Tag Archives: Boston

Boston expert design

Here’s a video of the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and St. Mary Street, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, an example of the design expertise which earns Boston its place with the League of American Bicyclists as a Bicycle Friendly City.

The video is from 2013. As of 2016, one change has been made: the zigzag in the bike lane has been replaced by a diagonal transition.

The idea that cyclists should turn across in front of multiple lines of motor vehicles to change lane position is not unique to this location. Here’s another example, and it is by no means the only other one:

I have a blog post in connection with that video too.

Duck Boat crashes

We had a duck boat run into a motor scooter from behind on Saturday, May 7, 2016 in Boston, killing one of the riders. It isn’t clear from the news story why this happened, though I expect that the poor forward visibility from the duck boat was a factor. Did the motor scooter operator pull ahead of the duck boat, riding and stopping in its large blind spots? Or did the duck boat operator run into the back of the motor scooter in spite of its being in hiss field of view? As usual with crashes involving two-wheelers — bicycle, motor scooters, motorcycles — and despite there having been many eyewitnesses, the Boston Globe offers no information as to the cause of the crash. Investigation is underway, although if it proceeds as with recent bicycle crashes, detailed results may not be made available for a long time, if at all.

Another duck boat crash occurred in Seattle, 5 killed, 62 injured — but that one was due to failure of an axle, which sent the duck boat into the side of a bus in an oncoming lane of traffic.

What is to be learned from these crashes?

For one thing, the duck boats are surplus from the Second World War. Though they served gallantly in that war, they are over 70 years old now: mechanical failures are not out of the question. The duck boats’ design as amphibious vehicles placed the driver high above the road over a high hood, with poor visibility to the front — a problem which has led to fatalities of pedestrians in crosswalks with large trucks. The duck boats do not have a front bumper, but instead, have a hull which can push unfortunate pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles underneath. These vehicles probably would not be legal, except that they are antiques.

Another issue with the Boston crash may be of education. Did the motor scooter driver not understand the peril of riding in blindspots of large vehicles? Boston is relentlessly installing bicycle facilities which direct bicyclists to ride into blindspots. It does not appear that the collision involved any such installation, but motor scooter operators are permitted under the law to use them, and their existence, along with a lack of instruction as to their perils, contributes to hazardous behavior elsewhere as well.

In the context of all these issues, my misgivings about the Vision Zero campaign described in the Boston Globe on April 17 need no further mention.

Lane Control on Lexington Street

Here’s a video showing a bicycle ride on a constant mile-long upslope, at speeds of 10 to 12 miles per hour (16 to 20 km/h), on a suburban 4-lane speedway with narrow lanes and no shoulders, the most challenging street in the community where I live. Motor taffic was very light, and auite fast. Points made:

  • Lane control is not about riding fast: it is about controlling one’s space.
  • Lane control is necessary so motorists will overtake at a safe lateral distance on a street with a narrow right-hand lane.
  • By requiring motorists to make full lane change, lane control lets a cyclist with a rear-view mirror confirm well in advance that motorists will overtake with a safe lateral distance.
  • With the light traffic on a multi-lane street, a slow bicyclist does not cause any significant delay to motorists.
  • Most motorists are cooperative.
  • A few motorists are abusive — even though they can easily overtake in the next lane —  but they too overtake safely.
  • American traffic law supports lane control.

Lane Control on Lexington Street from John Allen on Vimeo.

Truck side skirts: reliable way to prevent cyclist fatalities?

No, not reliable. And they are also supposed to confer an aerodynamic advantage. Some do, some don’t.

Some have a smooth surface which can deflect a cyclist. That is still no guarantee that the cyclist will escape serious injury or death. Other side guards are only open frameworks which can catch and drag a bicycle. A lot of what I have seen is little more than window dressing.

The side guard in the image below from a post on the Treehugger blog has no aerodynamic advantage and could easily guide a cyclist into the rear wheel of the truck.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

A cyclist can easily go under the side guard shown in the image below, from a Portland, Oregon blog post. A cyclist who is leaning against the side guard is guided into the sharp edge of the fender bracket and fender, and the front of the turning wheel, which can pull the cyclist down. There is another wheel behind the one in the photo.

