Tag Archives: law

About the bicycle radar reflector Kickstarter campaign

This is commentary about a Kickstarter campaign for a radar retroreflector integrated into a bicycle taillight assembly.

An image from the Web site:

Image from Ilumaware Web site

Image from Ilumaware Web site

 

 

One nice thing I can say about the product is that it is quite inexpensive, so I’ll say that first. The reason is that this is not a high-tech product. This is a low-tech component of a system whose high-tech component is in cars.

Retroreflectors work by concentrating light (or in the case of a radar reflector, radar signals) back toward the source. The product is a single cube-corner retroreflector. Optical retroreflectors are the insect’s eye version, with multiple smaller reflective elements, so they work at the much shorter wavelengths of visible light. The technology is described on another Web page.

As to the effectiveness of this product, I have no doubt that it improves the visibility of a bicycle to radar — but…

The product’s Web site repeatedly uses the term “OTR technology”, without ever spelling out the meaning of the acronym . I couldn’t find a definition anywhere online, either. This term makes the product appear more high-tech than it is. Indeed, the site claims:

Stealth techniques use radar reflection to make an object less visible and/or “invisible” to radar. We have reverse engineered this technique into a product used by a cyclist to make you more visible to a car. This is a revolutionary application of radar technology.

Reverse engineering is correctly defined as analysis of an undocumented product to develop specifications for a duplicate or similar product. Examples are the Wright brothers’ reverse engineering the flight characterisics of birds to design aircraft, and Linus Torvald’s reverse engineering the proprietary Unix computer operating system to construct the Linux operating system. The Kickstarter campaign uses the words “reverse engineered” inaccurately, so as to mislead people who do not understand it, as if to mean design of a product to have the opposite effect of an existing product. And when that product is a stealth bomber — wow, now the new product must be extremely high-tech! Again, the product is a simple cube-corner radar retroreflector, as has been used in boating for decades. The designers describe design and optimization of their product, but this is plain vanilla engineering, not reverse engineering.

A radar retroreflector which works in all directions is more desirable, (though it still will not always work, even if a car has radar, because the radar beam may not be aimed in its direction, and there may be a line-of-sight obstruction).

Radar alone as a robotic aid to a human driver is possible, but not very practical. Only a small percentage of cars have radar as of yet. A human driver uses visual cues. A fully-robotic car also must, because not every potential obstacle will be as large or reflect radar signals as well as a bicycle — think potholes, cats and dogs, etc.

The product, as shown on the Web site, includes an active taillight, but no optical retroreflector — though installed in the same location on the seatpost which is usual for one — following in the long tradition of new products promoted as a panacea for cyclists’ conspicuity problems while ignoring basic legal and functional requirements. Most states require a retroreflector or taillight, but any taillight can go out without the bicyclist’s being aware of that, and so any bicyclist who rides after dark should have a rear-facing retroreflector, not only a taillight.

The online promotion entirely fails to mention the need for a headlight, or the legal requirement for one. The Web site shows a bicycle with no headlight.

A bicyclist must always use a headlight at night, because an optical forward-facing reflector does not alert pedestrians or drivers who do not have headlights aimed at the bicycle (cars backing out of driveways, at stop signs in side streets, other bicyclists without headlights, etc.) Still, unlike the optical retroreflectors on bicycles, a forward-facing radar retroreflector is likely to be effective, because a car’s radar is likely to scan in more directions and its pulsed output is immune to interference from other sources. But the retroreflector here is only rearward-facing.

The online promotion also makes a number of inaccurate statements.

 Riding with a tail light [sic] is important regardless of the time of day.

While a very bright taillight can help to alert drivers — human or robotic —  during daytime, reducing the probability of a collision somewhat, there is no law requiring a taillight (or rear-facing optical retroreflector) when riding during daytime.

* “In 2015, more than 35,000+ collisions occurred between cars and cyclists in the U.S. Approximately every 3 minutes, world-wide, 6 people die and nearly 285 people are injured in collisions involving cars and bicycles. The majority of these accidents are from behind because drivers didn’t see the rider and it is NOT because they did not have a tail light.”

