Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

April 20, 2017

Sheet of ice draws praise from bicycle advocates

Snowmelt drains across "protected" bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

Snowmelt drains across “protected” bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

OK, spring is around the corner, so I’m a bit late with this post. But the issue I describe here will occur every year, at least until global warming puts an end to snows or converts central Cambridge into an extension of Boston Harbor.

The headline of the February 17 Boston Globe article with this picture is “Snowbank becomes accidental hero for area cyclists”.

The shiny area in the bikeway is meltwater from said snowbank. When the temperature drops below freezing, the meltwater becomes a sheet of black ice. This problem is unavoidable with a street-level barrier-separated bikeway. I discussed it at length years ago in connection with the 9th Avenue bikeway in Manhattan, a bikeway which, on the other hand, I have some nice things to say about.

Neither Steve Annear, author of the article, nor anyone quoted in it, makes any mention of the black-ice problem.

From the article: “’I like this snowbank-protected cycle track,’ Ari Ofsevit, a local cyclist, said on Twitter.” Ari usually ranges widely, imaginatively and thoughtfully in discussing transportation improvements his blog. I usually agree with him, but not in this case.

The article cites Joe Barr, of the City of Cambridge:

Barr acknowledged that the snow mound separating the bike lane and the road has offered a sense of protection to cyclists, but he said it could also be masking damage to the base of the flexible posts.

“We won’t know that until we get some more melting. But it certainly looks good on the street,” he said.

And Richard Fries, Executive Director of Massbike, commented: “It’s great. It won’t last that much longer, but it does help to hammer into people’s heads [road] patterns and driving habits,” he said. “Because it’s there, it makes the existing bike lane more visible to drivers and more prominent.”

Segregation promotes a sense of entitlement on the part of the majority group –in this case, motorists. How do I explain to horn-honking motorists that I have to ride in “their” travel lane, now narrowed to make room for the barrier, to avoid crashing on a sheet of black ice?

Or for that matter, to progress at my usual 15 miles per hour so I’m not stuck behind a cluster of bicyclists who are traveling at 8 miles per hour?

Or to avoid being right-hooked and crushed under the back wheels by a right-turning truck at Douglass Street?

Or that the rear-end collisions that this installation protects against are vanishingly rare on urban streets?

Or that parallel Harvard Street, Green Street and Franklin Street would serve admirably as low-stress through bicycle routes, if the city made the right kind of improvements?

February 21, 2017

Black ice blindness

Snowmelt drains across "protected" bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

Snowmelt drains across “protected” bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

The photo is of a stretch of barrier-separated bikeway recently installed on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue between Sidney Street and Douglass Street in Cambridge. The headline of the February 17, 2017 Boston Globe article with this picture is “Snowbank becomes accidental hero for area cyclists”.

But — the shiny area in the bikeway is meltwater from said snowbank. When the temperature drops, the water freezes into a sheet of black ice. The usual drainage techniques don’t work here because, if you will excuse me for belaboring the obvious, the “hero barrier’ is uphill and water runs downhill. I discussed bikeway drainage issues in more detail recently in a post on another blog and years ago in connection with the 9th Avenue bikeway in Manhattan. Just to make it clear, I do have  nice things to say about other features of the 9th Avenue bikeway.

Neither Steve Annear, author of the Globe article, nor anyone quoted in it, makes any mention of the black-ice problem. They are all enthusiastic about the snow-barrier.

From the article: “I like this snowbank-protected cycle track,” Ari Ofsevit, a local cyclist, said on Twitter.

Ari is more than just a “local cyclist”. He widely, imaginatively and thoughtfully discusses transportation improvements his blog. I usually agree with him, except when he turns a blind eye to problems with barrier-separated on-street bikeways.

The article cites Joe Barr. Director of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation for the City of Cambridge:

Barr acknowledged that the snow mound separating the bike lane and the road has offered a sense of protection to cyclists, but he said it could also be masking damage to the base of the flexible posts.

“We won’t know that until we get some more melting. But it certainly looks good on the street,” he said.

And Richard Fries, Executive Director of the massachusretts Bicycle Coalition, commented:

It’s great. It won’t last that much longer, but it does help to hammer into people’s heads [road] patterns and driving habits,” he said. “Because it’s there, it makes the existing bike lane more visible to drivers and more prominent.

Segregation promotes a sense of entitlement on the part of the majority group –in this case, motorists. How do I explain to horn-honking motorists that I have to ride my bicycle in “their” travel lane, now narrowed to make room for the barrier, to avoid crashing on a sheet of black ice?

