Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What is wrong with this picture?

Imagine two city-owned parcels of land side-by-side. One is impermeable asphalt, useful only for parking a car. The other is a verdant lawn, suitable for a host of healthy, recreational activities.

Which one should the city charge residents to use? Which one does the city charge residents to use?

The parcels in question are the Crystal Lake parking lot and the recently acquired picnic area next to it. It's free to park your car, but you have to pay to use the lawn.

Baffling policy.


Competing desires at Riverside

In a TAB op-ed today, I argue that the MBTA's requirements at Riverside Station are too much. They want to both develop the site and maintain the current volume of commuter parking. The traffic volume of the two uses would be crushing on the neighborhood. And, the garage necessary for commuter parking at present levels would fatally undermine the efforts to create an environmentally and economically sustainable walkable neighborhood center.

That the MBTA needs to choose between two visions -- commuter parking lot or transit-oriented development -- is dictated by the neighborhood. Trying to do both (or one and a weak-tea wave at the other) will create too much traffic. But, there's a larger issue at stake: what end should mass transit serve?

The MBTA can surround its stations -- new and existing -- with neighborhoods or parking lots. By neighborhoods, I mean dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The combination of a viable transit option, dense housing, and a substantial commercial district is a recipe for sustainability. The people who live in such a neighborhood will be much less car-dependent.

Parking lots support sprawl. They encourage driving. They are used by people who, in every other aspect of their lives are going to be car-dependent. (I think we can safely assume that folks aren't driving to Riverside who could otherwise walk to the Wellesley commuter rail station.)

Infrastructure dictates transportation choices. So long as infrastructure supports a car-centric lifestyle (and gas remains relatively cheap), people will choose such a lifestyle. Zoning regulations that limit density inevitably require people to drive. Big commuter lots at T stations facilitate an ex-urban, low-density lifestyle.

Take away the commuter lot option and the dynamic shifts. The land at Riverside or at Alewife or at any other big commuter lot becomes available for a more sustainable lifestyle. The people who used to park and ride fully absorb the consequence of low-density living. They make commuting worse for themselves and other drivers, which is a good outcome. It increases the demand for transit options. It increases the cost of low-density living, which increases the demand for high-density options.

In the bigger picture, commuter lots are not the responsible option.


Nobody ignores red lights

Further to Nathan's post about Andy von Geurard's death still not making sense: people don't ignore red lights. Not pedestrians. Not drivers. Not cyclists.

Unless they are incapacitated, diminished, or distracted, people who run red lights are fully aware of the red light and consciously choose to disregard it, making a calculated gamble that they will get through the intersection safely. The overwhelming majority of the time, they are right. It can be irritating and annoying to others, but it is rarely high-risk.

That, to me, is what is inexplicable about von Geurard's death. Hitting the back of a mini-van isn't consistent with the typical red-light running gamble. It just doesn't seem to be a case of not getting the timing quite right.


Bike safety box, if you're six

Six-year-old Princess NS&S and I rode to camp yesterday morning. Turning left from Rachel Road onto Winchester, I gave her the option to ride in the street or on the sidewalk. She chose the street.

I like riding in the white line. It's like a bike safety box.

From the lips of a child, the appeal of on-street bike accommodations, in this case Winchester's fairly wide striped shoulders.

I suspect I'll be spending the next several years explaining that striped shoulders and bike lanes are not, in fact, bike safety boxes. They create their own set of hazards, not the least of which is false confidence. She (and I) need to be vigilant.

But, with those three words, she captured perfectly why we need to create bike accommodations: they bring people onto the street. And, ultimately, safety is going to come from numbers.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Andy's accident still doesn't make sense

As pointed out earlier, Andy von Geurard's accident doesn't make sense. Among comments on that previous post, Andy's sister wonders if there could have been a brake failure on Andy's bike. I checked the police accident report. Although the car was checked, apparently the bike wasn't. It's probably worth taking a look.


Biking controls weight

From the White Coat Notes, friend of NS&S Anne Lusk has a study out that shows that women who bike regularly gain less weight than women who don't. (This study of one says that biking alone doesn't keep the pounds off, but maybe I'd have even more problems if I didn't.)

Anne makes the great point that commuting by bike is free exercise.


MBTA proud of their parking

I'll have more on this in the context of Riverside in an upcoming TAB op-ed, but this is not a good sign: the MBTA is bragging about having more parking than all but two transit systems in the US. That means that land that could be used for transit-oriented development is instead reserved for sprawl-inducing parking.


The good and bad on Beacon Street

Would should have been a moment of great satisfaction was not.

This morning, as I crested Beacon Street at Hammond Street, I beheld Newton's first full bike lanes. It's a notion that may take some getting used to, but Newton now has real, honest-to-goodness official bike lanes. And, they look great.

But, the joy of my first ride along bike lanes in Newton was dimmed by road markings a quarter-mile earlier. Approaching Tudor Street, I stopped and lingered over the boxes and lines that were obviously painted by the accident reconstruction team investigating Saturday morning's fatal car crash.

(Molly Schaeffer was nearly run over between the accident spot and the start of the bike lanes.)

There's no great insight to be had from the juxtaposition. Just a simple recognition that roads can be hostile places and that cars are capable of killing their drivers and others.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reducing Crystal Lake traffic congestion

A friend who lives on Lake Ave. was ruing the upcoming car traffic accompanying the opening of Crystal Lake. It made me wonder: why is the Crystal Lake lot parking free? With meters for cars and free parking for bikes, the city could earn some revenue (some of which could be returned to Crystal Lake for upkeep), lessen congestion on overburdened residential streets, and promote biking simultaneously. The neighborhood should like this.

