Decades of research and application in North America has resulted in standardized elements of roadway design for motor vehicle travel. But few of those elements are applied when cycling paths are constructed.
One of the basic roadway design elements is Stopping Sight Distance. Unbeknownst to many, roadways are designed to allow drivers sufficient time and distance to avoid something that may be stopped or lying on a road. Take a fallen tree branch for example that lies across the lane of a road within a vertical curve (a depression or hill), or within a horizontal curve where there is limited visibility. Roadways are built, and maximum speeds are posted, such that a driver should have time to detect and apply braking to allow the vehicle to come to a stop before striking this obstacle. As an example, the driver of a car travelling at 80 km/h is provided with 135 metres of viewing distance ahead of the vehicle. Further stipulations are that the object must be visible over that distance even though it is no more than 38 centimetres tall (about 15 inches) and the driver’s eye height is only 105 centimetres above the ground. Typical car driver eye heights are in the range of 120 centimetres so this 105 centimetres is more like the eye height of a Corvette sports car. In many potential collision scenarios this design element is reasonable. But should such considerations also apply for the safety of cyclists?
Some might point out that cyclists travel much slower than motor vehicles so the danger is not as great. But the design of cars is also controlled by a large number of safety standards that include everything from the padding of vehicle interiors, the collapsing of steering columns, seat-belts, air bags, and so on. What protections do cyclists have? A helmet? Perhaps some wear certain padding on their knees or elbows?
What do we know about the danger of a 20 km/h change-in-velocity (Delta-V) from an impact? We know that motor vehicles can attain speeds well over that. But cyclists can do so also. The “seriousness” of this 20 km/h Delta-V will depend on the time during which it occurs. In motor vehicle collisions such a loss in velocity could occur in about a 10th of a second if the circumstances are right (or wrong). Is such a quick Delta-V also possible in a cyclist collision? It depends on the circumstances but certainly possible. For example, on March 20, 2018 a male cyclist was killed when he struck a parked Van on Laurentide Drive in North York Ontario.
Fatal injuries can also occur from striking the pavement. For example, in August of 2012 a cyclist caught his tire in the TTC streetcar tracks on Wychwood Ave in Toronto. He fell down and struck his head on the pavement. He was not wearing a helmet and sustained fatal injuries.
Mass is important. Given that the mass of the cyclist and rider is much less than that of a motor vehicle the chances are that whatever is struck may be more massive than the cyclist/bike. And without any substantial padding etc, the cyclist is no more protected than the vehicle occupant who is ejected from their vehicle – and we all know about the danger of that. Remember the old pumpkin commercials that showed the pumpkin flying through the air and striking something like a pole? The pumpkin shatters and the audience understands – ejection is not good. But this is the exact predicament of the cyclist, much like the motorcyclist, who has essentially no protection.
The Thames Valley Parkway (TVP) in London, Ontario presents many examples where sufficient stopping sight distance is not provided for cyclists. However the City of London increases the dangers when it employs four-wheeled vehicles to patrol the parkway without providing any prior warning of the vehicles’ approach. On roadways built for motor vehicles extra-wide vehicles must be preceded by escort vehicles. For cycling paths prior warning must include a traffic control person (TCP) carrying a double-sided stop/slow sign so that cyclists are warned that they may collide with the much wider and heavier City vehicle. Three examples of City of London vehicles on the TVP are shown in the three photos below.
Insufficient stopping sight distance may generate less criticism when it is developed in older areas where sight distance is difficult to achieve. This may occur in certain areas where buildings, bridges or environmental obstacles are difficult to remove. However there are instances where the City of London has created poor sight distance in newly constructed paths. As an example, the TVP provides dangerously limited sight distance at its newly completed segment at Trafalgar Street in east London. The segment in question is shown in the aerial view shown below.
This segment of the TVP was completed in 2018. When the City built an overpass of the CNR tracks south of this location, it created the problem that northbound cyclists would be travelling at very high speeds down the slope of the overpass as they approached Trafalgar St. Designers likely believed that creating a T-intersection in the path would be sufficient to reduce cyclist speeds before they proceeded down into the underpass of Trafalgar St. But they failed to understand what is typical and normal cyclist behaviour. Cyclists have never followed pavement markings in the manner that drivers of motor vehicles do. The photo below shows how many cyclists “cut the corner” of the designed T-intersection and end up crossing onto the wrong side of the path as they approach the limited visibility at the underpass. In this way the City of London creates a scapegoat when it is able to say that collisions occur because cyclists are not following the rules. While that is somewhat true, the City has also created the design that has created the problem.
Furthermore designers failed to understand that the dark confines of the underpass contained pedestrians where the flowing Pottersburg Creek provided an interesting attraction, thus pedestrians stopped to explore the view. A northward view of the Trafalgar Street underpass is shown in the photo below.
The photo below shows an example of a young female who has laid herself down across the path in the shadow of the underpass so that she could take a closer look at the flowing water of the creek. Designers of the path never considered that this would happen. And they still have done nothing to correct the problem.
The City has also begun constructing childdren’s playgrounds that are placed right at the very edge of the TVP. Even with wide open spaces and long sight distances such actions produce potential conflicts between children and cyclists. However, some playgrounds have been erected in areas of poor visibility. An example of this is the playground on the edge of the TVP just west of Adelaide Street. This playground is just west of a hill and horizontal curve. Westbound cyclists travelling toward the playground would see the view shown in the photo below.
Although the City placed a new sign on the edge of the path informing cyclists of the potential presence of small children just beyond the horizon it is questionable how effective such a sign would be. Testing at Gorski Consulting has demonstrated that drivers rarely change their behaviour with the introduction of a warning sign.
Before any new cycling paths are considered designs must conform with standard methodology that has already been known and applied in the realm of motor vehicle transportation. While adjustments need to be made to the design standards for cycling paths to match the unique characteristics of cycle travel, those standards should generally mimic roadway design standards. Unfortunately, cycling paths are being created today which appear to have major flaws in their design leading to safety problems that will plague communities for many years to come. In cities like London Ontario there is a lack of accountability by political representatives and city staff such that they essentially do as they please. Safety problems that are created by inappropriate design are simply left to be dealt with by the City’s risk management department. City representatives complain that the City’s insurance premiums continue to rise and that something must be done at the judicial level to prevent claims from being successful to plaintiffs. Yet these same representatives refuse to accept advice, even when it is given freely, that could reduce the City’s level of risk.