Here are some photos of Massachusetts Route 117 at the diagonal crossing of the Fitchburg Line railroad tracks, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA.
The location, in Google Maps:
Google Street View photo, looking west, from approximately 2008. Note that the sidewalk goes to the right of both utility poles, the one in the foreground and the one in the background.
Photo taken by Jacob Allen, July 17, 2011. There is a new sign, there is a curbed median, and the sidewalk has been realigned so the more distant utility pole is now in its middle:
The next photo looks east. The sidewalk crosses the tracks diagonally. It might in fact be used as a turnout so a bicyclist traveling on the roadway could cross at a right angle, but that would require the willingness to defy the sign and ride in the narrowed roadway. There is no such option for eastbound bicyclists, who would have to cross the roadway twice to use the sidewalk. There is a crossing-signal pole in the sidewalk, not only the utility pole.
I understand that the median was installed to prevent motorists from crossing to the left side of the road to avoid having to wait when the crossing gates are down. The median’s stealing width from the travel lanes is shown more clearly in the photo below. There is no longer sufficient width for typical motor vehicles to overtake bicyclists safely:
A brief history:
- Thousands of years ago: Native Americans lay out paths through the forest.
- 1600s: Colonists expand paths into wagon roads.
- 1840s: Fitchburg rail line constructed. Henry David Thoreau laments it in Walden.
- 1920s or thereabouts: North Road in Lincoln is paved and designated as part of Massachusetts Route 117.
- Date unknown: Crossing gates installed at Route 117.
- 1973: Revision to the Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 85, Section 11B includes the following wording:
Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section…
Route 117 is by no stretch of the imagination a limited-access or express state highway.
- 1970s: Major roads in wealthy outer suburbs of Boston get sidewalks for free through state bicycle funding: the sidewalks are identified and signed as “bicycle paths” but they are 4 feet wide, and twist and turn around every tree and utility pole.
- 2006: Massachusetts Project Development and Design Guide is released, specifying bicycle accommodation on the roadway and not on sidewalks. The relevant description is in Chapter 5, see sections 5.2.2 and 18.104.22.168.
2010: Railroad crossing in Lincoln is reconstructed to:
- Repave the roadway.
- Add curbed median, reducing the available roadway width. This is what I call a “threat barrier” — it does not deflect vehicles but only leads drivers to shy away from it to avoid damage to their vehicles. This type of median is not described in the Project Development and Design Guide (see sections 5.6.2 and 5.6.3).
- Repave the sidewalk and realign it so there is a utility pole in the middle of it.
- Add regulatory sign unsupported by law, directing bicyclists to walk on the sidewalk.
Now let’s see what might have been done instead. The photo below is of a diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
The little turnout to the right allows bicyclists to cross the tracks at a right angle without having to merge into the travel lane to their left.
The following wording is in the Project Development and Design Guide, Chapter 6, Section 6.8.5. There could be a more detailed description, but the intention is clear, and in a project that involved reconstruction of the roadway, the opportunity certainly presented itself to do what Madison did:
The crossing should be wide enough to permit bicyclists to cross the tracks at right angles, while staying in their traffic lane.