The Region of Waterloo is reconstructing University Avenue between Erb Street and Keats Way, and rather than building off-street bicycle paths that would be accessible to people of all ages and cycling ability, staff are recommending on-street painted bicycle lanes. Let’s take a look at the reasoning behind this decision.
In my first post about this project, I responded to the rationale given in the public consultation materials to dismiss “cycle tracks”: that they are expensive and difficult to maintain in winter. In short, while these are both true about the version of cycle track they considered (immediately adjacent to the roadway), neither applies to a bicycle path that is on the boulevard away from the roadway – an option they do not seem to have examined.
Then when the project came before Planning and Works Committee, the position was:
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.
When I went to the committee meeting and questioned this rationale, Commissioner Thomas Schmidt clarified that moving the bicycle lane off the main roadbed for this short segment was undesirable because it would create conflicts and complicate intersection design.
I expect that the underlying assumption here is that the same type of facility be used for the entire segment, both at intersections and mid-block.
Given the long distances between conflict points (intersections and driveways), this is an unnecessary constraint on decision-making. The typical explanation for maintaining consistency is for the visibility of cyclists by motorists. But with cars travelling upwards of 60 km/h and cyclists travelling around 20 km/h, a motorist who sees a cyclist mid-block would be long gone by the time the cyclist arrives at the intersection.
As a result, we can consider the mid-block and intersection designs independently from each other, and simply switch facility type shortly in advance of the intersection if necessary.
From the perspective of mid-block design along University Avenue, I don’t see any way new conflicts would be created by moving the bicycle path from one side of the curb to the other. In doing so, the bicycle path does not cross paths with any other road user.
So Regional staff’s concern about separate cycling infrastructure must be entirely based on intersection design.
As Commissioner Schmidt said, separate bicycle paths do indeed complicate intersection design. Since bicycles travel several times faster than pedestrians, bicycle path crossings should be designed to accommodate this rather than simply using a repainted version of the standard crosswalk design.
But this extra effort in design pays off with a result that is safer than could be achieved with on-street bicycle lanes. For this reason in the Netherlands, intersections are often built with separate bicycle paths even when streets leading up to them have on-street bicycle lanes or even no bicycle lanes at all.