Tag Archives: Massachusetts

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.

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…

“Shared space” — longer video and discussion

This post is a companion to my earlier one titled “No Rules.” The video here shows my entire ride on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a forward and rearward view, while the one in “No Rules” shows only highlights in a forward view. I discuss the “shared space” phenomenon at length in this post.

Commercial Street is one lane wide and officially one-way, but it is heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists traveling in both directions, to the extent that motorists can only travel at a very low speed and often must stop. Bicyclists also must take special care, ride slowly and often stop. Some do and others do not. Pedestrians need to be alert to the hazards. Some are and others are not.

“Shared space” has become a buzzword among people who want to “return the street to the people,” meaning, in reality, make the street into a pedestrian plaza — a social space. Pedestrians, then, serve as obstacles to slow down faster modes. “Shared space” advocates regard this as a benefit, and point to a reduction in the rate of serious crashes. This reduction, however, results from the very low speeds at which travel is possible in such an environment. Even so, there are safety problems. Even cycling at a moderate speed is hazardous to pedestrians — and equally, to cyclists who collide with pedestrians. As the video shows, I had to ride slowly and cautiously to avoid colliding with several pedestrians who made sudden, unpredictable moves.

Another buzzword is “no rules”. Sure, pedestrians can bump into each other without usually causing injury. “Shared-space” advocates, however, often consider cyclists to be like pedestrians — a serious misconception. Cyclists traveling at their normal speed can socialize only with each other, and are antisocial, not social, in a pedestrian plaza. Safe sharing of “Shared space” requires cyclists to travel so slowly that there is little advantage over walking. Cyclists and motorists in “shared space” must pay strict attention to the basic speed rule, to go no faster than is safe under the conditions at the time and place. Violate this, knock a pedestrian down, and then hope that you have good insurance. Other rules apply, as well, in many “shared space” installations: yielding before entering the roadway; overtaking on the left; exclusions or limited hours for motor traffic.

The one rule that most cyclists disregard on Commercial Street is established by one-way signs. Cyclists disregard it for a particular reason: there is no comparable street which allows travel in the opposite direction. Bradford Street, one block farther from the harbor, is hilly and carries regular motor traffic. Commercial Street is the location of businesses which appeal to tourists who pile off the ferries from Boston, while Bradford Street has few such businesses.

What would improve the situation here? The first thing I would suggest is to block off the west (up-Cape) end of Commercial street where it separates from Bradford Street so motor vehicles can’t enter, and to install signs directing them to use Bradford Street. I think that many of the motorists who enter Commercial street are tourists who don’t know what they are getting into. If they used Bradford Street instead, they would get where they are going sooner, and would need to travel at most one or two blocks on Commercial street to reach any destination. It might also be helpful to sanction contraflow bicycle travel, and paint a dashed line down the middle of Commercial street to encourage keeping to the right. Moving parking off Commercial street also could help, especially in the few blocks near the center of Provincetown where traffic is heaviest. That could at the very least allow more room for pedestrians without their getting into conflict with cyclists and motorists. There is an abandoned rail line — partly on a lightly-used dead-end street, and paralleling much of Bradford Street and Commercial Street. It could carry the bicycle traffic heading in and out of town.

Beyond that, I don’t see much that can be done. Commercial Street is what it is, a quaint, narrow street like those in many European cities. Short of a horrible disaster — a huge storm or tsunami which would destroy the entire waterfront — Commercial Street isn’t going to get any wider.

No rules?

Quite by chance, I encountered an advocate of “shared space” and had a conversation with him at the start of a ride I undertook to illustrate the concept. The advocate expressed that there are “no rules” in this kind of space, which is dominated by pedestrians. Do you agree?

A Cyclist Signs Up for Advanced Driver Training

What was an avid cyclist doing in a place like this?

I like to ride my bicycle but sometimes I have to drive.

Over 40 years ago on dirt roads and snow in Vermont, I learned to steer into a turn; to manage the situation when a car loses traction, rather than to blank out or panic.

I shot the video above recently, in a class with hands-on driver training which goes well beyond that. All of the instructors are racers. They test the limits of traction at every turn on the racecourse. But here, they are teaching skills for crash avoidance on the road.

My son took the class with me. He had taken a conventional driver training course and already had his driver’s license, but he had no experience handling a car at the limits of traction.

The InControl course begins with a classroom lecture. Our instructor, Jeremy, explained that driver training is broken in the USA: that over 40% of new drivers have a crash within the first two years; 93% of crashes result from driver error and so, are preventable. He also explained that he would be teaching about steering, braking, hazard perception and avoidance.

