Cycling and Safety in Ottawa

This is being submitted to the City of Ottawa Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee and to selected city councillors.

I am primarily a recreational cyclist, not a commuter. I love riding the trails on my mountain bike but most of my kilometres are put on my hybrid on the paved and gravel pathways, though I do ride the roads on occasion and am just starting to ride in the winter.

Ottawa Police Service's Inappropriate Response to Cycling Injuries Caused by Motorists

This post/submission is inspired by this cycling season's large number of injuries and deaths to cyclists at the hands of motorists and the Ottawa Police Service's inappropriate response of targeting motorists and cyclists equally. A proportionate response is not appropriate because the impact and the risks are not proportionate. Motorists kill cyclists with their vehicles. Cyclists don't kill anyone with their vehicles, and are only a risk of minor injuries to pedestrians in the overwhelming number of situations. Yes, cyclists should obey the rules of the road, and I will deal with that, but motorists are the real threat of injury and death and that is where the bulk of resources should be targeted. Now that I have stated the obvious let us move on.

The police need to move aggressively against reckless and impaired drivers because they are a real threat to everyone on the road, but particularly to cyclists who are not protected by a metal box. Crashing into another vehicle can cause damage, crashing into a cyclist can kill them. While the threat from bad and aggressive drivers is the most obvious, the biggest threat to cyclists is from otherwise good drivers who are unaware of cyclists and the potential threat motorists pose to them.

Cyclists are on the roads, and they have a right to be on the roads. The most important thing that we can do to protect them is to make drivers aware of this, so they are thinking of cyclists whenever they are driving and watching for them. And cyclists need to follow the rules of the road and be where they are supposed to be.

The City of Ottawa website lists some of these rules. Perhaps the most important is "Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist".

More information on cycling in Ottawa is available on the City of Ottawa Website Cycling Page, including the City of Ottawa Cycling Map.

I have a rule for motorists - do not give up your right-of-way (unless you need to avoid an accident). The rules are there so everybody knows what to expect from everyone else. If you give up your right of way to me, with a gesture or whatever, I may be aware but other drivers might be confused. I am happy to wait my turn.

The key thing is awareness of other road users, where they are and what they are going to do. The rules of the road exist so all road users know what to expect, that is why it is so important that everyone follows them.

Stop Signs as Yield Signs For Cyclists - The Idaho Experience

There are already some differences in how the Highway Traffic Act applies to motor vehicles and bicycles, such as the requirement that bicyclists stay to the right and allow motor vehicles to pass, unless it is dangerous to do so. I would like to suggest another difference be implemented and that is the Idaho practice of allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs.

The main difference between a bicycle and a motor vehicle is that a bicycle is human powered - having to stop means losing momentum and having to rebuild it again when starting up. This can be particularly frustrating on a hill. The other big difference of course is that a bicyclists is not in a metal cage and thus has a much clearer view all around him than someone in a car. And the biggest difference is that a bicycle is much less dangerous than an automobile.

Experience indicates that allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs is safe. As cyclist are going slower to start off with they can easily slow down and check for oncoming traffic without coming to a full stop. The complete stop is what causes the most significant momentum problem. Slowing down enough to check for oncoming traffic allows one to continue, if safe, while conserving considerable human energy.

In the long term this would require the city, along with other cites, to lobby the provincial government to change the law. But in the meantime the police could adopt a policy of only charging cyclists who go through stop signs if they do so in a dangerous manner. It is not unusual for police to prioritize their enforcement policies.

This would also require a public education policy so that cyclists would know what is expected of them, and motorists would understand the reasoning behind the policy. Cyclists at the moment realize they could be charged no matter what speed they go through a stop sign. I would expect this new approach would lead to many cyclists being more cautious at stop signs than they now are.

The Idaho legislation states:


49-720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS. (1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.

Source: Idaho Statutes
More information on the Idaho legislation an experience can be found here:

Toronto Star article

Bicycling blog

Bicycle law blog

Bicycle Civil Liberties Union

Clarifying the Rules Regarding Pedestrian Crosswalks

The Highway Traffic Act includes the following provisions:
1. (1) In this Act,
“pedestrian crossover” means any portion of a roadway, designated by by-law of a municipality, at an intersection or elsewhere, distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs on the highway and lines or other markings on the surface of the roadway as prescribed by the regulations;

Riding in pedestrian crossover prohibited
140.(6) No person shall ride a bicycle across a roadway within a pedestrian crossover. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s.140 (6).

Riding in crosswalks prohibited
144.(29) No person shall ride a bicycle across a roadway within or along a crosswalk at an intersection or at a location other than an intersection which location is controlled by a traffic control signal system. R.S.O. 1990, c H.8, s.144 (29).
I think it makes good sense not to allow cyclists to ride their bikes on crosswalks along sidewalks. Cyclists should not be riding on the sidewalk so they should not be riding on crosswalks.

However there is one situation where the wording of the law may create ambiguity, I am talking about road crossings where shared use paths intersect with roadways. Since the pathway is shared all the way up to the roadway, there is no reason it cannot be shared across the roadway with cyclists remaining on their bikes when crossing the road.

