This article critiques a proposed treatment for Michigan Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis is one of four cities which have been targeted for grants by the advocacy organization PeopleforBikes — whose financial support and agenda, let it be clear, and despite its name, are from the bicycle industry.
It’s only fair for me to criticize if I can suggest a better alternative. But first let’s look at existing conditions on Michigan Street
Michigan Street approaching Keystone Street in front of the Thomas Gregg Elementary School is shown in the Google Street View below, from July, 2011.
Michigan at Keystone, October 2011
Michigan Street presently has a bike lane, visible behind the car in the Street View image. (The car is straddling the bike lane, having given the Google camera car a wide clearance when passing on the right.) The door zone placement of the bike lane creates hazards which reinforce the impression among uninformed people that the government has done the best it could, short of constructing a sidewalk-type bikeway. There are cars parked adjacent to the bike lane in the next block.
Other Street Views show a small number of cars parked on both sides up and down the street. An earlier Street View, from July 2009, shows how the leftmost lane was narrowed and the other lanes were shifted over to make room for the bike lane on the right. You can see the lane lines which were blacked out.
Michigan at Keystone in 2009
The left lane was already used for parking before it was narrowed, but now its narrowness, along with the parking, makes it hardly useable for travel.
Taking a larger look at the neighborhood (see Google map) —
Google Map of East Indianapolis
Michigan Street is half of a one-way pair, with New York Street, a block to the south. These are arterial routes in and out of the city center, which is to the west. Traffic is very light in Street View images, but it must be heavier during the morning and evening rush hours. The long north-south blocks make wrong-way local bicycle travel on these one-way streets tempting. There is a bike lane on the right, intended for one-way travel.
What, in my opinion, is the best which could be done here to provide for local bicycle travel in both directions?
Let me suggest that making the leftmost lane of each of these streets into a contraflow bikeway would provide for two-way bicycle traffic, with the low stress which would be attractive to novice and casual bicyclists, while maintaining a normal and expected pattern of traffic movements: the streets would be one-way for motorists and two-way for bicyclists.
This would remove parking on one side of the street, but is parking an issue here? Because the blocks are long from north to south but short from east to west, there are many more available parking spaces on the north-south streets than on Michigan Street and New York Street. The small number of parked vehicles on Michigan Street in the Google Street views suggests that removal of parking on one side of the street would not result in parking overflow. Even for deliveries, the blocks are so short that parking around the corner on a north-south street would not be a much of a hardship.
There is still a concern with this idea, that some bicyclists would ride opposite the flow of traffic in the contraflow bike lane. That issue can be addressed by also having a with-flow bike lane on the left side. Then bicycle traffic adjacent to the motor traffic is traveling in the same direction, and the opposite-direction bicycle traffic is closer to the curb, conforming to the normal traffic pattern and expectations. Here’s an example of this type of treatment, from Fresh Pond Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
This is a treatment approved for the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the national standard reference. In the standards-setting document describing contraflow bicycle lanes, note the wording:
Where used, a contraflow bicycle lane should be marked such that bicyclists in the contraflow lane travel on their right-hand side of the road in accordance with normal rules of the road, with opposing traffic on the left…
A bicycle lane for travel in the same direction as the general purpose lanes may be placed on the left hand side of the general purpose lanes.
Appropriate use of short median strips before intersections could direct motorists to merge into the with-flow bike lane before turning left, but prevent them from merging into the contraflow bike lane, and with minimal impediment to plowing..
There is adequate width on both Michigan Street and New York Street to install this treatment, while still having two through travel lanes, as well as parking and bus stops on the side without bicycle lanes.
I’m not saying that this treatment is ideal. There are still issues with motorists turning across the bikeway and entering form side streets. However, the normal and expected pattern is maintained, with traffic keeping to the right. The one-way street becomes a two-way street, except that only bicycle traffic may travel in one of the two directions.
It might be desirable to reverse the one-way pattern if more trip endpoints and connecting routes are on the side of the street which would be opposite the bicycle lanes, and to place the morning rush-hour traffic on New York Street to get it away from the elementary school.
Now let’s see what PeopleforBikes is promoting.
Photoshop drawing of proposed Indianapolis bikeway
The article which includes the Photoshopped illustration above makes the following statement:
Leaders with the national organization People for Bikes said protected bike lanes are like “sidewalks for bikes” and Indianapolis needs more of them.
It’s hard enough to overcome people’s false sense of security about bicycling on sidewalks without having to fight the bicycle industry’s Astroturf advocacy organization!
The statement, and the soothing but inaccurate term “protected bike lane”, take advantage of the incorrect and often fatal misconception by casual cyclists and parents that sidewalks are safe places for bicycling. Decades of research show that bicycling on sidewalks produces a crash rate higher than on streets, and also show that barrier-separated on-street bikeways are appropriate, preferable and reasonably safe only under a limited range of conditions and with the application of strict design standards which make them very different from sidewalks. In spite of all this, barrier-separated on-street bikeways are by and large the only thing which PeopleforBikes promotes. And here, it’s promoting them by ringing the bell of the public’s fondness for sidewalk cycling.
