Thursday, December 31, 2009

Liability and a duty of care for cyclists

An old reminder of how liability and municipal responsiblity works relative to various road users. Critics of a new bridge, for example, suggest that they can design bicycle facilities on the back of a napkin (at least that's the inference of their comments), throwing a couple of buckets of cement and a few cans of paint at the old bridge and then declaring it safe for cycling.

In 2004, the court in Ontario (yes of course that is in Canada), found that this strategy doesn't protect municipalities from a certain duty of care to all road users, to one level or another.

Here's the text of an article from the Globe and Mail reporting on a civil suit launched by a cyclist over the simple signing of a route that was otherwise unappealing, if not unsafe, for cyclists. Just in case you wanted to know.

A hazardous cycle
Globe & Mail editorial
Wednesday, July 7, 2004

It may have been small-claims court, but the claim being made on behalf of Toronto cyclists was large: that cities have an obligation to design roadways so that they are safe for bike riders. The case involved a cycling activistwho received a "door prize" on Queen Street West, a busy east-west artery inToronto's downtown core. A door prize is the sardonic name for a car door that opens in a cyclist's path. Hannah Evans suffered a mild concussion and bruises in the 2002 accident and sued the city for damages.

At its simplest, the case was about basic negligence. The city had once designated the street a bicycle route and put up signs inviting cyclists to use the street; but as safety standards for lane width evolved and it became clear that Queen Street West did not meet them, the city apparently removed the designation without remembering to remove the signs. To compound the problem, the downtown area's most popular designated bicycle lane, which follows Beverley and St. George Streets, leads to Queen Street West, where cyclists are in effect stranded.

But Ms. Evans made a broader claim. Citing common-law principles about the sharing of roadways, dating from the early 19th century when horses stood to win a door prize from careless drivers, she argued through her lawyers that cities have an obligation to adapt the roads to changing uses so that they are safe for all.

On Queen Street West, between 14 and 17 per cent of vehicles are bicycles, according to evidence presented in court. And the city has a stated policy of encouraging people to use bicycles instead of cars for work and school trips, of making all streets safe for cyclists and of expanding bike routes. Roughly 8 per cent of local residents ride bicycles to school or work.

This is a rather literal case of rights colliding. Cars and bicycles have a right to be on the road, but should the city be required, say, to remove Queen Street West's parking lane, as cyclists argue, to make the road safer for cyclists? That would be unfair to merchants.

In the end, Deputy Judge Morris Winer found that the city shouldered 25 per cent of the blame in this case; the car driver bore 50 per cent and Ms. Evans bore 25. (She was not wearing a helmet, which points to the lack of respect some cyclists have for the law.) He ordered the city to pay Ms. Evans $1,125 and a portion of her legal costs, and said the city should make changes to Queen Street West in keeping with the changing use of the street.

Wisely, he did not prescribe these changes, leaving it to the city to balance all the interests involved. Motorists defeated the horse long ago, but cyclists are notgoing to go away. They deserve respect.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Letter to Monday Magazine

Couple of issues came up in the latest edition of Monday Magazine around the bridge and also around bicycle parking. Here's my letter back, which I'm not expecting to see published (it's too long, but complex issues can't be covered in 50 words or less).

Bikes and the bridge

Rather than a solution, Allan Gallupe's letter on bikes and the bridge emphasizes the point David Cubberley made in his letter.

Gallupe's suggestion to cyclists that they get off an walk reflects an all too common self-centered approach to the provision of bike facilities. "I can manage, so just suck it up and you can too."

That's appealing to very few of those already cycling - most would like something better, but it is also gallingly myopic when it comes to providing for a much larger potential market for cycling among our population who can't or, more to the point, won't, choose to bicycle because either the reality or their perception of traffic and the road environment is that it is at best, unappealing and at worst, unsafe, to do so.

