PeopleforBikes Praises Flawed Figueroa Bikeway Design

The bicycle industry lobby Peopleforbikes has posted the image below, identified as an official rendering, of the proposed bikeway on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.

PeopleforBikes praises the political developments which led to this project and describes it as a “win.” My response is “what were the designers thinking, if it can be called thinking?” And “does PeopleforBikes expect to gain any credibility by supporting this?

Even putting aside general debates about “cycle tracks”… let’s just look at some specifics of the design here.

This is much less and also much more than a “protected bike lane”, PeopleforBikes’s description. Being separated from the other lanes by a barrier, it is not a bike lane but a bike path — one of substandard width. Most of the installation as shown is intended to serve bus passengers. Bicyclists get the narrow strip which is left over.

The roadway has been narrowed by one lane’s width, but more than half of it has been given over to a traffic island for a bus stop, and less than half, to the bikeway. The bikeway is not as wide as either the bicyclist or the pedestrians in the foreground are tall: only about five feet wide, between vertical curbs.  Because bicyclists need to track two feet from a curb to avoid the risk of a pedal strike, the bikeway is only wide enough for a single line of bicyclists.

Figueroa bikeway official rendering

Bicyclists’ speeds on level roads range from approximately 8 to 25 miles per hour.  One bicyclist overtaking another on this bikeway risks handlebars’ tangling, or a pedal strike. Overtaking a cargo tricycle is clearly impossible. Expect crashes, and parades of bicyclists limited to the speed of the slowest.

There is only that one bicyclist shown…if bicycle traffic were as heavy as PeopleforBikes would like, the bikeway would be clogged.

The bikeway is adjacent to a sidewalk. Expect pedestrians in the bikeway, and bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, or the bus lane, because the bikeway is slower.

The fence shown to the left of the bikeway (apparently to prevent pedestrians from crossing at an undesignated location) is nonstandard for either a pedestrian or bicycle barrier — bicyclists and pedestrians alike would topple over it. The fence is immediately adjacent to the bikeway, and that also is nonstandard.

The intersection in the foreground is signal-controlled, but the special crosswalk to the bus stop beyond the bicyclist is not. Now, imagine a crowd of pedestrians who just got off a bus, crossing in that crosswalk. If more than a few bicyclists have to wait, they will back up into the signalized crosswalk in the foreground, and into the intersection. Green paint in the crosswalk indicates, as it so often does, “we broke the rules when we designed this.”

With pedestrians in the locations shown, the bicyclist shown has to have crossed the walkway against the light. That doesn’t reflect on the design itself, but it does reflect on the people who approved the rendering, and the the designers.

The striped, angled cutaway in the traffic island serves to allow large trucks and buses to turn right without dragging their wheels over the curb. But it is delimited by raised rubber barriers which might survive one or two days of wear and tear by trucks. The stripes also define the cutaway as a no-drive zone.

A truck apron is usually made of durable, slightly raised, distinctive paving. What were the designers thinking?

The tree overhanging the bikeway would drop leaves into it, an issue I brought up in an earlier post on this blog. The bikeway is shown as impeccably clean in the illustration, but it is too narrow for a standard street-cleaning machine.

I have read elsewhere that this bikeway would cross 26 intersections and 49 driveways.

The right one-foot width of the bikeway is the gutter pan, and there is a seam between it and the asphalt pavement. These seams break up, and can trap bicycle wheels. Water collects in the gutter, as also shown in videos which  my friend Gary Cziko has taken from his bicycle. He describes them as follows:

1. The first video at is a combined front and rear view while cycling on Figueroa northbound from Exposition to 7th Street, where the cycle track is planned. It was made at mid-day on a weekday with fairly light-to-moderate traffic.

2. The second video at is rearview also northbound at evening rush hour starting a bit further south than the first video.

Gary has more to say about his videos but I’ll leave it to him to comment.

A Close Encounter on Washington Street

It seems appropriate for me to post this as the City of Boston bicycle program gears up for its annual update presentation Monday night. You do best to click on the “vimeo” icon (lower right in frame below) and run the video full-screen.

A Close Encounter on Washington Street from John Allen on Vimeo.

Report from a bike-share conference

In September, 2012, the French-language Montreal newspaper Le Devoir published an article, also distributed as a blog post, reporting on a conference in France about bike share systems, and extensively quoting economist Frédéric Héran.

