London politicians may have misunderstood the future bite of this snake.

A well-meaning decision to re-align the difficult curves of “Snake Hill” along the west portion of  Commissioners Road in London, Ontario may lead to dangerous conditions for cyclists riding on the steep downgrade that City staff and politicians may have under-estimated. The decision to make the re-alignment will not cause actual work to begin until 15 to 20 years in the future so there should be some leeway to consider what problems may be created.

While the actual re-alignment of the road is a separate matter, City staff and politicians appear to have agreed that, once the road is re-aligned the original road will remain to be turned into a multi-use path for cyclists and pedestrians. And this is the main concern: the safety of the cyclists.

A Google Maps view of the west portion of Commissioners Road in London referred to as “Snake Hill”. The steepness of its vertical slopes is not represented in this aerial view.

The London Free Press quoted several residents in their article on the proposed changes. The general consensus is that the 11.8 percent slope of the hill is a safety problem and the realignment will improve the slope making it more gradual. Many vehicles such as transit buses, truck and emergency vehicles have been prevented from using the curve because of the safety concerns. And cyclists must avoid the curve for similar reasons. So everyone is quoted as being happy with the progress of improving the curve.

What has not been discussed is what will happen when the original and dangerous roadway is turned into a pathway for exclusive use by cyclists and pedestrians. While the average slope was estimated at 11.8 percent, there are undoubtedly smaller segments that are steeper than that average. The slope was deemed to be a safety hazard for motorized vehicles even though drivers of such vehicles can place their transmissions into a lower gear and thus neutralize the effects of gravity to some degree.

But bicycles do not have a lower gear on downslopes. The gears that  bikes have change the effort required to pedal up slopes, not down slopes. Other than braking there is nothing that a cyclist can do to prevent gravity from increasing the speed of a cycle. As an example, recent bicycle testing conducted on a less steep hill in London (Meadowlily Road in east London) showed that at an average downslope of just 6.5 percent a cycle, commencing from a stopped position, would cause a bicycle to reach speeds in the order of 45 km/h in 400 metres from coasting alone. What speed could be attained if a cyclist approached the Snake Hill curve at a typical speed of 18 to 20 km/h and then performed a small amount of pedaling before recognizing the extent of the slope?

The problem for cyclists is exacerbated because a cycle is very dependent on the conditions of the surface on which it travels to maintain control of the cycle. And this is crucial on a steep downslope that might be misjudged. Road surface conditions such as water, dirt or sand or any degree of roughness or patching of the pavement could mean that a cyclist could be destabilized. Also braking would be compromised because there is a danger in braking a cycling while travelling over such surface conditions that is not shared by a 4-wheeled motor vehicle.

So if the slopes of Snake Hill were dangerous to the motor vehicle driving public, why is it OK to cause cyclists to use it when they are in even greater danger than motor vehicle drivers? Hopefully someone will think about his before many meaningful shovels are but in the earth.