For a good piece of research on cycling populations check out the research done in Portland. I think it is pretty representative of cycling populations across North America, and certainly local research bears this out (the province did some surveys in the '90s and federal research on active transportation confirms as much).

Victoria is, nevertheless, doing well. A greater proportion of our citizens bike for transportation than in any other city in North America (outside of Davis, California, which is a freak of history). Still, at almost 8% of commuter traffic (you need a primer on statistical analysis to slice and dice the numbers here), the mode share for cycling in Greater Victoria pales in comparison to success rates in numbers of European jurisdictions.

Our objective (Victoria has signed on to the Regional Growth Strategy), is to grow our percentages significantly (measured in terms of all trip purposes) and that is simply not possible while providing a "level of service" that equates to failure under any competent traffic engineering analysis. Imagine that motorists were required to stop their car and push a button to get access to the bridge (suggesting that they get out and push is a little far fetched), or go through the contortions expected of cyclists as the approach or cross the bridge. Most of them would be outraged. Why is it satisfactory that cyclists should accept a level of service that is so appalingly inadequate?

For Gallupe, that may be sufficient, but it lacks any credibility. Anyone who has done any research on cycling populations and the provision of supportive infrastructure will understand that his prescription has zero appeal, and is totally ineffective at growing participation.

I note the irony of Monday's Christmas wish list, which includes "a general increase in the city's overall bicycling infrastructure". There are no solutions using the current bridge that will address the frustratingly inadequate level of service avialble on the Blue Bridge, notwithstanding Ross Crockford's insistence that he can design facilities on the back of a napkin and provide them at no cost. Darren Mar (president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition) summarized the challenges well enough in a recent op-ed in theTimes Colonist, and certainly I have been aware of these limitations for more than a decade and continue to research issues that are tossed in the way of the new bridge.

The bridge can't be viewed in isolation (a convenient myopia of Crockford's organization). For many cyclists, and particularly for would be cyclists, the bridge is an insurmountable barrier, and its key location at the "delta" of our major off-road cycling facilities (the Goose and Lochside and soon the E&N trail), makes it particularly important. The impacts radiate far beyond the immediate catchment of the bridge. Bicycle trips will not start in Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt etc., for so many people who know that the bridge figures into their journey.

The problem is not unique to Victoria area residents - talk to Jeff Stamp at Capital City Cycles (the former owner of Chain, Chain, Chain still puts in time at the newly named downtown store). Jeff can tell you ad nauseum about the touring cyclists he has sent over to the Galloping Goose over the years. Invariably they love the trail but hate the bridge.

As for the cycling infrastructure in Victoria that you want more of, there is nothing more critical than the bridge. Elsewhere on your wish list is a reminder to critics to redouble their efforts to put the brakes on the city's borrowing bylaw for the new bridge. That, I might suggest, is counterproductive to your desire for more and better bike infrastructure.

I'm not looking necessarily for publication of my comments, as I think the issues are more complex than I can summarize in 50 words or less. I would like, at least, to point you in the direction of some more detailed discussion of the issues for cyclists and the bridge. You can find more on my personal website at and

So, you may cross off your wish for more ambivalence from the city around the bridge project. You certainly won't get that from this councillor. I have zero interest in preserving the old bridge to favour cars and trucks over all other modes, not for another 30 or 40 years, let alone in perpetuity (as some critics believe we can do).

Bicycle Parking
The other issue that has received some play in the most recent issue and in other editions of Monday is the city's efforts to provide more and better bike parking downtown.

Plans for conversion of our parking meters to the pay by space system were well advanced when I got elected. I had been, as an advocate, pestering engineering and parking services to provide better bike parking hardware as their program displaced the informal opportunities provided by parking meters. That initiative got more traction after the election.

