A Closer Look at the Momentum Photo

The cyclists in the photo below are riding through piles of leaves where they can’t see the road surface. The man has a shopping bag hanging from the handlebar where it can swing into the spokes of the front wheel. The shopping bag and possible hazards under the leaves carry the risk of a front-wheel-stopping crash, with the cyclist pivoting forward and landing on his head.

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

The photo appeared in Momentum Magazine, and was provided by the Green Lane Project, an organization funded by bicycle manufacturers and which promotes the construction of barrier-separated on-street bikeways. I commented on the photo in an earlier post, and said that I’d return to the topic, because I recognized the location. So, here I am.

It is 15th Street and T street in Washington, DC, USA. Here’s a Google Street View from a couple of years ago. Some different traffic signs have been installed since then, and yellow flex posts have replaced white ones, but the tree with white bark is unmistakable. The pinkish building in the background of both images is three blocks away, at W street.

Street furniture and trees identify the intersection as 15th and T Streets, Washington, DC.

Street furniture and trees identify the intersection as 15th and T Streets, Washington, DC.

The cyclists’ riding side by side gives the impression that the bikeway is one-way, but actually it is two-way, as the Street View photo shows. Leaves and trash cover the lane lines in the Green Lane photo.

What is it really like to ride this bikeway? In the video embedded below, my friend Keri Caffrey rides in the same direction as the cyclists in the Green Lane photo, also at a time of light traffic. Keri reaches T street at 1:11 in the video. She rides all the way down to H street, and obeys the traffic signals.

About half the time, she is waiting for the signals, and so her average travel speed is 4.5 miles per hour. Most of this street is one-way, the traffic lights are timed for traffic in the other direction, and cyclists have only a short interval to cross legally, because turning traffic has a dedicated signal phase. Nonetheless, Keri encounters some turning and crossing conflicts. Other cyclists in the video can’t be bothered to wait for the signals.

15th street southbound from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

Why are the leaves in the street? Washington, DC has information on leaf collection, instructing residents to place leaves in treeboxes (between sidewalk and curb) rather than in the street, and acknowledging problems with leaf pickup due to weather conditions.As the trees are at the curb, nearly half the leaves fall directly into the street. The sidewalk extends all the way to the curb and there is very little space around trees to store the leaves they drop. Without a barrier-separated bikeway, nobody would have to use space next to the curb as travel space.

The message of the Momentum Magazine article is “better biking,” and by implication, safe cycling even for children and novice cyclists, thanks to barrier-separated bikeways. One of the cyclists in the Green Lane Project photo is a young child, who, to be sure, wouldn’t be safe riding on streets with fast or heavy motor traffic. The other cyclist is an adult, but his choice to hang a bag over the handlebar speaks volumes about his skill level.

Or was that his own choice? Did the cyclists show up by chance — at such a low-traffic time, and near the end of the bikeway where traffic is lightest? Did the photographer lurk, waiting and waiting, holding a camera with a long telephoto lens, standing in the middle of the bikeway? A photographer could wait for hours before suitable subjects showed up.

I suspect strongly that the photo was staged, and the cyclists were recruited for the photo shoot. The Green Lane Project would than carry some responsibility for their actions, and not only for the choice of the photo.

As is typical of Green Lane Project work, the photo is carefully framed to, well, create an impression. It is said that the camera doesn’t lie, but on the other hand, perspective can play tricks. What looks like a continuous wall at the right side of the photo is actually a line of widely spaced flexible barrier posts, as is clear in the Street View image below, which also shows a treebox on the sidewalk. It is filled to the brim, though the photo was taken in midsummer.

15th and Swann Street, one block south of T Street.

15th and Swann Street, one block south of T Street.

The video of one of my own rides on this street is posted below. I am riding northbound — in the opposite direction of Keri’s ride in the earlier video — and Keri is behind me, shooting video with her helmet camera. At 3:37, a pedestrian walks out between flex posts into my path.  At 4:40, there’s a conflict with oncoming bicycle traffic. Both these situations required me to slow abruptly. There are several left-hook conflicts and a couple of oncoming right-cross threats.

