Back to normal: of U-turns and signalling

There are currently many fundamental and critically important debates occurring, focussed on systemic racism, police training and how to spend public money to make cities, towns and rural areas safer and fairer for everyone. The inequalities brought to light by the Covid 19 crisis – inequalities between different types of worker, between neighbourhoods, between people with different housing conditions (all of which also have ethnic, gender, age, mobility and other dimensions) – are terrible and need to be dealt with immediately, but also over the longer term.

These inequalities are not new. They have been extensively researched, reported upon, denounced and peered at by committees: action is needed, not more words. There is an almost infinite amount of opinion pieces, blogs and reports on these topics, and at present I cannot usefully contribute to the debate.

My observations therefore focus on smaller aspects of life: such as, for instance, the massive return of cars to the roads over the last few weeks. Indeed, for a short period in March and April 2020 there was noticeably less traffic on Montreal roads. Cycling was a little more relaxed – only a little, mind you, because pedestrians had taken over streets, which is great, but which is dangerous for cyclists. Pedestrians move about space erratically: they do not have a trajectory, but rather can change directions from one step to the next. My wrist was broken last September when a pedestrian stepped into a cycling path without looking (I happened to be about 2 m away from the space she stepped into, moving in her direction).

But cars are now back. Even if most cars behave fairly predictably (i.e. they follow a given trajectory, they occupy the middle of each lane, they give slightly more warning before rolling onto cycle paths), Montreal drivers have two bad habits (amongst others) that I have not noticed elsewhere.

First, they rarely indicate before turning left or right. So, for instance, when I ride up to a junction on my bike, I cannot tell whether to filter to the left or to the right of the car stopped in front of me, or whether to stay behind it : since indicating is optional, one cannot tell in which direction the car will take off If indeed it does: when drivers are on their cell phone with a mere bike behind, they just stay put).

This bad habit exacerbates the second one: that of performing illegal U-turns, such as the one that killed Clément Ouimet on Mount Royal, and that I still regularly witness when I cycle up Camilien-Houde.

A few days ago I was nearly run-over on Edouard Montpetit when a car pulled over into the bike lane (without indicating). Naturally, I pulled out to overtake on the left: little did I know that the driver was about to make a U-turn. I spotted the move a fraction of a second before collision, swerved, and would have hit the car had the driver not, half-way through his turn, slammed on the brakes. Of course, the driver had neither indicated as he pulled in, right, to the bike lane, nor indicated as he swerved, left, into his U-turn.

The joys of deconfinement! Instead of dodging carefree pedestrians wandering across the road I am back to trying to survive Montreal traffic.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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