[ This is part 1 of 2, dealing with bicycle markings on Toronto’s streets ]
As spring approaches, our city planners are developing plans for the 2010 construction season, to improve our roads and bring us closer to Toronto’s goals of having sustainable streets that encourage green transportation.
Recent years have brought a string of disappointments, as cyclists were repeatedly promised much more infrastructure than was delivered. The majority of proposed bikelanes still remain stuck as mere proposals. This year, the City seems to be taking a different approach by offering subdued targets, and trying new strategies that are less likely to be politically volatile.
At the core of this new approach, is a massive implementation of various forms of “sharrows”, a relatively new marking on Toronto’s streets. Sharrows are essentially used when there isn’t enough road width (or political will) to paint proper bikelanes. Sharrows remind drivers that they need to share the lane, and they’re also supposed to push drivers over to the left providing a little more space for cyclists.
I’ve never been a big fan of sharrows, because I’ve seen them as an easy way for politicians to score points without actually doing what needs to be done. Sharrows can be viewed as a band-aid solution to a real problem. On the other hand, they’re better than nothing, and they do send a strong message that bicycles belong. In a way, every time the city paints a bicycle logo on a street, we are getting closer to educating drivers that bicycles are a valid form of transportation. More paint = more respect and credibility.
But here’s a twist. City staff are proposing two new types of sharrows for 2010. One is a Rush Hour Sharrow, that would only be used during certain hours while the rest of the day they would be underneath parked cars. The second type is called a “Dual Sharrow” or “Floating Sharrow”, that essentially provides sharrows in two lanes: one for rush hour only and the other for the rest of the day beside parked cars.
In both cases, the proposed system includes cars parked legally on top of painted bicycle symbols. I think this should raise some serious concern, and needs to be thought out a little more. There are two major problems facing cyclists on Toronto’s streets: First, we are lacking designated infrastructure. The Bike Plan is moving at a snail’s pace, and cyclists are suffering from the lack of bike lanes on arterials. The second problem is that drivers aren’t respecting the small amount of existing infrastructure. The only thing worse than a street with no bikelane, is a street with cars parked in the bikelane. We have not been able to successfully educate drivers about the importance of staying out of bikelanes and many drivers treat bikelanes as a shoulder, or a pick-up/drop-off zone.
We need to build a heightened sense of awareness and respect for bicycle markings, and we need to send a clear message to drivers that designated spaces for bicycles are off-limits. Ideally, we’d want to reach a point where parking in a bikelane would be as socially unaceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a daycare.
But to reach this goal, road markings need to have consistent meanings. A bike symbol, be it a designated lane or a sharrow, should have a clear message: Please make room for cyclists, do not block their path or park in their space.
My concern about the new markings, is that they convey the exact opposite message. The message is that bike symbols are temporary, fleeting, momentary and need to be heeded, but only at certain times. Indeed, for most of the day, it’s perfectly ok to park right on top of them (see above). I’m not sure we want to set a precedent, where we have cars legally parked on top of painted bike symbols. It normalises an act, that in most other situations is incredibly dangerous.
I can’t imagine the same thing being done for general road markings. Imagine if planners started making exceptions to basic markings like the yellow line, or double white line on highways. It would completely alter the meaning of all yellow lines if they started to have some that you were legally allowed to cross at certain times.
I think the only way to do this properly, would be to create a new symbol that clearly distinguishes itself from existing markings, as “temporary”. That way, we wouldn’t be diluting the strength of our existing markings, which are already being ignored far too often.
A few ideas:
Another option would be to go with the current proposal, but to simultaneously strengthen our existing bike lanes with solid paint. That would send a strong message that while some bike markings are momentary others are not.
I think city staff are going in the right direction with the 2010 plans. Increasing signage and markings gives added legitimacy to bicycles, and helps incorporate them into the culture of the city. Many of the specific proposals being looked at for 2010 are great ideas, such as the intersection markings that extend bike symbols right through a street crossing.
What do YOU think? Leave a comment below: