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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.

Dr. Furth’s and his students’ plan for South Brookline

On March 14, 2011, I attended a meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. At that meeting, Dr. Peter Furth of Northeastern University, and some of his students, gave a presentation on proposals for street reconstruction and bikeways in the southern part of Brookline.

Proposed treatment for West Roxbury Parkway

Proposed replacement of two two-lane one-way roadways with shoulders by a narrowed two-way roadway without shoulders and an adjacent multi-use path; Newton Street (up the embankment at the left) to provide local access only.

Most of the streets in the project area are fine for reasonably competent adult and teen cyclists to share with motorists, though one street, Hammond Street, is much less so, with its heavy traffic, four narrow lanes and no shoulders. I do agree with a premise of the presentation, that bicycling conditions could be improved, but I suggest different treatments, such as conversion from four lanes to three, with a center turn lane which becomes a median at crosswalks, also freeing up room at the sides of the roadway for motorists to overtake bicyclists.

Please read through this introduction before looking through the photo album I have posted with images from the meeting presentation, and drawings which were taped up in the meeting room.

My Concerns with the Proposal

Generally, I am concerned with the hazards and delays — and in winter, complete lack of service — which the proposal introduces for bicyclists, and with the blockages and longer trips it introduces for motorists, resulting in delay and in increased fuel use and air pollution. Some specifics:

  • The proposed system of narrow two-lane streets and segregation of bicyclists onto parallel paths makes no provision for the foreseeable increasing diversity of vehicle types and speeds as fuel prices rise. This trend can only be managed efficiently and flexibly with streets that are wide enough to allow overtaking.
  • Proposed paths are on the opposite side of the street from most trip generators, and many movements would require bicyclists to travel in crosswalks, imposing delay, inconvenience and risk for bicycle travel on the proposed route and on others which cross it. Small children would not safely be able to use the proposed routes unless accompanied by an adult, same as at present.
  • The proposal would further degrade or eliminate bicycle access in winter, because of the proposed 22-foot roadway width, and because the proposed parallel paths could not be kept ice-free even if they are plowed.
  • Though intersections are key to maintaining traffic flow, the proposal puts forward an incomplete design for most intersections and no design for some of them.
  • The narrowed streets provide no accommodation for a vehicle which must stop while preparing to turn left into a driveway, or to make a delivery, or to pick up or discharge passengers, for bicyclists who must travel in the street to reach a destination on the side opposite the path, or for bicyclists who wish to travel faster than the path allows.
  • The proposal includes no discussion of improvements to public transportation, which would be key to reductions in congestion and fossil fuel use. There are no bus turnouts, although Clyde and Lee Streets are on an MBTA bus line, school buses use the streets in the project area, and additional bus routes are foreseeable.
  • The proposal includes a 12-foot-wide service road along Clyde and Lee Street, part of which is to carry two-way motor traffic along with bicycle and pedestrian traffic. At times of heavy use, 12 feet on the Minuteman Bikeway in Boston’s northwestern suburbs is inadequate with only pedestrian and bicycle traffic. 12 feet is not wide enough to allow one motor vehicle to pass another. Larger service vehicles (moving vans, garbage trucks etc.) could access parts of this service road only by backing in, or by driving up a curb and across landscaped areas. These vehicles would completely block other motorized traffic on the service road.
  • The proposal is expensive because it requires tearing up every one of the streets in order to narrow it, not only construction of a parallel path.

Confusion in the Presentation

There also was confusion in the presentation:

  • North is confused with south, or east with west in the captions to several photos. Due to the confusion, some photos show a path on the opposite side of the street from where the plan drawings place it.
  • Some items in the illustrations are out of proportion. In one illustration (the one near the top in this post), a two-lane arterial street is only 10 feet wide, based on the height of a Segway rider on an adjacent path, or else the Segway rider is 12 feet tall, riding a giant Segway.
  • Other details are inconsistent, for example, showing a sidewalk in a plan drawing, but no sidewalk in an image illustrating the same location.
  • There is confusion about location of some of the photos. Some cross-section drawings are shown without identification of the location in the plans. The location of one cross section is misidentified.
  • The proposal makes unsupportable claims about safety.