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

The side guard on a Boston garbage truck in the photo below — my own screen shot from the 2013 Boston Bikes annual update presentation — is only an open framework which could easily catch and drag a bicycle.

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

A truck which is turning right off-tracks to the right. A cyclist can be pushed onto his/her right side, and goes under, feet to the left, head to the right. On the other hand, if an overtaking truck contacts the left handlebar end, or if the right handlebar end contacts a slower or stopped vehicle or other obstruction, the handlebar turns to the right and the cyclist slumps to the left, headfirst.

To be as effective as possible for either aerodynamics or injury prevention, side guards must cover the wheels. Though that is practical, none of the ones shown do.

But no practical side guard can go low enough to prevent a cyclist from going underneath. The side guard would drag  at raised railroad crossings, driveway aprons, speed tables etc. Even if the side guard did go low enough, it would sweep the fallen cyclist across the road surface, possibly to be crushed against a parked car or a curb.

Fatalities have occurred when cyclists went under buses, which have low side panels — but the wheels are uncovered. The Dana Laird fatality in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one example. Ms. Laird’s right handlebar end is reported to have struck the opening door of a parked vehicle, steering her front wheel to the right and toppling her to the left.

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massacchusetts, 2002

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002

The bicycling advocacy community, as shown in the blog posts I’ve cited, mostly offers praise and promotion of sub-optimal versions of side guards, a measure which, even if executed as well as possible, offers only a weak, last-resort solution to the problem of bus and truck underruns.

Most of the comments I see on the blogs I linked to consider it perfectly normal for motor traffic to turn right from the left side of cyclists, and to design infrastructure — bike lanes in particular — to formalize this conflict. The commenters also would like to give cyclists carte blanche to overtake close to the right side of large trucks, and place all the responsibility on truck drivers to avoid off-tracking over the cyclists.

Cyclists are vulnerable road users, but vulnerability is not the same as defenselessness. It is rarely heard from today’s crop of bicycling advocates, but a cyclist can prevent collisions with trucks and buses by not riding close to the side of them. There’s a wild contradiction in playing on the vulnerability, naiveté and defenselessness of novice cyclists to promote bicycle use with measures — particularly, bike lanes striped up to intersections — which lure cyclists into a deathtrap. Regardless of whoever may be held legally at fault in underrun collisions, cyclists have the ability to prevent them, and preventing them is the first order of business.

Want to learn how to defend yourself against going under a truck? Detailed advice on avoiding bicycle/truck conflicts may be found on the Commute Orlando Web site.

Additional comments about the political situation which promotes underrun collisions may also be found on that site.

Right-turn lane as dual-destination lane?

I’ve had criticism from an unusual side about the video below. The complaint, from another cyclist, was essentially that I was not following the rules of the road, not operating as the driver of a vehicle, by riding straight through in a right-turn lane. Most criticism about my cycling, and my cycling advice, comes from people who would rather that cyclists not have to ride on roads at all!

Allston to Cambridge by Bicycle via River Street Bridge from John Allen on Vimeo.

To answer this criticism, let me first provide some background.

Anyone who uses the roads in the Boston area , whether as a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian, soon discovers that the street markings often contradict the requirements of normal traffic movement. Of course this is what knowledgeable cyclists complain about as it applies to bike lanes — emphatically so in the Boston urban core, where there is rarely room for bike lanes outside the door zone. Door-zone bike lanes have been installed anyway ever since the Cambridge bicycle coordinator introduced them in the mid-1990s. (Now she has moved on to X-merges, bicycle sidewalks, jughandle left turns and bowling-alley bus stops, and the City of Boston is working to play catch-up.)

We don’t only have bike lanes in the door zone here, we have bike lanes in the taillight zone — like this one on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Bike lane in taillight zone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

When I had the opportunity to ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico a couple of years ago, I had a real eye opener: I saw and rode on bike lanes which are mostly functional rather than dysfunctional. They are on streets without parking; motorists merge across them to turn right. I realized that bike lanes in the Boston area give others a bad name.