Jeremy handed a quiz sheet with 16 questions to check off, true or false. We were told to hold onto our quiz sheets because we would review them later.

The most compelling part of the course is the hands-on practice. It is conducted under safe conditions on a closed course, in a huge, empty parking lot, in cars with a low center of gravity; an instructor is always in the car. As shown in the video, we did the slalom — at first with an instructor driving; then each student took a turn driving. We learned how great the effect of small increases in speed can be on the ability to maneuver. We practiced emergency stops, then swerving while braking; we had the backing demonstration and the tailgating test, as shown in the video.

To learn how to anticipate potential hazards takes time, and experience. The InControl class can discuss this but not teach this. A driving simulator like the ones used to train airline pilots would help to build that experience under risk-free conditions. Video gaming technology is approaching the level that it could do this at a relatively low price. Computers are up to the task, but they would need multiple visual displays and a special “driver’s seat” controller. Lacking that technology, I have traveled many miles with my son, both as a driver and as a passenger, coaching him. His many more miles of experience stoking our tandem bicycle were a fine lead-in.

What did I learn in this class, with my nearly 50 years of experience as a licensed driver? Several things of importance — among them:

  • Despite my decades of experience, I answered several questions on the quiz incorrectly. I’m not going to provide a crib sheet– go take the course.
  • There is a very significant advantage to having different tires for summer and winter use, due not only to snow but also to temperature difference. Winter tires have “sipes” — small grooves –to develop a “snowball effect” — actually picking up snow so it will adhere to other snow, and improving traction. Tires should be replaced when tread is still twice the height of the wear bars.
  • Side-view mirrors should be adjusted wider than I had been accustomed to — so their field of view starts where the windshield mirror’s field of view ends.
  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s standards for a 5-star safety rating are lower for SUVs than for passenger cars, as a result of industry lobbying (Any surprise?)
  • Importantly, that antilock brakes do more than allow shorter stops. They allow steering during emergency braking, and we practiced this as shown in the video.
  • Most importantly, to me as a cycling instructor, that learning to manage risks is essentially the same for bicycling as for driving a car. The attitude is the same, and hazard recognition and avoidance are similar. One important difference is that a well-trained cyclist’s brain is the antilock braking controller on a bicycle.

As I write this today, my son has driven himself to his classes at the local community college 12 miles away. Like any parent, I cross my fingers every time he goes out the driveway, but I am pleased to report that he has is cautious and calm as a driver and that his driving inspires confidence, with exceptions at a very few times.

I wish he didn’t have to drive. I don’t like the environmental burden it imposes, and I don’t like the risk. If public transportation were at all reasonable, he would be using it. If the college were half as far away, he’d be riding his bicycle at least on days with good weather. For now, his getting a college education wins out over those concerns…

My September 11

My 10-year-old son Jacob’s school year hadn’t started yet on that brilliant, clear September morning. My wife had left for work. I  had a business appointment in Belmont, a few miles from our home. Jacob and I set out for Belmont around 9 AM on our tandem bicycle. There wouldn’t be much traffic; the morning rush hour had passed. I had 30 years of safe cycling in Boston-area traffic, and little concern about our completing the trip safely.

Through an open car window I heard a word or two…Boeing 757 airliner…I got a spooky feeling. No radios were playing music or the boom chicka chicka booom chicka rant (expletive) rant rant rant which passes as music. I’d gladly have had that instead, thank you.

Jacob and I were turning left from where the car is in the picture. Note the hedge on the far left corner.

Jacob and I were turning left from where the white car is in the picture. Note the hedge on the far left corner.

Jacob and I were waiting just to the right of the double yellow line at a red light, to turn left from Waverley Street onto Thomas Street, near Belmont Center. Both streets are relatively narrow two-lane, two-way streets with light traffic. My left arm was extended in a very clear left turn signal. The traffic light turned green, and just as I began to swing the tandem to the left, I heard “beep beep” of a car horn behind us. A small gray sedan going about 30 mph passed us on the left side of the street, an insanely hazardous maneuver not only because of the possible collision with us, but also because someone might be making a right turn on red from Thomas Street, and would of course be looking the other way for traffic. A hedge blocked the view around the corner, too.