Or for that matter, to travel at my usual 15 miles per hour so I’m not stuck behind a cluster of bicyclists who are traveling at 8 miles per hour?

Or to avoid being right-hooked and crushed under the back wheels by a right-turning truck where the bikeway ends at Douglass Street?

Just asking.

March 31, 2015

Web page includes two videos of Cambridge bicycle infrastructure

Please check out this Web page,with two of four videos illustrating exciting new developments in Cambridge bicycle infrastructure. Can you identify the locations?

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

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February 21, 2015

Plowing, or sweeping under the rug?

The photo of the Western Avenue bikeway with this post has been making the rounds in bicycling advocacy circules, accompanied with praise for Cambridge’s plowing it.

You can praise the plowing all you like, but in terms of safety, it amounts to window dressing, distracting from problems which would not exist except for the segregated bikeway: with the snowbanks, bicyclists and motorists are both going to have to come nearly to a complete stop at every crossing to see each other in time to avoid collisions. Streets, on the other hand, even narrowed by snow, are wide enough that the cyclists can ride away from the edge, and motorists can poke out far enough to see approaching traffic without the risk of collisions.

The bikeway is also too narrow for one bicyclist safely to overtake another. The street is wide enough for anyone — bicyclist or motorist — to overtake a bicyclist, though maybe not always wide enough for one motorist to overtake another, what with the snow. It is narrower too because of the space that was taken out of it for the bikeway. The street also most likely is clear down to pavement within a day or two after a snowfall, and it is crowned so meltwater drains to the curbs. The bikeway is going to be a sheet of ice if there are thaw/freeze cycles, unless there is a very heavy application of road salt.

Bicycling is already difficult enough in winter without the added difficulties and hazards imposed by this bikeway.

western_avenue_winter

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June 24, 2014

Starts and Stops, mostly stops

I’m commenting on the “Starts and Stops” article which appeared in the Boston Globe on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

That’s behind a paywall. You may need to log in as a Globe subscriber to see it. (I’m one, but if I recall correctly, there’s a limited number of views till the paywall descends). You can also log in from home in the Boston area using a library card number.

The Globe article describes a bicycle-specific traffic signal on Western Avenue and makes the claim:

The Western Avenue signal is timed so that cyclists get a green light a few moments before their vehicular counterparts headed toward Memorial Drive; that way, cyclists have several seconds of a head start to get out ahead of the cars and become more visible to motorists, especially motorists turning right who may not think to look for cyclists approaching on their right side.

That only works if bicyclists happen to be waiting when the light changes. Otherwise, according to the description in the article, there is a right-hook conflict, with motor vehicles turning right across the path of bicyclists approaching in their right rear blindspot. I haven’t checked out the installation yet; I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more detail.

The article goes on to say:

Additionally, signals like this one address one of the biggest gripes motorists have with bike riders: that they’re constantly running red lights. For cyclists, there can be no confusion whether they’re expected to stop at a red light when that light shows a little bicycle. Many engineers believe that when cyclists are assured that a traffic light is targeted at them and designed to protect their safety, they’re much more likely to wait for their rightful turn to proceed through the intersection.

Here’s the photo which the Globe posted with the article.

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

Wishful thinking. Normal traffic lights also apply to bicyclists. Do we need our own very special, and eexpensive, signal just so we will feel pampered? The traffic light shown in the photo, by the way, isn’t at Memorial Drive. It is at Putnam Avenue, a block earlier. Because the photo doesn’t show the installation which the article describes, I’m not entirely clear about the details.

It was previously possible for bicyclists to approach Memorial Drive in the through lane and enter on the normal green light — or sensibly, though in violation of the specifics of traffic law, at the left side of a right-turn lane lane, and also enter on the normal green. Now, bicyclists and right-turning motorists are, at least as described in the article, forced into a right-hook conflict.

Please, who are the unattributed “many engineers”? Opportunistic bicyclists and pedestrians, motorists too — commit traffic-signal violations because they get annoyed with waiting. Compliance improves if a traffic-light system is designed to minimize waiting time. This one doesn’t, and right-hook conflicts don’t protect anyone’s safety.

I am about to attend the summer meeting of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), where I sit on its Bicycle Technical Committee. Two proposals currently before the Committee, in experimental status, are special bicycle traffic signals, and right-turn lanes with a bicycle lane inside their left side. I would have hoped that Cambridge had submitted a formal Request to Experiment from Cambridge for either of these proposals — which would add to the knowledge base, and confer immunity from legal liability — but I’ve seen none. I should have. The Federal Highway Administration calls on the NCUTCD to review them.

