Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cycling and the Law in Ottawa

Another day, another string of threats shouted at ex-military, government functionaries using the Laurier Avenue bike lane as drop-off parking on their way to work. I realize that emergencies can happen on the hill, but if you have time to kiss your partner goodbye, then you have time to pull into the parking lot.

I have already sent an angry letter to Department of National Defence headquarters (would have loved to send it from my work but I think that would have been unwise) listing which bylaws are being violated daily by its staff. This is what the City of Ottawa has to say:
  • Motorists are prohibited from driving or parking in all designated bicycle lanes.
I recommend that any cyclist (or motorist, citizen, whomever) learn the traffic laws relevant to them. I find it much more satisfying to quote by-laws to abusive drivers than to curse at them, but them I also ride with the intent of changing common attitudes of cyclists as dangerous menaces. I live in Ottawa (I hope you've heard of it. It's the capital of Canada) and am most familiar with local laws. I was able to get informed through a quick Google search for "ottawa cycling bylaws," which brought up relevent hits from our city hall, local police authorites, and cycling advocacy groups in the area.

Ottawa has extreamly cold and snowy winters. The city has very sophisticated snow removal, but bike lanes remain at the bottom of their official list of priorities. The right-most or parking lane is often more cluttered with snow than others, which generally leaves me cycling in the left lane with traffic. Which in turn leads to angry drivers. I try to avoid any "weaving" and as much shifting in possible in winter, because of how unpredictable the snow is. It can be in ruts from cars, swept to the side, in huge chunks fallen from buildings, and so on. Staying the the left lane or just over the line can frustrate drivers by delaying them, but I feel that it is safer than weaving between lanes to avoid snow. More adjustments of course leads to a greater chance of slipping, not to mention makes my path less predictable for drivers. This is what the local law says about that:
  • Cycle on the right side of the road.
Ok, fine. I shoudln't be in the left lane. Except!
  • Cyclists are entitled to ride in the centre of a lane when they feel it is too narrow for a motor vehicle to pass them, or if they feel their safety is compromised.
  • When passing a cyclist, the Highway Traffic Act requires that you leave a safe distance between your car and the bicycle. Extra passing distance should be given when slippery road conditions exist.
  • Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist.
So, motorists: I am sorry to be slowing you down, but the law says that I can. And I will continue to do so, just as you will continue to risk my life and those of other people on the road in order to get that sweet parking spot, beat the light, or whatever it is that drives you to push the law.

I know that many, many cyclists flaunt the law too. I usually get to hear about it as soon as someone new finds out that I cycle commute. The reality is that pedestrians and motorists break the law too. This is the primary reason that I attempt to know and follow traffic laws whenever I ride. I want to show people that cycling is not a crime, cyclists are not freaks and being carfree is an acceptable lifestyle choice, not an unfortunate circustance.

A quick review of the traffic laws of Ottawa will also reveal that there are no seasonal restrictions to cycling in traffic. A common reaction I receive in winter is how dangerous and foolish cycling on the road is because of the ice and snow. Or that it must be impossible because of the ice and snow. Either way, it is legal and I have learned how to ride on ice. Just as cars are not banned in winter, neither are bikes.

In closing, here is a selection of my favourite traffic by-laws in Ottawa pertaining to cycling:
  • Have a bell, gong, or horn on your bike.
  • People who ride bicycles are not obligated to use bike lanes or pathways, and are entitled to cycle on all roads in Ottawa except the Transitway, Highways 416, 417 and Regional Road 174 (to OrlĂ©ans). Bicycles are considered vehicles under the Highway Traffic Act, so treat them as you would any other vehicle on the road.
That last one is my favourite of all.


  1. My wife and I were stopped last night by a police officer and fined for no front light, although we had a flashing white light, rear reflectors and working bells. Would you agree that this is over-zealous? If so, should we contest the fine?

    Thanks for any advice.

  2. Glad I stumbled upon your blog, very interesting read as a fellow bike commuter. My ride is a short one but I live and work right in the downtown core, and even my 3km jaunt down Gladstone can get terrifying some days with our legendary bad drivers.

    To Kevin, while I agree that sounds over-zealous, it is the written law that bikes must have a front light when riding after sunset. I personally think the front light requirement is unfounded, as it is far more important to be seen by others. Commuter lights do very little to light the road ahead, and the fact that we almost always set them to flash turns it into a "don't hit me you wrong-way-driving imbecile" light.

    Rear lights and side reflectors though, I agree with 100% those are essential.