As bike traffic grows, metered spots for cars could be taken off-line and made available for bike parking.

p.s. Sean has blogged on related ideas here and here.


Riverside direct access from 128

Let's start with the bottom line: direct access to the proposed development at Riverside Station seems to make no sense.

The developer (credibly) claims that there is no technically viable plan for access to the site; any new access would have to go through the site to Grove Street. (More on this in a moment.) The neighborhood-proposed access to the site, even if it were technically viable, eats up a lot of real estate. On an already difficult site, it doesn't seem possible that direct access would leave enough lot for a commercially viable site.

Since direct access from 128 is either technically or economically not feasible, making support for the development contingent on direct access doesn't really make sense. There are a ton of good reasons to oppose development at Riverside. That it doesn't include access from 128 is not one of them.

So, what about the controversy over the developer's presentation, which was the subject of this week's TAB editorial? The other night, the developer's traffic engineer presented a series of slides showing what direct access to the site from 128 would look like. As I understood it, the purpose of the slides was to show the neighborhood what direct access from 128 would mean, given the technical limitations. Current highway dictate that access from the exit ramp could not start for 800 feet or so from the highway. And, the ramp would have to support a certain exit speed, which in turn dictates the radius of the curve. Which means that the ramp would not be able to end in the development, but would go through the site and terminate on Grove St. Then there are a number of other conditions that culminate in this new access replacing the existing exit, which would require another ramp that would go over the Charles River basin.

It's important to keep in mind that, on this point, the interests of the developer and the neighborhood are in opposition. Access to the site from 128 would be hugely expensive and eat into the opportunity to develop. So, skepticism is in order. It is appropriate to push back on (and have independently reviewed) any of the developer's claims.

But, the claim of bad faith? The neighborhood wanted the developer to evaluate direct access. The developer met with city and state officials and reported back that Mass DOT gave an unofficial thumbs down. (Is it reasonable to have the developer invest in a full MEPA review to get an official thumbs down?) The developer explained pretty clearly what direct access would look like -- in light of technical constraints -- and how it would not be any better for the neighborhood.

It appears that the accusation of bad faith arises because the developer didn't start the direct-access analysis with the neighborhood's proposal and, instead, treated the issue from a clean sheet of paper: if there were to be direct access, what would it look like. On this, the traffic engineer was probably damned if he did, damned if he didn't. Were direct-access proponents going to be pleased if the developer's traffic engineer had picked their proposal apart piece-by-piece?

For a number of reasons, it is going to be very difficult -- if not impossible -- to design an acceptable development. So far, the developer isn't there yet. But, direct access is no longer a meaningful issue. For either commercial or technical reasons -- or both -- it isn't going to happen. It's now a red herring.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Make sure problem intersections get attention from MPO

The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) wants your input about hazardous intersections. Here's a more thorough description at Massbike.


Transportation Advisors Wanted

From the Planning Department's weekly report:

Have a special interest or expertise in transportation and want to serve your community? Let us know! Mayor Warren is establishing a new Transportation Advisory Committee and Newton residents are needed to assess the City’s accommodations for all modes of transportation including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, and motorists and will recommend ways to improve the infrastructure for all ages and abilities. For more information, please contact Andrew Warner, Community Outreach Coordinator, at 617-796-1103 or email your resume and/or letter of interest to by June 11, 2010

My understanding is that the June 11 deadline has been extended at least through next week.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making a real deal with the MBTA on Riverside

At another interesting community meeting about possible development at Riverside Station, transportation advocate Bill Aldrich had probably the best insight: why isn't there any improvement to transit included as part of a project at a T station? Why are we only concerned with cars, cars, cars? Bill specifically recommended restoring the connection between Riverside Station and the commuter rail line, a relatively small piece of work that would add options for folks in Lower Falls and Auburndale.

The larger question is how to consider the MBTA as a player in negotiations over the site. The developers are the front men for proposed development on the site, but it's the MBTA wants something from the city -- a zoning change and then special permit approval that will allow it to generate new revenue in the form of a ground lease. The city ought to extract some things from the MBTA in return. Not just concessions here or there over density, program, traffic management, &c. in the context of the development. But, commitments to make Newton's transit needs a priority.

There are four things that should be preconditions to the development:

  • Elimination or radical reduction in the required provision of commuter parking at Riverside
  • Reconnecting Riverside to the commuter rail line
  • Large(r) easement for walking and biking access along the Charles River Basin side of the site
  • Green light the Needham Street rail extension

The second and fourth make sense on their own merits, so it would not be much of a concession on the T's part. The third should be relatively easy. The first I've touched on previously, and I'll address again in more detail in the future. It's a meaningful sacrifice on the T's side, but also more consistent with what should be regional transportation planning goals.

The key is to stop thinking only about what Newton's requirements are with respect to the specific character of this development. The MBTA wants something from Newton. What does Newton want from the MBTA?


The benefit of passing on the right

Riding from City Hall the other day at around 6:30, I passed, by my count, 56 cars backed up on Beacon Street (eastbound) from Centre Street back to Laurel Street (or thereabouts). I had turned left from Walnut Street, so I rode only a small stretch before I hit the traffic knot. No more than five or six of the cars had passed me before I passed them.

