Category Archives: shared space

No rules?

Quite by chance, I encountered an advocate of “shared space” and had a conversation with him at the start of a ride I undertook to illustrate the concept. The advocate expressed that there are “no rules” in this kind of space, which is dominated by pedestrians. Do you agree?

Dr. Furth’s and his students’ plan for South Brookline

On March 14, 2011, I attended a meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. At that meeting, Dr. Peter Furth of Northeastern University, and some of his students, gave a presentation on proposals for street reconstruction and bikeways in the southern part of Brookline.

Proposed treatment for West Roxbury Parkway

Proposed replacement of two two-lane one-way roadways with shoulders by a narrowed two-way roadway without shoulders and an adjacent multi-use path; Newton Street (up the embankment at the left) to provide local access only.

Most of the streets in the project area are fine for reasonably competent adult and teen cyclists to share with motorists, though one street, Hammond Street, is much less so, with its heavy traffic, four narrow lanes and no shoulders. I do agree with a premise of the presentation, that bicycling conditions could be improved, but I suggest different treatments, such as conversion from four lanes to three, with a center turn lane which becomes a median at crosswalks, also freeing up room at the sides of the roadway for motorists to overtake bicyclists.

Please read through this introduction before looking through the photo album I have posted with images from the meeting presentation, and drawings which were taped up in the meeting room.

My Concerns with the Proposal

Generally, I am concerned with the hazards and delays — and in winter, complete lack of service — which the proposal introduces for bicyclists, and with the blockages and longer trips it introduces for motorists, resulting in delay and in increased fuel use and air pollution. Some specifics:

  • The proposed system of narrow two-lane streets and segregation of bicyclists onto parallel paths makes no provision for the foreseeable increasing diversity of vehicle types and speeds as fuel prices rise. This trend can only be managed efficiently and flexibly with streets that are wide enough to allow overtaking.
  • Proposed paths are on the opposite side of the street from most trip generators, and many movements would require bicyclists to travel in crosswalks, imposing delay, inconvenience and risk for bicycle travel on the proposed route and on others which cross it. Small children would not safely be able to use the proposed routes unless accompanied by an adult, same as at present.
  • The proposal would further degrade or eliminate bicycle access in winter, because of the proposed 22-foot roadway width, and because the proposed parallel paths could not be kept ice-free even if they are plowed.
  • Though intersections are key to maintaining traffic flow, the proposal puts forward an incomplete design for most intersections and no design for some of them.
  • The narrowed streets provide no accommodation for a vehicle which must stop while preparing to turn left into a driveway, or to make a delivery, or to pick up or discharge passengers, for bicyclists who must travel in the street to reach a destination on the side opposite the path, or for bicyclists who wish to travel faster than the path allows.
  • The proposal includes no discussion of improvements to public transportation, which would be key to reductions in congestion and fossil fuel use. There are no bus turnouts, although Clyde and Lee Streets are on an MBTA bus line, school buses use the streets in the project area, and additional bus routes are foreseeable.
  • The proposal includes a 12-foot-wide service road along Clyde and Lee Street, part of which is to carry two-way motor traffic along with bicycle and pedestrian traffic. At times of heavy use, 12 feet on the Minuteman Bikeway in Boston’s northwestern suburbs is inadequate with only pedestrian and bicycle traffic. 12 feet is not wide enough to allow one motor vehicle to pass another. Larger service vehicles (moving vans, garbage trucks etc.) could access parts of this service road only by backing in, or by driving up a curb and across landscaped areas. These vehicles would completely block other motorized traffic on the service road.
  • The proposal is expensive because it requires tearing up every one of the streets in order to narrow it, not only construction of a parallel path.