This is wildly inaccurate. While rural car-overtaking-bike collisions are disproportionately serious and fatal, only approximately 7% of car-bicycle collisions in the USA are car-overtaking-bike collisions. A very large percentage of these occurs to cyclists riding at night without a taillight! In urban areas, most of the serious and fatal collisions involve turning and crossing movements. No rear-facing conspicuity equipment —  optical or radar retroreflector, or taillight, will prevent most of these. Sure, many if not most car-overtaking bike crashes could be avoided, day and night, by use of a radar reflector, if cars have radar connected to a robotic crash avoidance system — but again, as of yet, only a very small percentage of cars is so equipped. Which takes me to my next quote:

* “In 2016 … there are 470 out of 566 unique car models sold in the U.S. equipped with radar (83%).”

This is very seriously overstated. Saying that a model is equipped with radar is not the same as saying that radar is standard. Adaptive cruise control is still often an expensive option. Only some adaptive cruise control systems include automatic crash avoidance. Some systems use laser ranging rather than radar. The fleet of motor vehicles turns over slowly. More even-handed estimates are found in this article in the Detroit News. Quote from that article:

IHS Automotive forecasts 7.2 percent of vehicles produced globally by 2020 will feature adaptive cruise control, up from 2.2 percent in 2014.

More details and a list of vehicles are on Wikipedia.

Why do promotions like this occur? Fundamentally, because regulation of bicycle equipment in the USA at the Federal level, where equipment standards are set, is a Wild West situation, harkening to the interests of the bicycle industry. That is another story, too big to cover here.

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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.

Ogden, Utah skateboarder stop

There’s plenty of confusion to go around here.

http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=35631391

Deputy: “I don’t care, you’re right in the middle of the road.” No, the boarder was on the shoulder, at least in the part of the video the TV station broadcast.

Was that legal? Bicycling is allowed on shoulders in many states. I couldn’t find anything on that on the Utah legislative site section on bicycles, http://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title41/Chapter6A/41-6a-P11.html.

But the man was on a skateboard, not a bicycle. Under Utah law, the skateboard is defined as a vehicle, last definition here: http://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title41/Chapter6a/41-6a-S1105.html and so, under the law, the skateboarder should have been in the travel lane, not on the shoulder or a sidewalk, if any, as little sense as that may make.

So, the officer’s charge was false. If the boarder were defined as a pedestrian, then shoulder use in the absence of a sidewalk would be legal if the boarder was traveling opposite the direction of traffic (he wasn’t), — not that this is sensible when it would have required crossing to the far side of a multi-lane road. http://le.utah.gov/…/Title41/Chapter6A/41-6a-S1009.html.

There is a sidewalk, as shown in Google Earth and Street View images.

The TV station video is edited at 00:25. It doesn’t show the entire conversation between the deputy and the boarder before the boarder attempted to flee — so we don’t know about an opportunity to comply. Other question is how the boarder could comply if there was nowhere to go except up and down a road bordered by vegetation. The deputy ran after the boarder and attempted to stop him. Probably better to let him go. The boarder fought the deputy, violently. Not smart at all.

Translation of complete paper on German bikeways 1897-1940

I’ve prepared a full translation of the important paper by Dr. Volker Briese of the University of Paderborn in Germany about the history of German bikeways from 1897 through the start of World War II. This has previously been available only in German, or in a highly condensed version in English in the narrowly distributed Proceedings of the 1993 International Cycle History Conference. You may read the English translation here, and also find your way to the other versions as well if they are what you would prefer.

Fixie or track bicycle?

Track racing bicycle,from Bicycling Magazine

Track racing bicycle, from Bicycling Magazine. The caption in the picture reads “On a fixie, there are no gears or brakes. Only your legs control the drivetrain.”

From Bicycling Magazine, June 2014, page 28:

“A fixie (or fixed gear) is a singlespeed without brakes and without the mechanism that allows the bike to coast when you’re not pedaling.”

That is a description of a track racing bicycle, which is only one kind of bicycle with a fixed gear. The caption in the picture with the article repeats this description.

Let’s get definitions straight:

  • A fixed gear is a connection between the pedals and the driving wheel without a mechanism which allows coasting.
  • Antique high-wheeler bicycles have a fixed gear;
  • Children’s tricycles have a fixed gear;
  • Sturmey-Archer sells a three-speed fixed-gear hub, and so, some fixed-gear bicycles are not singlespeeds;
  • “Fixie” is not synonymous with “fixed gear”. Rather, “fixie” is slang for a bicycle with a fixed gear.
  • Fixed-gear bicycles for the road,  as a matter of common sense, safety and traffic law in many jurisdictions, must have a brake.