The Boston area has a terrible reputation for bad driving compared with other cities. In my opinion. strongly backed up by statistics, this reflects cultural differences rather than reality. There is somewhat of a chip-on-the-shoulder, butt-into-line attitude among many Boston drivers. It probably goes back as far as the Blueblood vs. Irish struggles for political power of a century and more ago. Some drivers feel a sense of entitlement and an emotional need for self-assertion. But the rudeness also at times reflects the practical need to get going. A Boston driver more often has blindly to inch out into the path of a vehicle which has the legal right of way, simply to get into the stream of traffic, than in most other American cities. A cyclist who doesn’t understand this will feel continually abused and endangered; a cyclist who understands the need to assert lane position and right of way finds Boston a very easy and safe place to ride. I describe how to be that cyclist, here.

There aren’t good statistics on bicycling, but Boston has the lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities of any of 52 major US cities. Boston drivers may be rude, but also they are clearly more attentive than elsewhere. They have to be. They know that they have to keep their eyes open, and that the street design and street markings have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The conflict between markings and traffic movements here in the Boston area didn’t begin with, and isn’t restricted to, bike lanes. It results in the first instance from an attempt to impose standard road markings and channelization on streets which are too narrow to accommodate them, or on multi-way intersections which are too complicated.

In order to accommodate parking, there are quite a few travel lanes too narrow even to fit a conventional dual-track motor vehicle. Here’s an example.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Narrow travel lane next to parking, Franklin Street, Framingham, Massachusetts.

There are also multi-way signalized intersections where traffic engineers threw up their hands and let traffic enter from more than one leg at a time and merge inside the intersection.

And now, zeroing in on the topic of this post, there are numerous situations where an empty right-turn lane parallels a congested through lane, and neither lane is wide enough for side-by-side lane sharing. Often there is also a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection — as in the example shown in the video.

I completely agree that it is foolish and hazardous for cyclists to ride near the right side of a right-turn lane when headed straight across the intersection. That is the “coffin corner” situation that we lament when it kills a naive cyclist. But, on the other hand, I consider treating an empty right turn lane with a receiving lane or shoulder after the intersection as a dual-destination lane, and riding in its center or toward its left side, only to be a variation on the decades-old advice to choose lane position according to the rules of motion, and ignore the bike-lane stripe. I’m not alone in this, not at all. Installations formalizing this treatment have been made in a number of places in the USA. It is accepted under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices if shared-lane markings are used, though state laws generally still do not allow it. It is still in the experimental phase if a through bike lane is to be installed inside a right turn lane. That is documented on this page on the FHWA site.

Most importantly though, treating a right-turn lane as a dual-destination lane when it is empty, or lightly-used, or carrying slow traffic while the through lane is blocked, and riding at its center or left side does not violate the rule of destination positioning and does not lead the cyclist into a conflict. I yield when entering the lane (if there is any vehicle to yield to) and I never place myself to the right of right-turning traffic. I have never gotten into a hazardous situation by doing this. I must anticipate that a driver waiting in line in the through lane to the left may decide instead to turn right and enter the right-turn lane late. This is the same concern as when overtaking any line of stopped traffic, and the countermeasure is the same; stay far enough away from the stopped traffic to be able to avoid a merging vehicle.

In my opinion, the assertion that a cyclist should never ride centered or left in a right-turn lane when preceding straight across an intersection is rigid, legalistic, and impractical. But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense everywhere, either as an informal practice or a standard treatment. That is why, in my opinion, a standard is needed to establish where it may be formalized, and education is needed, as always, so cyclists will be able to judge when it is advisable or inadvisable.

Further information: I’ve had the same issue raised about my advice on riding the 9th Avenue sidepath in Manhattan, and you may read about it in the documents, photo captions and video linked under the 9th Avenue heading here.