The headline, translated in to English, is more or less “what is bike share good for?” or “What does bike share accomplish?”

Héran’s conclusions are somewhat out of step with the usual promotional buzz: bike share costs some $4000-$5000 per year per bicycle, and operators keep quiet about this to avoid upsetting taxpayers. Bike share is only practical in dense urban centers; it may follow from increased bicycle use, rather than lead to it. Fewer than 10% of bike-share trips substitute for car trips, according to the few studies available, but bike share does cut into use of public transportation. Widespread traffic calming — avoiding ghettoizing bicyclists — and bicycle parking may be better investments. Héran thinks that bike share may, in the end, have more of an effect as a promotional tool, mainstreaming bicycling, than directly as a means of transportation.

Recent developments — the spread of bike sharing to more cities, notably New York; labor issues; bankruptcy of the Montreal system — lend more interest to Héran’s observations.

The Google translation of the article into English leaves a tolerably accurate overall impression, though there are a number of awkward phrasings, and translations of several sentences are incorrect enough to be misleading.

I’ve prepared my own complete translation. Le Devoir did not respond to my request for permission to post it. If you would like me to send you the translation privately by e-mail, please let me know. Following up on my summary of the article, here are summaries of readers’ comments:

The Montreal program is only replacing bicycle dealers with subsidization by the public, and that problem will rebound at us.

Denis Paquette

The program does not pay for itself in cities which have redesigned themselves to be bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Thanks for a good article. Montreal needs an overall plan worthy of the name.

Laurent Pradiès

I’m an experienced urban cyclist; the Montreal program is a political smokescreen. Montreal is like Los Angeles in having such a poor public transportation system. [Not so bad in my opinion -- John Allen]

Jean Richard

Bixi could be very beneficial if it doesn’t fishtail, and instead leads to Bixi 2.0.

Bixi is suffocating because it has been taken up by commuters and is emptying the subways. At night, all the bicycles are in the residential areas. A lot of effort goes into redistributing the bicycles, in vain. Bicyclists have always asked for secure parking for their own bicycles.

The space occupied by a 23-bicycle Bixi station could park over twice as many conventional bicycles at a lower cost.
A bus transporting 120 passengers uses less fuel and has much less impact on traffic than 3 or 4 trucks redistributing Bixis.

Bixi 2.0 would simply put money into infrastructure and bicycle accommodation.

France Marcotte

(Quotes Héran’s comments about traffic calming). I can already dream of it. I leave my courtyard on my bicycle, and the cars are not menacing mastodons which lay down the law and occupy the territory. We interact in a certain harmony.
If my attitude as a city-dweller only results from propaganda and conditioning, then I’ll choose the propaganda which comes closest to what I sense for myself.

Catherine Caron

My bicycle is my daily transportation but when I drive my little car, there are lots of other people driving way too fast in high-powered cars. It’s take a lot of effort to correct this.

Simon Bouchard

Bike share has to continue, no matter what it costs, for reasons of health, urban education, reduction of pollution, quality of life.

Daniel Beaupré

I have my own bicycle but I subscribed to Bixi. It has its hitches, but I like it. Mostly it has helped when there public transportation didn’t work out. One day when the subway broke down, I got home easily by Bixi. I’m also relieved to the hassle of parking a bicycle and the risk of theft. The lights also are good — too many bicyclists ride without even reflectors.

Richard Larouche

There has been a study of the Barcelona system, published in the British Medical Journal and reporting hat health benefits outweigh risk, and carbon dioxide emissions reduced.

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 then 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.

During rush hour, major intersections on the bikeway descend into chaos, as shown in another of Keri Caffrey’s videos.

Are there better alternatives? Yes, in education and in infrastructure choices, among other things, but they require a bolder, broader, more knowledgeable and more flexible approach than we see here.

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.

Momentum Magazine, Green Lane Project: Hello?

The online blog of Momentum Magazine posted the photo below to illustrate an article titled “Support for Better Biking is Strong.

Warm and fuzzy is clearly the intention — father and young child riding on a magic carpet, car-free and carefree. We should all transport ourselves to better biking and a better future, on such magic carpets.

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?