Oh, and also — in the Globe’s photo, it looks as though a car is sitting in the bikeway.

More to come.

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April 16, 2014

About Bicycling on Hampshire Street

I have posted a video I shot on Hampshire Street in Cambridge during an organized group ride, in the middle of the day on a weekday.

This blog doesn’t llet me embed the video in the page, soclick on the link underneath, then the little four-way arrow under the image to view the video in glorious full-screen high definition.

Is This Two-Lane Street Wide Enough? from John Allen on Vimeo.

The stretch of Hampshire Street in the video was the subject of a study conducted by the City of Cambridge about the effect of various lane stripings on cyclist behavior, a study which I have reviewed. The study concluded that bike lane striping led bicyclists to ride safely, farther from parked cars. My review showed that statement to be inaccurate, due to misrepresentation of bicyclists’ distance from the parked cars. The “safe” line of travel was still deeply in the door zone. Another reviewer, Wayne Pein, has reached the same conclusion.

My video shows cyclists riding too close to parked cars, consistent with the study once the numbers have been corrected — all the more distressingly because most of the cyclists in the video are middle-aged or older and have years of experience. For the most part, however, their experience has been in rural areas and outer suburbs rather than in the city.

I think that it is fair to ask:

  • whether the striping of the street with bike lanes benefits bicyclists — or motorists, by getting bicyclists out of the way — or not motorists, because of the resulting conflicts at intersections bring motor traffic to a complete stop rather than only down to bicycle speed;
  • whether the parallel parking on both sides of this important through street — at all hours, even during the day when it is only half-occupied — is an appropriate use of public space — though, as I say in the video, the people who live here vote here. Another potential solution would be to narrow each sidewalk by a couple of feet…but that would require more construction work.
  • whether these cyclists understand how to ride as safely and cooperatively as possible on such a street (NOT!).

My video also bears on the proposed reconstruction of Beacon street, in Somerville. Beacon Street is the extension of Hampshire street, and has the same profile and character. There have been different suggestions for Beacon Street, including widening it to make better bike lanes; removing parking on one side; and construction of a “cycle track” — separate bikeway — on one side, between parked cars and the sidewalk, and on the other side, actually a bike lane behind a sloping curb which is supposed to be mountable by bicycles. A post on the BostonBiker blog offers my comments on Beacon street.

[Note: I have a shorter blog post about Hampshire Street on bostonbiker.org. Hampshire Street and the City’s study are a Cambridge issue, not only a bicycle issue. I have posted in both forums because they serve different audiences.]

December 16, 2013

Update on the Copenhagen Wheel

In a post in this blog from 2011, I reported on a product under development at the MIT Senseable Cities Laboratory, the Copenhagen Wheel. It provides an electrical power assist to a bicyclist.

The motor and batteries are contained entirely in the rear wheel. The Wheel can be controlled through a Bluetooth connection from a smartphone on the handlebar, so there is no need for wiring. Various smartphone apps can report on speed, distance, state of battery charge, exposure to air pollution etc.

Copenhagen Wwheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

Clip from Copenhagen Wheel promotional video shows bicyclists riding in the door zone

I had a serious concern  in 2011, that the Wheel was designed to switch from motor mode to generator mode at 12 mph. In other words, if you tried to go faster, you couldn’t: it would feel as if you were pulling a huge trailer. 12 mph is slower than many bicyclists would usually ride and could be hazardous if there is a need to sprint across an intersection before the traffic signal changes, to outrun a chasing dog, etc.

Development of the Wheel has continued, and readers deserve an update. The Wheel is now going into a production, licensed to a company called Superpedestrian. Maximum power is now 250 watts, top speed 15 mph in Europe; power 350 watts, top speed 20 mph in the USA — reflecting legal limits. (15 mph, though, is still much lower than a desirable sprinting speed, and many bicyclists can easily sprint at more than 25 mph.) Pedal power is proportional to torque (whether cadence-sensing, I don’t know — torque sensing alone would favor slow cadence and hard pushing. There is a derailleur option which alters the relationship between pedaling torque and torque at the wheel, so this becomes a more serious issue.) Some technical specs are online on the manufacturer’ site.

Placing the entire power unit in the wheel makes retrofitting to an existing bicycle easy, but my friend Osman Isvan, who studies electrically assisted bicycle technology, questions the Wheel concept, or any electric motor in the wheel. He says that a mid-drive system with a small, high-speed motor powering through a reduction drive to the crankset is better, because then the motor can be lighter and more efficient. In case you would like to get technical, Osman has an article, “Power Optimization for the Propulsion of Lightweight Vehicles,” where he addresses this issue, among others. The Wheel’s motor may in fact use a gear reduction drive, unlike most in-wheel motors, though it almost certainly doesn’t benefit from the ability to maintain nearly constant motor speed with the motor (like the cyclist’s feet) ahead of derailleur gearing or an internal-gear rear hub.