Some observations:

  • That's a lot of cars stopped at a light; traffic can be brutal in Newton
  • Bikes have a tremendous edge in congested traffic, an edge that people should be encouraged to take advantage of
  • If traffic is jammed up enough, it is likely that bikes will be passing cars that haven't first passed them -- a cyclist has to be extra, super-duper careful because motorists won't have been given the notice of their presence that passing gives
  • If traffic is jammed up enough, it is likely that bikes will be passing cars that haven't first passed them -- a motorist has to be aware that a cyclist may come along on the right that the motorist hasn't seen yet

Mass law is not great on this point:

No person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist at a speed that is reasonable and proper. MGL ch. 90, sec. 14

Why shouldn't a motorist be required to give a cyclist a safe margin before turning right, regardless of whether or not the motorist has first overtaken the cyclist?


Newton's easiest bike facilities

We need long-term plans, but also paint on the ground now. Where to start? Where it is most needed. But also, where it is easiest: the most politically non-controversial and cheapest. We sorely need to declare small victories and begin a culture shift. These are so easy they can be done without losing focus on other projects. So let's grab some easy victories and declare success!

Two examples:

- Bike lane on Beacon St. between Beethoven Ave and Walnut St. Why? No street parking is already in place; painted shoulders are already in place; few abutters, who don't use Beacon St. for parking anyway. An exception could be made for the Farmer's Market. For the most part, just needs stenciling. A no-brainer.

- Sharrows on Langley between Centre and Beacon. No removal of parking needed. No approvals from abutters needed. All that is needed: paint, stencil, and the will to do it. At risk of presumptuousness, I will even volunteer Bike Newton/BPTF to pay for the gallon of paint.

Where are your candidate locations for quickly implementable bike facilities?


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Danger on the right, another example

Stop me if you've heard this story before ...

A bike rider traveling westbound on Beacon Street. A driver stopped eastbound, hoping to turn left across westbound traffic. A gap opens in car traffic. The driver doesn't see the bike rider, turns left, and hits the bike rider.

According to a just-obtained police report*, this is exactly what happened last September at Beacon Street and St. Thomas More near the BC campus. In this cases, the driver hit the biker square, tossing her up onto the windshield.

[The driver] stopped in the road heading East on Beacon Street, waiting to turn left on St Thomas More Rd. A break in the auto traffic occurred and [the driver] accelerated into the turn. At this time [the biker] was proceeding West on beacon on her bicycle and the two collided "head-on". [The witness] stated that [the biker] smashed into the mini-van's windshield and then rolled several times on the street.

It's not clear from the police report whether there was stopped westbound traffic that blocked the biker from the view of the turning car, but it would not be surprising. That's a frequent occurrence at that intersection. Traffic backs up, so westbound traffic stops so it doesn't block the box. The stopped westbound traffic blocks the view of bikes in the bike lanes. The dynamics of the intersection encourage westbound cars turning left onto St. Thomas More to take advantage of the gap and scoot through.

And, this is an intersection with the latest and greatest in bike lanes. There are official bike lanes on both sides of the intersection and dashed lines through the intersection connecting them. Bike lanes are not going to fix the underlying problem of hidden bikes and anxious drivers. This intersection, like the Beacon St./Grant Ave. intersection really demands a more thorough solution.

*Finally got around to BPD HQ to request the report.


Molly got hit on Beacon Street

Longtime friend of NS&S Molly Schaeffer was hit last night on Beacon Street. Molly was heading east at about 6:15 PM (we frequently pass going in opposite directions on our rides home), when she was clipped by a driver. Fortunately, she wasn't hit harder. She stayed on her bike. But, the car continued on.

Molly called 911 and reported the license number. According to her, the police located the driver, an 81-year-old.

The driver hit Molly at the top of the hill heading towards BC, just west of Beacon Hammond Street. This is a problematic section as the road narrows and sight lines are not great. There are striped shoulders, but in this section the shoulder is only a couple of feet wide.

To add insult to injury, this is the second time Molly's been the victim of a hit-and-run driver. She had been previously hit on Beacon Street going west just west of Langley Road.

Molly is exactly the kind of person who needs to be safely accommodated on Newton streets. She's no spandex-clad young'un. She's a feisty grandmother who commutes year-round to Wellesley on principle: to live a more environmentally conscious life. She rides with front and back lights night and day. She wears a helmet and bright yellow clothing. She follows the rules of the road. And, she rides at an admirable, but stately pace.

I'm just glad that it was not a more serious crash.


Riverside Community Meeting -- Thursday, June 17

Reminder that developer BH Normandy will be presenting their latest plans for Riverside Station at a community meeting on Thursday, June 17 at 7:00 pm at the Williams School Auditorium, 141 Grove St.

The Riverside Station Neighborhood Coalition created the flyer. (PDF)


Less spandex = safer riding?

The Globe discovers a trend: folks are beginning to wear regular duds on bikes. More accurately, folks who aren't interested in wearing spandex are beginning to ride their bikes for transportation. It's a terrific look at people who are incorporating bicycling into their lives, on their own terms.

While the focus is on fashion, what struck me was the consequence for biking behavior. The clothes make the rider. People who want to ride in regular clothes have different goals and limitations than the spandex-clad. They ride at a different pace.