Boston Globe: Reality Check Time

The caption with the picture below in the Starts and Stops column of the Metro section of the June 17, 2012 Boston Globe reads:

Cyclists stopped for a red light in the “bike box” on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. They provide the cyclist a safe space to wait ahead of cars at traffic signals.

Photo which appeared in the Boston Globe Metro section, June 9, 2012

Photo which appeared in the Boston Globe Metro section, June 9, 2012

(The Globe story may be behind a paywall, but you can probably access it through a public library’s Web site using your library card number.)

The smiling cyclists show that this is a posed photo; the photographer evidently only thought of the large puddle in the foreground as an artistic touch. How about the car encroaching into the bike box in the background?

Well, yes, OK, waiting in the bike box might be safe — drivers are unlikely to encroach on a cyclist who is already waiting in the bike box. The problem is with getting into the bike box. The Globe columnist, Eric Moskowitz, never considered that bicyclists approaching the bike box on a red light are encouraged to swerve sharply left across multiple lanes of motor vehicles, with no way to know when the light will turn green. A waiting motorist will not see the swerving cyclist if looking to the left for traffic at the wrong moment. A tall vehicle in one lane will conceal the cyclist from a driver waiting in the next lane.

Portland, Oregon has hosted a study of bike boxes, which found that this is actually a rare problem in Portland, because cyclists are smart enough not to swerve into the bike box. Instead, if the light is red, they wait at the right curb, blocking other cyclists behind them. I saw the same thing on Commonwealth Avenue. As I said before, the Globe photo is posed.

But on the green light, there’s another problem. Bike boxes and the bike lanes which lead to them invite cyclists to overtake waiting motor vehicles on the right, risking getting struck by a right-turning vehicle. A bicyclist was right-hooked and killed in Portland, Oregon, on May 16, 2012 but apparently that news didn’t reach the Globe’s columnist, or didn’t make an impression on him. Now a letter from the City of Portland is conceding that car-bike crashes have increased at some of the intersections where bike boxes were installed. So much for the Globe’s assertion of safety.

Conscientious bicycling advocates have been warning about the “right hook” problem for decades, based on the difficulty which motorists have in looking into their right rear blindspot, while also checking the intersection ahead.

Swerving across is illegal too: here’s the Massachusetts law, in Chapter 89, Section 4A. It applies to bicyclists, the same as other drivers. Every state has a similar law.

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.

Bicycling advocates, planners and government officials who promote bike boxes have simply chosen to pretend that this traffic law doesn’t exist, or can be ignored. Same for the limits of human abilities.

Now, I wouldn’t be fair in making this criticism if I didn’t suggest alternatives.

The one I favor is for cyclists to merge before reaching the intersection. That can be facilitated by signal timing at the previous intersection to allow cyclists to merge across when motor traffic is stopped, and a clear lane into which to merge.

Other suggestions have been to prohibit right turns, or to install special signals to warn cyclists that the light is about to change. Denver’s retired bicycle coordinator, James Mackay, has described some of the measures used in European cities.

These measures will, however, result in more delay, for both cyclists and motorists.

It may be more practical just to designate another street as the one for through bicycle traffic, My favorite suggestion at this Back Bay location would be Newbury street, configured as a two-way bicycle boulevard with a bridge over the Muddy River to connect it with the Fenway area.

A ride on Comm Ave., Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Comm Ave. Boston: Kenmore Square, Mass Ave. underpass from John Allen on Vimeo.

This is a 4-minute continuous video of a bicycle ride in Boston, eastbound on Commonwealth Avenue through Kenmore Square, to and through the underpass at Massachusetts Avenue. I recommend that you view it on Vimeo site, in full-screen high definition.

Gordon Renkes and I each had a camera, so you can see both a forward and rearward view. We rode safely, and mostly by not using the special bicycle facilities.