One thing that really caught my eye was the disconnect from safe bicycling practice in the company’s promotional video.

The first photo (above) in this article is from the video and shows bicyclists riding in the door zone of parked cars, at speed. That occurs in the video at 0:45 and 1:45.

At at 0:21 and again at 1:39, the Wheel is demonstrated by a bicyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and where a parked car could pull out, but the next parked vehicle hides the bicyclist from the driver, who is on the curb side.

Bicyclist riding wrong way in copenhagen Wheel promotional video

Bicyclist riding wrong way in Copenhagen Wheel promotional video

There’s this shot of unsecured baggage including a (virtual?) electric guitar which hangs way out past the end of the handlebar — a large virtual amplifier is on the rear rack.

Unsecured baggage..

Unsecured baggage..

And then there’s this shot of a man illegally carrying a (fortunately virtual) small child on his shoulders, and another child sitting facing backwards sitting crosslegged on some kind of platform. The law more or less everywhere in the USA says that children are to be carried only in seats designed for the purpose. Massachusetts law says that the children must wear helmets. Anyone familiar with Our Fair City will know that this clip, like many in the video, was shot on our own Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path.

Illegal if the kids weren't virtual...

Illegal if the kids weren’t virtual…

This carelessness in promotion sets me to musing about what we have ahead of us as the increased speed potential (even if only 20 mph) of electrically-assisted bicycles collides with the kind of underdesigned bicycle facilities — essentially sidewalks — which Cambridge is building — a trend now spreading to Somerville and Boston. We’re not talking superpedestrians here, we’re talking bionically enhanced — but not skills-enhanced — bicyclists on bikeways which could only be safe at pedestrian speeds.

Allow me to predict that over the next decade, the products of bikeway visionaries and bicycle technology visionaries are going to come together in some rather interesting but also disturbing ways!

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October 6, 2013

Cambridge at cross purposes about traffic

Readers of the newsletter of the Belmont Citizens Forum will find much news there about neighboring North Cambridge. Editor Meg Muckenhoupt’s lead story in the September-October 2013 issue is about major, new housing developments planned for the part of Cambridge west of Alewife Brook Parkway and north of Fresh Pond Park. The article expresses concerns with traffic which is already approaching gridlock and affecting access to the Alewife T station.

Quoting from the story:

The decision document issued by Cambridge’s Planning Board for the 398-unit 160 Cambridgepark Drive, which is predicted to cause 1,324 new trips, states, “The project is expected to have minimal impact on traffic and will not cause congestion, hazard, or substantial change to the established neighborhood character.” Ominously, the decision continues: “It is also noted that the traffic generated by the project is anticipated to be less than that associated with the office/research and development project on 150, 180 and 180R Cambridgepark Drive for which entitlements currently exist under a previously granted special permit.” In short, if the city of Cambridge accepted a potential increase in traffic for a special permit in the past, the city should accept that increase in traffic for all future permits—no matter how much the population has increased in the meantime.

[…]

Concord Avenue and the Alewife Brook Parkway rotary won’t escape traffic woes. Cambridge’s 2005 Concord Alewife Plan included a “critical movement analysis” of the area. Critical movements are conflicting traffic movements. They are the times when vehicles block each other from moving, such as when a car turns left and crosses a lane of oncoming traffic. The Concord Alewife Plan reports that for the area roughly bounded by the Route 2/Route 16 intersection, the Alewife Brook Parkway, and Concord Avenue, service starts to deteriorate when a roadway reaches the “critical sum” of 1,500 vehicles per hour, or 1,800 vehicles per hour for rotaries. Below those numbers, and most motorists can get through an intersection in two or fewer light cycles. Above those thresholds, you’ll wait at that light a long time. As of 2005, the Concord/Route 2 rotary was already operating at 1,880 critical interactions—80 above the threshold—with a total traffic volume of 4,300 trips per day, while Concord Avenue at Blanchard Road had already reached 1,400 “critical sums” per hour, with 2,460 trips per day.

The report also predicted vehicle trips per day for 2024 for the area after Cambridge’s rezoning (which Cambridge enacted in June 2006.) The permitted 70 Fawcett Street development, which will be located between these two intersections, by itself promises to add enough vehicle trips to reach the predicted 2024 buildout trip level by 2014—and there’s plenty more space for apartments and garages alongside between the Concord Avenue rotary and Blanchard Road.

