Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cyclist vs cyclists

Edited twice- seems I couldn't get anyone's names right Wednesday night:
Steve Miller from Livable Streets,  John Allen VC bicycle advocate- sorry for the confusion.

I was a little bit late to the Western Ave reconstruction meeting, but I don't think I missed much- the speaker  when I arrived was the "wastewater" (aka sewage) guy.  I did learn that they're going to do something interesting in the stormwater management.  Right now, as I know ALL TOO WELL,  the storm and sanitary sewer are combined in Cambridge, and when they are over capacity, the foul brew ends up in the Charles (or my basement).    The new plan, is to take the first 10 minutes (or probably X gallons)  of stormwater and put that into the sanitary sewer.  This is the water that washes the dead squirrels,  gum wrappers, antifreze drips, etc. into the drains.    After the "first flush" the water is relatively clean,  and can go into detention ponds and into the Charles without much actual pollution fouling the river.

But this is a bike blog not a wastewater blog (thank God!),  so let's cut to the chase.  The city planner (Jeff Rosenblum, whose exact title I don't know)  presented the traffic calming, bus stop improving, pedestrian safety expediting goals.  He then went through a description of the public outreach and community advisory committee and all the methodology to try to make this an inclusive process (they don't call Cambridge the People's republic for nothing).  He want through the basic outlines of the plan (one traffic lane plus on grade bike lane from Mass Ave to Franklin (just past the little park-the park itself grows by the width of the traffic lane).  The connection from Pleasant street (which evidently has a lot of heavy truck traffic) is going to be made more of a 90 degree turn, which is safer than the current acute angle. From here to about Putnam, it's two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parking, and a cycle track on the outboard side of the parked cars on the right side of the street.  After Putnam, it's four lanes of traffic, no parking, and a grade separated cycle track to the river.

If you really want to see the details, they're online here.  And when I say "details"  they're still working on those, and those are going to be important.  merges, bike boxes, dedicated signal timing, etc etc.  If you have thoughts about the specifics, they'd love to hear from you.

So they wanted to have a brief "questions" period, followed by small group caucusing around large scale plans in the back of the room with design team members,  followed by reconvening into a general session for "comments."
However the "questions"  quickly devolved to comments,   with a couple of comments about snow removal at bus stops, and a really really rambling comment from a guy who lives on Western Ave whose comment I couldn't really hear.  There wasn't anyone speaking up for drivers, or worried about congestion on the street as an impact of these changes.

Then the vehicular cyclists began their attack.
One guy asked if they would salt as well as plow the track, since there wouldn't be car traffic to keep it clear.  Another asked if there would be sharrows in the lanes in addition to the track, for those who chose not to use the track.
Yet another asked "Do you believe that bikes don't make left turns?"  Which lead to some confusion because no one could hear him,  which lead to the moderator saying "Yes?"  and waiting for the rest of the question.   Fortunately in MA, we don't have a law that requires that use of bike facilities, so I'm not sure why these people who hate the track can't just continue to enjoy the "pleasures" of riding in the street.  And FWIW,  I rode a lot last winter on the plowed but not salted Charles river path (Thank you again New Balance!!),  and it was absolutely fine.  Yes, it was icy in spots.  I slowed down.  And I bet if we had a constant flow of bikes, it would be just as clear as the road.  More importantly, I don't worry about a 2,000 lb vehicle sliding on the ice into me.

I counted 5 attacks all from middle aged male vehicular cylists, and four statements of approval, mostly from the "interested but concerned" segment- people who would like to ride, but don't because they're scared, or they want to ride with their kids.   Steve Miller from Livable streets spoke affectingly about how he was fine riding on busy streets, his daughter and his wife weren't.
It's a little sad how this comes down so much along gender lines (see yesterday's post).
Anyway,  I decided to speak up before one of the VC's got his second  (or third) chance to speak.
I said basically what I posted yesterday, that I know how to ride in a commanding position,  I have the experience to ride in fast moving traffic, and the legs to push even my 35 lb bike at mostly traffic speeds.
But it sucks!  I don't want to have to do that to go to the store!   I don't want to have to do it after a long hard day, or when I'm fighting off a cold, or just want to think about dinner instead of worrying about the potentially homicidal driver behind me.