We cross T street at 11:37 in the video. Total time from H street to V street was 14 minutes, 31 seconds for an average speed of 5.1 miles per hour. Waiting time was 5 minutes 21 seconds. The traffic light timing was more favorable, but this direction is slightly uphill. 15th Street Cycletrack at Rush Hour from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

While young children and novice cyclists aren’t safe on a busy street, it’s certainly fair to ask whether they are safe on this bikeway, considering that it wasn’t safe for me.

One more comment about the cyclists in the video: as I’ve made clear elsewhere, I strongly advocate helmet use, but I don’t promote mandatory helmet laws. Lacking near-universal acceptance of helmet use, such laws can do more harm than good, in my opinion. I give my reasons for that in another article.

On the other hand, as my good friend Sheldon Brown liked to say, a parent who puts a helmet on his child but doesn’t wear one himself is offering the example “do as I say, not as I do,” and unnecessarily risks leaving the child an orphan.

Finally: As I noted in my previous post, someone at Momentum Magazine deleted comments I left on its blog. The comments were as polite as these, but much shorter. The author of the Momentum Magazine article, Managing Editor Duncan Hurd, commented on my previous post, suggesting a dialog by e-mail. I  responded saying that I welcomed a dialog. The only more recent communication I have had from him is a second comment describing my observations as “concern trolling.”

My friend Khalil Spencer posted comments on the Momentum Magazine article later, and those too were deleted.  Khalil has posted on his own blog about that. His post makes good reading.

32 Responses to A Closer Look at the Momentum Photo

  1. Those low ave speeds make bicycling rather impractical for any kind of serious distance commuting. Five miles means one hour. I expect that doubles or triples more reasonable commute times that are possible using normal streets.

    Plus, as Keri’s video shows (I have not gotten to John’s yet), the risks of intersection crashes are not eliminated.

  2. I think it’s interesting that Momentum magazine has chosen to delete critical comments from a number of experts in the field of cycling safety regarding certain types of cycling infrastructure. I guess, when a cycling magazine would rather whitewash these issues, it tells us just how committed to the welfare of cyclists the magazine really is. I guess, to some magazine editors, selling bikes is a lot more important than keeping the people who buy them alive.

  3. Interesting to see how long a cyclist would wait for a signal change. For some reason, vimeo cuts the videos after 3min of viewing. So I cannot comment on the rest.
    Sorry to know that comments are silenced.

    I would like to ask about your view on responding to the claim that a cycle path helps parents with children to cycle. Are you saying that there is no such need, or that the pedestrian sidewalk fits that purpose, or that the street and other vehicles accommodate such. I am sure there is an answer in this wonderful blog!

  4. Oddly enough, bicycling has become a topic where ideological purity has taken on an important role. Admittedly, I’m closer to JF in a lot of things than to the PnP folks, but I find the amount of emotion folks focus on The Right Way To Think About Bicycling as almost as rigid and useless as the NRA vs. the gun abolitionists. People spend a lot of time talking past each other. Momentum’s deletion of serious comments, and Mr.Hurd’s comments in the last post that suggest there is no discussion to be had, is rather amusing.

  5. Charlie Denison

    I’d be curious to know what the average speed on other streets are. 4.5 mph certainly sounds slow without something to compare to it’s hard to know if this street is any slower than any other. Biking in Boston at least, whether I’m on a street with a bike lane or no bike lane, I know I spend a lot of time waiting at traffic signals.

    • Charlie — Keri Caffrey and a friend made a comparison video of a ride on a parallel street, at https://vimeo.com/album/1632204/video/25723330. The speed was 9.2 mph. I think that’s stretching it a little though because they avoided one traffic signal by riding through an underpass. The signal may or may not have been green when they would have reached it. Most bicyclists wouldn’t use an underpass on a main street unless it had a bike lane, like the one on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

      My experience of riding on Boston streets, obeying signals, is to average about 8 or 9 mph. I’m not fast though, I’m 67 years old. I have quite a bit of footage of riding on other streets in DC, and in Boston, Montreal, New York, San Francisco… Some of this footage is already online. I could make some additional comparisons and get back to you.

      • Charlie Denison

        Thanks John. This is very helpful. I’ll have to time some of my own trips sometime to see what my speed is. I’m guessing it’s not much different than your 8 or 9 mph since I usually ride at a fairly leisurely pace and since the traffic signals really control the speed more than pedaling faster does!

