The City of Ottawa bypassed the advice of international consultants when designing the O'Connor Street bikeway in order to make more room for cars, choosing an option the firm described as "less safe" for cyclists.

In the first three weeks since its opening, there were three reported collisions between bicycles and vehicles in the section of the bike lane stretching from Laurier Avenue to the Queensway.

The city insists the lane is safe. But it doesn't deny it chose an option that was somewhat less safe for cyclists, and did so because the optimal choice would have been untenable for drivers — and may have killed the project altogether.

 Kornel Mucsi, Program Manager , city of Ottawa Transportation Planning.

Kornel Mucsi, a city program manager for transportation planning, says going with the consultant's first choice for cyclist safety would have likely meant the bikeway wouldn't have been built. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

"Everything is trade-offs, even safety is a trade-off from time to time," said Kornel Mucsi, a program manager with transportation planning at the city. "The public, motorists, cyclists all have input into our designs. And if the option that we select is not sellable — politically or publicly — then that option is not going to happen."

5 options evaluated

Mobycon Concordis is a Dutch consulting company specializing in integrating cycling and pedestrian routes with city streets. The city hired the firm for advice on the Churchill Avenue cycling tracks and the Main Street complete street project.

'Everything is trade-offs, even safety is a trade-off from time to time.' - Kornel Mucsi, City of Ottawa

The firm was paid $10,000 to conduct a peer review of the main study for the O'Connor Street bikeway, which was carried out by Parsons, a massive consulting firm that does millions of dollars of work for the city.

Mobycon evaluated five options put forward by Parsons, which included bike lanes on either side of O'Connor (both protected and unprotected), two combinations that used both O'Connor and Metcalfe Street, and a final option with two-way bike lanes along the east side of O'Connor.

Chosen design consultant's 3rd pick

In its report submitted in July 2015, Mobycon concluded that Option 1 — protected bike lanes on both sides of O'Connor — was "the safest and most direct for bicyclists."

The firm acknowledged that its first choice could result in less room for cars and "slightly less optimal flow in the downtown area." But from a Dutch cycling perspective, inconveniencing motorists is "considered an acceptable trade-off."

Its second choice was Option 4, which routed southbound cyclists on O'Connor and northbound ones on Metcalfe.

The two-way lane on the east side of O'Connor that the city finally settled on was the third choice of the cycling infrastructure specialists, who felt the design is as direct as Option 1, "but is less safe."

O'Connor Bike Lane Crash November 8

This image from a YouTube video shows a cyclist being struck by a left-turning van on O'Connor Street. The consultant's report says the option chosen by the city for the bike lane creates intersections that are more "difficult." (YouTube)

Mobycon found the city's top choice takes up less road, but "the intersections with the side streets are more difficult than with one-directional cycle crossings."

Eliminating parking never an option 

Although Mucsi agreed that one-way lanes on either side of the street would have been more "intuitive" for drivers, there was a number of reasons that model was impractical for O'Connor.

One issue with a bike lane on the west side of O'Connor was that cyclists would have had to cross the on-ramp to the Queensway, which would have required a signal. That would have caused delays and backups during rush hour that would have been "unacceptable" to motorists, Mucsi said.

Getting rid of parking on O'Connor wasn't going to happen either.

"The single facility on both sides of O'Connor would probably ban most of the parking, would have the biggest impact on the accessible parking, which has been deemed an unfeasible option," Mucsi said.

The idea of accepting reduced traffic flow for safer bike lanes might fly in Holland, he said, but not in Ottawa, which opted for a model that is "more in line with other North American examples."

Hamilton's experience

Hamilton, Ont., has implemented two-way bike lanes on the left side of a one-way street, exactly like the O'Connor design.

"When it went in it was a bit of shock to residents and motorists," said Hamilton's superintendent of traffic engineering, David Ferguson, of the city's Cannon Street bike lane.

In 2015, the first full year the lanes were open, there were 16 collisions between cyclists and cars, and seven between pedestrians and motorists. In 2016, those numbers have dropped — 10 crashes involving bikes, two with pedestrians — while cycling volumes have risen by about 50 per cent.

Culture shift 'needs to happen'

Opinion among cyclists is mixed on the O'Connor lane. Cycling volume has doubled on the street since it opened, but cyclists and motorists alike appear confused about what to do once they get to intersections.

Catherine McKenney

Coun. Catherine McKenney says traffic flow and parking often take precedence over the 'optimal safety' of pedestrians and cyclists in Ottawa. (CBC)

Coun. Catherine McKenney's ward contains the Centretown portion of O'Connor Street. An avid cyclist herself, McKenney said while the segregated lane is safer than painted lines on the road, city officials are carefully watching how safety could be improved, whether it's forbidding left turns during rush hour or making turn angles sharper to force drivers to slow down.

McKenney recognizes that in this city, traffic flow and parking often trumps "pedestrian and cycling optimal safety."

"It is a shift that has to happen. And to be fair to staff, it needs to happen at the political level … it is incumbent upon us. We're the leaders, we can change the culture, we have the responsibility."