Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bike Lanes For All... or Some (Be Brave)

One of the biggest controversies and debates among folks who are advocating for a higher percentage of bike use in urban areas is how to deal with the infrastructure. It’s one thing to suggest people get on there bikes and commute to work, grocery store, running errands etc, but it’s a whole other issue to set up an infrastructure where people feel safe doing so. Add to that getting from point A to point B in a direct speedy route, and reduce or eliminate conflicts with vehicles and pedestrians. Do we simply try to educate the public with a “let’s all just get along” approach and advocate for vehicular type infrastructure, which essentially means do nothing to the actual road network? That of course has been the way things have gone for much of the US until recently and it's not working. Bike usage has not increased significantly no matter how much education we push. Or do we make special considerations for bike use with special bike lanes, including protected bike lanes with a physical barrier between vehicle traffic and bikes?

This is a list of some of the main (but not all) types of bike infrastructure found in Madison and surrounding communities. This is off of the Bike Madison web site
Bicycle boulevards are low speed, low (motor vehicle) traffic volume, local streets that are designated for use primarily by bicyclists. Motor vehicles are welcome on bicycle boulevards. Special blue street signs and shared lane (sharrow) pavement markings signify that motor vehicles must be attentive to the large numbers of cyclists and lower their speeds. 
Bike boxes are rectangles, painted on the pavement at intersections, which move car traffic back several feet from the crossing and allow space for bicyclists to position themselves in front of waiting traffic. Bike boxes are intended to reduce bicycle and car collisions, especially those between drivers turning right and bicyclists going straight by providing greater visibility. 
A bicycle lane is a separate lane on the street for bicyclists. This lane is sometimes shared with parked cars, buses or right turning vehicles.
A separate bicycle path physically separated from vehicle traffic. These are nearly always a mixed path with pedestrians, skaters, dog walking, and bikes on the same path. (Okay... I couldn't actually find a definition of a bike path on the Bike Madison site so the above is my interpretation of a bike path) 
A cycle track is an exclusive bike facility that combines the user experience of a separated path with the on-street infrastructure of a conventional bike lane. A cycle track is physically separated from motor traffic and distinct from the sidewalk. Cycle tracks have different forms but all share common elements - they provide space that is intended to be exclusively or primarily used for bicycles, and are separated from motor vehicle travel lanes, parking lanes, and sidewalks. In situations where on-street parking is allowed cycle tracks are located to the curb-side of the parking (in contrast to bike lanes).
Cycle tracks may be one-way or two-way, and may be at street level, at sidewalk level, or at an intermediate level. If at sidewalk level, a curb or median separates them from motor traffic, while different pavement color/texture separates the cycle track from the sidewalk. If at street level, they can be separated from motor traffic by raised medians, on-street parking, or bollards. By separating cyclists from motor traffic, cycle tracks can offer a higher level of security than bike lanes and are attractive to a wider spectrum of the public.
The most common form of special bike infrastructure in Madison is the bike lane.  Basically a bike lane is a white line painted on the street a few feet from the curb, or set off from the door zone of parked vehicles, or a mixed lane of buses, bikes, and right turning vehicles. There is no physical separation of bikes and motor vehicles. This type of lane is common throughout the city. They are relatively inexpensive as its simple a painted white line. The real question is do they really get more folks to dust off the bike in the garage or are they just a cheap feel good measure by the city so politicians can tell use what a great job they’re doing..... without really doing much of anything.

After 30+ years of using a bike in Madison I have mixed views on bike lanes. On one hand it does improve things if designed well. It simply gives a bit more space for bikes on the street which is a good thing. Vehicles know they should keep out of the bike lanes so in general will give a bit more separation as opposed to squeezing bikes into the gutter. Recently I have been seeing one way streets with two way bike lanes, with one going against traffic. That’s a very good idea as it finally acknowledges that bikes are different from motor vehicles (who knew). Just marking off a few feet on one side going in the opposite direction of a one way is all that is needed and it can make life better for bicyclist as they can now take a more direct route to where they are going.