There also is an ethical issue: in their presentation, the students have appropriated a number of Google Street View images without attribution — a violation of copyright and of academic ethics. (Furth’s students also plagiarized photos from my own Web site for a different presentation, but I digress.)

Overview and Conclusions

The proposal generally attempts to make bicycle travel a safe option for children and for people who are new to bicycling. It fails to accomplish that, due to problems with access across streets to the proposed pathways. It also adds complication and delay for motorists and for the majority of existing and foreseeable bicycle users. It degrades and sometimes eliminates bicycling as an option in the winter months, and it pays no attention whatever to public transportation.

I have no objection to construction of a path in the parkland adjacent to the streets in the project area, but the proposal also works to enforce the use of the path by reducing the utility of the road network for bicyclists as well as for other users.

I do think that street improvements are desirable, and on one street (Hammond Street) a high priority to improve bicycling conditions, but these improvements can be achieved mostly through restriping, without the massive reconstruction, or rather, deconstruction, that has been proposed.  This narrowing the roadways is intended to increase greenspace, and also  apparently to reduce speeding, but the proposal goes way overboard in reducing capacity, convenience and flexibility. There are other options to reduce speeding, most notably enforcement and traffic-calming measures which affect speed without decreasing capacity.

The large multi-way rotary intersection of  Hammond, Lagrange and Newton Streets, West Roxbury Parkway and Hammond Pond Parkway is the one place where I consider reconstruction to be a high priority.

Education also is an essential element of any attempt to make bicycling safer and a more practical option.

Larger Contextual Issues

Long-run issues of energy cost and availability raise questions about the viability of sprawled suburbs whose residents are dependent on private motor-vehicle travel.

South Brookline is more fortunate. It is a medium-density residential area of single-family homes, only about 5 miles from the Boston city center and also only a few miles from the Route 128 corridor, a major employment concentrator. Schools, places of worship, parklands and shopping are closer than that. Bicycling can and should have a role here, but for many people and many trips, it is not an option, due to age, infirmity, distance, and the need to transport passengers and goods.

South Brookline could benefit from a comprehensive transportation plan, including strengthening of public-transportation options and maintaining arterial roads with capacity for varied existing,  foreseeable and unforeseen uses.

Developing such a plan requires skills, resources and time beyond what I can muster, and so I’ll not attempt that here.

Now, please move onto the photo album.

Manufacturing traffic jams on Grand Street, Manhattan

Someone has watched my video of Grand Street, in Manhattan, and commented:

John, I watched the Grand Street video (which was kind of fun) but I couldn’t help but notice you are passing a lot of cars, which makes your average speed seem reasonable for the environment.

That average speed, including waits for traffic lights, was 5.5 miles per hour, half my usual. Yes, I do wait for the lights, though many New York bicyclists aren’t so patient.

Please have a look at the video so you can evaluate the rest of this post. Note especially the bus stopped in the street near the start of the video, because that will play in my comments.

Why were my riding companion John Schubert and I passing a lot of cars — and not only parked cars? The others were stopped cars. Even at 5.5 mph, you can pass stopped cars.

Grand Street is one block north of a major arterial, Canal Street, and carries overflow traffic arriving from New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel. In case you want more detail, I’ve posted photo gallery with maps online. I thank John Ciccarelli, John Schubert and Steve Faust, my companions in exploring Grand Street, for the commentary and photos which they contributed.

Here’s one photo, as an example — and you may click on it to see it in the photo gallery. That’s Steve Faust, in the yellow parka.

Trucks blocking the Grand Street bikeway

Trucks blocking the Grand Street bikeway

Grand Street passes through Manhattan’s Chinatown — accounting for the street vendors standing and walking in the bikeway near the end of the video. Grand Street also is where the infamous Chinatown intercity buses pick up and discharge passengers, to avoid paying to use the Port Authority terminal uptown.