Though it is possible to slow a brakeless fixie by resisting the rotation of the pedals, this braking is not as effective as with a front handbrake, and can be lost due to the cranks’ outrunning the feet, or the chain’s coming off.

The photo with the Bicycling Magazine article shows a brakeless fixie on a street — illegal in many places, and with impaired safety due to the longer stopping distance and unreliability of braking. Also, the cyclist is using toe clips and tightly-adjusted straps with the end of each strap passed through the slot at the bottom of the buckle. The straps cannot, then, be adjusted while riding — OK on the track where a starter holds the bicycle upright, but not on the road. I have to wonder whether the cyclist in the photo was assisted in starting, or is being held upright for the photo by someone outside the picture.

Why am I taking the trouble to write this? Primarily, because the Bicycling Magazine article may induce people to take up riding fixed-gear bicycles without brakes on the road, and fumble with toeclips and straps, and crash, and be held at fault for crashing for lack of a brake. I am distressed that editors at Bicycling Magazine would pass on an incorrect description which generates confusion and might promote such behavior.

A thorough and accurate discussion of fixed-gear bicycles for use on the road may be found in Sheldon Brown’s article.

For the record, I own a fixie, shown in the photo below, and it is street-legal, equipped with dual handbrakes. If I had only one brake on this bicycle, it would be the front brake — but for riding with a freewheel, or on steep descents, I have installed a rear brake as well.

John Allen's fixie

John Allen’s fixie

Is the NACTO Guide a Design Manual?

In cities around the USA, politicians, under pressure from populist bicycling advocates, have pointed to the NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide and directed their engineering staff to install treatments which it describes.

I’ll say right here that some of the treatments which the NACTO guide describes deserve attention and inclusion in national design standards — though their presentation in the NACTO Guide typically is flawed, inconsistent and incomplete. Why some deserving treatments are not included in the national design standards is a story for another time.

Other NACTO treatments are so troublesome that they are not widely applicable.

Engineers unfamiliar with bicycling issues may take NACTO designs at face value; other engineers may throw up their hands and comply, faced with the threat of losing their employment. Several engineers who have extensive background and expertise in design for bicycling have resigned, been fired or been demoted when they would not accept the NACTO designs.

What leads to these problems? To put it simply, the NACTO guide isn’t a design manual. It is a smorgasbord of design treatments formatted — right down to digitally-generated loose-leaf binder holes on what are, after all, Web pages — to look like a design manual to politicians and the general public. Bicycle manufacturers funded it to promote street designs which they expect will lead to greater bicycle sales. It lacks the vetting necessary for consistency and accuracy. Its purpose is to generate political pressure to apply the treatments it describes. It is weak on specifics: rife with errors, and with omissions even in describing the treatments it covers.

If I described all of my specific  concerns with the NACTO Guide, I’d be writing a book, so for now let’s just look at a two-page spread of the NACTO Guide, the pages about two-stage turn queuing boxes (2STQBs, for short).

Maybe by now you are inclined to think of me  as a naysayer, so, let me get down to some specifics to dispel that impression. I have had information about two-stage turn queuing boxes online for years, I think that they are a useful treatment, and I use two-stage turns: when I realize that I have reached the street where I need to turn left, but hadn’t merged to turn; when traffic is heavy and fast and I haven’t found an opportunity to merge; when ordinary left turns are prohibited. My favorite example is the left turn from Commonwealth Avenue onto the Boston University Bridge in Boston, Massachusetts, where a no-left-turn sign is posted: motorists have to go around a large loop.

Ok, now let’s consider the spread from the NACTO guide, below.

NACTO pages about two-stage turn box

NACTO pages about two-stage turn queuing box

I have placed that spread online as a PDF file, zoomable to any size you might like. You may click on the link or the image above to get a larger view while reading this text. The PDF will open in a separate browser window or tab. I’ve also posted parts of the NACTO pages in connection with the text below.

Issues of organization and use of technical language

The NACTO treatment of the two-stage turn queuing box presents issues of organization and of use of technical language.

Problems start with the title of the section. A proper title is not “Design Guidance”, otherwise, every section would be named “Design Guidance”. A proper title is the name of the device, here “Two-Stage Turn Queuing Box”. [And not “Queue” but” Queuing.”]