    • Average effective speed is a topic that has come up before, both on this blog and elsewhere such as Streetsblog. Using a bicycle as transportation requires that it be at least marginally competitive with other modes. Mass transit, for example, can suffer from the time lost waiting for a pickup and when tranferring to another vehicle or mode. Cycling works better when one feels like one is travelling at one’s own pace rather than in a “hurry up and wait” mode. Jayjardine’s comments below address the question as to whether there are better ways to skin this cat.

  6. I added some comments to my own blog post about that ideological purity topic.

    http://labikes.blogspot.com/2014/02/when-did-momentum-magazine-lose-its.html

  7. I’m stretched to imagine how conspiracy theories work to support these arguments? Assessing bicycling infrastructure is vital for success in expanding the appeal of riding to more than just the “strong and fearless.” There is certainly no shortage of less-than-ideal designs and work-arounds to be found. With traffic engineers and “serious cyclists” having worked so hard against these facilities for so long, finding a way to objectively assess them is obviously a challenge. Thankfully, initiatives like the Green Lane Project and the National Association of City Transportation Officials are doing so with an understanding of best practices and research from around the world. I stand behind my initial reasons for deleting the comments. The attack on the man riding with a child as being “unskilled” is nothing short of petty.

    • Thanks for your input. I would point you to the Green Lane Project’s recent rating of Austin TX’s Guadalupe cycle track as #3 of “AMERICA’S 10 BEST PROTECTED BIKE LANES OF 2013″ (December 03, 2013, by Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer). Note that the track consists of a narrow path segregated from motor traffic by parked vehicles and flexible pylons on the left, segregated from pedestrians by a curb on the right, painted green–except for where traffic turns across it–and routing cyclists to the right side of loading/unloading buses. Video of “before” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MWIQZ_CMbc Video of after https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHVhYQRhgEs Do you really think that this–roughly sidewalk riding with turning conflicts on intersections and curb cuts –is done with a good “understanding of best practices and research from around the world,” as you put it?

      • “With traffic engineers and “serious cyclists” having worked so hard against these facilities for so long, finding a way to objectively assess them is obviously a challenge.” The identified “problem” to be solved is how to overcome the opposition to these demanded facilities, which itself comes from the objective assessment of the facilities–that objective assessment lead to the standards that advise against the demanded facilities. Objectively, such facilities are worse for the target audience for the facilities than no facilities are. There is a wide selection of places where a protective barrier would both contribute to perceived safety for novice cyclists without also manufacturing conflicts with turning and crossing traffic–those being locations alongside high trafficked and high speed streets where the “cycle track” would not cross intersecting traffic lanes. Instead, the political pressure being placed on municipal traffic facility designers leads to installing “protection” that looks good on paper but fails the users in practice. It is the fact that the facilities being pushed for fail to meet the design standards and practices that follow logically from the research which brings me to object to installations Momentum Magazine touts. I have no objection when designers get it right. Hurd seems to have a conceptual difficulty distinguishing between a facility that politics can get installed to the satisfaction of those who don’t recognize their failings and a facility that actually can make cycling more attractive or convenient without significantly trading off the users’ safety.

        • I might add that the facility a Green Lane Project staff writer labeled as #3 of the best of 2013 is the cycle track installed along one side of Guadalupe Blvd., just west of the Univ. of Texas campus in Austin. The new narrow one-way track (which also attracts wrong-way riders) is “protected” from traffic to the left by parked cars and plastic pylons and large planters, in a manner shown to increase conflicts with turning motorists, is subject to the passenger-side ‘door zone’ in places, but with a curb to the right to trip a cyclist who needs to avoid a door or pedestrian, is routed to the right of loading/unloading buses, is painted green (slippery when wet) except, strangely, for where it crosses intersections (where such paint might alert a turning motorist that the track is there), and crosses not just intersections but curb cuts for business parking, further manufacturing turning conflicts. It defies, rather than shows an “understanding of best practices and research from around the world.” To the extent it conforms to the NACTO guide it shows how that guide ignores the research. To the extent Green Lane Project endorses it it shows how little the project is concerned with getting it right.

