For a number of years now, cyclists pass a bicycle counter totem on the Portage Bridge across the Ottawa River on the border of Quebec and Ontario. The totem shows to everyone passing the inter provincial bridge the number of bike trips when people cycle over the conductivity loops embedded in the bike tracks.
Gradual growth on Portage Bridge
The numbers show a gradual growth since 2014, although the wet spring might have an effect on the 2017 numbers. Yet, three years of over 300,000 trips annually is considerable. Bear in mind that the counter doesn’t operate in the first couple months of the year and that the track is not maintained in winter.
Typically, the numbers on Portage Bridge reach between 2500-3000 trips a day in the warmer months of the year, dropping to around 2000 in the fall. The weekend numbers are much lower, anywhere between 300 and a 1000 a day, indicating that many commuters use the bridge. Yet 300-1000 on a weekend day is probably a number most municipalities can only dream about.
The numbers of bike trips for the Portage Bridge are actually even higher. Cyclists also cycle southbound on the bridge’s road surface and on the southbound sidewalk (on the west side of the bridge). There are cyclists who cycle on the side walk north and south bound on the east side, bypassing the counter. None of these movements are registered.
Strava data on Portage
Based on Strava data, the number of cyclists cycling southbound in the lane towards Ottawa and perhaps on the side walk is about a third of the stream of cyclists in the bidirectional bike track on the east side. The bridge is so wide, 36 metres or about 120 ft, that that west side stream can be picked up by Strava separately.
I am assuming part of the cycling traffic south bound on the west side is coming from the Quebec west side of the bridge, crossing the bridge and going westbound again once in Ontario. It avoids double crossing the bridge, shaving off a couple of minutes at least. These could be commuters or perhaps people who come from cycling in Gatineau Park for example.
The bidirectional bike lane on the east side is part of the Confederation Boulevard, a ‘boulevard’ that the NCC is slowly developing on both sides of the Ottawa River. Yet, the bike lane is narrow, and worse, runs along a bus lane heading into Quebec. Traffic is fast here and it is a pretty hair-raising experience to bike southbound towards Ottawa. The width of each lane is 1.20 mtr or 4 feet. There are buses coming towards you with considerable speed when cycling towards Ottawa and if northbound cyclists bike there at the same time, it feels pretty squeezed. If something goes wrong, a mechanical bicycle failure, a bus mirror that sticks out or handle bars locking into each other, first responders can pretty much scrape you off of the front of a bus with a putty knife.
Buffer between Bus and Bike
One way to improve the safety on the bridge is to remove the median, create a reversible centre lane like on the Champlain bridge (aka Island Park bridge) and move the bus lane east. Create a proper 2 meter buffer between the bus lane and the bidirectional bike track and make the bike track wider at the same time. With growing numbers of cyclists and Gatineau increasingly being interested in an own connected bicycle network, this vital connection has to be upgraded before something goes seriously wrong. In my previous post from June 20, I mentioned a deadly collision in Toronto in a similar situation.
Key role for Ministers
PM Trudeau just announced a nearly unfathomable amount of over one thousand million dollars in funding for Phase 2 of Ottawa’s Light Rail. I hope the feds can find some money to properly rebuilt the Portage Bridge connection. With bike trips creeping up towards 400,000 trips annually, the cycling infrastructure on the bridge needs improvements badly. Ministers Catherine “We-have-to-reimagine-how-we -get-around” McKenna and Mélanie “I’ve-always-been-an-impatient-person” Joly can play a key role here.
How Portage Bridge should look like
Assuming the width of the bridge is 36 meters (that is a rough guess with the measuring tool of Google Maps), I thought I make a quick sketch of my idea of the design of the bridge. On the east side, I drew a bidirectional bike lane as part of the confederation boulevard. On the west side, I drew a unidirectional lane going southbound, based on the Strava numbers in that stretch. There is no icon for the reversible middle lane that can be used both ways, depending on the time of day, like on the Champlain bridge, so I drew it as a morning rush hour situation, with three lanes coming into Ottawa (towards you). I have removed the southbound bus lane as something has to give. Perhaps one lane southbound can be dedicated to bus and multi user vehicles? I have used Streetsketch on Mobycon’s website for this.
Systematic Safety for Portage Bridge
There is an expression in Dutch: “Only after the calf has drowned, the well is filled” the equivalent of “Don’t lock the stable door after the horse has bolted”. Let that not be the case here. May I introduce you to the Systematic Safety approach, the principles behind Vision Zero? Systematic Safety means “not waiting for crashes to occur, but systematically eliminating the opportunity that create high crash and injury risk”. Let’s listen to this 8 minute clip which boils down to the question if we want to be reactive or proactive in our traffic design. I will leave it here for now.