Critique of Uptown Waterloo Bike Lane Plan

The City and Region of Waterloo are working together with IBI Group consultants to design a new streetscape for King Street in uptown Waterloo from University Avenue to Erb Street. There was a public consultation on Wednesday, at which I and many others gave suggestions to improve the design.

Its designers describe it as standard practice, and they are exactly correct. It represents absolutely no improvement over the design of our current bicycle lanes. In other words, it is only suitable for “cyclists”, not just any average citizen who may wish to cycle to their destination. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the population is not comfortable riding on busy roads along with buses, trucks and cars, and that they have never heard of concepts such as “the door zone”.

While it is great that cycling facilities are being proposed where none currently exists, there is also room for improvement in the designs.

Many people at the public consultation remarked that the bicycle lanes looked unpleasant. This cross-section got many comments, with people remarking that they would not wish to cycle between a bus and parked cars.

King St. cross section 3-lane

The design of the bicycle lanes also exposes cyclists to many unnecessary conflicts.

Buses must pull into the bicycle lane to load and unload passengers, forcing cyclists to either wait behind or pass on the left in the traffic lane. This represents a common tradeoff in Waterloo’s bicycle lane designs. Those traveling by bicycle are forced to choose between safety and efficiency, rather than being provided with both. If the city truly wants to reduce car dependance, they need to start taking other modes of transport more seriously.

The conflict between buses and cyclists could easily be eliminated with the construction of bus stop bypasses.

Where on-street parking exists, it is located to the right of the bicycle lane so cars must cross it to park.

Once cars do to park, they then pose an even greater hazard. The bicycle lane is 1.25 metres wide, next to a 2.2 metre parking lane. The problem here is that an opening car door reaches up to 2.85 metres from the curb (0.55m door, 2.0m car, 0.3m from curb). That width would place the end of the door exactly in the middle of the bicycle lane! “Dooring” collisions are particularly gruesome, because there is no time for the cyclist to react, so they collide with an immovable object at cruising speed. To avoid such collisions, cycling infrastructure must never be within 0.93 metres of a parked car (the width of a door, plus half the width of a bicycle).

Working within the 23m street width, here is how we could adjust the proposed design to avoid dooring collisions. I have placed a 1.0m buffer between the bicycle lane and parked cars.


The main issue with this design is that the buffer space is “wasted”, in the sense that it is not used for transportation. As a result, the sidewalk area is only 3.6m wide, of which 1.5m is used for the utility strip which contains the trees, lights and street furniture. The effective sidewalk width is therefore only 2.1m.

Rather than using a painted line as the buffer, we could use the utility strip, since that space is “wasted” anyway.


This has the added benefit of putting cyclists on the right of parked cars, making them feel more comfortable and eliminating the conflicts with both parking cars and stopping buses. In this scenario, the sidewalk is a more generous 2.45m. The bicycle lane is shown in red to make it more obvious to drivers and pedestrians, and has been widened to 2.0m in order to allow faster cyclists to overtake slower ones.

Excuses from the City

If separated lanes would be preferred by the public, then why isn’t the city building them? I heard many explanations from officials over the course of the evening.

There’s no room:

One factor is the street width. King Street is constrained by buildings, so each type of road user cannot have as much space as ideal.  Instead, space must be rationed between modes of transport. Yet, I demonstrated above, it is still possible to fit protected lanes while meeting standard widths for other uses.

Looking at the plans, it is evident that the “shortage of space” is due to the convenience of motorists being prioritized over the safety and convenience of other road users. Between University and Bridgeport, there are left turn lanes provided for even the smallest of side streets, to eliminate the possibility of traffic being stopped by someone turning left, while still maintaining left-turn access to those streets. South of Bridgeport, there is a narrow median with no apparent purpose at all.

Separate lanes aren’t actually safer:

The general attitude I got from the planners was that they are doing what is best for cyclists, even if cyclists don’t realize it. They see separated bicycle lanes as more dangerous than on-street bicycle lanes because cyclists are less visible at intersections. This is correct, unless the separated lanes are designed properly.  This issue can be addressed through measures such as having small corner radii, not placing any objects which obscure cyclists as they approach intersections and shifting the bicycle lane at intersections such that conflicts occur at a right angle.

But what keeps people from cycling around town isn’t the actual safety of cycling, it’s how safe they feel while cycling. The public’s response to the proposed design clearly indicates that they would not feel safe in the proposed bicycle lanes, and would therefore be unlikely to ride a bicycle for transport.

And even if separated lanes weren’t any safer than on-street lanes, they would increase the number of people traveling by bicycle, which in turn makes cycling safer everywhere because drivers become more aware of cyclists.

Lack of Experience

The final excuse I heard was that the city had no experience building separated lanes, and they would prefer their first try to be on a less important street. To me, this is the most convincing argument. When designed improperly, separated lanes can be dangerous by providing a sense of safety without actual safety to match. But when designed properly, they are actually safer than on-street lanes, and have a far more profound effect on people’s transportation choices.

If the city does choose to listen to public feedback and implement separated bicycle lanes on King Street, I’m sure that the city’s cycling activists, such as myself, would gladly assist them in any manner possible.

19 thoughts on “Critique of Uptown Waterloo Bike Lane Plan

  1. If the lane runs on King St., it does deserve a separated bike lane. However clue me in on the streets where these lanes will run.

