Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Boston expert design

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

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 As of 2016, one change has been made: the zigzag in the bike lane has been replaced by a diagonal transition.

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

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

Duck Boat crashes

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

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

What is to be learned from these crashes?

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

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

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

Lane Control on Lexington Street

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

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

Lane Control on Lexington Street from John Allen on Vimeo.

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.



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…