City staff continue to work on adding the city's inverted "U" racks to blocks where the pay by space posts are going in. I think your previous article on this a few months ago suggested that there are only a couple of racks along any block. In the 800 block of Fort, there are, in fact, at least 12 racks - space for 24 bikes. Many other downtown blocks are getting similar numbers. Not every meter post will be replaced. The one for one suggestion made by other letter writers (I think Bob McInnes either wrote or was interviewed) would be a poor use of resources and stunt the growth of other, more creative solutions. There are many locations where meter posts are simply not ideal locations for bike parking.

The inverted "U", by the way, is the most popular and effective design in use across North America and is universally supported by bike advocates and professionals as such. Here's a few illustrations of the inverted "U" and the "staple" rack, which is a variation on the same theme:

And those are just some of my pictures. You can find many more of the same basic design in use across the continent. It was the subject of a seminar at the Pro Bike conference in Santa Baraba in 1998. After that one, I came back to Victoria to badger the council of the day to adopt the inverted "U" design over the poorly thought out "wave" or "serpentine" rack, many of which are still, unfortunately, in use.

The program to install numbers of new racks is moving ahead, more slowly than I or many other cyclists would like, but there are some challenges - the 150 inverted "U" racks ordered as part of the meter conversion initiative will run up a cost of about $45,000 I think, and we will need more. Other issues include the available sidewalk space and what's underneath the concrete (water, electrical utilities, etc.) that can stymie some installations.

With respect to other facilities, one of the operational plans we have under development is a Bicycle Parking Strategy, which I insisted upon to respond to the parking meter conversion program. It's not just about bike parking, but about the safety of our sidewalks - using poles, posts, or other street furniture can create hazards in the pedestrian right of way, particularly a problem for people with vision problems. So while it might have had a more difficult time moving up Council's priority list, I have been at least able to get a project going to try and address a problem resulting from incomplete planning in the past.

Sheltered bike parking like the one at MEC (which I initiated through discussions with MEC and the Cycling Advisory Committee several years ago), parking conversion (worked with Shane Devereaux at Habit Coffee to ditch a couple of parking spaces in favour of expanded bike parking), will be part of the strategy, along with some other ideas. See for example: Vancouver, Washington and some other cities are using pay as you go lockers for higher security and it is something I'm pushing for in the strategy, among other ideas.

You may wish, also, to review the challenge of improving bike parking on private property. It took me ten years (as an advocate) to get requirements in zoning bylaws to ensure all new developments include a certain number of bike parking spaces, depending on land use (commercial, retail, multi-unit residential, instutitional etc), and I'm expecting to see more prescriptive guidelines in our strategy (better site planning, acceptable hardware).

For a great example of the worst of bike racks, look outside your front door. There are, unfortunately, also many other examples around town.

I guess we'll make it one of our new year's resolutions to try and fulfill at least the bike parking gifts on your Christmas wish list. I look forward to more coverage on these issues.

John Luton

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parks in the city

I sit on our Standing Committee on Environment and Infrastructure and today we had our last meeting of 2009. It's myself and a couple of other councillors, Chris Coleman and Philippe Lucas, assessing issues and making recommendations back to Mayor and Council.

Today we heard presentations on Victoria's parks and peppered staff with questions about management of parks, natural areas, boulevards, urban trees, playing fields and a few other issues where they are the lead for the city's work.

They do a lot with never enough resources and Victoria is a city of parks and gardens. Hanging baskets cover downtown through spring and summer; many of our streets are awash in pink snow in March when the flowering cherry blossoms give us a burst of colour. Playgrounds in all neighbourhoods are busy with the sounds of children and playing fields are always alive with soccer, baseball and other sports. Parks and boulevards are green with chestnut, garry oak arbutus and Douglas fir towers overhead in many of our parks.

New and exciting projects will be underway over the coming months and years. My questions revolved around some of the impacts that we will face as climate change impacts local species. Are we planting trees that can adapt (yes we are and more than 400 have been planted since September), and are we planning to deal with the migration of new pest species that will appear here as climate zones shift? Our parks and our urban forest will be ready.