So, welcome ye riders in skirts and slacks! (NS&S also endorses spandex, particularly padded bike shorts, for those who ride longer distances and for exercise.)

On another note: how is in 2010 that an online article mentions a blog and doesn't link to it? Here are the links for Chic Cyclist, a terrific local blog, Cycle Chic, and Velo Vogue. And, one should always link to Mass Bike when quoting Friend of NS&S David Watson.


Monday, June 14, 2010

West Roxbury merchants want meters

According to Universal Hub, Boston City Councilor John Tobin wants the city to investigate installing parking meters in West Roxbury along Centre Street.

Tobin said he's hearing from a growing number of merchants who want meters as a way of increasing turnover in spaces.

I'm not familiar enough with West Roxbury to comment on the particulars, but it's entirely consistent with modern parking theories that the request for meters would be merchant-driven. With the right rates, parking meters can help generate turnover, which helps merchants.

Relatedly, Boston is considering raising parking fees for violations in Zone B: Dorchester, Roxbury, East Boston, South Boston, the Fenway, Mattapan, Roslindale, and Hyde Park. The city recognizes that illegal parking, even with a ticket, is cheaper than alternatives.


What do bikers deserve?

Jason Clevenger's TAB op-ed raises another interesting point:

By running red lights and disregarding general traffic law, these cyclists are giving all of us a bad reputation, and possibly preventing additional investment in infrastructure to support a greater number of cyclists on our roadways.

As a statement of fact, I think that Mr. Clevenger is probably right. At least one alderman has said to me that she's disinclined to support better bike facilities until bikers are more law-abiding.

But, given the public forum to opine about bike safety, it's a curious position to take. If you want more law-abiding bicyclists, the best route is to increase the number of bikers on the road. The bicyclists most willing to ride without bike accommodations -- mixing it up in traffic -- are the least law-abiding, most risk-seeking. Mr. Clevenger might have re-assured folks who are concerned about bike scofflaws that the solution isn't to leave the roads to the spandex-clad crazies, but to encourage the less crazy. Every rider you add to the roads is, almost by definition, going to help solve the problem.

Mr. Clevenger's comment, however, suggests an interesting alternative universe, one in which funding for large bridge and road projects depends on motorists compliance with the rules of the road.


Should bicyclists be ticketed in Newton?

This Newton TAB op-ed on contains a few factual and analytic errors, but offers an opportunity to make a point I've been meaning to make.

The op-ed is by Jason Clevenger, a director of a local masters-level bicycle racing team, 545 Velo. Mr. Clevenger joins the chorus of those frustrated with cyclist scofflaws. It's gotten to the point, Mr. Clevenger seems to suggest, that bicyclist need to be ticketed:

As a complicating factor, it seems as if the police in our communities are not willing to ticket bicycles, so this wanton disregard for safety goes unpunished and unofficially endorsed.

This suggestion has made me bristle in the past. But, you know what, there are laws on the books that govern bicycle riding on public thoroughfares. If this community thinks that it's time for a crackdown on bicyclists, then crackdown the police should.

But, those calling for writing up bike-riding law breakers ought not just make the case that bike riders should be ticketed, but that spending the time and effort to ticket a) will make a difference and b) is a high-priority use of limited police resources. There is little dispute that only high-intensity, sustained enforcement changes driver behavior. Why would it be any different with bicyclists?

In order for the police to start ticketing bicyclists, they would need to re-allocate resources from other activities. (Anybody think that the police don't have enough to do already?) And, despite Mr. Clevenger's assertions, there is no evidence that bicyclists pose a particular harm to others*.

As for me, I think we'd be better served if the police focus on the unending stream of motor vehicle violations, which pose a larger threat (by virtue of vehicle size and speed) to our safety and the comfort of our neighborhoods.

*Bicyclist/pedestrian conflicts don't make up a very large number of deaths or injuries, but cyclists who ride in a way that make pedestrians uneasy or anxious should be treated strictly. Taking a cue from the rules of the sea, all operators should be take special care to make the smaller and slower both feel safe and actually be safe. But, the best solution is probably to provide separate facilities for bikes so that they aren't the same opportunities for conflict.


Sunday, June 13, 2010


Auburndale is an inside-out Newton Centre: it feels exposed; while Newton Centre feels invaded, by cars. The heart of Auburndale Square is a parking lot; the center of Newton Centre is also a parking lot.

The difference is that while Newton Centre's shops face the parking lot, Auburndale's hide it. In the interior of Auburndale Square, parking is fragmented and inefficient; it is like a sprawling country fair lot. Parking occupancy is consistently low (as a look from google maps makes clear). One can imagine an efficient consolidation of parking supplemented with on-street parking on Comm Ave (which has the added benefit of calming it), opening up perhaps the most under-appreciated opportunity for a green, mixed-use development in Newton; in the heart of Auburndale Square, filling some of its glaring needs, like a pub, bookstore, garden/hardware store, and maybe even some affordable housing.


Friday, June 11, 2010

New bike accommodation to consider -- priority bike lanes

Friend of NS&S Professor Peter Furth wants, as he said in a recent comment, to bring bike accommodating innovation to local streets. He's done just that with new priority bike lanes on Longwood Avenue in Brookline. On Biking's Jonathon Simmons gets local reaction from bikers and drivers*.

Priority bike lanes are like super-sharrows. Like sharrows (which are incorporated in the design), they identify that bicyclists are entitled to ride in the travel lane. Unlike sharrows, they delineate a clear path for cyclists, out of the way of the threat of being doored.

