. Gorski Consulting continues to provide this vital behavioral data.