Hello, hello, reality check: the carpet  is of leaves — much of it deep enough to hide a pothole or debris which would launch a cyclist over the handlebars.

Sorry to have to say this about this but a few years ago, a well-liked, recently retired colleague of my wife’s put his front wheel into a hole hidden under leaves and landed on his head. He died.

Nobody can tell us why he was riding there, but most people who have spent much time on a bicycle have learned one way or another to avoid riding through a carpet of leaves — or anywhere they can’t see what is about to be supporting the bicycle’s tires.

Doesn’t anybody at Momentum Magazine have the good sense, or experience, or authority, to nix a photo like this, or do they just not care?

Actually, I know that they don’t care. I submitted comments — much more gentle than these — on the magazine’s blog post. My comments were quickly removed.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this situation.  The article is a puff piece reflecting the bicycle industry’s astroturf polling campaign. The magazine credits the Green Lane Project with the photo. The bicycle industry funds the Green Lane project to promote bikeways separate from motor traffic, with the goal of getting more people to buy bicycles.

How could this photo advance that agenda? Or, scarier to think, what if it actually does? What if  most readers of Momentum Magazine  don’t know any better? What if they are so caught up in a magic carpet agenda that they can mentally sweep the carpet of leaves aside?

Does the Green Lane crew think that leaves add a nice homey touch — and look, people also ride outside the peak summer season! Or maybe Green Lane doesn’t care either, in which case, just how low can these people stoop to portray bicycling as completely mindless and carefree,  as long as it is also car-free?

The shopping bag next to the spokes of the man’s front wheel doesn’t make me feel any better. I could say something about a parent’s setting an example, but then I don’t want to start a helmet war.

Enough for now. I’m going to deconstruct the photo shoot,  in a separate blog post. I know where that photo was taken. I’ve been there.

I’m also going to look into just why anyone thought that the USA needs another bicycle magazine, especially one which publishes material like this. Stay tuned.

Forbes Magazine and “protected bike lanes”

I have submitted the comments below to Forbes Magazine, whose blog posted an article titled “Spotted Those New Protected Bike Lanes? Get Ready for More.”

I expected better of Forbes, a generally conservative publication. The term “protected bike lane” is used only to describe an on-street bikeway behind a barrier, but Forbes illustrated the article with a photo of a buffered bike lane. There is no barrier in the photo, only paint.

Forbes thinks this is a "protected bike lane". It is a buffered bike lane.

Forbes thinks this is a “protected bike lane”. It is a buffered bike lane.

My comments follow.


A few clarifications:

* The bike lane shown in the photo is not a “protected bike lane”. A “protected bike lane” (see below for why I use the quotes) is separated from the rest of the travelway by a barrier, which could be a curbed median island, a row of parked cars, or a row of delineator posts. What is shown is a buffered bike lane, separated from another lane by a painted strip which is wider than the standard lane stripe.

* This buffered bike lane is separated from the adjacent travel lane, but adjacent to a parking lane, and directs bicyclists to ride within the range of opening car doors. A bicyclist who strikes an opening car door is flung to the left, potentially going under the wheels of an overtaking motor vehicle.

* A buffer may on the other hand separate the bike lane from the parking lane. This is safer.

* The inaccurate term “protected bike lane” is used with the goal of promoting increased bicycle use, pandering to widespread misconceptions about safety, and in particular, the belief that the most important type of bicycle crash is for a bicyclist to be rear-ended by a motor vehicle. This type of crash is rare in urban areas.

* The term “protected bike lane” is incorrect and misleading. Being separated by a barrier, this is not a lane, it is a bicycle path. Also, it is protected everywhere except where that matters most: at intersections and driveways, where most motor-vehicle-bicycle collisions occur, and conflicting movements forced by the barrier (car turning right from left lane, bicyclist in right rear blindspot of motor vehicle, or concealed by parked vehicles) increase the risk.

* Typical safe average speeds on “protected bike lanes” are 5 miles per hour, increasing the temptation to take risks and disobey the law.

* In some cases it is possible to have a separate bikeway in a street corridor which avoids the problems, but this is unusual and requires careful designs. One example is with 9th Avenue in New York City; please see comments linked at (and for a counterexample, see the comments on the Grand Street bikeway linked from the same page.)