When is a priority bike lane appropriate? When road width and parking preclude a proper bike lane. Unless the city reverses its position on parking on Walnut Street north of Forest Street, the stretch where parking is allowed would be a good application. Sticking in Newton Highlands, the blocks of Lincoln Street with on-street parking would be another good candidate. Union Street in Newton Centre. Any other candidates?

As Simmons column points out, bike priority lanes will require some getting used to. But, the basic premise is good. The travel lane belongs to motor vehicles, unless there is a bike in the road. In which case, the cyclist is entitled to safely navigate the stretch that requires accommodation.

*Still no sign of a permanent home for On Biking on


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Age Limits for Street Legal Cycling?

A topic of continuing and fundamental debate is where bikes belong with respect to cars - in series, or in parallel. On some streets, for example Chestnut Street, the roadway is too narrow for parallel riding. Here sharrows seem appropriate. But this raises a serious issue: We are now directing cyclists to take the lane. What kind of cyclist do we envision? Most would say an experienced, vigorous cyclist. How about a 12 year old? A 9 year old? No? Then should we prohibit cyclists under a certain age taking the lane? These are tough questions, but as laws and roads evolve to accommodate cyclists, they will become necessary to address.


You can't avoid traffic in a car

Hate to pick on the TAB's Jim Walker, but he asks this morning how to avoid crosstown traffic -- ruling out biking as an answer. If you are in a car, you cannot -- by definition -- avoid traffic. In a car you are traffic!

Hop on a bike is one answer. But, it isn't necessarily the right answer for everybody. (Though it's probably the right answer for more people than are currently biking.) Find public transportation. Demand public transportation. Car pool. Request off-peak work hours or work-from-home options.

There are car trips that are unavoidable. But, not all the car trips that make up the worst traffic.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Why bad things happen to bikes on the right

What ties together the three recent car/bike crashes? In each case, the biker was passing stopped (or nearly stopped) traffic on the right. It's not a coincidence. Ironically, traveling along side stopped traffic may be the most dangerous place for a biker to be.

Among bike advocates, it's already well-established that creating bicycle accommodations to the right -- parallel on-road* facilities --create some risks. It's counter-intuitive, but the risks are greater when the traffic is stopped. Put another way, moving traffic to the left provides some protection to bikes on the right.

There are five major dangers on the right:

  • Dooring -- the driver or a left-side passenger opening a door into a cyclist causing a direct injury or knocking the cyclist into traffic
  • The right hook -- a driver going in the same direction turning right across a cyclist, cutting the cyclist off
  • Crossing -- From the right or left, crossing over the lane and the cyclists' path to turn left
  • Merging traffic -- From the right, pulling into the cyclist's path
  • Crossing pedestrians

Traffic moving along on the left discourages or prevents all of these (one assumes inadvertently) bike-unfriendly behaviors.

Drivers and passengers exiting from the left pay more attention when they are opening a door into a lane of moving traffic. The faster traffic is going relative to bikers, the more likely a biker will be ahead of the driver turning right and visible to him before the turn, reducing the likelihood of right hooks. Drivers -- and pedestrians -- are unlikely to cross moving traffic and will be more careful merging.

Drivers and cyclists alike need to understand the special risks of bikes moving to the right of stopped traffic. Drivers need to understand the potentially fatal consequence of standard maneuvers in or across stopped traffic and to be on the lookout. And, cyclists need to be even more vigilant when traffic is slow or stopped, slow down a bit, and be especially careful when going by a gap in traffic.

It's not an answer to say bicyclists shouldn't pass on the right**. Many people are not comfortable riding in traffic when traffic is going at a bicyclist's clip. It's not reasonable to assume that either cars or bicycles will proceed at the lowest common-denominator speed. It's why the law allows bikes to ride on the right and cars to pass bikes in the lane, when safe and possible. As a policy matter, we want bicyclists to enjoy the benefit that accrues from having a small footprint that allows them to operate in a narrow lane and avoid traffic.

So, we all have to get better about what it means for bikes to pass on the right. When cars are slow, everybody really, really needs to pay attention!

*I address here parallel, side-by-side accommodations like bike lanes or striped shoulders. But, there are also parallel, separated facilities, which mitigate many of these issues, but create some of their own, like crossing joining streets.

**Many experienced bicyclists follow the more general rule that faster traffic passes on the left. What seems like weaving is actually predictable, safe behavior. When traffic is going faster, they pull to the right. When traffic is slower, they pull to the left. On the left, many of the problems described above don't arise. Drivers rarely open their doors when they are still in the lane. The left-hook is much less likely and easier to see coming. The cyclist is more visible to traffic. And, traffic is more visible to the cyclist. But, it isn't a strategy for the traffic-averse. We need to accommodate them, and parallel facilities fit the bill.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why it's no surprise a bike and car collided at Beacon and Grant

We also have (thanks to Nathan) the police report for the 5/27 car/bike crash at Beacon and Grant. As I suspected, it involved a car catching a gap in car traffic to turn left, in this case from Beacon eastbound to Grant northbound, and missing that there was no gap in bike traffic.

This one's not so simple.

