Friday, March 02, 2012

Snowy day

Squalls of snow blew past the window. The wind stripped the heat from the back of the building, so I put my ski hat on as I sat at the desk, reviewing the Lakes Region Draft Bicycling and Walking Plan. Bike season had seemed close ahead when the ground was mostly bare. Now it receded a week at a time with every hour of snowfall.

The language of official planning documents tends to be dense and fibrous. It takes a lot of mental chewing and a lot of coffee to wash it down. Every specialty develops its own code words. I wrote a page of notes just from a quick skim.

Public input consisted of five meetings and an on-line questionnaire. About 70 people attended the public meetings. That's an average of about 14 people per meeting. The survey was up for six weeks and received 245 responses. I attended a meeting and did the survey. Out of the whole Lakes Region, public opinion was represented by a tiny fraction of the total population, even in the off season. So when the planners did their statistical slice and dice to determine preferences they had only that small cross section of users from which to extrapolate.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents were age 50 or older. Only 11 people under 30 replied.

The survey indicated that 19 percent of  respondents do not ride a bicycle at all. The reasons summarized are:

"Inadequate road shoulders (47.5 percent), concerns about personal safety in traffic (37 percent)
and lack of on-street bike lanes (33.5 percent) are the leading factors preventing people from
biking more or at all. These factors outweigh distance from destinations and weather, unlike

Just under a quarter of respondents reported riding to work or school at least once a week in summer. Just over a quarter of them reported riding for shopping, errands or dining at least once a week in summer. By far the largest group, 68 percent, reported riding for recreation or exercise at least once a week in summer.

Almost 60 percent of respondents wanted 4-foot paved shoulders on busy roads. Just over 53 percent thought on-street bike lanes would enhance their safety and enjoyment. A total of 45.5 percent reported that safer pavement was needed. Off-street paths were the big winner, with 82.3 percent of respondents calling for more of them.

People would rather not be within 50 yards of a car when they're not in a car. What can I say? I hate traffic, too. I hate it no matter how I'm getting around. By some statistical measures, bicycling is safer than driving, but when a collision does take place between a bicyclist and a motor vehicle the bicyclist gets dented much more often than the occupants of the motor vehicle. We're hangin' right out there. People feel exposed because they are exposed.

The draft plan contains lots of ideas for traffic blending and calming, including creative ways to make shoulders without widening roads. You guessed it, it's a trompe l'oeil painting trick. Yep, just move that white line and presto: a two-foot shoulder appears to the right of a ten-foot lane.

A bicyclist and a motorist passing in 12 feet take up the same amount of space regardless of where someone painted a white line. Putting the bicyclist to the right of a white line creates an impression of separateness that could make a motorist more resentful when the cyclist comes over to the left to complete a proper and legal maneuver. The same is true whether the shoulder is two feet wide or four.

I ride well to the right on Route 28. On the long stretches of open road I have to trust that drivers want to get safely past me even if it's just to avoid getting a gooey mess all over their paint job. As soon as things get tight I move into the lane to help people make good decisions. It has worked so far, but I'm losing horsepower while the motor vehicles are as fast as ever. What's going to solve that? A generation of drivers that grows up accepting bicyclists as a normal and respected element of traffic? Build THAT.

My colleague George, who did a lot of riding in the greater Boston area in the 1970s and '80s, said that he routinely disregarded one-way streets. As he explained the process I began to wonder if the problem lies not with the cyclists and drivers who violate one-way streets, but with the concept of one-way streets themselves. For decades I had accepted the traffic engineering that said one-way streets make traffic flow more smoothly. They make some traffic flow more smoothly. But not all travelers need to flow the same distance. The streets are pathways between points. Making some of them one-way to allow motorists to move faster makes everyone who is not a motorist less safe. Riding against that flow is itself not safe and can be highly annoying. Is it just a gateway to riding against traffic on two-way streets?

As George reported it, in communities with narrow streets that carried two-way traffic, drivers managed to flow past each other slowly and carefully. Slow and careful are good things.

Little of this applies to the largely rural spaces between the few urban areas in the Lakes Region and the small towns that dot it. There we deal with narrow highways and wildly fluctuating traffic volumes from place to place and season to season. Solutions have to vary as the difference in speed between types of road user increases.

Hopefully this plan won't just gather dust for a few years until the next time someone thinks it could use an update.


Dan said...

Your friend George may have found a way to justify his actions, but he's really only thinking of himself.

I agree that the design is likely car-centric and short sighted. However, that doesn't make it OK for us to ignore it if we don't agree.

Love the article and your blog in general. Keep up the great writing!

Staying Alive said...

The first duty of a cyclist is to keep alive. If that means riding the wrong way on a one way street, so be it.

greatpumpkin said...

It's clear here that fear of traffic is the #1 thing keeping many people from riding. I've seen some reports of studies in Britain that suggested cyclists were less safe on a road with bike lanes than on one without. This was because drivers seeing a bike lane tend to drive by the lines on the road (which the cyclist may not be within) while when there is no lane, they will figure their clearances based on on the cyclist--if they know a cyclist is there (the cyclist's responsibility is then to do as much as possible to be visible). I've had a heated argument with a non-cycling work colleague who was certain that bicycles were not allowed on roadways (only on sidewalks and designated bike routes) and conversations here with cyclists who seem to think the same--at least, they are reluctant to ride where there are no bike lanes. I tend to use the lanes when they work for me, but I also regard them as safety theater to some degree (safety is an illusion anyway, no matter what your vehicle is). Arlington County uses them as traffic calmers. The drivers don't seem to be any calmer. Some of the bike routes are very badly designed (clearly by non-cyclists) and I find my own routes, looking for less-trafficked streets. But we have more options here than you do in a rural setting where there often is only one road available.

Steve A said...

Hmm, I hadn't considered that aspect of one-way streets before. In most cases, however, it really doesn't impact cyclists negatively in any real fashion except in the minimal very last half block which compensates by allowing me to turn pedestrian rather than circle around a block to hunt for a parking meter.

kurt said...

Cycling is getting better in my city, but they did exactly this a couple years ago on a 70km/h high-traffic route: "just move that white line and presto: a two-foot shoulder appears to the right of a ten-foot lane." The little cycle-guy painted on the road is long worn off from all the traffic. At lest there's an off-roadway path now, so things are improving.