In a proper design manual, the terms “shall”, “should”, “guidance” and “option” go from strong to weak. “Shall” is imperative: for example, a stop sign shall be octagonal. Should, guidance and option statements are increasingly weaker, leaving more room for engineering judgment.

The terms “Required Features” and “Recommended Features” correspond roughly to “shall and “should” but do not have the explicit, legally-defined meanings of “shall” and “should”.

None of the drawings on the two pages are dimensioned, and no dimensions are given in the text. That is to say, these are not engineering drawings, they are only conceptual drawings. How big are the turn boxes supposed to be? Who knows? The width of travel lanes differs from one drawing to the next, but no explanation is given for that. When politicians start beating on the door for NACTO treatments, standards-setting bodies and traffic engineers have to try to fill in the missing information. For specific projects, that task often is passed along to hired consultants who make their living by promoting and designing special bicycle facilities. Yes, there is a conflict of interest.

Specific comments

Now, either click on the image of each section of the page below to open it in a separate browser tab, or zoom the PDF to at least 50% size so you can read the text in connection with my specific comments .(You may open it now if you didn’t already.)

Comments on the left-hand page

The left-hand page includes text which may look like design specifications, and drawings which may look like design drawings — to a layperson.

Left half of left-hand page

twostageturn_guidanceLL

Point 1: “An area shall be designated to hold queuing bicyclists and formalize two-stage turn maneuvers.” This is under the heading “Required Features.”  A 2STQB is only one way to turn left among others, an option, subject to engineering judgment or specific design warrants. There is neither the room nor the need for a 2STQB at most intersections. Lacking here is any statement as to where a 2STQB is appropriate, but the “shall” statement here is inappropriate: appropriate shall statements would describe what features are required if a 2STQB is installed. As of May 2014, the 2STQB is still in experimental status with the Federal Highway Administration — as are all details of its design, and so no “shall” statement at all is appropriate.

A proper design manual would include guidance about speed and volume of traffic; the additional delay usually required for a two-stage turn; whether bicyclists might take an alternate route entirely; whether use of the box is  mandatory, placing bicyclists who make other types of turns in violation of the law.

Point 4: “In cities that permit right turns on red, a no-turn-on-red sign shall be installed.”

According to the wording here, if the installation is not in a city, the sign is not required.

But also, the shall statement is overly broad, and incomplete. The sign is needed only if right-turning traffic would be in conflict with the bicyclists waiting in the 2STQB: unnecessary in the cross street if traffic turns right before reaching the box or cannot turn right, and unnecessary on the entry street if the cross street is one-way right-to-left. Does the sign belong on the entry street or the cross street, or both? That is not stated. Details, details…

Point 6: The comma makes nonsense of this sentence. Where is the box to be positioned?

The other, subsidiary “should” and “may” statements on this page also are contingent on official approval of the underlying design, and are lacking in detail.

Right half of left-hand page

twostageturn_guidanceLR

Something really leaps out at me here: take a look and see whether it leaps out at you too.

OK, ready? Three of the six illustrations show a line of travel (in blue) for bicyclists straight across an intersection and then illegally and hazardously turning right, directly into the face of approaching traffic in a cross street.

In showing this bizarre routing, the NACTO Guide also fails to address issues with the actual route which bicyclists might take.

Five of the six illustrations show that bicyclists would somehow turn 180 degrees in place. That requires dismounting and is slow and awkward. How would a bicyclist turn when the traffic light is about to change? When other bicyclists are already in the box? What about tandems? Bicycles pulling trailers? Bicycles carrying heavy baggage?

The drawings show a subtly implied but selectively addressed-threat: lanes where motorists travel are shown in a threatening shade of pink — whoops: except in the cross street where bicyclists ride head-on at motorists.

Four of the six illustrations show motor vehicles in right-hook conflict with bicyclists headed for the queuing box. The motor vehicles are turning out of the threatening pink area into what is portrayed as the safe zone– the right-hook zone. In two of the pictures,  vehicles have already impinged on the blue line which represents the path of bicyclists crossing the intersection. Green paint, which has become a catch-all warning of traffic conflicts in bicycle facilities, is shown in the queuing box, it is not shown in the conflict zone. (By way of comparison, Dutch practice in such conflict situations is that the motorist must always yield, and to use “shark teeth” markings to indicate a yield line.)