The solution is to simply have the city clarify it's documentation and signage to make clear that shared use pathway crossings are not considered pedestrian crossovers or crosswalks.

Rules of The Shared Pathway - To Ring or Not Ring Your Bell

As we discuss the rules of the road let's look at the rules or conventions of the shared pathway. While I have my understanding of them, it is clear that there is no common understanding amongst pedestrians and cyclists.

My understanding is that all users of a shared pathway should keep to the right, allowing room for both pedestrian and bicycle traffic to move in both directions. Since pedestrians walk on the pathway, not alongside it, they should not be walking in the opposite direction of the pathway traffic. They also should not take up both sides of the pathway, though I am willing to be lenient in this regard as long as they move over for oncoming traffic or traffic that wishes to pass them, whether it be cyclists or joggers.

For that reason pathway users, whether pedestrians or cyclists should always be aware of their surroundings. Please leave the headphones at home when out in traffic, whether on the roads or the shared pathways. You do not have to always be plugged in and disconnected from your surroundings. Sometimes I think the Walkman and the IPod are the most evil and dangerous inventions of mankind.

Let me say this to the pedestrians on the pathway. Now that you are aware of your surroundings and I am approaching you, it is a simple matter to ring my bell to alert you of my presence. It would be a simple decision if I could predict your reaction but I cannot. I know what my purpose is - not to tell you to get off the path, but simply to alert you of my presence and to allow groups of pedestrians to move into single file on the right. However all to often the response is for pedestrians in groups to scatter all over the path or for those walking along the right to move over to the left and into my path. It would make both our lives much easier and safer if upon hearing my bell, you just glanced my way to acknowledge my presence and stayed or moved over to the right in single file to allow me to safely pass. In exchange I will slow down and give you sufficient time to do this.

Life on the shared paths would be much simpler and safer if this approach was adopted as the convention by all pathway users, and perhaps made part of a public education campaign.

Bike Lanes - What Are They

One would think that determining this would be pretty simple.

As far as bike lanes are concerned it was always my assumption that the lines along the roadway about a metre from the curb indicated a bike lane. However, I discovered a couple of problems with that.

The first is that those lines appear on many streets where the City of Ottawa cycling map does not indicate a bike lane exists. Also, in many cases those lines appear along roadways where parking is allowed making the apparent bike lane meaningless because it is dangerous to be moving in and out of the roadway between parked cars.

Something more problematic is the City of Ottawa ad stating that cyclists should ride a meter out from the curb and and the following from the city of Ottawa website which states: "Cyclists generally ride in the right-most through lane, about one metre from the curb or parked cars." The apparent bike lane markings are about a metre from the roadway so if cyclists followed the City's advice they would be riding alongside the apparent bike lane rather than in it, causing motorists to be upset that the cyclist are not riding in what they think is the bike lane, and potentially causing confusion for everyone.

We really need some clarification here.

Shared Pathways - What Are They

You would also think that determining this would be pretty simple. My basic rule has always been that if it is cement it is a sidewalk and if it is asphalt that it is a pathway. But again, looking at the City of Ottawa cycling map, many asphalt pathways are not shown. For example the pathway along Carling Avenue from Holly Acres Road to Moodie Drive is officially designated as a pathway while the pathway along Eagleson Road from Cadence Gate to Hazeldean Road is not, even though they have similar characteristics. Both run along major roadways where many cyclists would be leery of riding on the road and both provide connections between neighbourhoods as well as connections between other pathways.

Indeed, the Eagleson Road pathway connects Bridlewood to the Hazeldean Mall and the Hazeldean community as well as to pathways that connect through Katimavik to Beaverbrook. I would strongly recommend that this route be officially designated as a shared pathway.

For purposes of clarity I would also suggest that all asphalt paved pathways be so designated. If the city wants something to be a sidewalk they should build a proper cement sidewalk.

The Big Issue - Separating Bicycles and Automobiles

This past fall a friend of ours was involved in a vehicular collision when the approaching vehicle veered into his lane. Luckily he survived, though with significant injuries. The people in the other car were killed. He survived because his vehicle was larger and provided better protection. In a collision between a bicycle and a vehicle the cyclist will always be the one to suffer greater injuries or death.

Though I have always tried to avoid riding on the road I have always felt safe when doing so. As long as I obeyed the rules of the road and acted as a vehicle I expected other vehicles to do likewise. Even while driving down the bicycle lane along Hunt Club Road with heavy traffic whizzing by me I felt safe because I had my own designated space. It never really occurred to me that a driver would deliberately drive into the bike lane and maim or possibly kill me. Now it does because we know that that happens way too often.

The only real solution that treats cyclist lives as seriously as motorists lives is to adopt the European approach and separate cyclists from motor vehicles.

I would like to see Ottawa adopt it's own version of this approach built on the existing network of pathways. While dedicated bike paths would be nice to have and would allow for a faster flow of cycling traffic the shared pathways we have now work quite well.