          • Local “advocacy” group has this informative brochure to educate the barest fraction of Austinites about the facility and its problems. http://bikeaustin.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Bike-Austin-Cycle-Tracks-Changing-Lanes-diagram-2013-10-1000×750.png.

          • That’s an interesting flyer, Jack. Bike Austin’s web page says they are a facilities advocacy organization. The flyer is surprisingly honest in that it points out all of the potential (i.e., actual) conflict points that the rest of us have long discussed. If more cyclists read these flyers, at least they would be somewhat educated about their pros and cons.

            Thanks for the link.

          • I read the Austin flyer as a catalogue of manufactured conflicts. In particular, people are no longer free to walk carefree on the sidewalk. Austin is a grid city and in my opinion, highly suitable for bicycle boulevard treatments, which avoid such conflicts.

            Anyone here who might think though that I have a blanket objection to separate on-street bicycle facilities might look at my discussion of University Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin. The devil is in the details. Details as diverse as traffic volume and leaf collection determine what type of facility will be suitable in any particular situation.

          • John, when I looked at that flyer, it was hard for me to figure out how the sponsoring site could advocate for facilities while at the same time providing a written admission of all the “manufactured” conflict points, as you put it, now exist.

            Albuquerque, also a grid city, has put in at least one bicycle boulevard, Silver, which runs parallel to Central Avenue and one short block to the south through the University and Nob Hill districts. Silver has its speed limit reduced to 18 mph, I guess because someone thought it would be cute to have it 30 kph. I think Silver as a traffic calmed bike boulevard is a much better idea than putting a specialized facility on busy Central, which would be an unmitigated disaster.

          • Yes, Bike Austin lobbies hard for facilities, but I don’t see much effort on their part in thinking about what kind of facilities would be best and why. My understanding is that the brochure was from the city program and distributed by Bike Austin as volunteers. A member of the city bike/ped program (and I think there’s always a problem putting bikes and pedestrians in the same departmental basket) articulated to me in an e-mail conversation about another Green Lane Project cycle track (making right-hook conflicts more likely) ‘The protected bike lanes that we have started to design do sometimes promote traffic movements against the “norm”. But unfortunately the norm that we have developed over the years is based upon maximizing vehicle throughput. Instead of supporting this norm by designing our bicycle facilities to fit within this existing framework, it seems like it could be more beneficial to change the norm to create safer streets for all users.’ She then cited http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/early/2011/02/02/ip.2010.028696.full on the Montreal cycle tracks as showing “a lower crash rate in the context of a mature bicycle network.” Perhaps we should remember Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

          • And, Khal, I have ridden the Silver “Cyclovia” and think it works well–too bad there are so many “turn right then turn left” sorts of manueuvers at intersections to go the whole way, but it works well and seems to attract a fair amount of bicycle traffic. Isn’t 30 kph more properly rounded up to 19 mph? And wouldn’t 20 mph be a better fit in the general scheme of “nearest 5 mph” for speed limits? Oh, well. That’s no reason to complain, really. I like the signs to indicate how far from here to there that occur occasionally along the way.

          • I thought MUTCD required rounding to the nearest five mph. Yes, 30 kph is about 18.6 mph. I would have preferred 20 mph so it wasn’t a unique situation.

            Living up in Los Alamos, I jog Silver more than bike it, since we are rarely down there long enough to bother bringing a bike. I nearly took out a couple cyclists on Silver several years ago. They were riding a single bike (one sitting on the top tube) at night, without lights, dressed in dark clothing, headed west on Silver. I was crossing Silver several streets west of Carlisle heading south to our friend’s house. As I left the stop sign, something caught my eye just in time to stop. I wish all cyclists would take themselves as seriously as they would have government take them.

          • Promoters of separate facilities these days run with studies which are advocacy masquerading as research. The Montreal study which the city bike ped representative cited is heavily biased and riddled with error. It contradicts the results of reputable studies. That the city official Jack Hughes mentioned takes it at face value reveals that she does not have the background to to make decisions affecting the safety of bikeways, and you may quote me on that. You may read a comprehensive review of the Montreal study with links to numerous other sources.