Two of the drawings show bike lanes in the door zone of parked cars.

The middle left illustration shows a receiving bike lane at the top, out of line with dashed markings in the intersection, so bicyclists bear right just before they cross a crosswalk, potentially colliding with pedestrians who would expect them to continue straight.

All of the illustrations show two-stage turns across two-lane one-way streets, though the two-stage turn queuing box is most useful where a conventional left turn is illegal, unusually difficult or hazardous — for example, when turning from a major, wide arterial street with heavy traffic, or one with trolley tracks in the median.

As already indicated, none of the drawings are dimensioned and no dimensions are given in the text.

Comments on the right-hand page

The right-hand page gives annotated pictures of conceptual installations, with angled views from overhead.

Left half of right-hand page

twostageturn_guidanceRL

The street going from bottom to top in the picture is one-way, as can be inferred by the direction in which vehicles are traveling. That the cross street is two-way may be inferred from the locations of traffic signals and the existence of the queuing box. A real design manual would be explicit about how a treatment would apply, depending on the directions of traffic in the streets.

The end of the traffic island next to the queuing box protrudes so far and is so sharply as to make right turns awkward. No explanation or guidance is given on this issue.

Traffic signals are shown for motor traffic on both streets, but no traffic signal is shown facing the separate bikeway in the street!

Point 3: “Shall” — mandatory — wording differs from that in the same point as made on the opposite page. A real design manual would have a single, consistent statement. “Queue box shall be placed in a protected area.” The queuing box shown here is not protected from right-turning traffic in the cross street. How would that right-turning traffic be managed, or is it permitted at all? Such issues are addressed in a real design manual.

Point 6: “Optional queue box location in line with cross traffic.” The preferred queuing box, then, is not in line with cross traffic. On getting a green light, bicyclists in the queuing box would have to merge left inside the intersection unless there is a receiving bike lane after the intersection, but none is shown. Merging inside an intersection results in hazardous conflicts and is generally illegal. What warrants the choice of one or the other option? It isn’t stated.

Point 8: The illustration shows motorists and a bicyclist inside the intersection, and so they must have a concurrent green light — or, they would if any signal were shown facing the bikeway. Markings guide bicyclists across the intersection, but also into the path of right-turning traffic. The bicyclist and the motorist in the right-hand lane at the bottom of the picture are on a collision course if the motorist turns right.

What is the meaning of the curved markings adjacent to the bicycle parking in the middle of the street? Does the lane with bicycle parking start as a lane with car parking, additionally hiding bicyclists from turning motorists? Or is this an additional lane for motor traffic, discontinued at the intersection, precisely where more lanes are needed to store waiting traffic? Not shown.

Right half of right-hand page

twostageturn_guidanceRR

There is a right-hook threat at both bike lane entries to the intersection.

Bicyclists headed from bottom to top in the bike lane are riding in the door zone of parked cars, and closer to the cars after crossing the intersection.

Point 9: As in the left half of the page, placing the queuing box to the right of the travel lane when there is no receiving lane ahead assures that motorists will overtake bicyclists in the intersection and that bicyclists will have to wait for motor traffic to clear before they can proceed. Motorists waiting to turn right will be stuck behind the bicyclists. Placement out of line with motor traffic is described as the option here, rather than as the preferred treatment as on the left side of the page, and the problem is acknowledged in the caption to this drawing, though no explanation for the different choices is given.

Point 10: A jughandle may be useful if traffic is so heavy or fast that bicyclists have difficulty merging to the normal left-turn position near the center of the street, but then traffic is also so heavy and fast that a signal is usually necessary, not merely to be considered — unless there is already one upstream.

Point 11: Yes, signage may be used, but what signage? A real design manual would show the signs and where they are to be placed.

Point 12: A bicycle signal might be installed, but where? for the entry? For the exit? Its timing?

Point 13: Guide lines, pavement symbols and/or colored pavement. Which? Where? Why?

Had enough?

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. (There is 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)

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 addition 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 Bay 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.

 

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Sloppy cycling meets sloppy journalism

Washington, DC TV station WJLA, channel 7, has run a story about new bicycle laws passed by the DC City Council and signed by the mayor. The new section reads as follows:

A new section 9d (D.C. Official Code § 50-2201 .04d) is added to read as follows:

“Sec. 9d. Bicyclists’ use of leading pedestrian in tervals.
“(a) A bicyclist may cross at an inter section while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic
control devices.
“(b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.”