Some highlights:

  • The block pavers, bricks and the granite curbstones used as borders for crosswalks made for a very bumpy ride across Kenmore Square and the next intersection.
  • The bike lane for the first block after Kenmore Square was unusable, due to double-parked vehicles. In the next block, it was unsafe, due to the risk of opening car doors and walkouts. One trucker was accomodating enough to park entirely outside the bike lane, inviting bicyclists to run the gauntlet between the truck and parked cars Gridlock Sam-style. We didn’t take the invitation.
  • As we waited for a traffic light, a cyclist raced past us on the right, entering the narrow channel between a row of stopped motor vehicles and one of parked cars. If anyone had walked out, or a car door had opened, the cyclist would likely have had too little time to react, and he would have had no escape route. At least he (and the pedestrian he could have struck) would have been fortunate in that one of the waiting vehicles was an ambulance.
  • There is a bike box along the route, and revealed an issue that I hadn’t noticed before. If the traffic light is red, you’re supposed to filter forward in the bike lane on the right, then swerve across two lanes of traffic to the middle of the 4-lane wide bike box, to be in line with the bike lane which is to the left of 2 lanes — see Google satellite view — note that this is an angle shot from the west. If the light is green, you could merge either before or after the intersection, but there is an advantage in merging before the intersection, as the counterexample of the video shows. You also don’t know when the light is going to change — so in either case, you make a widely divergent choice — merge left, or head for the bike lane at the right — based on insufficient information, and if the light is red, you also could be swerving abruptly across two lanes of traffic just as the light turns green.
  • The buffered bike lane in the underpass makes for an easier ride through the underpass, but where it connects to a narrow left-side bike lane outside the underpass, there is little clearance for motor traffic in the next lane, which is the faster of two travel lanes. There also is a risk of left-hook collisions. I used to ride in the right lane, claiming the lane, and that was simpler and less stressful.

More general comments:

  • The block pavers, bricks and curbstones buried in the street are not bicycle-specific, but certainly not bicycle-friendly. I predict that they will be paved over within a few years as they deteriorate.
  • The attempt to engineer a “bicycle friendly” or “low-stress” solution on busy, crowded Commonwealth Avenue is like ornamenting a pig with lipstick, costume jewelry and a party dress. The bicycle-specific measures, except the bike lane in the underpass, fly in the face of the way traffic works, and the way it uses this street. Experienced, competent cyclists like Gordon and me know how to avoid the hazards, but they worsen our experience anyway — it is in Kenmore Square (during another ride) that I first heard the call “get in the bike lane” in Boston. Less knowledgeable bicyclists garner a false sense of security, following the painted lines, and expose themselves unnecessarily to risk.
  • Meanwhile, other, better solutions beckon. I have long advocated that Boston designate and improve alternative routes on lightly-traveled streets for through bicycle travel. That would be especially easy in Back Bay, with its grid layout. My candidate for an alternative to Commonwealth Avenue would be Newbury Street, the next one to the south, a shopping street which could make a very nice bicycle boulevard, and which, with a little bridge across the Muddy River, would also connect under the Bowker Overpass into the Fenway area. A worse solution also has been proposed: the City is considering a so-called “cycle track” — a bikeway behind a row of parked cars — on the next Street after Newbury Street, Boylston Street. More about these topics later…

Guest posting: Alan Forkosh on community bike systems

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France, September, 2009

This guest posting is by permission of the author, Alan Forkosh, who writes:

Here are some observations on how the Vélib community bike system in Paris works.

My thoughts on the issue crystallized after a trip to Paris in the fall of 2009 and stemmed from 3 observations:

  • The heavy use of Vélib and the high density of Vélib stands;
  • The lack of Vélibs parked in the wild;
  • The fact that the common way of obtaining a Vélib was to swipe an authorized Navigo transit pass at the stand holding the bike.

By the way, I have some pictures of Vélibs and other bikes online.