    • Skill is acquired and improved by regular practice of proper technique. Cycling with a bag dangling from the handlebars is unsafe. It’s kind of like driving around with a un-capped coffee cup on the dashboard of your car – you might get away with it a few times, but eventually it will spill into your lap.

    • I cannot see how calling the man and child to be “unskilled” is offensive to you or them for Mr Allen to be silenced or have his comments deleted. Unless it is OK for you to call advocates of safe cycling education as “idiots”

      https://twitter.com/DuncansCityRide/status/431081710038441984

  8. Assessing bicycling infrastructure is absolutely essential, Mr. Hurd. Hence those who like to poke holes in flawed concepts.

    I’ve read through most of NACTO. Some of it is very good. I used one example straight out of NACTO to improve a previously dangerous intersection in Los Alamos that was designed poorly due to the usual political pressure to do more with less. But some of NACTO is worrisome in that, at least in the version I examined, it described traffic controls that I would consider essential as optional and fails to account for decreased levels of service for cyclists, thus improving the chances of a crash while decreasing cycling’s utility. A 4.5 mph commute speed might work for some, but certainly not for the cyclists who were jumping the light in Keri’s video.

    While I see no conspiracy in it, a program funded by the cycling industry is primarily focused on the profit margin of the cycling industry. There is nothing wrong with that insofar as the bike biz can spend its money as it sees fit and I do think there can be a useful synergy between the bike biz and good advocacy. Unless, of course, that industry is trying to “sell” me a sow’s ear marketed as a silk purse.

    My own efforts are somewhat nuanced, as are Mr. Allen’s–separating good from bad design and encouraging our engineers and planners to avoid the worst mistakes. I am sorry you see that as some sort of concern trolling. I see it as disagreement, not trolling.

  9. The signal delays in the video appear to be a function of the overly wide streets which necessitate lengthy minimum pedestrian crossing clearance phases. A neckdown/road diet treatment could have made the signal timings more efficient, reduced vehicle speeds and potentially eliminated the need for a separate bike facility (which in itself takes up an additional lane of road space and requires separate left-turn phases which drive up delay for all intersection users).
    I’m perhaps naively optimistic that the proliferation of videos like the ones attached will highlight the user experience, better inform the next generation of facility designers, and remind us all that no plan is without its trade-offs.

    • “…I’m perhaps naively optimistic that the proliferation of videos like the ones attached will highlight the user experience, better inform the next generation of facility designers, and remind us all that no plan is without its trade-offs.”

      Exactly.

    • The long signal delays in the video result, as I explained, from the signals’ being timed for traffic traveling in the opposite direction, and also, as you agree, from the separate left- turn phase. Lane reductions on a street which is choked at rush hour would only lead to worse tie-ups. That is a problem on streets which cross 15th Street, though 15th Street itself is less congested. At rush hour, traffic already backs up across the bikeway at K Street, perhaps at others. The only thing I can imagine which would solve the problem is an actual reduction in motor traffic. Until we have the will in this country to raise the cost of owning and fueling a private car to what it is in Denmark, and to provide public transportation which can compete, I don’t see that happening. I don’t see road diets as a desirable way to reduce traffic, because they are using congestion, delay, inconvenience and frustration rather than attractive alternatives to achieve that goal.

  10. There are two ways to assess any bicycling infrastructure. First, you can involve experts during the design process in order to avoid expensive mistakes. That’s proactive. The other way is to build it, compile statistics on the number of people injured, and then use those numbers to analyze crashes in order to mitigate their causes. It seems Mr. Dunn prefers the latter approach. If the facility was properly designed and provided real, measurable benefits to cyclists, it would withstand criticism from the experts. I think we’re all intellectually honest enough to admit when we’re wrong, and we’re honest enough to recognize a facility that truly provides safety benefits. This one has glaringly obvious shortcomings, and they should be highlighted if only to prevent broken bones and spilled blood.

  11. John, speaking of bicycle boulevards.

    http://www.rbj.net/article.asp?aID=205432

    Public meeting focuses on bicycle boulevards
    By THOMAS ADAMS
    Rochester Business Journal
    February 10, 2014

  12. Marginally related: another video of 15th St. “cycle” track. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4lc2TFky8o

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