Confusion in the Presentation

There also was confusion in the presentation:

  • North is confused with south, or east with west in the captions to several photos. Due to the confusion, some photos show a path on the opposite side of the street from where the plan drawings place it.
  • Some items in the illustrations are out of proportion. In one illustration (the one near the top in this post), a two-lane arterial street is only 10 feet wide, based on the height of a Segway rider on an adjacent path, or else the Segway rider is 12 feet tall, riding a giant Segway.
  • Other details are inconsistent, for example, showing a sidewalk in a plan drawing, but no sidewalk in an image illustrating the same location.
  • There is confusion about location of some of the photos. Some cross-section drawings are shown without identification of the location in the plans. The location of one cross section is misidentified.
  • The proposal makes unsupportable claims about safety.

There also is an ethical issue: in their presentation, the students have appropriated a number of Google Street View images without attribution — a violation of copyright and of academic ethics. (Furth’s students also plagiarized photos from my own Web site for a different presentation, but I digress.)

Overview and Conclusions

The proposal generally attempts to make bicycle travel a safe option for children and for people who are new to bicycling. It fails to accomplish that, due to problems with access across streets to the proposed pathways. It also adds complication and delay for motorists and for the majority of existing and foreseeable bicycle users. It degrades and sometimes eliminates bicycling as an option in the winter months, and it pays no attention whatever to public transportation.

I have no objection to construction of a path in the parkland adjacent to the streets in the project area, but the proposal also works to enforce the use of the path by reducing the utility of the road network for bicyclists as well as for other users.

I do think that street improvements are desirable, and on one street (Hammond Street) a high priority to improve bicycling conditions, but these improvements can be achieved mostly through restriping, without the massive reconstruction, or rather, deconstruction, that has been proposed.  This narrowing the roadways is intended to increase greenspace, and also  apparently to reduce speeding, but the proposal goes way overboard in reducing capacity, convenience and flexibility. There are other options to reduce speeding, most notably enforcement and traffic-calming measures which affect speed without decreasing capacity.

The large multi-way rotary intersection of  Hammond, Lagrange and Newton Streets, West Roxbury Parkway and Hammond Pond Parkway is the one place where I consider reconstruction to be a high priority.

Education also is an essential element of any attempt to make bicycling safer and a more practical option.

Larger Contextual Issues

Long-run issues of energy cost and availability raise questions about the viability of sprawled suburbs whose residents are dependent on private motor-vehicle travel.

South Brookline is more fortunate. It is a medium-density residential area of single-family homes, only about 5 miles from the Boston city center and also only a few miles from the Route 128 corridor, a major employment concentrator. Schools, places of worship, parklands and shopping are closer than that. Bicycling can and should have a role here, but for many people and many trips, it is not an option, due to age, infirmity, distance, and the need to transport passengers and goods.

South Brookline could benefit from a comprehensive transportation plan, including strengthening of public-transportation options and maintaining arterial roads with capacity for varied existing,  foreseeable and unforeseen uses.

Developing such a plan requires skills, resources and time beyond what I can muster, and so I’ll not attempt that here.

Now, please move onto the photo album.

German town’s traffic plan: retrenchment, not radicalism

Parts of European cities have a modern streetscape, — Paris, due to Baron Haussmann‘s urban-renewal projects in the mid-19th century; many other cities, due to bombing in World War II and subsequent reconstruction.

But ancient, narrow streets without sidewalks are very common in European cities and towns. As an example, in 1989 during a bicycle tour in France, my wife and I walked east from the central plaza of the provincial town of Loches along a main street to attend a historical lecture. We had to zigzag from one side of the street to the other to find narrow sidewalks on the way to the lecture at a public school in town.

In this light, let’s examine the removal of signs, signals and markings from part of the Bremer Straße, the main street of the German town of Bohmte, which has received heavy news coverage recently. North American news media generally express wonderment that such a radical and unusual plan could reduce the crash rate, as claimed. Consider the article by Craig Whitlock published in the Washington Post on Wednesday, December 26, 2007.

The headline reads:

“Europeans try to solve traffic woes by throwing out most road rules”

A quote from the article reads:

“Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,” said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. “When they’re confused, they’ll be more alert and drive more carefully.”