* Other options such as conventional bike lanes of adequate design, paths separate from roads, bicycle routes on lightly-traveled streets paralleling main streets, traffic speed reduction measures, enforcement and education avoid the problems with barrier-separated bikeways. However, barrier-separated bikeways are being heavily promoted and widely installed, because of the public misconceptions about safety and the clamor of bicycle mode share advocacy.

I am a long-time bicycling advocate and it pains me to see the state of bicycling advocacy today; also, the shallowness of media coverage, and yes, this article is an example. If Forbes can’t even get terminology right and call out inaccuracies and distortions, it is only contributing to the problem.

M. Kary’s comment letters to Injury Prevention, unedited

The journal Injury Prevention published two responses (eLetters) by M. Kary, Montreal mathematician and cyclist, to the Harris et al. study of Vancouver and Toronto bicycle facilities. These letters promised an eventual third letter. Instead, following discussion with the Editor, the third was transformed into a longer Commentary now under consideration at the journal, while the original two letters were consolidated into a single shorter one, intended to replace them. These steps are still underway, but were done under the understanding that once removed, the original first two letters would be published in full elsewhere. They are here:

M.Kary’s first letter to Injury Prevention, unedited

M. Kary’s second letter to Injury Prevention, unedited

The edited version of these replies is available online.

Kary is also the author of a comprehensive review of the Lusk et al. study of Montreal cycle tracks — or as he says, what the authors describe as cycle tracks, because some are, in fact, paths through parks.

A related post on this blog examines a PDF presentation about the Vancouver/Toronto research.

Industry lobby represents “consumers”?

Here’s a little article which appeared in the November 1, 2013 issue of the bicycle trade journal, Bicycle Industry and Retailer News.

Can you say “Astroturf”?

Article from November 1, 2013 Bicycle Retailer and Insudtry News

Article from November 1, 2013 Bicycle Retailer and industry News

I wouldn’t claim to represent the interests of the bicycle industry — but PeopleforBikes, a bicycle industry lobby — claims to represent my interests and those of other individual citizens, er, “consumers”.

For a while last summer it wasn’t possible to go to major bicycle or parts manufacturers’ Web sites without having a PeopleforBikes sign-up-and support popup blot out the start screen. Or as the article puts it,

[s]tarting in 2010 as a Bikes Belong campaign to gain 1 million pledges in support of bicycling, PeopleforBikes will now be the brand that represents all cycling interests — those of the industry as well as consumers.

— not that interests are even the same across the industry. There’s another article in the same issue of Bicycle Industry and Retailer News describing retail bicycle shops’ long-drawn-out problems with one brake manufacturer’s products. I might have concerns too if I bought a bicycle with those brakes, and not to speak of the thrust and scope of industry lobbying which, as you might imagine, is targeted almost entirely at getting government to spend your and my tax dollars on infrastructure projects which PeopleforBikes has decided will get more people to buy bicycles and related products. This has a very decided slant toward separated paths and barrier-separated bikeways on streets, because that is what non-bicyclists and infrequent bicyclists — the great majority of the American population — think they need.

I spend much more than the average person does on bicycle stuff, but I hold to my own opinions about what I buy, and about how to improve bicycling, thank you very much. You may read my opinions on bicycling politics on this blog, and about reliability, safety and good purchasing choices on

This isn’t the first post on this blog about these issues. It’s just that the one-big-happy-family claim has become more blatant with the rebranding.

Bike Box at Charlesgate East

This post is about the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue eastbound and Charlesgate East in Boston, Massachusetts, an intersection with a “bike box” — a waiting area for bicyclists downstream of where motorists stop for traffic signals. More generally, this post is about the assumptions underlying the bike-box treatment, and how well actual behavior reflects those assumptions.

I have described bike boxes more generally on a Web page. There is a discussion of them also in photos assembled by Dan Gutierrez. If you are logged into facebook, you can bring up the first photo and click through the others (“Next” at upper right). Non-members of facebook, the world’s largest private club, can view the slides one by one by clicking on this link.

Dan Gutierrez has also released videos of bike box behavior here and here.

On Wednesday, September 19, 2012, I rode my bicycle to Charlesgate (see Google satellite view for location), with video cameras. I observed traffic for about an hour and shot clips of bicyclists passing through the intersection.