A community bike sharing program is not about the bike: it’s about overcoming the shortcomings of the mass transportation system and making it better serve the users without increasing congestion. The problem with mass transit is that unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t quite serve your needs. The inefficiencies in waiting for trains or buses, waiting for transfers, and not going exactly where you want to go add up. In many cases, you get very frustrated just attempting the trip. A community bike system alleviates that by giving you an almost instant way to cut the delays and straighten routes to go from place to place without the intra-system delays. You go to a bike station near your origin, swipe your pass, and take the associated bike. When you reach your destination, you click the bike into a stand and are done with it. The grid is dense, so that these stations should be no more than 1000 feet from the origin and destination (I think that Vélib stations are spaced no more than 300 meters [about 1000 feet] apart).

In Paris, it is rare to see an unattended Vélib away from a bike station; the stations provide more convenient and secure parking than trying to manipulate the lock provided on the bike. Also, if you leave the bike unattended away from a station, you are responsible for it; once you secure it to its post at a station, you’re done with it. Note that Paris is only about 6 miles across and there is no extra charge for a Vélib for the first 30 minutes. So you should be able to complete almost any trip without charge. I’d be surprised if there is any measurable keeping of a Vélib over 30 minutes.

So, the intention of the program is mobility: the bike is only an instrument to promote that. The bike should be used when it makes sense to travel that way. You don’t need to plan. This idea would fail if the user were required to provide any bulky personal equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.) to use the bike.

On the Dangerous by Design report

I’m commenting briefly on a report about walking conditions in the USA at


which has been cited in a New York Times article today.

I regard this report as generally good in its description of walking conditions. It is not intended to be about bicycling,

However, several of the partner organizations listed at its start — among them, America Bikes, the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Rails to Trails Conservancy — concern themselves with bicycling, and bicycling appears here and there in the report as an aside. I’ll make the following points:

  • The report repeatedly refers to “streets designed for traffic, not for pedestrians”. This is a wording problem and a conceptual problem too. Pedestrians are traffic. It would be appropriate to say “streets designed for motor traffic, not for pedestrians”.
  • Page 13 includes the wording “Metros such as Boston, New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul are investing to build a well-developed network of sidewalks and crosswalks and already have many people walking and bicycling.” Pages 7, 29 and 36 all include the wording that “we need to create complete networks of sidewalks, bicycle paths and trails so that residents can travel safely throughout an area.” A complete network for bicycling will be mostly on streets, and partly on trails, but should generally avoid sidewalks.
  • Page 30 gives a before-and-after comparison, describing a street as having “no safe space for bikes” though the street had wide lanes where motorists and bicyclists easily could coexist. Then, narrowing the lanes and adding bike lane stripes is supposed to have created safe space, when it actually removed space and encouraged unsafe maneuvers (motorist turning right from the left of bicyclists, bicyclists overtaking on the right). The street needed repaving, and better sidewalks and crosswalks, to be sure.
  • Bicycling issues are very different from walking issues. An area that is poor for walking due to the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks can be good for bicycling. Confusing the two modes and the ways to accommodate them leads to poor planning and design decisions.
  • I am pleased to see the Boston area, where I live, described as having the very best record of pedestrian safety of any city rated in the report. Strange, isn’t it — the Boston area has repeatedly been derogated as supposedly having the nation’s craziest drivers. Also, Boston has been on Bicycling Magazine’s “10 worst cities” list until recently, when its city government finally got interested in bicycling. Boston is by no means a bad place to ride a bicycle compared with many other American cities, and the city’s efforts may be described as having mixed success, but that’s another story.

Building bridges?

There’s lots of material about Boston in this League of American Bicyclists policy document about bridge access:


I regard the document as good in its recommendations on advocacy strategies. It does overemphasize separate bikeways over shoulder and bike lane treatments — less expensive, sometimes no-cost solutions, and more suitable for use through winter — though they often accommodate only bicyclists and not pedestrians.

But — see pages 7. 11, 12, 18: Praise is heaped on Livable Streets, which is not a bicycling organization, though it is listed on the League’s Web site and is presumably, then, as of recently, a League member organization. There is no mention whatever of Massbike, which has a 35-year history in advocacy, which has been involved in the same bridge advocacy efforts, and whose President is on the League’s Board of Directors.

What message is League President Andy Clarke trying to send?