…I’ve just described two classic bicycle-on-wrong-side-of-the-street crash types, only with roles switched around…

Jacob and I rode the couple of hundred yards to the Belmont police station and spoke with Officer MacEachern, who was very supportive and professional. I didn’t get a look at the driver, but Jacob did, and identified her as a woman with brown or black hair (dyed?) and, he thought, wearing glasses. We reported the license number of the car, 350 JBA. The officer verified that it was for a gray Toyota Corolla sedan, and told us that it belonged to a 75 year old woman who lived in Belmont.

Officer MacEachern said that his department unfortunately could not issue a citation, since an officer had not seen the incident, but that he would go have a talk with the driver and that it might be possible to pull her license if she is incompetent.

I can understand being temporarily out of one’s mind. One time, I was injured but felt no pain, even ignored the grating of bone on bone, just had to get — home. Once a truck strayed into my lane and sideswiped my car. Only my quick swerve avoided a full head-on crash. I was going to turn around and chase after the truck, except that my wife calmed me down.

Maybe the driver was the daughter of the car’s owner, who was in turmoil…maybe she had children at home and hoped to spend her final minutes with them.

Maybe she had someone on one of those planes — two flew from Boston — or in one of those buildings.

Jacob and I rode on to the home of my client where I shot the photo below.

Televison news coverage of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon.

Television news coverage of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon.

And that is how my son and I might have been killed on September 11 2001, not by Al Queda fanatics in red-hot hatred, though very likely through a ripple effect of their apocalyptic, ruinous madness onto someone I would probably have been happy to have as my next-door neighbor.

I went back a few weeks later and took the picture of the intersection, so I could include it in what is mercifully the story of a non-event and gets news coverage only here. Even if Jacob and I had been killed or gone to the hospital, our crash would have gotten even less attention than bicycle crashes usually do, on that day.

A take-away? Every  variety of opinion about Al Qaeda has probably already been expressed so I’ll only say this: adrenalin is a powerful mind-altering drug. It is available only by prescription except when you make it yourself, and because you do, police can’t cite you for it after a crash. But still, please think twice…

Railroad crossout

Here are some photos of Massachusetts Route 117 at the diagonal crossing of the Fitchburg Line railroad tracks, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA.

The location, in Google Maps:


View Larger Map

Google Street View photo, looking west, from approximately 2008. Note that the sidewalk goes to the right of both utility poles, the one in the foreground and the one in the background.

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

Photo taken by Jacob Allen, July 17, 2011. There is a new sign, there is a curbed median, and the sidewalk has been realigned so the more distant utility pole is now in its middle:

Route 117 and Fitchburg rail line , July 17, 2011

The next photo looks east. The sidewalk crosses the tracks diagonally. It might in fact be used as a turnout so a bicyclist traveling on the roadway could cross at a right angle, but that would require the willingness to defy the sign and ride in the narrowed roadway. There is no such option for eastbound bicyclists, who would have to cross the roadway twice to use the sidewalk. There is a crossing-signal pole in the sidewalk, not only the utility pole.

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

I understand that the median was installed to prevent motorists from crossing to the left side of the road to avoid having to wait when the crossing gates are down. The median’s stealing width from the travel lanes is shown more clearly in the photo below. There is no longer sufficient width for typical motor vehicles to overtake bicyclists safely:

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

A brief history:

  • Thousands of years ago: Native Americans lay out paths through the forest.
  • 1600s: Colonists expand paths into wagon roads.
  • 1840s: Fitchburg rail line constructed. Henry David Thoreau laments it in Walden.
  • 1920s or thereabouts: North Road in Lincoln is paved and designated as part of Massachusetts Route 117.
  • Date unknown: Crossing gates installed at Route 117.
  • 1973: Revision to the Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 85, Section 11B includes the following wording:

    Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section…

    Route 117 is by no stretch of the imagination a limited-access or express state highway.

  • 1970s: Major roads in wealthy outer suburbs of Boston get sidewalks for free through state bicycle funding: the sidewalks are identified and signed as “bicycle paths” but they are 4 feet wide, and twist and turn around every tree and utility pole.
  • 2006: Massachusetts Project Development and Design Guide is released, specifying bicycle accommodation on the roadway and not on sidewalks. The relevant description is in Chapter 5, see sections 5.2.2 and 5.3.2.2.
  • 2010: Railroad crossing in Lincoln is reconstructed to:

    • Repave the roadway.
    • Add curbed median, reducing the available roadway width. This is what I call a “threat barrier” — it does not deflect vehicles but only leads drivers to shy away from it to avoid damage to their vehicles. This type of median is not described in the Project Development and Design Guide (see sections 5.6.2 and 5.6.3).
    • Repave the sidewalk and realign it so there is a utility pole in the middle of it.
    • Add regulatory sign unsupported by law, directing bicyclists to walk on the sidewalk.