Grand Street now has only one travel lane. A second lane was removed to create the bikeway. Whenever a bus stops — or any other vehicle stops in the travel lane — all other traffic stops and waits behind it. Traffic backs up for several blocks.

The bus drivers park the buses diagonally to prevent motorists from sneaking past and colliding with bus passengers, though this does not prevent bicyclists from sneaking past and colliding with bus passengers. You can see one of the buses parked diagonally near the start of my video.

The traffic backups, then, illustrate the law of unintended consequences. The backups result from the redesign that created the bikeway. Possibly, the designers thought that they would calm traffic by reducing Grand Street from two travel lanes to one, in the hope that the traffic from New Jersey would go elsewhere. It didn’t work. To calm traffic, you have to reduce the actual traffic, rather than to try to cram the same traffic onto a street which can’t accommodate it. Instead of calming traffic, the designers created traffic jams, increasing fuel consumption and air pollution.

My observation about traffic flow before the redesign is confirmed by an early, prototypical pre-Streetfilms video. The video stars Mark Gorton, the money man behind Streetfilms, and shows conditions on Grand Street before the redesign. Motor traffic flowed smoothly. Gorton shows vehicles stopped to load and unload, but they don’t block the street, with a second lane available for overtaking.

Gorton’s main concern is with width of the sidewalks, a valid concern in my opinion, though the sidewalks are in fact only narrow in some blocks, and Gorton takes his advocacy to the opposite extreme. He shows a Photoshopped example of how we need to “return control of the street to the communities that live here and the people that live here” by converting part of the roadway into an open-air restaurant — placing restaurant patrons elbow-to-rear-view mirror with moving motor vehicles, where the diners can enjoy a fine mix of food aromas and exhaust stench. This treatment reflects the influence of the “shared space” designs of British architect Benjamin Hamilton-Baillie. These treatments turn the entire street into pedestrian space, and tame motorists, because they can now safely travel only at pedestrian speed without killing pedestrians.

Tellingly, Mr. Gorton never mentions bicycling. Evidently, he had not yet discovered it.

“Return to the people” is code language for “take away space from motorized uses.” That is, to take control away from people who use motor vehicles and give it to “the people,” who all agree perfectly with the point of view expressed in the video. If that sounds vaguely Leninist to you, well, yes, I think so too. Ah, New York, where a wealthy hedge fund manager sounds off with Leninist rhetoric!

Real-world, American-style political pressures came to bear, and we now see the outcome. It’s rather clear that the community, some community — some people — residents, or business people, probably both, and for better or worse — wanted parking for motor vehicles, because there’s still nearly as much as before. On the other hand, Grand Street now has restricted loading zones — and not enough to meet demand. The business community either didn’t understand what would happen, or had too little political clout to demand more space.

Part of the street’s width was, however, “returned to the people” as a bikeway which is, in reality, a sidewalk extension, an outcome so predictable that I would have to laugh if the street hadn’t become such a traffic tangle, and if I weren’t required by law to ride on that sidewalk extension.

Bicyclists didn’t come out very well in this political exercise, and neither did motorists. Pedestrians came out best. They got their wider sidewalk, even if it is supposed to be a bikeway.

OK, now I’ve complained, so it’s my duty to offer a positive alternative.

Are you expecting a screed now on the joys of bicycling in Manhattan traffic on streets without any special treatment for bicyclists? Sorry to disappoint you, I’m not going to claim that Grand Street was a great street to ride on before the bikeway was constructed.

In my opinion, the Grand Street design is not thoroughgoing enough — not radical enough in one sense and not conservative enough in another. To make the street safe and attractive to bicyclists, including younger and less skillful ones, it would be necessary to displace through motor traffic to another street, and to get bicyclists out of the pedestrian zone. A way to accomplish that would be to traffic-calm Grand Street (or maybe another nearby parallel street) using barriers and diverters, more or less like the ones in Berkeley, California — so the street carries only light, local traffic.