Shortly afterwards we broke for small group discussion, and I came under attack from the VC meister himself Paul Schimek.*  (John Allen was there, but he left early and  didn't make a statement).
He asked me in a tone of astonishment,  "you would actually ride on this"  and I said "Sure!"
He asked "how fast?"  I said,  maybe 10 mph?  (which I think floored him, because he was going to make an argument about how slow it would be- but obviously when you ride a 35lb steel upright bike in a dress, speed is not your priority).  He then switched to an argument about the connections and left turns.  I opined that I thought that that particular place would be a good location for a bike box, and said that I was willing to deal with the intersections in order to be separated from the traffic moving 50 Mph.  He really jumped on this,  saying that it was supposed to be a 35 MPH street.  I think he mis-understood that right now, it's a racecourse, and I wouldn't be surprised if people reached 50.  But of course, the road diet, should reduce speeds to closer to the posted 35.   I still would rather ride on a separated lane.   I told him that I rode VC regularly one a 35 MPH road very similar to this- Cambridge street in Boston,  and that it sucked.
I just kept smiling and answering his questions with  slow bike answers,  and it finally frustrated him and he went off to pester someone else.

 I did have a couple of people, come up to me and say how they thought my comment was really moving, which was nice to hear.  It was heartfelt, anyway.  We never did make it into a general session,  but I did get to talk to one of the planning consultants, and stress to him the need for bike boxes and adequate merging space (and possibly separate signals) to allow left turns at Howard and Putnam.

To me the bottom line is: you can't get on the cycle track and assume it's a magic carpet that will carry you effortlessly to your destination.  You still have to be careful at intersections.  You still have to watch for pedestrians.  But to me, it ramps the drama down a notch, because you're not doing these things in the context of simultaneously fighting for a scrap of pavement with 2,000 pound steel vehicles going 35 MPH.  One guy was worried about getting doored by passenger side doors.  I pointed out to him.  At least if you get doored by a passenger (unlikely as there's a 3.5' buffer)  you're not going to land under a bus.
I don't mind going slower, I don't mind paying attention at intersections.  I just want to get there with some space to daydream, and a little less excitement.

*I did a bit of research on him after I left the meeting. I'd heard his name, but hadn't put the pieces together.  Evidently this guy is responsible for Boston's complete lack of bike facilities until recently.  He was the bike commissioner  before Nicole Friedman, and ensured that there were no bike lanes in the major reconstruction of Cambridge Street (the main route from Cambridge  to Downtown).  He also fought bike facilities on the Greenway that replaced the freeway after the Big Dig.
Just thinking about the damage he did to Boston's bicycle culture makes me so angry- it's probably a good thing I didn't know this when I was talking to him before- it would have been hard for me to be civil and polite when he was getting in my grill about how I couldn't possibly support this. 


  1. Hang in there! You are doing a great job showing up, speaking up and doing your bit. Your efforts will encourage others with your point of view to do the same.
    Things can only get better!

  2. Wow, now I'm really angry. I've been angry at how poorly the Rose Kennedy Greenway is designed, but I had no idea a loony cyclists was at least partly responsible. What a maroon.

    Thanks for speaking up at the meeting. I'm very excited about these cycle tracks on Western Ave. Do you know the timeline for this project?

  3. It is John Allen, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft.

    Anyway, I am a middle aged male who prefers riding in
    the street.

    I would agree that you can ride the cycle track if
    you like. I would also point out that New Balance isn't going to be plowing the cycle track on Western Ave.

    I have read that the separate bike ways in NYC have been pretty well received. I think that the cycle
    track planned on Western Ave is creating a new
    set of hazards. Particularly higher risk of getting
    a right or left hook at the various intersections because drivers view of cycle track will be blocked by parked cars.

    When I bike by far the most frequent dangerous encounters I have with cars are cars that come from behind me and turn right into my path. I have no chance to avoid the confrontation because I don't know they are turning until I see them crossing my path in front of me. With a cycle track this problem will be considerably worse.

  4. I also attended but had to leave at 8:30 so missed the design meeting. I noticed a few creaky-cranky vc cyclists. There was another guy near the front who spoke about how he was an experienced cyclist but his wife wasn't so she and their kid would LOVE having the path. I expected him to suggest painting the bike track pink to make it more appealing to women :)
    I'm not sure, but i think he was the one who also suggested that only hard-core cyclists would be riding right after a snowfall/storm so it wouldn't matter if it took a couple of days to clear a cycle track. On the "plowing' of the cycle track I am not concerned. Arlington manages to plow the entire bike path in town lines and you know how much Arlington loves cyclists :)
    In response to a vc's complaint about needing signage for drivers to know cyclists were still allowed on the road I brought up the educational campaigns of MassBike and MassDOT and that teenagers were now learning about to drive with cyclists. I did not mention that Somerville has gym class on how to bicycle - taught by a Somerville Police Officer.
    Sadly, it seems that a group that would benefit wasn't present - I didn't hear anyone say "I would like to bike but don't because of the lack of facilities". Throughout the region, I see this changing and do see more "non-vc" type riders. But it is one of those things that you need to see in action and be able to say "oh, I can do that and I want to do that".
    And what is this "speed" thing anyway. Unless you are going extremely fast you end up needing to stop at every light - just like the cars (if you are following the rules of the rode). I know my commute so well that on some stretches I don't bother pushing it.

