Do you find the De Maisonneuve or Rachel bike paths to be just too dangerous? You’re not alone.
The many problems with two-way bike paths in cities
Two-way bike paths can be an appropriate form of cycling infrastructure when placed along rail lines, canals and country roads. When they are designed to have few intersections or crossings, these types of bike paths are quite safe and ideal for recreational purposes. In the city, however, two-way paths are crowded, cramped, slow to ride on, and can create extremely dangerous situations for all road users. Most of Montreal’s cycling infrastucture consists of two-way paths that are in need of a complete redesign.
According to Vélo Quebec, the Claire Morisette bike path on De Maisonneuve handled more than 3000 cyclists per day during the cycling season of 2010. This year the daily cyclist count is probably closer to 5000 and will surely climb in the coming years since no other bike paths run east-west in the downtown area. Each direction of the De Maisonneuve bike path is only four feet wide, which is enough space for cyclists to comfortably ride single file but not wide enough for cyclists to pass one another without veering left into oncoming cycling traffic. Given the volume of cyclists travelling in both directions, the De Maisonneuve path is simply insufficient in width.
Cycling networks are much like chains in that they are only as safe as their most dangerous links. The City has done a poor job of keeping up with the increase in cycling rates among residents. Not enough cycling infrastructure has been built and what has been built has been poorly designed and poorly maintained. Paths are too narrow, littered with potholes and dangerous at intersections. Numerous studies have shown that more than half the population of city dwellers in Canada and the United States don’t commute by bike because they don’t feel it is safe enough. The city of Montreal claims that it wants to take measures to increase the rate of cycling and pedestrian activity. But the City is simply not backing up its claims with proper action. For Montreal’s cycling network to become safe and accessible to all potential cyclists, the City needs to completely rethink its design as well as the road space and financing that support it. We can start by identifying where accidents and near-misses happen most often – ironically enough, it’s on our bike paths.
Most cycling accidents occur either at intersections where drivers can cut off cyclists when taking a turn or between intersections where cyclist are forced to veer left into oncoming cycling traffic. In Montreal, intersections occur at about three times the frequently in the east-west direction than in the north-south direction. Therefore, cyclists riding along the De Maisonneuve bike path encounter high-risk intersections very frequently – about every 60 to 80 meters. Between intersections, cyclists on two-way bike paths have a high likelihood of colliding with another cyclist. Traversing the solid line, which divides the two cycling directions, is typical behaviour for many cyclists as there are many circumstances that demand it. Cyclists have to negotiate around road obstructions (potholes, sewer grates, large puddles or garbage), slower cyclists, roller-bladers, skateboarders and the rogue pedestrian. Because each lane is so narrow, cyclists are often forced to go into oncoming cycling traffic in order to avoid obstructions or slower users.
It is not surprising that De Maisonneuve ranks second on a list of streets with the most reported bike-on-moving-car accidents on the Island of Montreal. Data compiled by the SAAQ indicates that in the five years between 2006 and 2010, 3742 reported accidents occurred between cyclists and moving vehicles. One hundred and fifty accidents occurred on De Maisonneuve. Only Sherbrooke, a street that is well used by cyclists despite being incredibly dangerous, had more reported accidents. Bear in mind that reported cycling accidents only account for a small proportion of the actual number of accidents and near-misses that occur. We simply don’t know the true number of cycling accidents that occur on De Maisonneuve. A more realistic estimate of the number of cycling accidents may be upwards of 50 times the number of reported accidents.
1) Reduce the number of intersections along bike paths allowing drivers to turn through cycling traffic. Along De Maisonneuve, in the downtown core, drivers can make a left turn on every street that supports traffic in the southward direction. The City should remove the right for drivers to turn left at a third of the intersections allowing left turns without seriously impacting traffic flows. This action alone would greatly improve the safety of a third of the most dangerous intersections along the De Maisonneuve bike path.
2) Add dedicated cycling and pedestrian traffic lights to appropriate intersections. The intersections along bike paths, that continue to allow drivers to turn through cycling traffic, require traffic light upgrading. These intersections need dedicated traffic lights for pedestrians and cyclists. Drivers cannot be allowed to turn into the cycling and pedestrian flow while cyclists and pedestrians are allowed to cross the intersection. This improvement at intersections would be beneficial to all road users! Cyclists and pedestrians would be able to, without stress, cross intersections much more safely. Meanwhile, left-turning drivers would be assured a dedicated window in each light cycle for making their turn.
3) Two-way bike paths in the city should be made one-way. There are two main safety problems with two-way bike paths like De Maisonneuve. Firstly, the intersections are unsafe because of turning cars. As proposed, this safety issue could be resolved by placing dedicated cycling and pedestrian traffic lights at each intersection that allows drivers to turn through cyclist flow. However, the second safety issue occurs between intersections. Cyclists are regularly forced to ride in the oncoming cycling lane to avoid obstructions (of which there are many) and to pass other users of the bike path. The risk of a head-on, bike-on-bike collision is simply too high on two-way paths.
Two-way bike paths may be fine in small towns and along country roads where there are few intersections and few users but they are simply not appropriate in cities. In European cities, where cycling has become a primary form of transit, two-way bike paths do not exist. European cities use the correct design: one-way bike paths with dedicated cycling traffic lights.
De Maisonneuve receives a sufficient cycling traffic volume to have its two-way path converted into a one-way bike path. A second path in the eastwards direction would have to be placed on a neighbouring street, ideally Sherbrooke. This would effectively double the width of each cycling direction, allowing for an additional passing lane.
The city of Montreal has a lot of work to do to improve the cycling network on the Island on Montreal. A good start would be to improve the safety of the cycling infrastructure that currently exists. That means converting most of the city’s two-way paths into one-way paths and adding cyclist and pedestrian specific traffic lights to all major intersections along bike paths.
Click on the following link to read a full version of the previous paper with diagrams of dangerous intersections and proposed solutions.