Allison Hanes: Cycling And Pedestrian Safety is No Joke
When I first saw the photo of the new “bike path” — a term I use loosely — on Atwater Ave., I thought it was a gag, or fake news, or some kind of hoax.
But the picture, taken by Projet Montréal councillor Craig Sauvé, was posted by a reputable source — the Facebook page of pedestrian safety group Piétons Québec.
So, I went down to see for myself and my disbelief only deepened: the city’s newest piece of cycling infrastructure is, in fact, little more than a bike path symbol painted on the sidewalk, headed down the hill where Atwater passes under Highway 20.
As far as the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists goes, it’s a complete joke, but not a remotely funny one. How are people biking and walking realistically supposed to share a long stretch of sidewalk, from René Lévesque Blvd. to St. Antoine St., that descends a steep incline through a dark tunnel?
The setup essentially puts pedestrians at risk of being hit by bikes. And it’s so completely inadequate for cyclists — whether they’re pedalling hard to make it uphill or trying to manoeuvre around pedestrians heading downhill — that it will inevitably force them out into traffic unprotected.
It’s bad enough that the city of Montreal doesn’t even want to call it a bike path. The spokesperson I contacted about it, corrected me, referring to it instead as a way to “secure the underpass.” But the painted symbol on the sidewalk is identical to that which adorns every other cycling lane in the city, even if accompanied by a stencil of a stick figure walking. So forgive my confusion.
Making it doubly perplexing is that cyclists aren’t normally allowed to use the sidewalks. Exceptions include when there is no other option or when signs indicate otherwise. I guess the yellow sharrows on the pavement leading up to the underpass directing bikes onto the sidewalk qualify as the latter. But if cyclists are supposed to dismount and walk up or down the slope, there’s no sign indicating they should do so at this point.
The reason for this ridiculousness is the challenge of finding safe passage for those travelling on foot or on two wheels between parts of Montreal separated by highways or railway tracks. There are dozens of other underpasses that pose the same puzzle to traffic planners.
We already know the kind of carnage that can result when the needs of all road users aren’t taken into account in these tricky places. In 2014, cyclist Mathilde Blais was crushed to death under the wheels of a truck carrying a crane as both navigated the narrow St.-Denis St. underpass. A coroner’s report found her death could have been avoided if the space had been properly apportioned. And it prompted the city to do an inventory of its underpasses, which found 57 of 188 were a security risk.
Options for addressing these problem areas came down to: taking away traffic lanes to create space for bikes, narrowing the lanes for cars and creating bike paths, allowing cyclists to choose between using the sidewalk or the road and forcing cyclists to use the sidewalk.
But why putting cyclists on the sidewalk was the option chosen for Atwater defies logic.
Atwater actually has three lanes of traffic in each direction, one of which is used for parking. A city truly committed to creating cycling infrastructure, rather than just painting some lines on the pavement and extolling its virtues as a bicycle mecca, would find room for a secure bike path. Taking away space for vehicle traffic or parking is a necessary part of transforming Montreal into a bike-friendly, less-congested and greener city.
And making Atwater safer for cyclists at the expense of pedestrians is ludicrous indeed.
In the absence of the political will at city hall to more fairly reapportion Atwater, some thought should be given to enlisting the assistance of Transport Québec. Despite their notorious blind spot when it comes to any mode of transport that is not a car or truck, there is extra land on each side of the road under the highway that is owned by Transport department. Perhaps they could fork over a few metres so both pedestrians and cyclists could have dedicated passages under its infrastructure.
If anything, this debacle underscores the need for the Dalle Parc. The pedestrian- and bike-only overpass linking St-Henri and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, was unveiled as the cherry on top of the $3-billion Turcot overhaul. But the $40-million green space suspended above the new highway was quietly nixed by Transport Québec as too costly. Many have decried the missed opportunity to create a modern and unique landmark, but the absurdity on Atwater highlights its necessity
Despite kilometres of bike lanes along the Lachine Canal in the Sud-Ouest borough and beyond, there are few good ways to bike into Montreal’s downtown from the south.
If putting bike lanes on the sidewalk along Atwater is the best Montreal can come up with, it shows that we’re not really making the safety of either cyclists or pedestrians a priority where it matters most.
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