Now let’s see what might have been done instead. The photo below is of a diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

The little turnout to the right allows bicyclists to cross the tracks at a right angle without having to merge into the travel lane to their left.

The following wording is in the Project Development and Design Guide, Chapter 6, Section 6.8.5. There could be a more detailed description, but the intention is clear, and in a project that involved reconstruction of the roadway, the opportunity certainly presented itself to do what Madison did:

The crossing should be wide enough to permit bicyclists to cross the tracks at right angles, while staying in their traffic lane.

Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

A task force under the auspices of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) is currently reviewing parts of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), the national model traffic law in the USA. The NCUTCD has taken on this task because the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), which maintained the Uniform Vehicle Code, unfortunately ceased operations about 10 years ago.

I am the bicyclist representative on the NCUTCD task force. Electrically-assisted bicycles are one of the hot-button issues I will have to address.

Due to the novelty of electrically-assisted bicycles, the lack of guidance in the UVC and the lack of a user constituency — bicycling advocacy organizations having largely ignored or disparaged this increasing trend — electrically-assisted bicycles are not being addressed in a consistent or logical way under the law. In some places, electrically-assisted bicycles fall under laws that apply to gasoline-powered motorized bicycles; in others, not. We are seeing a tug of war between manufacturers’ self-interest and well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out restrictions imposed by legislators concerned about safety — as with Segways, but a bigger problem than with Segways, which have never been very common.

In my opinion, vehicles defined as electrically-assisted bicycles should be permitted wherever bicycles are permitted, but should not be capable of more than 20 mph under motor power. They shouldn’t be hard-limited to that speed, because higher speed is often possible downhill — for bicycles without electrical assist too — and is advantageous to the rider, and because speed limits are reasonably imposed locally based on conditions rather than globally based on vehicle type. These opinions are consistent with the product definition and regulation promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The situation with state laws is more confused. I live in Massachusetts, so let’s take the Massachusetts laws as an example. They are a mess:

Definitions:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1: Definitions

The definition for “motorized scooter” in Massachusetts law includes gasoline OR electrically-powered ones, stand-up or sit-down, including those also propelled by human power. An electrically-assisted bicycle, then, is identified as a “motorized scooter”. The definition for “motorized bicycle”, on the other hand, applies only to those with a gasoline motor. The definitions overlap awkwardly.

Motorized-bicycle driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1b: Motorized-bicycle driving rules

These rules apply only with a gasoline motor: 25 mph max speed, 16 year minimum age, driver’s license required (obsolete — now this is the minimum age for a learner’s permit) , carte blanche to overtake on the right, somehow requiring drivers turning and crossing from the left to have X-ray vision to see through other motor vehicles, same as in Massachusetts’s rather unique bicycle laws (!!!!)  Motorized bicycles are permitted in bike lanes, but prohibited on paths: that is sensible because of the noise, pollution and typically higher speed than with bicycles. A helmet is required.

Motorized-scooter driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1e: Motorized-scooter driving rules

Maximum speed 20 mph (regardless of power source –gasoline, electric, human). This law requires “keeping to the right side of the road” — which unreasonably, means not going left of center of the road or crossing a marked centerline to overtake, but can easily be misinterpreted as requiring overtaking on the right. There is no mention of use on paths or bike lanes, despite noise and pollution of gasoline-powered motorized scooters which makes them inappropriate on paths, where electrically-powered ones are more acceptable. A license or learner’s permit is required, as for motorized bicycles, but there is no mention of age; a learner’s permit can be obtained at 16 years of age. There is a totally unreasonable prohibition on use at night. A helmet is required.

The motorized scooter law was passed in a rushed, knee-jerk reaction to the fad of “mini-motorcycles” a couple of years ago.

Summary

Placing electrically-assisted bicycles in the same category with gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles and standup scooters doesn’t make much sense from the point of view of where their use would be appropriate. Prohibiting the use of electrically-assisted bicycles at night writes them off as useful transportation.

We need to do better than this. I hope and expect that the Uniform Vehicle code revision will come up with sensible laws to cover this increasingly popular vehicle type, and that Massachusetts will revise its law.

Also please see my post on this blog about electrically-assisted bicycle types and trends.