A cyclist on Beacon heading to Newton Centre will frequently find a car in his lane stopped short of the intersection, because a) traffic is backed up from Langley to Grant, so it would block the box to continue or b) the driver is just being kind and creating a gap for an eastbound driver looking to turn left (north) onto Grant or a southbound driver on Grant looking to turn left or right on Beacon. Whether with express intent or not, the driver has created a gap for turning traffic. Call the westbound, gap-creating driver WBS (westbound Beacon straight), the eastbound driver B2GL (Beacon to Grant left), and the southbound drivers G2BR and G2BL (Grant to Beacon right and left).

But, the gap-creating rationale doesn't necessarily apply to the biker. Even if there are cars backed up from Langley, there's plenty of space to ride legally to the right, so a bike is not going to block the box. Or, the biker was not privy to the decision to informally yield the right-of-way to turning traffic. But, the gap-creating decision on the driver G's part is going to induce any of three different drivers -- B2GL, G2BL, or G2BR -- to make the turn. And, there is a potential conflict between B2GL and G2BL. However created, when there's a gap, the biker is basically riding into a gauntlet.

According to the crash report, what happened on 5/27 was pretty much the back-up scenario. One or more WBS cars stopped short of Grant. Two B2GLs caught the break in traffic and turned left from a stop. The cyclist was riding westbound, passed the stopped WBSs, realized he was going to hit the first B2GL, slammed on the brakes, and went over the handlebars. The first B2GL stopped short and the cyclist hit the car.

The B2GL should not have been across the bikers path. But, it doesn't absolve the driver to recognize that the rider showed poor judgment. Obscured by westbound traffic, he proceeded into the intersection despite the fact that the WBS cars in his lane had created a turn-inducing gap.

Contrary to my friend Nathan's suggestion, this isn't principally a striping issue. There should be (and I am confident there will be) more bike-appropriate striping through intersections on Beacon Street. But, stripes aren't armor. A bad crash happened last fall at an intersection on Beacon that is striped properly. There is no break in the shoulder stripe where the driver swerved abruptly and rode over a bicylist on Comm. Ave. the same day. And, who's to say that better through striping wouldn't induce more bicyclists to proceed injudiciously than cause motorists to proceed more judiciously.

Bigger things are necessary to reduce the stress and risk of the Beacon/Grant intersection. The intersection needs better, safer gap-making. A roundabout would be ideal. Loathe as I am to say it, if not a roundabout, maybe it's time to put a full signal at the intersection. Having ridden many, many times through all the intersections where there have been recent bike/auto crashes, this strikes me as the likeliest to have another one.


The run-over cyclist's damning statement

When news broke of the 5/27 accident on Comm. Ave., where a biker was literally run over when a driver made an abrupt right turn, the police reported that "[t]he cyclist’s actions, which were confirmed by his own statements, contributed to the crash" and, therefore, the driver was not cited. What were the statements? What were those actions? What unusual behavior brought this on himself?

Now that the police report is public, we know. Here is the full text of the relevant portion of the police report:


His contribution to the crash -- the contribution that let the driver "in a hurry" who "unexpectedly swerved," "abruptly swerve[d]," made "a sudden move to the right" off the hook -- was to exercise his right under MGL ch. 85, sec 11B to pass slower moving traffic on the right. It appears there's nothing more or less to the story. According to the off-duty police officer who witnessed the incident then helped lift the car off of the cyclist "the bicyclist appeared to be travelling at a reasonable rate of speed, and also in a straight line." (Quotations are from the police report and may or may not be direct quotations from the witnesses.)

It boils down to is this: can a cyclist passing slower traffic to the right expect that motorists will look for him before turning across his path? Or, as bike advocate John Allen suggests, does MGL ch. 85, sec. 11B simply make it legal to pass on the right, but you do so at your own risk?

In the end, as I wrote earlier, legal liability is probably a minor factor in actual decision-making. Drivers are not going to take more care to avoid a ticket, but to avoid inadvertently killing someone.

But, the law ought to reflect what policy we want to promote and the values that we hold. We want to encourage people to ride, particularly those who are not as comfortable riding in traffic. The blah-blah litany: fossil fuel-independent, less-polluting, less-carbon generating, quieter, healthier, more neighborhood-friendly. We want to encourage people who drive to make it safe and comfortable to ride on our streets. It's really not that much to ask those piloting ton-plus* vehicles to recognize that even the basic action of turning into a driveway has potentially lethal consequence.

Ultimately, the best cure is more bikes on the road. In the meantime, it would send an important message that it is not reasonable and prudent to drive without looking for cyclists.

*Fortunately, the car involved in this accident was a Toyota Corolla, way down on the lighter-end of the spectrum at about 2,400 lbs. Many popular cars are closer to or over two tons: Toyota Camry -- 3,200 lbs., Honda Odyssey -- 4,300 lbs., Chevy Equinox -- 3,700 lbs.


Why wasn't the cyclist cited?

The Newton PD puts the blame for the Comm. Ave 5/27 run-over squarely on the cyclist. So why wasn't he cited? We need clarity.


Great opportunities for prudent swerving

We encourage this along Beacon Street, where the painted line cuts off cyclists and pedestrians. Just make sure not to notice if you pass bikers upstream of your prudent swerve. The best conditions for this of course are during gridlock, but fortunately we have plenty of that.


Newton PD - It's Prudent to Unexpectedly and Abruptly Swerve if you are Ignorant of Your Surroundings

Excerpts from the Newton PD Accident Report. Quotes are from the report and are not necessarily verbatim witness statements. Highlights are ours.

