Railroad crossout

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:


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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.

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

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:

Route 117 and Fitchburg rail line , July 17, 2011

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.

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

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:

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

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 5.3.2.2.
  • 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.

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

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.

7 Responses to Railroad crossout

  1. Pingback: Street Smarts » Blog Archive » Railroad crossout

  2. Pingback: Illegal Bicycle Instruction Road Signs | IsolateCyclist

  3. Additional thoughts:

    The “walk bikes” sign serves to incite motorists to anger with bicyclists who are riding on the roadway, and provides an excuse to blame bicyclists if they crash into the pole, which also is not reflectorized.

    But on the other hand, confusion reigns. What does “walk bicycles on sidewalk ahead” mean? “Ahead” signs generally provide advance notice of another sign, signal or marking ahead, as in “stop sign ahead.” Are bicyclists supposed to be allowed to ride on the sidewalk until they reach the tracks, then dismount? Or ride on the road until they reach the tracks, then divert to the sidewalk and dismount? There is no sign here actually indicating where bicyclists are supposed to get off and walk. The sign here wouldn’t be enforceable even if it were legal, because there is no indication of where it applies.

    Also, I’ve had another look since I wrote the post, and there is no “walk bikes” sign in the other direction. An oversight? A tacit recognition that ordering bicyclists to cross the roadway twice is even more bizarre than ordering them to use a sidewalk? There is no crossing gate for the sidewalk in the other direction either.

    The pole in the middle of the sidewalk is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (My friends who use wheelchairs have informed me that it is unfortunately not possible to get past with one wheel on the right side of the pole, and the other on the left…my friends who pull trailers with their bicycles, or push baby strollers, have described similar problems.)

  4. I was biking West on Great Road yesterday (March 17, 2012) at about 10:30 AM, heading to Drumlin Farm with a friend (riding ahead of me). As I was crossing these tracks I was nearly hit by a car coming up from behind. I was confused by the sign, followed my friend (who was riding wider tires) to the crossing, staying near to right of lane. When I saw the tracks were diagonal, I knew I should cross them at ~90 degrees. This of course sent me out toward the center of the lane. I didn’t realize a car had come up behind me in the narrow roadway near the intersection. They gave me the horn but were able to stop. No contact made, thankfully, but it was frighteningly close. I road slowly in the middle of the lane for a couple minutes to regain composure. The car stayed way back for a few minutes, even after I moved to the right, then passed, giving wide berth. Next time I’ll use the sidewalk or take the center of the lane well before the crossing. What do you recommend?

    • When diagonal tracks go from near left to far right, claim the lane in advance — checking for traffic, merging to the middle of the lane so vehicles will have to follow you, and making a slow signal. Then quickly turn right to prepare to cross the tracks, left to cross them, right and left again to reestablish your line of travel. You need to claim the lane in advance even if it is of normally sharable width, because you will be swerving left.

      If the tracks go from near right to far left, you will also be claiming the lane in advance, to have enough width to your right to turn right across the track.

      You could ride on the sidewalk at this crossing if you prefer — that is legal, and possible, except of course when it is covered with snow or debris. Under Massachusetts law, you do not have to walk on the sidewalk — the sign telling you to do that is unlawful — certainly in Lincoln, with its large number of sidewalks including this one which were originally intended as bike paths (back in the 1970s — when no standards for them existed: well, that’s another story…) The unlawful sign, the utlity pole in the middle of the sidewalk, its uselessness in snow season and the absence of any corresponding facility for the other direction of travel, indicate the level of thought that went into the design here.

      As shown in my Madison, Wisconsin photo, there are railroad crossings with turnouts so cyclists can cross tracks without having to swerve across a lane. These are not sidewalks, they are widened shoulders either before or after the track, depending on the angle of the crossing.

      • Thanks for your reply John. Yes, if I go this way again I’ll plan to take the lane well in advance or use the sidewalk. This really scared me, especially later in the day as I recalled it. As always, the materials you post online and your contributions to biking information and advocacy are unsurpassed and highly appreciated! /Joe

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