Bikes and people: Everyone wants a safe lane to travel

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Advocates of the visually impaired in Toronto are raising the alarm about a bike lane design they argue poses a significant danger to some pedestrians.

David Lepofsky, chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA), recently experienced the hazardous design first-hand during a walk with a sighted friend.

Lepofsky, who is blind released a video that shows his walk with a cane along the north side of Eglinton Avenue, east of Avenue Road. In the video, he highlights his difficulty distinguishing between the sidewalk and the raised bike lane, which are at the same level. This transition is nearly imperceptible to those who rely on tactile cues rather than visual ones, he noted.

“For Toronto to establish a new bike path right on the sidewalk, and not at road level, very obviously endangers blind pedestrians who have no way of knowing they’re straying into a bike path,” said Lepofsky in a statement sent to Canada’s National Observer. “I certainly don’t want to walk in the middle of a bike path, but when I’m on this sidewalk, I have no way of knowing there is a bike path here!”

Lepofsky’s concerns aren’t unique. Across Canada, similar challenges are being launched in cities such as Maple Ridge and Victoria, B.C. This comes as many communities are working toward becoming greener and more sustainable with such initiatives as increasing bike lanes.

Even when a line of dark pavement is added to indicate the bike lane on a sidewalk, Lepofsky said blind individuals cannot detect the colour change and only depend on the surface texture to navigate.

“It is especially infuriating that this happened in a city and province which are required by law to become accessible and barrier-free to Ontarians with disabilities by 2025. Our city should not treat people with disabilities as expendable second-class citizens,” said Lepofsky, a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Toronto.

The video suggests the design contravenes the right to equality for individuals with disabilities as outlined in the Charter of Rights, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

David Lepofsky, who is blind, released a video that shows his walk with a cane along the north side of Eglinton Avenue, east of Avenue Road. Screenshot from video

However, a City of Toronto official defended the design, asserting that placing bikeways at the same level as sidewalks enhances road safety.

Experts say it is important to prioritize safety for disabled and visually impaired individuals, along with all pedestrians, as Canadian cities pursue sustainable and environmentally friendly initiatives, like building bike paths.

“Most traffic collisions that result with fatalities or serious injuries are a result of interactions involving a person operating a motor vehicle,” said Becky Katz, manager of cycling and pedestrian projects for transportation services at the City of Toronto. “Bikeways at the same level as sidewalks, such as the bikeway on the north side of Eglinton Avenue West, east of Avenue Road, have shown to increase road safety by reducing such conflicts.”

This design is being used elsewhere in the city and in other jurisdictions, Katz added.

Katz also highlighted adherence to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) legislation, stating that tactile paver strips, detectable by cane or underfoot, were incorporated into the design. While acknowledging beveled curbs are the city’s preferred design for raised bikeways, Katz said sidewalk-level bikeways are still supported in specific contexts.

The City of Toronto emphasized its commitment to refining designs and ongoing engagement with the disability community to meet safety expectations.

Experts say it is important for cities across Canada moving toward more sustainable, zero-emission and environmentally friendly initiatives, like building bike paths, to consider safety for disabled, blind and other sensory-impaired individuals, as well as all pedestrians.

“Green infrastructure needs to be inclusive. It needs to be safe infrastructure,” said Ron Buliung, a professor in the department of geography, geomatics and environment at the University of Toronto. “We need to be equally committed to compliance with accessibility regulation, creatively going beyond compliance, and making it work for everyone.

“We should keep in mind that designing for inclusion creates all manner of possibilities. When we do things right, and actually, according to law, when we design and build inclusively, the outcome may benefit everyone,” added Buliung.

Bike paths at the same level as sidewalks are a cause for concern in other cities.

In June, a visually impaired woman in B.C. filed a discrimination complaint related to city roundabouts and bike lanes. She alleges the City of Maple Ridge created unsafe walking conditions for individuals with disabilities.

In 2020, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal agreed with a complaint that argued bike lanes in Victoria discriminated against the blind by separating sidewalks from “floating bus stops.”

In Vancouver, the city is expanding its cycling network of 331 kilometres and adding low-stress routes that are safe and comfortable for people of all ages and abilities.

“When designing new cycling facilities, we consider a wide range of design guidelines and best practices for building cycling routes,” said Fiona Hughes, senior communications specialist with engineering services at the City of Vancouver. “We also engage with stakeholders to ensure cycling routes meet the needs of all road users, including people with accessibility challenges, such as the city’s persons with disabilities advisory committee and other local stakeholders.”

When designing protected bike lanes adjacent to sidewalks, the type of separation can vary but, in general, the city strives to provide cane-detectable separation by grade separating the biking area from the sidewalk with a beveled curb or using a landscaped buffer, Hughes added.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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