The bike box at this intersection is intended to enable a transition from the right side to the left side of a one-way roadway. (A study of a similar treatment in Eugene, Oregon, intended to enable transition from left to right. That study was released in two different versions, one from the U. S. Federal Highway Administration and another from the Transportation Research Board.)

I have now produced a video from my clips. Please view the video in connection with this article. You may view it at higher resolution on the vimeo site by clicking on the title underneath.

Bike Box at Charlesgate East from John Allen on Vimeo.

A Look at the Intersection

Let’s take a virtual tour, examining a longer stretch of Commonwealth Avenue than the video does.

West of Charlesgate West on Commonwealth Avenue, there is a bike lane in the car-door zone, tapering down to nothing before the intersection with Charlesgate West. Bicyclists can still slip by on the right side of most motor vehicles.

At some time following the initial installation, the City painted shared-lane markings near the right side of the rightmost travel lane. I have observed bicyclists riding at speed in the slot between the parked and moving vehicles,  at risk of opening car doors, walk-outs, merges from both sides and right-hook collisions. The purpose of shared-lane markings is to indicate that a lane should be shared head to tail, not side by side. These markings should be placed in the middle of a lane rather than at its edge.

Transition from bike lane to no bike lane to bike lane at right edge. Note, no shared-lane markings yet in this aerial view (Google Maps aerial view)

Bike lane tapered to nothing in the door zone approaching Charlesgate West

Bike lane tapered to nothing in the door zone approaching Charlesgate West (Google Street View image)

Between Charlesgate West and Charlesgate East, parking is prohibited, and the curb line at the right edge is farther to the right. The rightmost lane used to be a wide, general purpose travel lane –  but nobody who knew the intersection drove a motor vehicle in this lane. A motorist who drove in this lane would be trapped to the right of other through traffic when it became a parking lane after Charlesgate East.

In or around 2010, bike lanes and a so-called “bike box” were installed at Charlesgate East.

The intersection with Charlesgate East as it existed before 2010 is shown in the first of the two photos below. The intersection with changes is shown in the second photo.

Intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Charlesgate West before the additional of a bike lane (Microsoft Bing aerial view). Though there is an arrow indicating that the right lane is for through travel, it is unused, because it leads to a row of parked cars in the next block. It is a "musical chairs" lane.

Intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Charlesgate East before the additional of a bike lane (Microsoft Bing aerial view). Though there is an arrow indicating that the right lane is for through travel, it is empty, because it leads to a row of parked cars in the next block. It is a “musical chairs” lane.

Lane reassignment at Charlesgate East: four usable travel lanes, a musical chairs bike lane, Also note left-side bike lane after the intersection.

Following the changes at Charlesgate East: four usable travel lanes, and a musical chairs bike lane. Also note left-side bike lane after the intersection, top right corner of image. (Google Maps aerial view)

A bike lane is on the left side of the roadway (upper right in the photo above) leads to an underpass. The  transition from the right side to the left side is supposed to be made by way of the “bike box”, with bicyclists swerving left across two lanes of motor traffic to wait facing the left-side bike lane as shown in the image below. Bicyclists headed for other destinations are also supposed to use the “bike box,” waiting in the appropriate lane.

Intended route for bicyclists using the "bike box".

Intended route for bicyclists using the “bike box”.

The right-side bike lane is now the “musical chairs” lane which leads into a parking lane. The City has, in a peculiar way, acknowledged this, painting what I call a “desperation arrow” just after the intersection. It is visible at the right in the photo below. It directs bicyclists to swerve  into the right-hand travel lane in the short distance before the first parked car.

Looking across Charlesgate East. The Desperation Aroow is visible at the right side of the roadway. (Google Street View)

Looking across Charlesgate East. The desperation arrow is visible at the right side of the roadway and the bike lane to the underpass is at the left side. (Google Street View)

When the closest metered parking spot to the intersection is occupied, the parked vehicle sits directly over the “desperation arrow”.

Vehicle parked legally at metered parking spot, over the desperation arrow.

Vehicle parked legally at metered parking spot, over the desperation arrow.

The designated route is not the only important one. The left-side bike lane after the intersection reduces the width of the other lanes — a particular problem for bicyclists who continue in the rightmost travel lane. Many do, in order to continue at street level rather than using the underpass.