Of course Madison and the surrounding communities have their share of badly designed bike lanes. Fish Hatchery Road is a notoriously bad design. This is an email exchange I had with the city of Madison about the area

I recently ran an errand out to fish Hatchery Road coming from the near west side. Coming off of Mills and taking the bike path is no problem, that is until I hit Fish Hatchery, I took the bike lane on Fish Hatchery as directed (there is a bike lane on both sides). That was a big mistake. Besides the bike path being full of gravel and sticks etc, and being generally in bad shape, the path just kind of fizzles out, but by then I was trying to get across the overpass of the belt line. This is done with on and off traffic going to and off the belt line. 
This has to be the worst and most dangerous bike path in Madison. Not surprisingly no one uses the bike lane. That was the first and last time I will use it. 
Much better to go across the street and use the sidewalk. Of course sidewalk biking is not the best idea but in this case it is infinitely better then the designated bike lane. Even the belt line overpass is much better as you can use stop lights to get across. 
My advice is to shut down the bike lanes on both sides of the road on Fish Hatchery as it is just not a good place to try and squeeze in a bike lane on to a very fast and busy street. Much better to make a dedicated bike path next to the sidewalk (the one everyone is using as a bike path anyway) that is completely separated from traffic. 
This route is the only way in the area to get across the belt line and it is very poorly designed. The bike lanes on Fish Hatchery are at best an afterthought and at worst flat out dangerous.
Alan Selk
And the first reply
Fish Hatchery Road south of Wingra Creek to the Beltline is a County road.  I will contact them about the need to sweep the bike lanes there.  The state has an upcoming project to rebuild the bridge over the Beltline and the approaches to the bridge.  The city recognizes the problems you mention with bicycling over this bridge and we are working with the state to redesign Fish Hatchery Road from Badger Road the Greenway Cross to better serve bicyclists.
Another project that might help you is the Cannonball Path.  This year we are finishing the section south of the Beltline form Greenway View to the Arboretum, as well as starting the design process for construction a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Beltline west of Fish Hatchery Road.  The bridge will hopefully be constructed in 2012 along with a connection to Fish Hatchery Road where the railroad tracks cross near the recycling business.  
Please let me know if you have any further questions or comments. 
Arthur Ross, Pedestrian-Bicycle Coordinator
City of Madison Traffic Engineering Division
215 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Suite 100
PO Box 2986
Madison, WI  53701-2986
And a few days later I received this

Thanks for passing this on. I agree completely with Mr. Selk, and also with your response. FYI the city is also working with Dane county on a reconstruction of Fish Hatch from  Emil to Wingra, which will result in newly paved and marked bike lanes (also scheduled for 2012). Nonetheless, the interchange will continue to be daunting to most bikers even though there will be some improvement. If someone wants more info on the State or County project I'm glad to help.
Tony Fernandez
voice: 608-266-9219
fax: 608-264-9275
Notice the resignation in the “Nonetheless, the interchange will continue to be daunting to most bikers even though there will be some improvement”. An improvement over an impossible situation is not saying much. I’m not hopeful there will be any meaningful improvement for bikers. There is little doubt bike users have remained an afterthought in the bridge reconstruction plans.

Another example of a badly designed bike lane is on West Broadway. I recently took a bike ride to the South Town Dr/West Broadway area in Monona. I couldn’t help but notice a good example of a very badly thought out bike lane. Below is a photo of a bike lane that simply stops in the middle of traffic with no clue as to where bikes should go. To say it’s confusing would be an understatement.

This first photo on the left clearly shows a bike lane. Got that.
And then..... it ends. Yes, those two lines on the bottom left are the bike lane which ends in the middle of traffic. There is no clue as to what a bicyclist is supposed to do. Go right, go straight.... donno.
I'm not sure you can see it in the photo, but after the intersection, if your brave enough to get across, the bike path continues.... I think. It does get very narrow so you're essentially in the gutter (Edit; I have been informed there is no bike lane after the intersection). As I said, a good example of a very bad bike lane.

No doubt there are others but these are two I have recently run across. In both cases it would be better if the bike lane wasn't there. As is, bike users are lead into bad situations with no clue as to what's coming. These situations are not for the faint of heart.