  5. nice review, cycler. i just have one comment, however. you said: "Fortunately in MA, we don't have a law that requires that use of bike facilities, so I'm not sure why these people who hate the track can't just continue to enjoy the "pleasures" of riding in the street."

    towns can have their own laws requiring bike lane use if one is provided. somerville actually has such a law. this means that if a cyclist chooses not to use a bike lane and instead uses the motor vehicle portion of the street, and is involved in an accident, that cyclist could be judged at fault. of course, exiting the bike lane because of obstructions (double parked cars, for example) or to make turns, are exceptions to the law. it's vague, and i don't know how enforceable it is, but i don't want cyclists to think that anywhere they are in MA, they have a right to use any portion of the street.

  6. Whoops- late night last night- I edited to remove Paul Allen from things, since I have no idea of his views vis a vis bike infrastructure.

    @ Anon9:22 I was sitting right next to you- the geek taking notes on the ipad. I'm sorry that David Miller's comments rubbed you the wrong way re: gender and cycling. I agree that it's a tricky subject, one that i've been pondering for a while. (post length comment deleted and saved for an actual post)

    @Somervillian, my understanding is that the Somerville bike committee and Police department have some kind of official resolution that holds that law to be null and void. I'll have to track down that reference- Brian from Somerville- if you're lurking, please chime in.

  7. Speaking as a middle-aged male VC (more or less), but one not sufficiently motivated (ideological) to go to the meeting, I think the fear is that even though there is no law now, if more off-street infrastructure gets built, then eventually we'll be forced on to it. How realistic that is, I don't know, but certainly other places have made moves in that direction; it's not impossible. As a more practical concern, I'd be more worried that a cycle track on a busy street would become like the MUP---clogged with nonbike traffic, and hence worthless for commuting. Which is not so much a reason to not build it, just a reason to avoid it afterwards. I'm all for more bike infrastructure as long as it is not an excuse to erode the street access I have now. These goals don't necessarily have to conflict, we just need to ensure that our state and local authorities will continue to support us.

  8. Oh, also, my comment about new balance plowing the paths, was that they didn't salt them (which is equal to what the city is proposing) and they were fine for slow but steady riding. I will probably get a lot of flack for this, but if we have enough off street infrastructure that they can "force" us to ride slowly on paths, but we have a 30% modesplit, I think it will be a worthy compromise. Of course I'm already a slowpoke.
    Importantly this is NOT a MUP. There is a separated lane, which is designated to be a bike lane. If there are only the die hard few bikes, it will be encroached upon by pedestrians. However I have seen (in Spain for example) that if there are enough bikers coming along ringing their bells, pedestrians WILL get the message that they can't walk there, and will choose to walk on the area designated for them. It's all about getting the numbers up.

  9. Hi,
    its @ Anon9:22 -- Sorry to give the impression that David Miller rubbed me the wrong way - he didn't. I should not write before I've had 2 pots of coffee. He seemed to be of "the lack of bike lanes works for me but not for the more 'vulnerable' women and children" camp that I've noticed in other cyclists, including myself.
    Indeed, until this summer I've been very indifferent to bike lanes and other bike accommodations. I've been riding in the area for so many years that I've taken it for granted that it can be tough to cycle around here. However, this summer I started noticing the power of improved facilities, of getting a more diverse group of people out there. So I need to keep re-evaluating my own experiences and what would work for others as well.

  10. Oh God. What a contentious issue. When I get involved I usually manage to find myself at odds with everyone it seems. But basically, I am for cycletracks iff provisions are made for intersections and for separating cyclists from pedestrians. I have to say that when I attempt to cycle on the Charles River trail or on the Somerville Community path, I get very frustrated because of all the pedestrians I have to negotiate. As for provisions for intersections, I would describe them as horrendous and hazardous. For that reason, I do not find most of the currently existing paths/tracks relaxing, and would rather ride on the street - preferably, but not necessarily, with bike lanes.

  11. Excellent write up! My only US experience with a track has been along Vassar St. (MIT) It's certainly been a mixed result, with some well-known design flaws. That said, it's a part of my commute where I always relax and feel much safer.

  12. thanks for the write up. I need to look at your link more to figure out exactly where you are talking about and what this looks like.

    I agree with velouria about riding the charles river path ( which I've only done a few times this summer) that the intersection part of each was nerve wrecking. I personally would prefer a track type thing but agree that they are only as good as how they deal with interssections so I need to get more info and see how this works...