    1. Haha, wow. I completely forgot to say which street it is!

      Yes, it is King Street. I’ve added that to the post now.

  2. Can you start a petition to make these changes to the design ( I’d sign it. The other issue I have is that it’s just for “Uptown Waterloo,” and I question how many blocks that is. If it’s just Erb to William, it’s hardly worth it. I’d like to see it run from Columbia Street in Waterloo to Frederick Street in Kitchener!

    1. Their plan is from LRT track crossing in Uptown straight through to University. I agree it’s not enough, but it’s a start! My fear now is that this project could get scrapped with the regional budget cutting that’s in the news.

      1. To clarify, the section from Central to University is technically a separate project. The LRT-Bridgeport project seems to be mainly being dealt with by the City of Waterloo, and is in fairly late stages. I believe this is the third and last public information centre required for this project.

        The Central-University section is in much earlier stages, and is headed by Regional staff. I believe this is PIC#1 for that project. In speaking to the planners for that project, it seemed that they were much more favourable toward trying to fit a cycle track in to the plan.

      2. I don’t think this project is particularly at risk from annual budget cutting. Its funds come from multiple different levels of government (so if one cuts, the other will be annoyed), and its timeline is quite long (it doesn’t need to be complete until about 2018).

  3. Great post Narayan. I too am concerned about the proposed bike lanes. I think that adding substandard bike lanes such as those proposed might actually make the situation worse than the status quo. I’d love to hear the points of view of different readers here – is it better to have a substandard bike lane (narrow, in the door zone) rather shared infrastructure such as a wide curb lane or sharrows? I got the feeling that a cycle track isn’t going to happen, though I will still advocate that solution. However, I feel that it is important to also present an alternative that the project team may have an easier time including.

    At the info session, I asked city staff about the 1m median in the LRT tracks to Bridgeport section. I was told that it was primarily in place to allow expedient emergency vehicle access. This seems like a pretty reasonable concern to me, but I don’t know what the design standards are for such things. The turning lanes in the Bridgeport-Central section are meant to have a similar purpose in addition to the traffic flow function.

    The argument that cycle tracks are less safe than on-street bike lanes is contradicted by the BICE study from UBC, which found that cycle tracks along major streets were, in fact, among the safest types of cycling infrastructure.

    I like your suggestion about putting street furniture in the buffer area between parking and the cycle track. I think there would be design problems to be solved, such as to how to make street furniture like garbage cans, benches and bike parking fit in this scenario. However, it is well worth taking the time to get this right – this could be an excellent opportunity for the City and Region to show that they are serious about encouraging active transit. They need to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk, so to speak.

    1. Regarding emergency vehicle access, that is a comment which often raised in regards to separated bicycle infrastructure. Similarly on Sherbourne Street in Toronto, Emergency Services insisted on having a travelled roadway wide enough for 3 vehicles side-by-side and mountable barriers, which resulted in separated bike lanes too narrow to allow passing, as well as vehicles parking in the bike lanes.

      We must weigh the benefit of these emergency vehicle measures (typically super-wide roads) against the benefits of having the proper infrastructure that they preclude. While it is nice to have super-fast emergency response, it would be nicer to not have so many emergencies in the first place. Additionally we can reduce the requirements of emergency services by purchasing smaller emergency vehicles, as is done in the rest of the world.

      That in turn opens up the option of building our bicycle infrastructure to such a high standard that it can itself can be used by emergency services to bypass traffic:

    2. Regarding street furniture, it fits nicely into the “utility” space. There’s plenty of room for trees, streetlights, garbage cans, bicycle parking rings, parking meters and benches in the 1.5m provided.

      1. I think there could be some design problems to be overcome, but generally I really like your idea of making the utility strip section of the sidewalk be the buffer for the bike lane.

        May I use your sample image? I’m helping to create a proposal on behalf of the Waterloo Cycling Club. Please contact me at adamglauser on Google’s email service.

      2. You’re more than welcome to use any of the images I create. If it helps get better cycling infrastructure somewhere, then it’s fine with me.

      3. Adam any reason we wouldn’t join forces making a singular proposal, waterloobikes and the WCC and whoever else wants to join. We’re planning on meeting with the design team. Before creating the proposal we checked in with Melissa and she was on board with it.

    3. @Adam G, you said: “I’d love to hear the points of view of different readers here – is it better to have a substandard bike lane (narrow, in the door zone) rather shared infrastructure such as a wide curb lane or sharrows?”

      Shared infrastructure is far superior to substandard lanes. Have you seen the “bike lanes” on Phillip street between University and Columbia? They are not as wide as most bike handlebars, yet they give drivers an illusion that there is a safe space reserved for cyclists. Drivers then feel that they are not “sharing”, but rather than each type of vehicle has space. If that painted white line had been replaces with sharrows, the expectations for use of that road would have been more clear.

      In my opinion, a superior solution for that stretch of Phillip would have been to narrow the road to the width of the non-“bike-lane” portion and pave the grassy boulevard with red pavement. That would not have been a significant infrastructure change and it would be far from perfect but would have been a start. They dug up that road twice in two years, surely they could have rebuilt it better the second time (albeit the pedestrian islands are an important improvement).

  4. Regarding substandard bike lanes vs no bike lanes, my stance is that no bike lane is better because it is proven to be safer. However, neither one is acceptable. Rather than suggesting that they remove substandard lanes, we should be demanding that they be brought up to standard!

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