A (crazy) commute: Cycling safety for students in Ottawa

Bronson Avenue is unavoidable for 22-year-old math and physics student Ben Wilkinson-Zan when he commutes to Carleton University on his bike. His daily route takes him twisting through the side streets known to local cyclists as “dangerous.”

First, he heads down Lyon Street South, turning right onto Fifth Avenue, then a left onto Muriel Street before heading west down Holmwood Avenue towards the lights on Bronson—he said it is safer to turn left at the lights, but it is not guaranteed.

Safety is important for every type of commuter, but cyclists need to be particularly cautious, considering the City of Ottawa reported 1,509 cyclist collisions—which included one fatality and 246 injuries—in the 2015 Ottawa Road Safety Report.

The City of Ottawa has recently implemented new cycling lanes across the city to increase cycling safety on dangerous roads. The 2017 budget also addressed the need for more cycling infrastructure.

For students in Ottawa, cycling is an affordable and healthy way to get around. Bike racks on campuses are filled to the brim, but concerns over cyclist safety can make cycling to campus a cautious commute.

Carleton University

Even with the three sets of lights and three stop signs along his route, Wilkinson-Zan said he still has trouble with drivers.

“I’ve had maybe one or two close calls [on Bronson Avenue],” he said. “There is just a lot less happening on quieter roads . . . It’s safer but it’s easier to cycle on those roads because you don’t have to watch out for cars and figure out what everyone else is doing.”

Cycling on Bronson for less than a kilometre, Wilkinson-Zan said he has had multiple encounters with cars that do not yield when turning onto or from Colonel By Drive.

“You can pick up speed [going down the hill], and they are coming in and they won’t always yield,” he said.

After 12 years of cycling, all-season rider Wilkinson-Zan only gets a slight adrenaline rush when it comes to close calls, as he has been desensitized to the danger that comes with cycling.

He said a combination of luck, quick reflexes, and his experience in mountain biking and BMX has prevented him from getting in a serious cycling accident.

University of Ottawa

Alex Knarr, a second-year criminology student at the University of Ottawa, said he has major concerns for his safety when travelling to and from the downtown campus.

On average, he said he has a dangerous encounter with a vehicle at least once a week during his daily commute.

“Cars don’t like sharing the road with cyclists,” Knarr said. “If I bike down the middle of the road, I get run off the road by a car because they wanna go fast.”

He said the weather and drivers’ lack of concern for cyclist safety have a large part to play in the everyday dangers he faces.

“Drivers do not look. They focus more on motor vehicles because motor vehicles lead to insurance claims, but if they hit a cyclist, most of the time they can just drive off before anything bad happens,” he said.

Knarr said when he drives a car, he looks out for fellow cyclists and understands that they are sometimes at fault for accidents as well.

Pedestrians also cause issues for cyclists, he added.

“Anytime I go on campus, it’s an absolute challenge. Even if it’s not that busy, people tend to not look where they are walking,” he said. “Even if you have a bell and flashing lights, they will not look up and get out of your way. It’s dangerous for [pedestrians] not to look around while they’re walking and it’s dangerous for me.”

Algonquin College

“I’m a really defensive biker,” said 25-year-old Brendan O’Kelly, a script-writing student at Algonquin College.

Biking up Meadowlands Drive East everyday to get to campus, O’Kelly said he had three major close calls, all of which were caused by a driver turning right on a red light.

As an all-season biker, O’Kelly said weather has some part to play in the dangers of cycling—whether it’s snow, rain, or sleet—but he said drivers are the largest safety concern because they can be careless and aggressive towards cyclists.

“Once people leave the downtown core they assume that it’s cars only, but it’s not, there are cyclists on the road even during [the winter],” he said. “People just stop looking for cyclists and start driving more poorly.”

While there are risks to commuting via bicycle, O’Kelly said it is a great form of exercise and stress release.

“Being a student is incredibly stressful, and cycling is a great way to deal with that,” he said. “If more people were cycling I think the city would improve—there would be less traffic, less pollution, and happier people.”

Making roads safer for cyclists

The culture in Europe has adapted to accept cyclists as equals—pedestrians can be at fault if they step into a designated bike lane, drivers give cyclists sufficient space, and cyclists do not weave in and out of traffic, according to Knarr.

“To us that would seem pretty extreme, but to them, cycling is so ingrained in their culture and it’s so important that people don’t mess with cyclists.”

The solution to a safer road for cyclists for Knarr seems to be a simple social change, but he said it will not be an easy one to make.

“You have to change the way that drivers react when they see a cyclist. You have to see them as equals on the road and not as a speed bump, which can or cannot be run over,” he said.

Knarr suggested stricter tickets should be enforced upon drivers who disobey laws or drift into bike lanes.

“There has to be a higher respect for cyclists, [and] there has to be enforcement of proper driver etiquette and better protection for cyclists,” he said.

He said he thinks giving more power to bylaw officers to enforce tickets on drivers would help increase eyes on reckless drivers and cyclists.

O’Kelly said he thinks bike lanes are a good way to alleviate cycling dangers, but he doesn’t expect them on every road.

The more practical solution is addressing the driver behaviours that make cyclists feel unsafe, particularly for all-season cyclists.

“It would be nice to have . . . care put into bike lanes, especially during the winter,” he said. “[Drivers should] be aware that there are cyclists year-round. Drivers aren’t looking for us—they must think we have all gone inside once it snows.”

“You have to change the way that drivers react when they see a cyclist. You have to see them as equals on the road and not as a speed bump, which can or cannot be run over.”

—Alex Knarr

second-year criminology student at the University of Ottawa

The City of Ottawa’s response

David Chernushenko, City Councillor for Capital Ward—the area Carleton University is located in—said Bronson Avenue is a well-known problem area for cyclists because bike lanes towards downtown don’t continue past the Bronson bridge.

“It’s still a fast-moving, high-volume street which is very daunting for the more nervous cyclists, but it is relatively safe,” Chernushenko said.

“A street like Bronson [carries] about 60,000 cars a day—that’s hard to win a fight to take away a lane of traffic. I would say it’s unwinnable until oil is a million dollars a barrel or climate change has got everybody abandoning their cars,” he added. “Until that time, Bronson will be one of those streets where we will give priority to drivers. Short of the full rebuild, that’s as good as it’s going to get.”

Alternatively, signage is used to direct cyclists into the quieter residential area of the Glebe. He also pointed out that students have the option of crossing over the Rideau Canal near Hartwell’s Lockstation and cycling through Dow’s Lake, if they want to avoid Bronson Avenue on their commute.

“There [are] several decent, somewhat out-of-the-way options that already exist,” he said, and added he is a cyclist himself. “How do we make it a straight and comfortable, non-fear-inducing ride on Bronson itself? That’s going to be tricky because there really isn’t room to put in proper bike lanes there.”

But there is discussion on extending the bike lanes from the Bronson bridge until Lakeside Avenue to direct students around Dow’s Lake as a short-term solution, according to Chernushenko.

“Even though Bronson’s due for a redesign and rebuild, it’s not likely we are going to see bike lanes included in that,” he said. “We’re still likely to be routing cyclists onto residential streets.”

Chernushenko said while it may be difficult, fighting for bike lanes is possible with the help of the community.

Raised bike lanes are being installed on Main Street and will officially open in June or July.

He said they are always looking for ways to improve, but there are limits to what they can and cannot make possible.

“We are always looking for ways we can improve cycling and cycling safety, but the obstacle is, ‘Is there room to make things better for cyclists without making it worse for driving?’ and that’s a clash that regularly occurs, but we’ll keep trying,” he said.

– Graphic by Christophe Young