    That guy who you spoke with you was the previous commissioner- ooh boy does that make me mad. I hate to further genderize myself and this issue but I am The Very Type that after two years of riding still wig out on the roads. I would very much love to go all VC- it clearly would make things direct and fast. I feel extreme envy when I see cyclists taking left turns in full traffic. But that will never be me without serious bike related facilities. And to further Genderize/ polarize myself- quite honestly- it is *me* biking in my suburban town that will inspire one less car ride. Not the middle age VCers. And that is a plain fact. Other mom's are not looking to you middle aged VCers as inspiration or motivation. I mean seriously- ask the middle aged VCers' who only care about their needs and skill level if they inspired a newbie to buy a new bike. A new over $1000 bike? I can count about 3 people who have bought $1200 bikes b/c I ride....

    sorry for the rant. I need to dust off my own blog and write this more thought out there.....

  13. I like reading your blog because I lived in Boston and my in-laws and family are still there. Now, I live and bike in San Francisco, which has a reasonably healthy bike culture and infrastructure. I am a strong VC cyclist and 43 to boot, so I guess that I'd fall into the category you outlined above.

    However, my view is the more cycling infrastructure that is implemented, the more cyclist we get on the roads, which makes it safer for everyone as car drives will be looking for us. That's what's happening here. The perception of safety is just as important as actual safety itself.

    The VCs talk alot about laws of access, but forget that if people feel intimidated (regardless of the law) they won't get on the streets.

    As the Europeans have discovered, separate facilities for cyclists have increased their mode share of transport dramatically. That means car drivers are looking for them, and may actually be them for part of the day. That's the safest outcome we can imagine. Let's build cycling infrastructure wherever we find the political will to do so. It will make all our lives safer.

  14. What I think is missed in this discussion is that Western Ave is perhaps the best street in Cambridge to experiment with separated infrastructure. There's several reasons for this.

    1. It has some of the most dangerous traffic of any street in Cambridge. With huge trucks passing by, an on-street bike lane is a pretty nasty place to be.

    2. Little foot traffic. Unlike Vassar St., for example, which is in the center of the MIT campus, Western Ave. doesn't have all that many pedestrians.

    3. There is a huge potential demand for cycling infrastructure. Geographically, Western Ave. provides a terrific connection between Central Square, Allston, and the Charles River bike paths. Despite this, you don't see many cyclists on it, probably because they fear for their lives. A cycle track could totally change this.

    4. Vehicle speeds are excessive, so narrowing the roadway could provide significant safety benefits.

  15. Herzog -- I generally agree with 1 and 4, but somewhat quibble on 3 and can take or leave 2. While I agree that, on paper, Western Ave makes sense as an artery for connecting Central Square and Inman with Lower Allston, the reason why it isn't used isn't necessarily because Western Ave. is a day at the races.

    For one, Prospect Street, which is the natural feeder into Western Ave from points north, is a deathtrap. The shoulders are exceedingly narrow and the traffic is highly dense. Most cyclists that I know who are transiting southbound from Inman or Area 4 will avoid Prospect altogether and opt for Norfolk or Columbia into Central and if proceeding further south than that, they will naturally continue down Pearl or Sidney (since you can't make a left from Mass Ave. onto Western). Adding infrastructure to Western will not amend this. That prohibited left turn pretty much makes Western Ave inaccessible to everyone between Central and MIT; and if you're coming from Harvard Square, your normal feeder to the river is Putnam.

    And once you make it over the river into Lower Allston, what then? Get onto Cambridge St.? which makes Western look placid?

    I think it's worthwhile to upgrade Western Ave in the name of taking incremental steps towards improving the overall infrastructure of the city, but I think it would also be premature to expect that a track on Western Ave will impact usage patterns that much. There are just too many problems surrounding it that also have to be addressed.

  16. Hi Cycler, this Brian from Somerville. Somervillain and you are correct. The city has a bike lane use regulation, that excepts turning, passing & avoiding hazards. As I understand, the police haven intension of enforcing bicycle laws, except where the situation is posing serious safety problems. The police are strong supporters of cycling here, and needless enforcement tends to discourage.

    I know this doesn't satisfy many, but it's the best we have, and we are working to repeal this unique provision.

    I would like to applaud you and you're commentors for pointing out that many VCers can appreciate separated paths, especially on heavily trafficked main roads like Western.

    Vehicular cycling will always be an important skill, and is such in places with high numbers of cycle tracks. There are many streets and intersections that are best shared.

    Ideally all cycle tracks will be perfect. The same is true for roads and sidewalks, but I know few, if any, that are so. Each new one is an opportunity for improvement.