Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fear & pedalling: protected bike lanes best 'vaccine' for cyclist deaths

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Her leg, floppy and numb, was one of the first things cyclist Rebecca Ward remembers after being T-boned by a driver on Academy Road a year ago.

"I went up on his windshield and got tossed around and landed, sort of spun around," says Ward, a University of Winnipeg student. "I remember just not knowing how to orient myself in space, where my body was -- the moment of seeing the flash of the car to the left, and that instant of being thrown into not knowing."

That spring, there had been a spate of cyclists injured in collisions. As she was wavering in and out of consciousness, Ward burbled something about not wanting to be another one of those stories.

"There were so many people around me, helping me, being super awesome," says Ward. "They were like, 'No, you're fine.'"

And she is, mostly. Her femur was badly broken, requiring a metal rod to be inserted. She spent last summer on crutches and her knee still gives her some pain where the bolts rub. Doctors also discovered a hairline spinal fracture that healed on its own. Despite some sleepless nights early on, she got back on her bike as soon as she could, got a new helmet to replace her smashed one and made herself ride down Academy again. She doesn't even give much thought to the middle-aged man who hit her, whom police never found.

If the environmental argument has largely failed to spark a bike-path building boom in Winnipeg, perhaps the public health argument will work. Safety and injury prevention -- for everyone, not just cyclists -- is the argument bike advocates used in New York City, one of the most congested and car-bound cities in the United States. There, the city builds roughly 50 kilometres of proper bike lanes per year. The Big Apple's new mayor has promised to eliminate traffic fatalities in a decade, and cycling infrastructure is key to that.

But, as Winnipeg bike advocate Mark Cohoe says, this city tends to "cheap out" when it comes to the kind of bike paths research says keep cyclists the safest: cycle tracks. Those are the wide bike lanes protected by barriers, buffered by parked cars or even built on raised asphalt and painted red like in the Netherlands. Instead, Winnipeg's on-street infrastructure is still largely just painted bike lanes that many drivers ignore.

North American bike advocates argue cycle tracks are the gold standard. They work well on busy, fast roads. They encourage nervous cyclists to start pedalling. And they even keep motorists safer by reducing speeding and conflicts with bikes.

In Quebec, for example, one study found that, after an aggressive increase in bike-lane building, 50 per cent more people reported being "regular cyclists" but the number of fatalities and injuries shrunk by roughly the same amount. And, New York's department of transportation found that a new dedicated, buffered bike lane in Brooklyn near Prospect Park tripled commuter ridership and dramatically reduced speeding by cars.

"A protected bike lane is kind of like a vaccine for traffic deaths," says Noah Budnick, deputy director of New York's Transportation Alternatives, the advocacy group that champions safe streets. "This is 2014. We've sent people to the moon. We know how to design our streets. To even question the safety superiority (of cycle tracks) is confusing to me."

One or two cyclists get killed every year in Winnipeg, and many more, like Ward, are hurt. The trouble is, if there's no MPI claim, there's no real record of a cyclist collision. Local bike activists say that means collision data under counts bike crashes. Only 22 bike-crash victims were recorded by MPI in Manitoba in 2012.

Winnipeg has only one truly protected bike lane -- the path along Assiniboine Avenue downtown, part of which is now closed for two years to accommodate nearby construction. The Pembina Highway bike lane, slated to be expanded this summer, is more of a hybrid, though cyclists say it's a good start.

"We're about one per cent of the way there," says Anders Swanson, an outspoken cycling advocate.

Difficult things, which really anger motorists, include narrowing roads to make way for protected bike lanes, building cycle tracks down some of the city's widest boulevards or giving up a lane of parking for cyclists.

The last time Winnipeg tried that, in 2010 on Sherbrook Street, all heck broke lose, when neighbourhood residents and businesses balked at giving up parking for a bike lane. That was the summer the city's bike infrastructure took its first major and messy leap forward, with more than 30 projects across the city, more than $20 million in funding and weeks of controversy.

This summer, the city is taking another crack at a bike lane on Sherbrook, with plans to create a protected lane buffered by parked cars for two blocks.

The city's latest active-transportation plan includes relatively few protected cycle tracks such as that one. A proposed $7-million downtown network is planned, as well as a protected track down St. Matthews Avenue.

But transportation manager Luis Escobar says the city has instead invested in off-street paths well removed from roads, such as the Bishop Grandin greenway and the path that hugs the Chief Peguis Trail. Those have worked better than on-street bike lanes, and there are more planned, mostly for the south end.

He says it's much trickier to build protected bike lanes on existing roads. It's difficult to manage intersection crossings and to maintain visibility. Escobar says it took more than two years to come up with what he calls an innovative solution for Pembina Highway that satisfied cyclists, business-owners, residents and drivers.

"The direction we get is make sure you work something out with everyone and strike a balance," says Escobar. "Safety is the main thing we don't compromise on. We make sure whatever we build is as safe as it needs to be."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

READERS REACT

The Winnipeg Free Press asked readers to share their own crash stories. We received dozens. We'll print some each day as part of the series.

I was cycling in rush-hour traffic on York Avenue in July 2012, when a truck, attempting to cross all four lanes to enter the alley, hit me broadside. I flew from my bike and landed on the sidewalk. Many kind people helped me by noting the truck's license plate, cleaning my wounds, and even bringing my bike and me home. I tore ligaments in my wrist and sustained bruising on my leg from the impact of the truck, as well as knee injuries and gashes from landing. The driver stopped, muttered an apology, but quickly left. He did not end up facing charges, as my witnesses and I were unavailable for the trial, scheduled nearly a full year after the accident. Many thanks to those strangers who helped at the scene, and to my physiotherapist for helping me recover from an accident that could have been much, much worse.

-- Andrée Forest

I've been involved in two separate crashes over the past five years, both on Portage Avenue while commuting to and from work on clear, sunny days and while wearing bright, visible, reflective clothing and riding in the curb lane ! One was a "hit from behind" by a motorcyclist making an illegal pass on the inside of a curb lane around a transit bus. Upon overtaking the bus, he encountered me in front of it and he stated he "didn't have time to stop". The forward momentum of the projectile (me) onto the roadway split my bike helmet (spared my brains) and resulted in soft tissue injuries and time off work. The second was a "hit and run" by a truck overtaking me in my curb lane, not providing sufficient passing distance and striking my pedal/ foot at 60 km/ hour, causing me to lose balance. Again, I took a hard crash onto the ground, resulting in a separated shoulder, knee trauma, soft tissue injuries and time off work. I also missed out on a European holiday I was to have left on the day following the crash!

-- Catherine Morrison

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2014 A6

History

Updated on Tuesday, May 20, 2014 at 6:30 AM CDT: Adds chart

6:32 AM: Corrects spelling of pedalling

9:56 AM: adds links

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