Parks also manage extensive expanses of beachfront and strategies to shore up the bluffs of Dallas Road are in planning and yes, they will anticipate scenarios where sea levels may rise, this too a looming consequence of global warming.

Elsewhere, we are examining traffic loads in our cherished Beacon Hill Park. Too many people are using it as a commuter corridor, with cut through traffic trying to avoid busy streets nearby. We are working on designs to move towards a park that welcomes fewer cars but still provides appealing routes for cyclists and pedestrians.

Our boulevards are sometimes under stress too, and we would like to be able to let residents use some of them for "edible landscapes" and in some areas, like busy Cook St. Village, perhaps we can turn the sad, brown spaces over to bike parking and streetside cafe use.

More work is ongoing with parks to restore natural areas and "daylight" watercourses, too long confined in culverts and drainpipes.

Most exciting is our waterfront greenway that will connect downtown and the James Bay neighbourhood along to Beacon Hill Park. We'll need Parks and our engineering department to look more closely at connecting people to the waterfront with perhaps more or better crosswalks and safer crossing opportunities to get them to the path from the adjacent residential neighbourhoods. It's something I've been hearing from residents and I've spent some of my time exploring with them some key locations where people want better supports for pedestrian travel.

Along the way, the path will also find its way to the Johnson Street Bridge, and our new design will include a connection under the bridge and through the wheel that tilts the drawbridge. You'll be able to walk through on the path while the bridge is in operation, a unique and enticing way to gain a new perspective on this important new feature of the new bridge. Check out the video animation to follow a virtual path through the bridge. There's a link to the video in one of my earlier posts.

And come back again and follow along with more of my work at city hall. There's always something new to report on.

Have a happy holiday!

Animation online

The city has a new video animation - a flythrough that takes you on a birds eye, street and water level views of the new bridge concept. It's very striking and gives a positive impression of the architecture of the bridge and some of the features, including the harbour pathway that will allow people to walk under the bridge and through the wheel while the bridge is opening.

Check it out at

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jobs and the Bridge

The Johnson St. Bridge and Victoria's industrial economy

You'll find out more towards the end of the blog, but I wanted to share a little from my day today that talks about neighbourhood transportation and the city and moves on to the bigger transportation issues surround the Johnson St. Bridge debate. It's not always about the traffic on the bridge, sometimes it's the traffic under it.

This morning I had coffee with Bill McKechnie, a former owner of Point Hope Shipyards. We were talking about traffic calming and street design issues in his neighbourhood. He's been developing a great streetscaping plan to beautify a stretch of Grant St. in the city's North Park neighbourhood.

It's well thought out and he's been good at doing his homework to make sure business and residential neighbours on the street support the design and that the associated roadworks are feasible - they don't impact storm and sanitary sewer lines or other underground utilities, access to and from businesses for goods traveling by truck will still work, and residents keep access to their properties along the street.

At the same time the plan envisions more greenspace, discourages outside traffic from cutting through a much beautified residential street and makes it more appealing for the children and families who rightly claim the block as public people space and extensions to their front yard. We'll continue to look for the means to bring this reality forward.

Our discussion turned to the bridge and he reminded me that when he was running the business, promising and job creating contracts had to be turned down because the shipping channel under the Johnson Street bridge is too narrow to accommodate some vessels. Our new bridge will open up the gateway to the upper harbour, the shipyards and other industrial operators. The extra few metres will help support the steady flow of ships and jobs to a site embraced by the community and a good fit for the city.

It's always been a part of our vision for Dockside, the Harbour and Downtown Victoria that we hold onto this industry and maintain the vitality of the working harbour. The new bridge helps us to better realize that vision and helps support an important industry long into the future. Victoria has a strong, dynamic and diverse economy and our interest in long term economic sustainability is a key consideration for how we manage our important infrastructure.

Have a look at some of the ships that have sailed under the bridge into Point Hope.