The city of Ottawa is contemplating a new frontier in cycling infrastructure: advisory bike lanes, which allow cars to veer into cycling lanes in order to avoid oncoming traffic.

As part of a project to slow down traffic on Byron Avenue, the city is looking at installing the advisory bike lanes on parts of the road between Island Park Drive and Sherbourne Avenue. If the plan goes ahead, Ottawa could be the first city in Canada to install advisory bike lanes next year.

There's also the possibility of installing them along Fifth Avenue in the Glebe eventually.

What's an advisory bike lane?

Advisory bike lanes have been used in Europe for years and more recently in a handful of U.S. cities on roads too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic and traditional bike lanes at once. They look much like conventional bike lanes, except that the painted lines separating them from traffic lanes are dashed instead of solid.

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An artist's example of advisory bike lanes, including a parking lane along one edge of the road. (City of Ottawa)

But here's the kicker: the roadway between the bike lanes is a bit too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other comfortably. That's why there's no centre line  — there is literally not enough space for two separate lanes of traffic. So when drivers encounter oncoming cars, they have to edge into the bike lane in order to pass, although they must first yield to cyclists. 

The fact that drivers have to wiggle around cyclists and other drivers means that advisory bike lanes can only be used on low-volume, low-speed roads. And because drivers have to be extra cautious about yielding to cyclists before passing oncoming traffic, advisory bike lanes are thought to lower speeds on the roads where they're used.

Controversy, confusion

From the battle over segregated bike lanes on Laurier Avenue to the disagreement over the cycle track on Churchill Avenue (one city councillor predicted pedestrians would be hit by cyclists), few issues in this city seem to create as much uproar as new cycling systems.

"It seems like any kind of bike infrastructure seems to be controversial for at least some people," said Grant McSheffrey, who lives just steps from Byron Avenue.

Grant McSheffrey

Grant McSheffrey lives near Byron Avenue and is a member of the Iona Hampton Community Group. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

He both cycles and drives down the street and thinks advisory bike lanes might work on some sections of Byron, especially west of Golden Avenue. But he does foresee some resistance to the new concept.

"It would be controversial simply because when you first see it, I don't think people will necessarily know what is expected of them," said McSheffrey, who is also a member of the Iona Hampton Community Group. "It makes the road look like it's too small. The cars just don't fit."

Initial resistance

Even city officials concede that at first, the idea of cars edging into bike lanes seems alarming.

​Kornel Musci is the program manager with the city's transportation department. He first encountered advisory bike lanes in Holland years ago.

"Initially, there was lots of resistance," Musci said. "It was just something totally out of the blue for many people. But as we explored the idea and as some other North American cities started to implement it, it became a very interesting topic of discussion."

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An artist's example of advisory bike lanes, shown here without parking. Note there's no room for cars to pass each other without crossing the dotted line marking the cycling lane. (City of Ottawa)

But other cities have used it with success, said Musci. And he points out that there are hundreds of residential two-way streets where cars and bikes are negotiating relatively narrow roads already. So advisory bike lanes simply formalize the existing rules of the road, while the painted lines remind drivers of the space they are required to give cyclists.

In the U.S., Minneapolis, Minn., installed advisory bike lanes along a six-block stretch — about 800 metres — of E.14th Street in 2011. City officials studied crash data before the lanes went in and for three years afterward. They found no increase in collisions between vehicles and bicycles.

'Our experience has been fairly positive.'
- Simon Blenski, Minneapolis, Minn.

"Our experience has been fairly positive," said Simon Blenski, a transportation planner in Minneapolis. "We collected video to see how people were driving along the street, and we see people are using it as intended. We do get calls from people who are confused, especially right after the project went in."

Since 2011, the city installed advisory bike lanes in two more locations.

What's next for Ottawa?

A public advisory committee that includes a number of community groups and local organizations met for the first time to discuss the Byron Avenue bike lanes on March 3.

The project is in its very early stages, but so far the plan is to allow parking on the south side of Byron. 

The city will also consult the public, and residents can fill out the survey here.

According to Musci, the study and recommendations should be submitted to the city by this summer. If the city decides to go ahead, the advisory bike lanes could be installed next spring.

He's optimistic the project will work, but added that it won't be expensive to reverse it if the lanes prove unpopular.

"I found out that with new things, if the new thing is really good, then the learning curve is very fast," said Musci. "With paint and marking it is very easy because it's a low-cost measure. And if it doesn't work, it can be re-painted."