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Automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians: Separation Makes Sense

Mary Ellen Gabias, Immediate Past President, Canadian Federation of the Blind

Until recently, bicycles have shared streets with cars – and the results have been tragic for far too many cyclists.

It’s not that drivers are out to “get” bikes; it’s that even the most conscientious vehicle operator can suffer from a lapse of attention of a few seconds with tragic results.

Cities have long marked bike lanes with paint in the same way all other lanes were marked. That worked – sort of. If necessary, cars could physically enter the bike lanes, and many did. The accident rate remained unacceptably high. Cyclists are justifiably scared to share space with motor vehicles.

Pedestrians don’t want to share space with cyclists, either. Bikes are not allowed on most city sidewalks because of the obvious danger to pedestrians.

Five years ago the city of Victoria created dedicated bike lanes to protect cyclists from road accidents. One feature of this construction was the “floating bus stop.” Rather than allowing a city bus to pick up passengers at the curb as has always been the case, pedestrians were required to cross active bike lanes to board or disembark. Floating bus stops violate the longstanding convention of keeping walkers and cyclists apart and put pedestrians – all pedestrians -- at risk.

Because blind pedestrians use their hearing to know when it’s safe to cross--and it is impossible to hear a bicycle on a busy street--the floating bus stop is an even greater risk for us. Imagine being fully sighted and crossing a bike lane where all cyclists are shrouded with Harry Potter invisibility cloaks? How safe would you feel? How safe would you be?

The Canadian Federation of the Blind filed a Human Rights Tribunal case against the city of Victoria. The heart of the complaint was simple. Blind people cannot hear bicycles and therefore have no agency to protect our safety. We could not be responsible for ourselves if we were not response able. There was some discussion of tangential design features, but safety was the central issue.

The judge agreed that the design was discriminatory on its face. However, the city didn’t want to alter their design and the judge undermined his own decision and the access rights of blind people by allowing bike lanes to proliferate, but mandating what he falsely believed were acceptable remedial measures. He shifted the focus from the real problem of our inability to hear bicycle traffic to the distraction of developing “special features for the blind.”

The city of Kelowna is partnering with TransLink to do what governments often do–study the issue. Last week I took part in a review of two Kelowna shared use designs, Sutherland at Ethel and Clement and Gordon at the beginning of the Rail Trail.

The experience was a frustrating demonstration of how loss of focus makes simple things complex, and concentrating on “special” features short circuits basic reasoning.

A group of persons with disabilities and an equal number of city staff began our exploration with a briefing. Staff were kind, courteous, and earnestly interested in hearing what we had to say. One staff member was tasked with riding his bike along the bike pathway to find out whether we could hear him pass. He promised to be a considerate cyclist, but reminded us that there would be people in the area unaware of the study in progress, including “wild bikes.” Staff assured us they would be on hand to prevent any difficulties. “Aren’t “wild bikes” kind of the point,” I asked. They seemed bemused by the question.

The staffer rode past us at least twice at each location. I only know because I asked; I never heard him. “If I can’t hear the bikes passing, the design is a “no go” in my view.” The staffer wrote my comment on a blank space on his questionnaire. That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.

My staff guide pointed out several “special” features, such as variations in pavement textures intended to provide information. I’d barely recognized the textures, and thought the ridges were mistakes in concrete pouring; I had no clue that they were supposed to mean something. I did recognize the domes typical of others installed at crosswalks around Kelowna, but the creative new textures were lost on me.

Perhaps the most humorous moment occurred when I was shown a Braille sign on a bus stop pole. It gave the stop ID in both Braille and raised print, which is an extremely valuable addition. Knowing the stop ID makes looking up schedules on line much more efficient. Also, unless there’s a bench or shelter nearby, it’s impossible to know whether a pole signifies a bus stop or a sign for something else. But the Braille continued. It explained that this bus stop was near a bike lane. We both laughed when I pointed out that I’d already crossed the lane before finding the Braille sign and wouldn’t think to look at the bus stop pole when I was getting off the bus. But it was a “special” Braille sign; the point was the Braille, not the reasonableness of the information it provided.

No doubt city design engineers were earnest and diligent in their efforts to make floating bus stops workable, but they could have saved their efforts if they’d answered the one meaningful question at the outset. Can bikes be heard? Since the answer is a resounding “NO!” why create features that will make it more “accessible” for me to enter a space where I may potentially be smushed?

On the Rail Trail, all that is needed is to clearly mark a sidewalk width strip close to the streets for pedestrians only and move the bus shelter to that side of the path. On Sutherland and at all similarly designed locations, make it possible for a bus to pull into the bike lane to allow passengers to board and exit. Since buses are scheduled approximately every half hour and many times nobody is waiting at a stop or wants to get off there, cyclists would be minimally inconvenienced. Leaving things as currently designed is dangerous. All the “special” features don’t improve my hearing; they’re an absurd needless expense that gives the appearance of accessibility but eliminate safe access.


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