Bicyclist Behavior

I observed that most bicyclists approached Charlesgate East in the green-painted bike lane. It is the prescribed approach to the intersection, even though it is not satisfactory for any destination.

On reaching the intersection, many bicyclists ran the red light, yielding to cross traffic. in this way, they avoided being trapped to the right of moving motor traffic. Cross traffic was easily visible and relatively light, at least in mid-afternoon when I observed it.

The bike box can serve as a waiting area only on the red light. Approaching the intersection as the light turns from red to green or on the green requires bicyclists to merge left; otherwise, they are caught short by the parked cars on the far side of the intersection.

After crossing the intersection, most bicyclists merged into the door zone of the parked vehicles in the next block. If they did this on the green, they were at the same time being overtaken by motorists. Some bicyclists looked over their left shoulder for traffic as they merged; others did not.

I saw a couple of very odd maneuvers: two bicyclists who entered on the red light and crossed from right to left in the middle of the intersection as if that were the location of the bike box — one of these bicyclists continuing in the left side bike lane, the other merging back to the right. I saw one bicyclist who made a sweeping left turn from the bike lane.

I did not see even one bicyclist swerving into the bike box as intended. This observation is consistent with Dill and Monsere’s research in Portland, Oregon. To swerve into the bike box when the traffic signal is red is to gamble on when the light will turn green, crossing close to the front of motor vehicles whose drivers are in all likelihood looking ahead at the traffic signal. A tall vehicle in the near lane can hide a bicyclist from a driver in the next lane. Often, also, motor vehicles encroach into the “bike box”, making it difficult or impossible to enter. Those bicyclists who knew about the underpass –  and chose it — merged across easily if they ran the red light, but got caught waiting at the desperation arrow, if they entered on the green light.

A few bicyclists merged out of the bike lane before reaching the intersection. Some of these, too, ran the red light, and others waited for the green. It should be noted that there are long periods in the traffic signal cycle when the block between Charlesgate East and Charlesgate West is mostly empty, making merging easy.

Improve the Situation?

So, what does this show? For me, the central lesson of all this is that the bike box is supposed to solve a problem which it cannot solve.

Also, because entering the bike box is a gamble, it is a violation of traffic law. Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 89, section 4, states:

When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.

I’m especially concerned about bicyclists who lack basic bike handling and traffic skills being dropped into this environment which claims to remove the need for those skills but which in reality requires outsmarting the system. This leads to hazardous behavior and fear.

What could improve the situation here? I see parking as a crucial issue. Removing the 20 or so parking spaces in the block following Charlesgate East would cure the “musical chairs” situation at the intersection — well, mostly.

Vehicles would still stop to load and unload. There is no way that bicyclists can ride safely without knowing how to negotiate merges. Wherever bicyclists may travel, someone may be about to overtake. Removal of parking is a political long shot, to be sure, but on the other hand, the few parking spaces on Massachusetts Avenue can only hold a small percentage of the vehicles of people who live or work in the same block. Isn’t there a possible alternate parking location?

Improved traffic-signal timing might ease merging from the right side to the left side of the roadway in the block before Charlesgate East. Wayfinding signs and markings encouraging merging before reaching the intersection would be helpful.

In my video, I show bicyclists crossing Charlesgate East in a crosswalk. That is not to operate as a driver, but it is practical and reasonably safe because there is no right-turning traffic from Commonwealth Avenue, and traffic on Charlesgate East is not permitted to turn right on a red light. Crossing two legs of an intersection in crosswalks to get to the bike lane on the far side involves waiting through an additional signal phase. Also, a Boston ordinance prohibits riding a bicycle on a sidewalk.

One way of resolving the issue of the traffic signal’s changing as a bicyclist enters the bike box is to enable entry concurrent with a pedestrian signal interval.  Then bicyclists must wait before entering the bike box and again once having crossed it.  Considering the percentage who are unwilling to wait even through one signal interval, there would probably be even more resistance to waiting through two. Another blog post, with a video, examines travel times through two intersections in Phoenix, Arizona with this type of crossing.  The travel times are unreasonably long.

