Region of Waterloo recommends ingraining sub-par bikeway designs

University Avenue is planned to be completely reconstructed between Keats Way and Erb Street.  This is great news, because the street is currently in poor condition, and is of a rather unpleasant design as well.  But rather than improving the cycling infrastructure on this rather unpleasant roadway, the Region has decided that the status-quo is good enough. The current layout is of one mixed traffic lane in each direction, with a narrow paved shoulder signed and marked as a bicycle lane, and a wide gravel shoulder beyond it.  If not for the standard concrete sidewalk on the south/east side, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for an 80 km/h rural highway.

University Avenue looking south-west (from Google Streetview)
University Avenue looking south-west (from Google Streetview)

A major contributor to this rural feel is the fact that there are no driveways or building faces along the street.  All the adjacent properties are accessed by and oriented toward the local streets on their other side. Cycling along the road in its current state is not a great experience.  Traffic moves very quickly (as you’d expect with such highway-like design), and passes very close by.  But when I’ve ridden the segment, the high-speed traffic has been the least of my concern.  There is often a sprinkling of loose gravel in the bicycle lane that requires my full concentration, since there’s a risk that the tires could lose grip at any moment. And that’s just the warm months.  In winter, the shoulder is basically unusable due to the accumulation of slush and snow.  Even when the bicycle lane gets cleared by the snow plow, it quickly becomes covered again as passing cars spray salt, gravel, sand and slush to the side. You don’t need to be a traffic engineer to see how all these issues can be easily solved during this road reconstruction.  And by a single change too: moving the bicycle path off the main roadway and onto the boulevard along with the sidewalk.

Separate bicycle path on Lakeshore Blvd E in Toronto.
Separate bicycle path on Lakeshore Blvd E in Toronto.

Riding along a pathway well away from the speeding cars would be completely stress-free. Since there are no driveways, there would be no interaction with car traffic whatsoever. The curb and gutter that will be built along the edge of the roadway would catch the road grime kicked up by traffic before it gets to the bicycle path.  And the space between the bicycle path and the roadway would provide plenty of space to store the snow cleared off the road. And here’s what the Region is recommending for cycling infrastructure in the upcoming August 11th Planning and Public Works Committee meeting (This item starts at page 146):

3.3 Bike Lanes On-road bike lanes would provide an important connection to the existing onroad bike lanes on University Avenue both north of Keats Way and south of Erb Street. Bike lanes are also present on Erb Street east and west of University Avenue. The alternative being recommended by the Project Team is a buffered bike lane. The buffered bike lane would be built as an extension of the asphalt roadway surface but would be separated from vehicles by a buffer (double painted line) and possible “rumble strips” ground into the asphalt surface between the double painted lines.

This is a buffered bicycle lane:

Buffered bike lanes under construction on Highway 7 in Markham
Buffered bike lanes under construction on Highway 7 in Markham

(Don’t mind the pylons, the road was still under construction at the time.) Unlike a separate bicycle path, it does not move cyclists far enough away from motor traffic to have a pleasant ride, perhaps having a conversation with someone they are travelling with. Nor does it provide any kind of barrier that keeps road grime from accumulating along the bicycle path.  And as a result, it is pretty much impossible to keep clear in winter. To add insult to injury, buffered bicycle lanes require a large amount of roadway space (the lane width plus the painted buffer), which is very expensive to provide, unlike a simple asphalt path separate from the roadway. The justification the Region provides for insisting that cyclists be on the same roadway as cars is the most absurd I have ever seen in a Canadian traffic engineering report:

A cycle track was also considered is not recommended for this location because University Ave. both north and south of the project currently has on road bike lanes and it makes the most sense for this portion of University Ave to maintain an on-road bike lane for continuity with the adjoining sections.

This comment suggests that the Regional staff are unaware of the fact that an on-street bicycle lane can be seamlessly connected to an off-street bicycle path.  To learn how to connect an on-street bicycle lane to an off-street path, I’d recommend that they take a look at this excellent post by Mark Wagenbuur in the Netherlands. Transitioning onto and off of the street is not complicated, we have proven we can build smooth transitions here in Ontario too. The picture below is of a perfectly smooth transition from an off-street bicycle path to an on-street buffered bicycle lane on Queens Quay Blvd East in Toronto.

Perfectly smooth transition from bicycle path to bicycle lane - Queens Quay Blvd, Toronto
Perfectly smooth transition from bicycle path to bicycle lane – Queens Quay Blvd E, Toronto

Funnily enough, this particular example actually doesn’t exist anymore because the buffered bike lanes have since been replaced by an off-street bicycle path. Maybe the Region is aware of the fact that on-street infrastructure can be seamlessly connected to off-street infrastructure, and their argument is merely about consistency. But that argument comes down to “the bike lanes along the rest of the street are scary, so this part should be too!”.  Which is also too absurd for me to say much more about. According to the project overview, here’s where we stand.

6. Next Steps Staff is now presenting the Recommended Design Concept for Council approval. Subject to approval of the Recommended Design Concept by Council, a Notice of Completion will be prepared. This Notice will be circulated to potentially impacted property owners and agencies. The project file including all information made available to the public and the assessment of the alternatives considered will be made available for public review. If no unresolved concerns are brought forward within the 30 day review period, preparation of the detailed design for the proposed works will be initiated. Construction is currently scheduled to be undertaken in 2018.

Funny how repainting an existing street to allocate space for bike lanes takes countless community engagement sessions and long council debates, while multi-million dollar road construction projects get rubber-stamped with little thought.

5 thoughts on “Region of Waterloo recommends ingraining sub-par bikeway designs

  1. That’s ridiculous. Does the city/region/province have some legislated design guidelines that you can use to get this design changed? Time to get hold of a friendly city councillor and get the design fixed. It is unsafe and counter to best practices in transportation planning.

    1. The Ontario Traffic Manual Book 18 – Cycling Facilities is the primary guiding document regarding facility type decisions. On Page 30 there is a chart that indicates what degree of separation is required for various volumes and speeds of motor traffic. According to that, University Avenue is in the category “Consider separated facilities or alternate route”. However, this definition of separate facilities includes buffered bike lanes.

      Unlike the other OTM books, Book 18 sets very low standards. It is more a documentation of what agencies were already doing rather than a guide on how to do it better. For example, it recommends shared roadways on roads with traffic speeds of up to 90 km/h in some cases, and on higher volume roads it merely suggests that designers “consider” using a higher degree of separation.

      I spoke at the committee meeting today and it sounds like our concerns are shared by at least one councillor (Jane Mitchell), if not more. The issue will be forwarded to the region’s Active Transportation Advisory Committee for review. It is not yet clear how much input we’ll actually get other than that.

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