In other words, transform the street into a neighborhood street, whose main purpose is local transportation at neighborhood-friendly speeds, like the bicycle boulevards in Berkeley — not a segregated mess, and not a pedestrian playground like upper Broadway in Manhattan. Many crosstown streets in Manhattan look promising for the treatment I propose, and are quite easy to ride now, even without intentional traffic calming.

If the volume of motor traffic were much lower, we might also consider widening the sidewalks where needed.

You may notice my heresy, from the point of view of segregationist bicycling advocates: some motor traffic must remain, as on the Berkeley streets, so the entire street doesn’t become a shared-space ped zone where pedestrians walk with abandon, and bicyclists have to play dodg’em.

John Schubert and I shot another video on Grand Street the same day. At the end of the video, you may view how motorists harassed us on a section without the bikeway, but while on the part with the bikeway, we waited over a minute for a Chinatown bus to unload, had to ride very slowly at one point behind a man with a food vending cart, and had to ride in the travel lane for several blocks where the bikeway was obstructed.

You might also have a look at this video by a unicyclist. It’s a bit shaky, but he comes to the same conclusions I do.

Dutch traffic jams

Many bicycle planners and advocates would like to suggest that increases in bicycle use lead to a decrease in motor vehicle use. The Netherlands is often held up as an example. The reality there is different.

Here’s a quote from a recent Time magazine article:

The Netherlands may be known overseas for its cycling culture, but outside the country’s city centers, gridlock is the more dreary reality. Vehicle use has risen sharply over the years, but road capacity has yet to catch up — in part due to lack of space.

Dutch people like their bicycles, but evidently they also like their cars. Despite the highest bicycle mode share of any industrialized country and high fuel prices, motor-vehicle use has been, as the article says, rising sharply. Here is a slide from a presentation given in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA in the fall of 2008 by Hans Voerknecht of the Dutch government’s Fietsberaad (bicycling research institute).

Dutch feelings about motoring, bicycling and public transportation

Dutch feelings about motoring, bicycling and public transportation

Also, and rather surprisingly to this author, the Dutch are much less happy with public transportation than with either bicycling or motoring — not very good news as far as bicycling is concerned, because the bicycling and public transportation  complement one another.

There’s a lesson here somewhere. What is it? What keeps public transportation from being more appealing in the Netherlands, a rather small and wealthy country which ought to be able to afford high-quality service? What would succeed in making public transportation more appealing there? What would succeed in reducing use of private motor vehicles, or at least its societal costs in lost time, use of space, and environmental degradation? What lessons does the situation hold for the USA?

Muenster road space poster — check the numbers!

Here’s a poster produced by the city of Muenster, Germany, which has been described as one of Germany’s most bicycle-friendly cities. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The Muenster traffic poster

The Muenster traffic poster

The claim is made that the poster shows the space needed to transport the same number of people by car, bus or bicycle. What it actually shows, though is the much smaller amount of space to park the cars, bicycles and bus.

Nonetheless, the poster appears in many postings on the Internet and in planning documents, for example this one.

In case the poster’s message isn’t clear enough, the sky is cloudy in the picture with the cars. The sun is peeking out in the picture with the bus and shines brightly in the one with the bicycles.

A document published by US Federal Highway Administration expands on the caption. I have copied the US document onto my Web site with a link directly to the quote, which reads as follows:

  • Bicycle: 72 people are transported on 72 bikes, which requires 90 square meters.
  • Car: Based on an average occupancy of 1.2 people per car, 60 cars are needed to transport 72 people, which takes 1,000 square meters.
  • Bus: 72 people can be transported on 1 bus, which only requires 30 square meters of space and no permanent parking space, since it can be parked elsewhere.

I have no question myself that overuse of private motor vehicles is a problem in cities. But good design requires a good understanding of the problem. Let’s take a more sophisticated look in to space requirments.