The section of University Ave that runs by the UW is a good example of a border line bike lane.
That's the bike lane moving out from the bottom left. On the left of the bike lane is vehicle traffic and on the right is a bus lane. There are of course cars moving from left to right across the bike lane for right turns. Doesn't really matter if the lane is safe, the subjective safety level for bikes is low with traffic on both sides of the lane. It is no surprise it is not well used even though it runs right by the UW.

Ironically the other side of the street running opposed to the flow of traffic is one of the only, if not the only protected bike only paths in Madison. There is a pedestrian sidewalk on the right and a wide protective curb on the left separating the path from traffic. This is a well used bike path. University Avenue is about the only way to get around the area on a bike as the next block over is Johnson Street which is a very busy 4 lane road with no bike lanes. It's unfortunate the bike lane going with traffic on University is so poorly done as it undoubtably cuts down on bike use in the area, which of course includes the UW and thousands of students.

I could go on and on with examples of mediocre bike lanes in the city of Madison and surrounding communities, but that's the nature of bike lanes. It's a stop gap measure that can improve things, but they have there limitations. Bike lanes can help, but poorly designed bike lanes do little and the worst of them are actually dangerous.

In a future article I'll be covering the ideas behind separating bikes from motor vehicles in a more complete way then is possible with bike lanes. The Dutch have been at it a long time and have it down to a science. There are reasons why Northern Europe has the highest bike use rate in the western world.

Here are a few clues. First a little history. Then here and here. And a little entertainment here, here,  and here. And not a bike helmet in sight.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Little Green Box

No doubt people have noticed the new green bike boxes at a number of locations in Madison. This is what the Bike Madison web site has to say about them

Bike boxes are rectangles, painted on the pavement at intersections, which move car traffic back several feet from the crossing and allow space for bicyclists to position themselves in front of waiting traffic. Bike boxes are intended to reduce bicycle and car collisions, especially those between drivers turning right and bicyclists going straight by providing greater visibility.

They also have a PDF that goes into it a bit farther

In general it does improve things. The biggest reason appears to be that it gives vehicles a clear view as to where to stop. I live close to a bike box and have noticed that most vehicles do now stop behind the green box while before nearly all cars pulled right up to the pedestrian crosswalk. It was not uncommon for cars to stop in the crosswalk, seemingly oblivious to pedestrians having to walk around their vehicle.

It also improves things for bikes in several other ways. On the left side of the box is an arrow for turning left. With the green box bikes are not forced to the center of the road when wanting to turn left. It also places bikes in front of vehicles so drivers have a much clearer view as to what’s about to happen.

One other thing the boxes improve on not mentioned in the PDF is for bikes positioning themselves for a left turn who prefer not to cut across traffic. The photos above are for the corner of Dayton and Park. When traveling on the bike lane on Park Street many bikers would rather not try to cut across two lanes of traffic from the bike lane on Park Street to position themselves for a left turn onto Dayton. I would include myself among those. Much better to continue on the bike lane on Park, cross Dayton, and then get positioned at the light to cross Park. With the green bike box there is more room for bikers to get themselves in position. Before the green box appeared bikes where forced to try and turn themselves around with very little room. Throw in vehicles who have edged up to close to the pedestrian crossing, and of course pedestrians crossing the street, and it makes for a very congested and confusing corner. The green bike box has created a better situation for bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles by pushing back vehicles and giving everyone more room. The subjective safety for bikers is certainly improved.

So is this an ideal situation for bikers? Given the current situation it is clearly an improvement with a relatively small investment, but it is a long way from ideal. If Madison ever wants to get the bike commuting level up to the 20% the city claims it wants it’s going to have to do a lot better.

Let's take a look at what other countries have done to dramatically improve the real and subjective safety of bicyclist. Here and here are good examples of a much more advanced way to handle busy intersections.

The above example really works best with bike paths that are separated from vehicles as they should be anyway. The current system in Madison (and most other cities in the USA) of painting a white line a few feet from the curb, or worse yet parked cars, or a mix with buses and right turning vehicles, and calling it a bike lane does not a good bike infrastructure make. There is no way Madison will ever reach a high level of bike commuting, or even much higher then we already have, until we get serious about an infrastructure that treats all forms of transport equally. For bicyclist that means bike paths with a physical separation from vehicles. The current bike infrastructure is only slightly better then an afterthought.