The article also mentions an underlying, rather familiar reason for the town’s traffic problems: merchants didn’t want a bypass, because it would divert traffic away from their places of business.

But the headline, and the following quote, are off-base:

“Only two traffic rules remain. Drivers cannot go more than 30 mph, the German speed limit for city driving. And everyone has to yield to the right, regardless of whether it’s a car, a bike or a baby carriage.”

The reported speed limit is incorrect — it’s actually 30 km/h, about 19 mph, a common speed limit for low-traffic residential streets in Europe. And the posted speed limit is not the only speed limit, in Bohmte or anywhere. There’s also the fundamental speed limit rule — to drive no faster than is reasonable under the existing conditions.

The article’s statement about yielding to the right could mean either of two things, both of which apply: drive on the right, and yield to a vehicle entering from the right — the universal rule for uncontrolled intersections.

So, removing signs and signals emphatically does not remove road rules. It only imposes different rules.

Confusion may increase for readers of the article! But on the Bremer Straße, uncertainty, rather than confusion, has been increased by the removal of signs, signals and markings.

(I thank Don Cook of the City of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for making this distinction!).

To get some perspective on the situation, you may view a Google map of Bohmte, though the section of the Bremer Straße with its special red-colored pavement doesn’t show up yet in the images posted in February, 2008. Some crosswalks are shown with red pavement — a usual color in Germany to identify zones where drivers pay special attention (another rule!).

Uncontrolled intersections are very common in European cities and towns, stop signs less common than in North America. European drivers understand that the vehicle on the right has priority when two vehicles arrive at an uncontrolled intersection at the same time — also, that an intersection with restricted sight lines requires slow, careful driving. And it is always necessary to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists.

So, the main street of Bohmte has merely been reduced to the status of many other streets. Without the signs, signals, markings and sidewalks, slow and careful driving is necessary, as on many other European urban streets.

This approach also increases safety as long as everyone travels slowly enough to avoid collisions. But if used to excess or inappropriately, this approach defeats the major advantage of bicycling or motorized travel. If a street is too narrow for motor vehicles to overtake bicycles, motor vehicles must go as slowly as bicycles. And if pedestrian space is not defined and available, bicycle traffic as well as motor traffic must slow to walking speed.

Then, fuel economy decreases, while travel time and pollution increase. On a street used mostly for local trips, a mode shift to bicycling and walking may follow as motoring becomes less convenient. On an unavoidable through route, there will be a a “bottleneck” — a reduction in speed but not in volume of the through traffic. — Bohmte being one example; another, in North America, is Burlington, Ontario before the high bridge was constructed –see Google map of Burlington.

European drivers generally understand uncontrolled intersections. Americans, not so much. The first intersection down the street from my house on a dead end in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA is an uncontrolled intersection. Most neighbors understand that they need to be prepared to yield, but some assume that if they don’t see signs or signals, drivers in the cross street will yield to them. There was a nasty collision a few years back when two vehicles entered this intersection at right angles, both traveling around 30 mph.

A common response to such an incident in the USA is to post stop signs or signalize the intersection, further increasing drivers’ expectation that they can rely on signs and signals. Old-school traffic engineers resist this trend, but politics often overrides their advice.

The real confusion in the Bohmte situation is in the minds of advocates of urban reform. The removal of signs, signals, markings and sidewalks is diametrically opposite the common approach which installs all of these — and bike lanes too — but advocates of urban reform get excited about both.

Why? Both approaches are seen as ways to reduce the dominance of motor vehicles in the urban landscape. While streets shared with congestion-free, slow motor traffic work well for bicyclists, shared streets all too often reflect a vision primarily from the point of view of pedestrian advocacy, which neglects the different needs of bicyclists. I have seen too many advocates for traffic calming assume that plazas and sidewalk-less streets crowded with pedestrians make good bicycle routes. They most certainly don’t, and so bicyclists deserve to take a good hard look at the unintended consequences when such measures are proposed!