Witness #1: "The red toyota UNEXPECTEDLY SWERVED to the right, striking the bicyclist"

"Not sure if the Toyota signaled before making THE SUDDEN MOVE to the right."

Witness #2: "Observed the red Toyota ABRUPTLY SWERVE TO THE RIGHT and strike the bicyclist.

Driver of Red Toyota: "stated that she was IN A HURRY [because of a social event]."

Run-over Cyclist: "stated that the red toyota UNEXPECTEDLY PULLED ABRUPTLY TO THE RIGHT"

Reporting Police Officer:




Friday, June 4, 2010

BP irony alert

From PRI.


Riverside Community Meeting Flyer

This is the flyer sent out by the active Riverside Station Neighborhood Coalition about the June 17 presentation at Williams School. Click through for a larger version.


Just for fun


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Biker Boy and On Biking Man has a great new feature -- On Biking -- with columns from a Brookline bicyclist and psychologist Jonathan Simmons. His most recent entry is a nifty feature on Biking Boy, an early-childhood educator who dresses up as a super hero to promote helmet use.

In college, Zach, a certified early education teacher, commuted to his job at a pre-school. “I began telling stories to the kids about superheroes. That’s when I made up this character, Biker Boy, whose bike has magical powers that tells him if someone's in trouble. The kids loved it. They thought it was real and that I was Biker Boy, even though I told them I wasn't.”

Simmons is doing a great job capturing the human element of the widly diverse biking community with warmth and humor. A previous column profiled the slow-riding devotees behind the recent Somerville Tweed ride.

One problem. There's no On Biking page. You have to catch the columns when they get featured on a navigation element. Too bad.


Who's paying for the Lower Falls bridge?

Continued good news on the Lower Falls bridge front. A contractor has been selected (at a significantly lower price than estimated) and construction should begin this month.

The TAB article on the bridge (longer on-line then in the paper) mentions Newton Bike/Ped and Newton Conservator's CPA application for $47,000. While the application was originally intended to cover part of the actual bridge restoration, full funding for the bridge work was long ago assumed by the state. The application, which is still pending, is now for money to beautify the Newton-side approach (from Concord Street) beyond the basic work that the state would otherwise do.

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Same Roads, Same Rules III

"If the bicyclist would have just waited in traffic like everybody else, we would all be talking about something else right now." - JD71 comment in Newton Tab, June 2

I will be conducting an experiment to test motorist acceptance of "Same Roads, Same Rules". On the last friday of this month, in recognition of the run over biker and critical mass, I will take the lane on Commonwealth Avenue, starting eastbound at 6:15pm from the Commonwealth Avenue Hess Station, all the way to Boston College. Then I will turn around and ride in the center lane all the way back. Where there is gridlock, I will wait patiently in the gridlock; I think I can round up a face mask and an ozone carbon filter. Where traffic is moving smoothly, I will pedal as much as I can to keep up.


Same Roads, Same Rules II

Same Roads, Different Impacts
Same Roads, Different Spaces
Same Roads, Different Dangers
Same Roads, Different Awareness
Same Roads, Different Rules


Same Roads, Same Rules?

Empty Slogan? Yes
Same Roads, Different Rules? Yes
Same Rules? Just Say No.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chestnut Hill Square summary thought

I went to a community presentation on Chestnut Hill Square last night. While I don't agree with the solution, it is admirable the way the developer and traffic engineer are trying to solve traffic flow problems from Parker Street to Hammond Street. But, they are not doing enough -- really anything -- to reduce car use in the first place.

Before they make it easier to travel by car, they should do everything possible to make it easier not to travel by car.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Complete Streets call to action

From WalkBoston:

Last Friday, the National Complete Streets Coalition joined with Transportation for America, America Bikes, and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership to bicycle down Pennsylvania Avenue, America’s main street, and publicly thank Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for all his hard work to make sure that walking and biking are on equal footing with other modes for safety, convenience, and accessibility.

DOT’s new policy is a step forward, but if we’re going to make our streets safer for all users, we need Congress to change federal law to make complete streets the standard — not the exception. Only through a strong federal complete streets policy can we end the project-by-project fight for safer roads for people who are bicycling, walking, and taking public transportation.

Join us in support of complete streets and take action: Tell your Members of Congress to co-sponsor the Complete Streets Act of 2009! And if you live in Rep. Delahunt's or Rep. Tsongas's districts, please thank them for being cosponsors already!

The Complete Streets Act would ensure that future federally funded transportation projects take into account the needs of everyone using the roads – old and young, bicycle riders and drivers, pedestrians and public transportation users.

We are making great progress, but we need your help: Tell your representatives that you value streets designed for all modes – that includes bicycling, as well as walking and taking public transportation.

Thank you in advance for taking action!



We can prevent bicyclists from being run over

Updated: this post has a link to the police report.

We all await the release of more details from the police report, but in the meantime, a possible -- indeed likely -- scenario emerges: motor vehicle traffic was moving slowly, the bicyclist was passing the slow and stopped traffic on the right, the motorist had not passed the bicyclist so was unaware of him, she turned right into a driveway just as he was passing.

If that's the case, there is reason to be frustrated that the driver has not been cited. Under Massachusetts law, bicyclists, unlike motor vehicles, have the right to pass slower traffic on the right (MGL ch. 85, sec. 11B). That right is meaningless if it does not create in motorists a corresponding duty not to drive into bikes passing on the right. It's disturbing that the investigating officer felt that "a reasonable and prudent person would not be expecting someone on their right." A reasonable and prudent person, aware of MGL ch. 85, sec. 11B, ought to be thinking that a bike might be passing.

