Death Trap on Portage Bridge: Systematic Safety

Portage Bridge in 3D. The counter is on east side in the red circle.
Portage Bridge in 3D. The counter is on east side in the red circle. The streetview

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

Portage Bridge Ottawa - Gatineau cycling data.
Portage Bridge Ottawa – Gatineau cycling data (2017 until end of June only).

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.

When you are lucky, traffic isn't moving. But notice how close to the curb the buses are.
When you are lucky, traffic isn’t moving. But notice how close to the curb the buses are.

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.

This image shows the width of the bridge. The north bound lanes were closed for motorised traffic to allow residents to bike the Confederation Boulevard safely. The back up on the other hand had nothing to do with it. This was due to back ups for the tulip festival.
This image shows the width of the bridge. The north bound lanes were closed for motorised traffic to allow residents to bike the Confederation Boulevard safely. The back up at the other side had nothing to do with it. This was due to back ups for the tulip festival.

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.

Confederation Boulevard

Portage Bridge in 3D. The counter is on east side in the red circle.
Portage Bridge in 3D. The counter is on east side in the red circle.

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

Portage Bridge bike counter
Portage Bridge bike counter

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.

How Portage bridge should look like.
How Portage bridge could look like.

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.

 

2 Comments

  1. Hans,you speculate on rain as a possible source for the low portage bridge count in 2017. I would suggest the the seemingly endless closure of the MUPs on both sides of the Ottawa River just east of the portage bridge has cyclists using other means to cross the river. I used to enjoy the route behind parliament on my way to the portage bridge, but not this year. The same is true on the Gatineau side, with the mup closed near the museum. I think a lack of access to the bridge may be seeding the decline. Could this be used to germinate a “low ridership, so low maintenance needs” position with officials?

    • The closing of the pathways likely has an influence on the numbers. Good point. I don’t think the position will be one you mentioned. The NCC -being federal- needs time for budget approvals to upgrade the paths, but they are very aware of the heavy use of the paths. The CEO even mentioned that this is a good time to take a closer look to usage and upgrade and widen the paths. I am more worried about Public Works regarding the bridge. BikeOttawa has not been able to get much done through PW.

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