But, to get down to specifics, how realistic is the PeopleforBikes promotion? To what extent does it reflect applicable and appropriate standards?
Let’s look at the reality factor with the image in general.
Below is a comparison of the Google Street View from October, 2011 with
PeopleForBikes’ image. You may click on it to enlarge it and get a clearer view.
Google Street View of Michigan at Keystone compared with PeopleforBikes Photoshopped image
The school building at the right side is identical, but the other elements of the original image have been enlarged to shift them forward: the traffic signal and utility pole, buildings on both sides of the street, even the clouds in the sky. The burned-out building on the left is now out of the picture. The worn pavement and faded lane lines of the street have been replaced with a smooth, clean, constant color.
The original Street View shows a blighted neighborhood, heartbreak of the American heartland. and if you open up Street View and look around, you’ll see a number of buildings with boarded-up windows. In the Photoshopped image, the neighborhood is nicely spruced up.
Changing the ambiance creates an air of optimism and helps to sell the bikeway, but on the other hand, the Photoshopped realignment of the streetscape makes this into a fantasy image, not a depiction of any possible future reality.
Now let’s examine the street layout.
PeopleforBikes has placed the street segment which goes off to the left outside the Photoshopped image. The crosswalk in the foreground appears to be in mid-block, unless you notice the traffic signal mysteriously hanging in a tree at the right, its supporting post outside the picture.
Another look at the PeopleforBikes image
The image below is a composite, with a part of the Photoshopped image (area with darker pavement) pasted over the unaltered one, and showing the changes in lane widths. The car at the right is the real one from the unaltered image, and the more distant car is Photoshopped.
PeopleforBikes The artist
A comparison where the enlarged parts of the image are matched
The next comparison reveals some issues with dimensioning. I have brought the image of the car in the Photoshopped drawing forward and enlarged it in proportion to the lane width to compare it with the real car. The Photoshopped car is way too big. Also, I have drawn a red line extending forward from the curb line in the next block. That curb line leaves too little width for the right-hand lane — already very narrow — to continue. Assuming that the travel lane in the Street View image is the usual 12 feet wide,
PeopleforBikes The artist has reduced it to approximately 9 feet in the nearest block and to 4 feet in the next block — but without any indication that drivers must merge. Because the left lane is used for parking, then only one lane remains usable for through travel.
Comparison of car sizes
Next, let’s look at the width of the bike lane and proposed separate bikeway.
The near-horizontal red line in the image below extends from one side of the street to the other along the edge of a crosswalk. The other red lines which cross it define the boundaries of travel lanes, a traffic island, the bikeway and the right-hand sidewalk.
If we assume that the right-hand and middle travel lanes in the unaltered image are the typical 12 feet wide and the sidewalk is 5 feet wide, then the two-way bikeway is also about 5 feet wide. This is very tight even for a one-way bikeway. The minimum for a two-way bikeway according to AASHTO [American Association of State Highway and Tranportation Engineers] guidelines 10 feet, preferably with rideable shoulders, and 12 feet are recommended. A 5-foot-wide bikeway between the curb at the sidewalk on one side and a traffic island at the other guarantees congestion, head-on crashes and diversion falls at curbs. Small children and novice cyclists, especially, don’t have the skill or judgment to ride safely under such tight conditions.
But in addition, it might be asked what is the purpose of the 8-foot-wide traffic islands (wider yet in the next block), when the bikeway next to them is only 5 feet wide — and why a two-way bikeway has been placed on the right side — which is the wrong side — of a one-way street.
Finally, let’s look at the only street intersection visible in the Photoshopped image. It is in the deep background. The image below is blurry because it has been enlarged.
intersection in background of picture
Motorists turning right from Michigan Street must cross the bikeway, looking both right and left, and backing up traffic, and then also yielding to traffic on the sidewalk, likely blocking the bikeway. Motorists entering Michigan street must yield first to sidewalk traffic, then to traffic on the bikeway, blocking the sidewalk, and then to motor traffic, blocking the bikeway and possibly also the sidewalk. The white building on the corner hides motorists and bicyclists approaching from the right from each other — already the most hazardous conflict. The proposed solution to this problem is to paint the pavement in the conflict zone green.
In my proposal with bike lanes on the other side of the street, motorists would block the sidewalk when waiting but would cross both the contraflow and with-flow bike lanes in one move, as is usual when making left turns.
And, I might ask, how would this complicated layout be cleared of snow in winter?
Let me summarize: PeopleforBikes has
created a pretty picture which doesn’t reflect anything real or workable , a shameless propaganda effort reminiscent of old Soviet publications where images were altered to airbrush out people who had fallen out of favor. The design-by-Photoshop effort shows a profound lack of understanding of, or concern for, issues as fundamental as the necessary width of a general-purpose travel lane, or of a bikeway, or the hazards of wrong-way riding.