So, assuming facts are not radically different than the scenario outlined, bike activists should hope that the Newton Police Department rethinks the conclusion here and determines that a citation is in order. It's right on the merits. And, it sends the right message to motorists and bicyclists.

But, let's not overstate the impact of that message. People are not going to be more careful because running over a biker might end up putting points on their license. It's probably safe to assume that most drivers want to avoid driving over bicyclists in the first place. Whether or not it's going to result in a ticket has got to be a remote, secondary consideration.

One hopes the news that a not-careful-enough driver ran over a bicyclist will make folks in Newton look a little more carefully before turning right (and make bicyclists a little more cautious passing traffic on the right). But, the story will eventually recede as a behavior changing event. The best cure for the problem is more bikers. A regular parade of bicyclists on a driver's trip is the best reminder that the streets are shared and to be vigilant and cautious.

After all, you could run over one of them. Or worse, run over one and get a ticket.


Another bike incident on Sunday?

From the comments, mmHz/Rhu reports another bike-involved incident on Walnut St. near Newton Highlands, presumably near the Walnut St. / Lincoln St. intersection.


Roundabouts in Newton IV -- Beacon and Hammond Pond Parkway

Just a few blocks up from candidate III is one suggested by Nathan in a comment: Beacon and Hammond Pond Parkway. A great candidate. There's just no need for a light. Right-turning traffic is already channelized on the relevant three legs. (There's no right turn allowed onto the one-way Hobart St.) There's plenty of space for a roundabout.

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It's not a very efficient intersection. Beacon St. traffic is often stopped much longer than is necessary to allow for traffic coming from Hammond Pond Pkwy or Hobart St. A roundabout would promote much better traffic flow, particularly through Beacon St. traffic.

Oddly, it's not the worst intersection for cyclists or pedestrians. Eastbound, it can get a little tricky with cars heading right on Hammond Pond Pkwy sometimes cutting it a little close to get around. Westbound, it's really not bad because there's no traffic going northbound. Pedestrian traffic tends to be on the northside, where there is the least traffic and there are a few pedestrian refuges.


Nicole Freedman and StreetsFilms

Nifty film about the work that Nicole Freedman (and lots of others) are doing in Boston. Great line:

I always joke that if we never have an original idea and we plagiarize from all the other cities, we'll be very successful.


Roundabouts in Newton III

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This one was already on my list of roundabout candidates, but Beacon St. and Grant Ave. moves up with the report that a cyclist and a car collided in the intersection on Friday. I'm hardly surprised. The intersection is my least favorite to bike through in all of Newton, with the possible exception of Newton Corner. Left-turning traffic -- eastbound Beacon onto Grant and southbound Grant onto Beacon -- is so intent on turning that they just don't look out for bicyclists. I cannot count the number of near misses.

It's probably not a particularly safe intersection for cars, either. I'm going to try and find out, but I suspect that the Beacon and Grant intersection has more than its share of car-on-car violence.

A roundabout at this intersection would address the major problem, creating stress-free gaps for left-turning traffic. It would be a much safer and more pleasant intersection to negotiate in a car. It would also make a lovely gateway into and out of Newton Centre.

As discussed earlier, simply having a roundabout would not make life safer for bicyclists (though Beacon and Grant is so bad now, it may be an exception to that general rule). But, there are more or less bicycle-friendly ways to design a roundabout. It can be clearly marked so that cars don't pass bicycles in the roundabout. Or, the design can put bicycles on shared sidewalks around the roundabout, with bikes crossing the entrances/exits like pedestrians.

It's a big intersection that could easily accommodate a nice modern roundabout.


Two more bicyclists hit in Newton

The TAB's Dan Atkinson reports the frightening story of a biker hit, then trapped under a car on Comm. Ave., near the Marriott. The same day, a biker and car collided at the intersection of Beacon St. and Grant Ave.

The opening sentence suggests that the bikers were responsible for both incidents: "Two bicyclists collided with cars in separate incidents on May 27[.]" But, the account of the Comm. Ave. incident makes it clear that the driver just swerved into the biker.


David Brooks is wrong about why pedestrians die in crosswalks

On Friday, David Brooks had an unfortunate bit of victim-blaming in a column about risk in society:

More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways.

People on foot die in crosswalks when people in cars and trucks drive at lethal speeds in crosswalks when they shouldn't. It's that simple.

A few weeks ago, I addressed Brooks's suggestion that it's up to pedestrians to exercise more vigilance. If you put the primary burden of safely crossing the street on pedestrians, the only pedestrians you'll have are those comfortable with risk, the rest will go by car.

If pedestrians have a "false sense of security," the answer isn't to make pedestrians more nervous. The answer is to make the sense of security less false.

There is no public policy reason for traffic going faster than 20 MPH in any single place in Newton where we want pedestrians to cross the street. None. If we changed the street geometry such that the 85th percentile speed was 20 MPH just before each crosswalk, the likelihood of a fatal accident would approach zero. At 20 MPH, a driver is much more likely to see a pedestrian. At 20 MPH, the distance required to stop safely is very short. At 20 MPH, the likelihood that a pedestrian will die after being hit is in the low single digits.