However nothing should prevent cyclists who wish to from continuing to share the road with vehicles.

That being said, providing an alternative to riding on the roads has the potential to substantially increase the number of recreational cyclists and the number of cyclists who commute regularly for work, shopping and other tasks beyond recreational cycling.

So we start by building on the existing pathway network to extend it to a true network that provides connections between all Ottawa communities and neighbourhoods, as well as connecting to the NCC recreational pathway system. Preferably this would be a distinct network separate from the roadway system. Where the network did run parallel to roadways there should be physical barriers or barriers of significant space between bicycles and motor vehicles. The network should never have bicycles and motor vehicles sharing busy roadways only separated by lines on the road.

Of course we cannot have a separate system from door to door. The system would be between neighbourhoods. Cyclists would have to share less busy neighbourhood streets with motor vehicles. In the busy downtown core we should follow the European practice of having separate bike lanes on the sidewalks, rather than the roadways.

The system should be an all-season system. I have recently started winter cycling for recreational purposes and find that more often than not I have to use the roads, as the pathways are usually not cleared - some are not cleared for the whole winter. In my case, as a recreational cyclist, I can easily stick to the local arterial roads that are kept quite clear but commuters do not have a choice of routes. With no reliable pathway system in the winter they have to share the busy roads with motorists when it is the most dangerous.

If we want to encourage more environmentally friendly commuting we need to make a paradigm shift in our snow clearing priorities. I would propose this priority - sidewalks, shared pathways, public transit routes, other roads.

The most important first step is to build a shared pathway system that is uninterrupted and truly connects all Ottawa communities and neighbourhoods.

A Note on Bicycle Helmets

I would be remiss if I did not include this subject in this post/submission.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation:
If you are under the age of 18 you are required by law to wear an approved bicycle helmet when travelling on any public road. Cyclists over 18 are encouraged to wear helmets for their own safety, but are not required to by law.

Source: MTO
It is unfortunate that the government of Ontario does not consider cyclists lives to be as important as drivers lives. Drivers and passengers in motor vehicles are required to use seat belts because they safe lives. The government does not seem to consider the lives of cyclists, who do not share the added protection of a metal cage with airbags around them, to be as worthy of protection.

There is extensive proof and studies as well as submissions from various medical organizations that bicycle helmets save lives and reduce injuries, yet we still do not require cyclists over 18 to wear seat belts. What is even more worrisome is the opposition to seat belt legislation from some so-called bicycle advocacy and safety organizations.

I am not going to outline all the evidence and submissions from medical experts here as that would be a treatise on it's own but I am going recommend that City of Ottawa to call upon the Ontario government to recognize that cyclists lives are just as important as the lives of motor vehicle passengers by passing legislation requiring that all cyclists wear helmets.

And a note to parents. Do you know where your daughter's helmet is after she is out of your sight. As one who passes them on the pathways often I can tell you that most of the time it is hanging from her handlebars. Part of the reason for this may be that, in my experience, there appears to be no enforcement of the helmet legislation for those under 18 years of age.

Final Words

It is vital that the City of Ottawa undertake a public education campaign for motorists and cyclists that stresses awareness of other users of the roads and pathways and the need for everyone to obey the rules of the road. Enforcement should be concentrated on the real danger to life and limb - motorists.


This is being submitted to:

Ottawa Roads and Cycling Advisory Committee

Councillor Peggy Feltmate

Councillor Alex Cullen

Councillor Clive Doucet


Maggie said...

While I agree with pretty much everything here, cyclists CAN injure pedestrians: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/678257

Cyclists should not be on sideWALKs. It is sad that we are so behind other countries when it comes to bicycle lanes and the promotion of healthy, environmentally-friendly alternatives to motor vehicles.

rww said...

I had heard something about that. Still it's quite a rarity. I still believe the bulk of police resources should be directed at motorists who are a much greater threat.

But certainly cyclists should be obeying the laws and not riding on sidewalks. From my observations visiting Toronto I have noticed more cyclisyts on the sidewalks there than in Ottawa.

Actually I thought that riding on the sidewalk was illegal under the Highwayv Traffic Act but I could not find that provision. It appears it is covered by municipal


A Toronto bylaw allows cyclists with a tire size of 61cm or 24 inches or less to ride on the sidewalk. The intent of this bylaw is to allow young children to cycle on the sidewalk while they learn to ride. The bylaw is based on wheel size because it is difficult for Police to enforce age-based bylaws, as most children do not carry identification. This is a municipal bylaw and rules vary in communities across Ontario.


Many parents though teach their children to ride on the sidewalk because they believe it is safer and many adults believe it is safer. And unfortunately it probably is, for the cyclist.

Nonetheless I do not think sidewalks are the place for cyclists, unless they have a designated space as in Europe. Cyclists should be riding on pathways designated for them or on the roads, which they have a legal right to do.

Maggie said...

I also see a lot of adults/people who should know better riding tiny bikes on the sidewalk. Not only do they look like idiots, but they cannot technically be punished for it.