  • 72 bicycles in 90 square meters — that’s 1 1/4 square meter per bicycle. If we allow 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) of length for each bicycle — giving about 25 cm (10 inches) of following distance between each one and the next — acceptable only among experienced road racers — then they have only 1/2 meter of width in which to ride — about 19 inches, less than the width of many bicycle handlebars.
  • 60 cars in 1000 square meters is one car in 16.7 square meters. Let’s assume that cars have 3 meter (10 foot)  lanes in which to drive. Then each car is allowed 5.6 meters of length. As a typical car is 4 meters long, the following distance here is about 1.5 meters, or 5 feet — safe only if the cars are stopped or creeping forward very slowly.
  • The space described for the bus is only the size of the bus itself, typically 2.5 meters from side mirror to side mirror, and 12 meters from front to rear bumper.

Someone in Germany generated these numbers, and the US authors swallowed them. The US document  has been quoted again and again. To be sure, the document includes a disclaimer — part of which is especially to the point:

The metric units reported are those used in common practice by the persons interviewed. They have not been converted to pure SI units since, in some cases, the level of precision implied would have been changed.

Level of precision, indeed. Units, shmunits. Garbage in, garbage out.

How much space do vehicles actually need? There are several important concerns, different for different vehicles.

  • Speed: this determines the number of different destinations accessible within a given travel time. The bicycle wins if streets are congested. The private car wins if they are not. The number of destinations reachable within a given time increases approximately as the square of speed, and so higher-speed travel modes are even more essential than it might seem when destinations are sparse — where population density is low, and for specialized services such as home repair and pickup/delivery of packages. That’s why urban couriers ride bicycles and suburban couriers use cars or vans.
  • Throughput — the number of people transported past a given point within a given time — depends on speed as well as efficiency of road use. It increases with speed up to a point, and then decreases as following distance becomes greater. If passenger cars travel twice as fast as bicycles, then only half as many passenger cars in the same length of street achieve the same throughput, even assuming only one person per car. A single bus may carry as many passengers as the cars in the picture, but it achieves less throughput with its repeated stops; also, buses run only once every few minutes at best. The throughput of a bus is impressive; the throughput of a bus line is meager.
  • Bicyclists generally take up three or four times as much space as the parked bicycles shown. If, as is common, bicyclists are riding to the right of other traffic in a single line, the ones shown would extend for more than the length of the block. There would be about half as many passenger cars as shown, for the same throughput as with the bicycles, as long as traffic isn’t congested; or the one bus.
  • Performance — throughput times speed — measures how many people a transportation mode can serve, times the number of destinations any one person can reach.
  • Street space may be used for special purposes. Buses need special reserved space for bus stops and sometimes for bus lanes. Cars take up street space when parked or stopped to load/unload, bicycles don’t but sometimes are given special bike lanes. The comparison doesn’t address these issues at all.
  • Waiting time and walking time affect speed and performance. Bicycles generally can be parked near trip endpoints; a private motor vehicle often requires a longer walk to/from a parking place, and a motorist may also spend time looking for a parking sapce. Bus passengers must walk to/from the bus stop; also wait there and possibly also at a transfer location.
  • The ability to travel with baggage or passengers is different for each mode. The private motor vehicle is most convenient (unless the driver has to make a two-way trip just to take a passenger or parcel somewhere); the bus is convenient for travel with other people but only with as much baggage as a passenger can carry; the bicycle is least convenient/flexible with passengers and baggage.
  • The cost of the space used by each mode is different and is borne in different ways.
  • The ability of people to use different modes is different. Young children must be accompanied by an adult no matter how they travel. Older children, elderly people or people with disabilities might not be able to ride a bicycle or drive a private motor vehicle, but could take the bus. Only adults can get driver’s licenses.

To summarize: The poster, and the caption “amount of space needed to transport the same number of people by bus, bicycle or car” are misleading, because the vehicles are parked, not moving. All in all, the Muenster poster and the US government publication that quotes it make an apples vs grapefruit vs. cranberries comparison – of dried fruit. Each mode — bus, bicycle or private motor vehicle, is preferable for some trips, but the comparison doesn’t get at why a person will choose one or another mode, and it seriously misrepresents the space requirements it purports to illustrate.

Better luck next time…