Legalizing bicyclists’ crossing Charlesgate East when motorists are held back would require a separate bicycle signal. A green signal for bicyclists after the green signal for cross traffic would not delay many motorists. There would be significant delay though, for bicyclists, tempting them to run the red light. The earlier they can cross before parallel motor traffic starts, the more time they have to merge before motor traffic behind them starts up. How soon the traffic clears is going to vary greatly with time of day.

I’d like to make a case for a “bicycle boulevard”– a street which bicyclists can use for through travel, but where barriers and diverters require motorists to turn at the end of the block, on Marlborough Street, to the north of Commonwealth Avenue; and/or Newbury Street, to the south. There would have to be a new bridge across the Muddy River at Charlesgate; for Newbury Street, also a tunnel under a ramp to the overpass; or Marlborough Street, a connection under the Bowker Overpass to Beacon Street and Bay State Road. I have suggested elsewhere that Bey State Road be reconfigured as a two-way bicycle boulevard.

Such a bridge might be an element of a redesign of Charlesgate Park — originally an attractive link between Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system and the Charles River Esplanade, now blighted by the Bowker Overpass which looms over it. However, the Bowker overpass crosses the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, a limited-access highway.  Restoring ground-level access maintaining access across the Turnpike would require major reconstruction.



An article in the Detroit News describes advances in robo-car technology.

And this raises the question: what kinds of car-bike crashes could this technology prevent?

As suggested in the article: rear-end collisions and drift-out-of-lane collisions. Also perhaps right hooks, if a vehicle has sensors and robo-control to inhibit turning across the path of an overtaking vehicle. In all of these collisions, the bicycle or other vehicle to whom a robo-car might yield is, if not in full view of the driver — so robotics would mitigate driver distraction — in full view from a sensor somewhere on the vehicle.

Dooring collisions and drive-outs from parking? Yes, if a sensor in the side-view mirror prevents the door from opening. But this doesn’t prevent the cyclist from striking a pedestrian who walks out to get into the vehicle, and also prevents a person from getting into or out of the car, also potentially presenting a hazard. The real world is inhabited by real people, not only robotic cars.

Could robotics prevent head-on and ride-out collisions? Only unreliably, because of larger distances and greater closing speeds, and because the cyclist, or a pedestrian, or another car, or a deer leaping across the road — may have been hidden around a curve, or may suddenly appear from concealment. The robo-protection might prevent a vehicle from crossing the center of the roadway, or rounding a curve too fast to yield to traffic ahead — but this only works without drastically lowering travel speed if the vehicle, person or animal to be avoided  is operating properly (e.g. oncoming cyclist is on the correct side of the roadway, pedestrian does not dart out into the street).

Left cross collisions? NOT, if the cyclist is overtaking other vehicles, or parked vehicles, close to the curb, where concealed by them.

All in all, then, the technology could:

* greatly reduce the risk collisions for cyclists and others  traveling according to the  rules of the road;

* Significantly reduce the risk of car-bike collisions for cyclists edge riding or riding in a bike lane to the right of other traffic;

* be of little or no help when cyclists are riding in a bikeway concealed behind a barrier, or crossing in a crosswalk.

The potential for robotic control to prevent collisions is, then, very similar to that of an alert driver — though with additional ability to look in more than one direction at once, and into blindspots. Why? Because the rules for efficient and safe interaction — the rules of movement — aren’t any different when robotics are in control.

And I’ll also draw a more sweeping conclusion: robotic technology, once universally and correctly implemented on motor vehicles, would very significantly improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, and make rumble strips, a real problem for cyclists, pointless. Many other facilities-based solutions also would become white elephants.

This is assuming that the technology reflects a real traffic mix on streets, including non-motorized travelers, rather than some fantasy vision of a motorist’s utopia.

I’m only discussing technology here which can be implemented independently on each vehicle, without its communicating with others. There have been utopian schemes described in which all vehicles would communicate and negotiate with one another, avoiding the need for traffic signals, but except on limited-access highways, those pose a very daunting challenge due to the need for instant wireless communication with wide bandwidth, and that not all moving objects can be instrumented, nor would people tolerate this on their bodies — also, that a monkey wrench could be thrown into such systems, bringing traffic to a stop, simply by pedestrians’ walking out into the street. The Atlantic magazine has an article describing such a scheme — as usual in its articles about transportation, short in attention to unintended consequences.

Now, am I guilty of the same, in my optimism?