by Crystel Hajjar

Photo: Vincent St. Martin

Dozens gathered at Carleton University on Nov. 6 for a town hall meeting to discuss the need for infrastructural change and increased education to make city cycling safer for everyone in the Ottawa community.

The event, organized by Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), was sparked in response to the recent death of cyclist and Carleton graduate student Krista Johnson.

Bringing together politicians and cycling advocates, the discussion centered on the necessary steps to make bicycle commuting less dangerous and more accessible to would-be cyclists in Ottawa who are nervous about safety. “We have to catch up to where citizens are, and where citizens are is that they want to see more cycling infrastructure,” said Paul Dewar, the member of parliament for Ottawa Centre.

Despite some recent additions that include a pedestrian bridge and bike lanes, panelists agreed that Ottawa’s streets need more changes to prevent cycling accidents and provide more protection.

    “There is no single solution,” said David Chernushenko, city councillor for Capital Ward, where Carleton University is located. “Cycling infrastructure is a key piece of what we need to focus on.” “Most people who are not cycling,” he added, “aren’t doing it because they feel scared.”

Chernushenko focused on three key areas that will help improve cycling conditions: infrastructure, education and creating a cycling culture. The first of these conditions is the most evident and important, as panelists identified Bronson Avenue and the ends of Pretoria Bridge as dangerous intersections that need to be addressed. The city’s Transportation Committee is studying the speed limit on Bronson Avenue after Chernushenko introduced a motion to reduce the speed limit to 50 kilometres per hour from 60 km/hr on Nov. 7.

In addition, panelists argued that both cyclists and drivers need to further their knowledge about traffic rules and road safety and take basic precautions such as using  bike lights and reflectors to ensure visibility.

Finally, panelists highlighted the need to create a cycling culture in Ottawa so that cycling is seen as a legitimate primary mode of transportation, as it is in Europe, instead of as a leisure activity.

“I found that Europe wasn’t full of avid cyclists,” said Chernushenko. “It was full of people for whom the bicycle was just a really practical, cheap [option].”

Cycling, as an affordable mode of transportation, is very important for students, but according to Seamus Wolfe, the supervisor at the University of Ottawa Bike Co-op, they have been shut out of the consultation process with the city. Last September, the City of Ottawa reduced the total number of its advisory committees that consult with the public and limited the number of participants.

“Whether by choice or forced to due to the high tuition fees, cycling and public transportation are essential for students,” he said. The advisory committees, added Wolfe, have been dissolved and amalgamated into fewer, smaller groups that meet less frequently.

According to the City of Ottawa, the police are under no obligation to document non-deadly cycling accidents, which makes it very difficult to collect accurate statistics, trends and information on the most dangerous roads for cycling. Over the past year, cycling accidents have claimed the life of two students.

“Safe and efficient cycling and public transportation are not some pet projects of a few environmentalists, nor some war on the car. This is an issue of safety, an issue of life and death for our communities,” said Wolfe.

While organized by the GSA, the panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG)-Carleton, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 4600 and 2424, and Carleton University’s Office of Student Affairs, Department of University Safety, and Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Members of Cycle Salvation, a local enterprise that refurbishes and sells used bikes, offered free bike tune-ups on campus for the day.

This article first appeared in the Leveller newspaper – Vol. 5, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2012)