Questions have been raised by cyclists in an online group I belong to, for example, “So how are the bicyclists supposed to reach the intersection when no bikeways are present? By lane splitting? Filtering forward on the right? Using the sidewalk? Or are bike lanes and boxes supposed to be provided at all intersections? This will be a boon to red light runners and further the bad mixing of bicyclists and peds as “one category”, or as some like to say, further the pedestrianization of bicycling.”

But I’d like to discuss the video itself. It came with an embed code, and here it is.

After 15 seconds of an ad for an Infiniti SUV, you’ll get to see the news story about bicycling.

Much of the narration in the video is posted on a Web page under the headline

D.C. cycling made safer with new rules of the road

That headline is rather interesting not only because of the questions which have been raised, but also because the law isn’t even in effect yet. In a year or two we might have data as to whether cycling has become safer. It would be much more difficult to determine whether that resulted from the new law. A recent study did show that cycling is becoming less safe the crash rate is increasing in Washington, DC — as might be expected when large numbers of new and inexperienced cyclists enter the traffic mix.

The text identifies interviewees — though only by their last names. One is named Clarke. More about that later. Also there are bike-cam shots in which you can see the cyclist’s plaid sleeves. This leads to an interesting discovery. My rundown of the video:

0:00 The words “outrage” and “alarm” are used. Inset on the screen reads “Bike vs. Car.” The TV station is pandering to motorists’ sense of entitlement and identifying inanimate machines as doing battle with each other, as a surrogate for operators of those machines placing them in conflict with each other. The concept of cooperative use of the public streets gets short shrift in this video.

0:49 Bicyclist in the plaid shirt threads the needle between a stopped SUV and a bus, placing him immediately directly in front of the bus. Nice thing the bus wasn’t about to start up. Headache for the bus driver in any case.

0:52 another cyclist waddles out from behind a stopped vehicle in front of another vehicle which is just starting to move.

1:02 the man on the street being interviewed is wearing the same plaid shirt as the one in the on-bike video making dumb moves. In the online text his name is given as “cyclist Billing” and he uses the royal “we.” “We” is WABA: Greg Billing writes blog posts for WABA and has written one about this new law.

1:05 Billing is shown turning left and heading for a door-zone bike lane to filter forward. Shot is cut off abruptly before he reaches the lane.

1:12 Cyclist identified in the text as Senff justifies advanced green on ped signal so “you don’t feel so, I don’t know…pushed.” How that applies when starting ahead of the motor traffic, I don’t know.

1:25 Through-the-windshield shot as car enters a combined bike lane/left turn lane, which figures later in the video too.

1:35 Truth is spoken by a man identified as Bradford: not all bicyclists operate properly.

1:40 Narration is about a bicyclist operating responsibly, but the bicyclist shown in one of many low-angle mood shots has a shopping bag dangling next to the front wheel.

1:45 The narrator complains of a bicyclist overtaking a motorist who is signaling a turn. The bicyclist, seen through a car windshield, is legally in a combined bike lane/left turn lane to the left of a through lane from which a motorist ahead is preparing to turn left illegally. Flex posts would keep a knowledgeable bicyclist from merging out of the bike lane. The driver preparing to turn left couldn’t make sense of the intersection design, and the bicyclist was blissfully unaware of the risk. The layout here is the same as at 1:25 in the video — it might even be the same intersection — and similar to the one at Market and Octavia Streets in San Francisco where fatal crashes have occurred.

1:50 The unidentified Clarke is revealed to be an African-American woman, not Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists.

1:54 Billing provides a bike-cam shot, riding at speed in a left-turn lane going too fast to turn left, but the shot is cut just before he reaches the intersection.

2:15 A cyclist is in the door zone and uncomfortably close to a pedestrian.

2:20 — The law has to be voted on by Congress. It isn’t yet in effect.

All in all, there’s plenty enough cluelessness to go around, with this video, but I do agree with Mr. Bradford!

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.

Link to my letter to Senator Scott Brown

My letter to a staffer of Senator Scott Brown about the mandatory sidepath provision in the Federal Tranportation Bill is online. Feel free to re-use it, or parts of it.