Also:

Of course, some of these buildings’ residents will take the T to work—if they can fit on the T…The Red Line is already “congested” and running at capacity, according to a June 2012 study by the Urban Land Institute titled Hub and Spoke: Core Transit Congestion and the Future of Transit and Development in Greater Boston.

So, Cambridge publishes a plan for the Alewife area which reports that traffic congestion is already a problem, but then it permits several large housing developments which will worsen it. The Belmont Citizens Forum article does report that design study has been funded for a new bridge over the commuter rail tracks west of Alewife Station, connecting it with Concord Avenue. That will relieve some congestion near the Alewife Brook Parkway/Concord Avenue rotary but will have little effect elsewhere. And this is still only a design study.

As a bicycling advocate and repeated critic of Cambridge’s treatment on Concord Avenue — see summary of my comments here — I have found another major inconsistency with the 2005 Concord-Alewife Plan: the recent reconstruction of Concord Avenue so as to maximize the number of conflicts between bicyclists and motorists. The new traffic signal just west of the Concord Avenue/Alewife Brook Parkway rotary backs up traffic into the rotary whenever a bicyclist or pedestrian actuates the signal to cross. The westbound sidewalk bikeway installed on the north side of Concord Avenue crosses a driveway or street on average once every 100 feet, requiring motorists to stop in the only westbound travel lane, blocking traffic, to yield to bicyclists overtaking on their right. Buses traveling both ways on Concord Avenue must stop in the travel lane, where their doors open directly into the bikeway. The conflicting turn movements between motorists and bicyclists, and bus passengers discharged onto the the bikeway, pose serious safety concerns too.

In previous posts on this blog and elsewhere, I recommended a two-way bikeway on the south side of Concord Avenue next to Fresh Pond Park, where there is only one signalized intersection, and maintenance of the previous roadway width and bike lanes.

The 2005 Concord-Alewife Plan contains no mention of the Concord Avenue bikeway — see recommendations for Concord Avenue on page 80 of the report. The plan therefore does not account for the congestion caused by the bikeway, on which construction began only 4 years later.

The overall impression I get is that Cambridge’s planning is disorganized, but also, Cambridge’s bicycle planning occurs in a fantasyland where the well-known conflict situations which cause crashes are greeted with a claim that the goal is to make bicycling more attractive, then, poof, when there are more bicyclists, by magic, bicycling will become safer. I call this the “Pied Piper” approach to bicycle planning. Well, actually, Cambridge is reporting a steady level of bicycle crashes in spite of an increasing volume of bicycle traffic. Some decrease in risk with increasing volume occurs with any mode of transportation as its users gain longer experience. The issue I have is with using this as an excuse for wishful thinking and crap design, and writing off the victims of preventable crashes as expendable. Cambridge has had some gruesome preventable crashes, and has intersections with the highest volumes of bicycle crashes anywhere in Massachusetts.

Another overall impression which I can’t shake is that Cambridge is very selective about reducing traffic congestion. The Concord Avenue project; the residential developments planned for the Alewife area; the Western Avenue roadway narrowing and sidewalk bikeway; and the proposed bikeways along Binney Street increase congestion at the portals to the city. It all strikes me as rather desperate and underhanded way to decrease congestion in the core of the city, but there you have it, as it appears to me.

[Added paragraphs, October 7, 7:40 AM] Residential development close to the urban core is certainly preferable to sprawling suburbs to minimize environmental impacts and traffic congestion, but resolving the traffic problems in the Alewife area would require major investments to increase Red Line and bus service, and disincentives (read: high cost) for single-occupant motor vehicle travel. The public resists all of these. If there is a logic to the City’s approach to these challenges, it is to break down resistance by making the problems so pressing that the pain becomes intolerable.

Bicycling and walking can make some contribution, but the plans for the new housing developments describe it as small. Quoting again:

To be fair, the developers of these various projects are attempting to make car-free commuting more attractive to their residents. Several of these buildings have extensive bicycle-parking facilities, including the Faces site and 160 Cambridgepark Drive. But the city of Cambridge doesn’t anticipate that those bicycles will get much use. For 398-unit 160 Cambridgepark Drive, for example, the city estimates the residents will make 1,324 daily car trips, and 202 pedestrian trips, but just 98 journeys by bike.

Most of the traffic in the area in any case is to or from more distant locations, or is passing through. Bicycling and walking may serve as feeder modes for these longer trips but don’t compete well with motorized modes to cover the distance.

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