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Monday, November 11, 2013

Senior cyclists on sidewalks

I'll let you in on a little secret: I am a senior and from time to time I ride a bike.

Not as frequently as I used to, mind you. Nor as far.

While I was still teaching at Fanshawe College I would make the trek from my home in Byron to work a couple of times a week, weather and schedule permitting. Later, while on the Board of Control, I would ride to city hall if I wouldn't be needing my car during the rest of the day and providing that I could get home in daylight. Riding at night was not my thing.

To get to those locations, I took the quickest, safest and most convenient routes: along the
paths in the various parks, on downtown and suburban streets, on arterial roads and primary collectors, using bike lanes if available. Occasionally I would go longer distances, to family reunions out of town so I also got some practice in riding along county roads and provincial highways.

And sometimes—not often—I rode on the sidewalk.

That's because there are places in the city where there are no bike lanes but there are sidewalks which are rarely used by pedestrians. And traffic along some of those roads moves very quickly with drivers hell-bent on the road ahead, not the bicycle to their side. Under those conditions, riding on the sidewalk strikes me as the sensible option.

Under our current by-laws, it's also illegal and may subject you to a fine of up to $140.

My preference, however, is to ride on the road, not the sidewalk, and not just because I resent paying the city $140. Generally speaking, it's safer and a whole lot faster. On the street, you don't have to stop at every intersection to ensure that a driver emerging from a side street sees you. On the street you don't have to dodge pedestrians or annoy people by ringing a bell.

But there are dangers on the street as well. People opening car doors without checking behind them. Drivers making right hand turns without checking beside them. Drivers who ignore or are ignorant of the hand signals used by cyclists in front of them.

The ideal, of course, is to have infrastructure dedicated to cyclists, just as we currently have roads for motor vehicles and sidewalks for pedestrians. It's expensive to install but can be effective in reducing road costs, alleviating our reliance on fossil fuels, and providing huge environmental and health benefits.

The city is making progress in building this infrastructure but it will take time, even if the current council were to make a priority of it, a highly unlikely prospect. So, in the meantime, the Civic Works Committee will be considering an amendment that will allow those 65 years of age and over to be exempt from the by-law that prohibits riding bicycles on the sidewalk.

The impetus for the current recommendation came more than a year ago when those under 14 were were exempted from the prohibition on bicycles on the sidewalk. See Riding on the sidewalk for my report on that meeting. At that time, council asked staff to look into possibility of adding seniors to the list of those exempted. After all, council was on the eve of adopting a plan for meeting the city's obligations to make good on its commitment to the World Health Organization to be an Age-Friendly City. So seniors were much on their minds.

In fact, while I was on council, I headed up the working group that would ultimately prepare the report that resulted in London becoming the first Canadian city to be admitted to the WHO Age-Friendly Network. In preparing that report, we surveyed nearly 500 Londoners, seniors and caregivers, about what they liked and didn't like about living in London. Safety on the streets and sidewalks was one of their top concerns, primarily as pedestrians. Not many liked the idea of bicycles on the sidewalk. On the other hand, those who rode bicycles, a distinct minority, indicated that they didn't feel safe riding on the street.

Most seniors use the sidewalk as pedestrians and they're not thrilled to have more wheels to contend with. Most seniors who ride think it's safer to be on the sidewalk, but allowing them to do that probably wouldn't encourage non-bike riders to to take up this mode of transportation. And, if they're going to follow the Highway Traffic Act, those who ride will still have to stop for every cross street and walk their bicycles across the street. So it's likely to be a slow-going option. And expensive if violated, the set fine being $85.

Allowing seniors to ride on the sidewalk outside of the downtown commercial districts probably won't make much difference to the reality of experiences on the street. Most seniors who ride bikes already do this, and those who don't ride won't take up the habit. My personal observations tell me that most sidewalk riders are not seniors, but younger persons who are prepared to chance not getting caught and fined. So if it's being age-friendly or bike-friendly that we want, this by-law amendment isn't likely to cut it. Much better that we focus on building the infrastructure that will keep us all safe and conflicts of use to a minimum.

As for using laws and fines, my inclination would be to have the police enforce the Highway Traffic Act which applies to everyone regardless of age and mode of transportation. This would include riding/driving on the right side of the street, using appropriate electronic and hand signals and obeying traffic signs and signals. Enforcement of actual behaviours should be much easier than trying to figure out if someone is the appropriate age for special consideration.

And we need more education for everyone, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers alike. Safety comes from competence, shared understandings, and mutual respect. At home, at school, and in the community children need to learn the rules of the road and practice their riding skills just like they learn to be safe pedestrians. They need to have safe routes to school for walking and biking and drivers need to exercise the appropriate caution to make their routes safe. And they need to carry their experience and competence into their teen years, their adulthood, and into old age.

The city can do its part by ensuring that areas frequented by children and seniors receive priority for the installation of dedicated bike lanes and paths until the infrastructure deficit is eliminated.

Currently, there is also a push by the cycling community to have council establish a cycling advisory committee to report to a committee of council. While it may be good for the city to hear from actual cyclists, I am skeptical of how much difference this will actually make to council decisions. It is not unusual for standing committees to simply ignore the advice given and, on occasion, to modify the advisory committee's reports. A few years ago, one councillor even tried to disband an advisory committee whose advice he didn't like.

Too many committees already appear to be spinning their wheels.


Anonymous said...

London is actually going backwards on bike infrastructure. One only needs to look at Smart Moves 2030 to see this. Compared to other Ontario cities we are regaurded as the least friendly and safe place to cycle in Ontario. We are the only city in Ontario that does not have aa dedicated Cycling Advisory Committee. Advisory committees have been shown to be an important tool in making cities more bike friendly across North America. The rate of injury for cyclists on sidewalks is dramatically higher then those on the road. These kind of silly policies are what replaces real bike policies and infrastructure in London.
Gary Brown

Anonymous said...

As a long-standing senior who both walks the sidewalks and rides the roads, I agree that bicycles have no place on sidewalks -- but their danger is primarily limited to coming up behind unsuspecting pedestrians. This is particularly true on the 'bike path' from UWO to Springbank, particularly in the northern section and particularly in the hours between 6 and 9, when there are many bikes that ride far too fast and ambush early morning dog-walkers without warning. As for road-riding, it can be done safely as long as main thoroughfares, such as Richmond ands Oxford, are avoided. Wonderland North now has marked bike lanes and this has markedly increased my (?false) sense of security. Many years ago we did have a bicycle advisory committee, and I have wondered what happened to it.

Anonymous said...

Gary, bikes are transportation so pls give exs of what other cities have done because of an advisory cte. London already has a transportation advisory cte