Should Bike Lanes have Warning Lights?

A partnership between Safer Roads Ottawa and the local police service has led to the creation of a “cyclist detection system” for a major bike lane in Canada’s capital city. As demonstrated below, LED lights blink whenever a cyclist is detected in the bike lane, reminding drivers to check for cyclists before crossing the intersection or making a turn. This particular intersection is a part of the new 2.5 km north-south bikeway that opened last year and was chosen for the project because the intersection is not signalled. It has been the site of many collisions, including one just hours after the official opening of the bike lane.

The Ottawa police service involved in the project says the goal of the lights is to remind drivers to check for cyclists. Through increased driver awareness, they hope to increase the safety of the cyclists and decrease the number of collisions.

“Unfortunately at times people are on auto-pilot when they go somewhere, and they want to go from A to B and they don’t see 100 per cent of what’s going on around them,” said Sgt. Mark Gatien, one of the officers in charge of the traffic unit at the Ottawa Police Service. When you’re turning across the path of a bike lane, we must have the drivers look. And this brings their attention to that.”

As Christina Bouchard wrote in her IBI TH!NK post “Vision Zero: The First 300 Years“, road traffic injuries caused an estimated 1.25 million deaths worldwide in the year 2010. There is a growing movement, called Vision Zero, that believes all of these deaths, as well as serious injuries, are not ethically acceptable. Christina writes “The Vision Zero approach represents a culture shift away from the acceptance of the loss of human life in traffic as a cost of doing business, necessary to achieve the operational efficiency of motor vehicles.  Vision Zero describes a new public health and safety standard; no deaths are accepted as unavoidable.” Safer Roads Ottawa “Road Safety Action Plan” is clearly following the principals of Vision Zero, identifying “Towards zero. One fatality or serious injury is one too many.” as their program goal. This innovation is likely to prevent some harm to cyclists.

But the same time as they worked towards Vision Zero goals, they also worked against them. The City of Ottawa choose the bike lane design for this track of road that was identified as less safe for cyclists- but less likely to inconvenience drivers. The installation of this contraflow system was rank third of the five options provided by the consultant on the project. Rather than a holistic design solution, a technological innovation is being used as a stop-gap measure.

This is not the first innovation where lighting has been added to ensure visibility and safety for cyclists. In 2013, an invention hit the market which attached to a cyclists seat and projected red lasers on to the ground around the bike, thus creating a bike lane that travelled with the cyclist.

A cyclist uses bike lane warning lightsA cyclist uses bike lane warning lights

While these innovations are likely to increase cyclist safety, do they unfairly shift the blame to cyclists who do get injured? If a cyclist isn’t wearing a lighting device or should the SmartCone Road Safety Technology not function properly and a cyclist is injured, will it be seen as the cyclists fault?

As is already seen to be the case in this Ottawa intersection, would bike lane warning lights at unsafe intersections lead to the design and implementation of fewer safe crossings? Will technological innovations be used to “fix” bad design, rather than designing safer roads? These innovations serve a short term purpose fixing unsafe situations for cyclists, but it’s smart to be weary of them as a long-term solution over safe design.


Photo by Brandon Wong on Unsplash

Alyssa Koehn

Alyssa Koehn is a TH!NK by IBI blog curator and urban planner. She recently returned to Vancouver after attending UCLA for graduate studies in both Architecture and Urban Planning. Her interests are in housing design and affordability, municipal politics, and the zone of the public realm where buildings touch the streets.

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