Wednesday, June 29, 2011

All Hail To Mixed Use Bike Paths

The best bike commute in my normal routine, and one I actually look forward to, is my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s on Monroe Street.

It’s not because I love Trader Joe’s so much, though it's a fine grocery store and I do like its kind of off beat way of doing things. Its because of how I get there. For a good part of the bike commute I get to travel on a mixed use bike/pedestrian path. I can catch it a few blocks from where I live and get off a short block from the store. It’s a pleasure all the way. The city did some work on the Regent/Monroe intersection this spring to make it even better. Besides improving the intersection with a much larger island, the city put in a stop light specifically for bikes.

Bike Light on the corner of Monroe and
Regent. This is the busiest intersection
on the west side of the mixed use path
How about that. Makes a person feel kind of... special.

I could get spoiled with this. I might even start expecting this type relaxing, high quality bike infrastructure all over the city if the folks who make these things happen aren’t careful.

This is part of the same mixed use path that runs through the whole Isthmus and points beyond. You can take it to the northeast running along Lake Monona and then parallel to Willie Street, or take the Southwest Path and get all the way to the Dune Marsh area. Expect to meet lots of other folks on two wheels on the way as its heavily used. Oh... and a few pedestrians also. Most of this path except for the part running along Lake Monona is a former railroad track. This offers a little bonus as it is basically flat.

A typical weekday
afternoon on the path
This is by far the longest and most useful stretch of protected mixed use path in the city. There are a few other pieces of the path that branch off from this. Most notable of this is the path that starts from the Mills Street entrance to the Arboretum and follows Wingra Creek all the way to Olin-Turville Park. From there you can take the Monona Lakeshore Path back into town or go the other way to Nine Springs and beyond. There are a few other more fragmented pieces of mixed use path scattered about the city but nothing like this, and nothing quite as useful as this part of the path travels through the whole Isthmus. If you live close to the path it’s the best way to get into and out of the Downtown on a bike. Rush hour and weekend bike traffic is impressive.

It is interesting to see what the WISCONSIN BICYCLE FACILITY DESIGN HANDBOOK has to say about shared use paths. This on on page 4-1.
4. Shared-use Paths
Shared-use paths are largely non-motorized facilities** most often built on exclusive rights-of-way with relatively few motor vehicle crossings. Properly used, shared-use paths are a complementary system of off-road transportation routes for bicyclists and others. They serve as a necessary extension of the roadway network. Shared-use paths should not substitute for on-road bicycle facilities, but, rather, supplement a system of onroad bike lanes, wide outside lanes, paved shoulders, and bike routes. 

From there It goes into detail as to when and how they should be used. The bolding is my own. It appears the city of Madison is stepping outside the bounds of the handbook a bit with its use of shared use paths. Besides what is already done there are others being built or in the planning stage. There is little doubt the city realizes just how popular these paths are and that the folks of Madison want more of them. The city even has a few cycle tracks in the planning stage which differ from mixed use paths in that they are protected bike only paths as opposed to mixed use. Unfortunately it is very slim pickings for cycle tracks even in the planning stage.

Of course their can be a few problems with mixed use paths. A few cyclist don’t care  for having to deal with pedestrians. I personally don’t have a problem with this but then I’m not the fastest bicyclist around. Dealing with pedestrians is not a problem if biking at a reasonable speed. A bigger problem is how to deal with cross-streets. Most of these paths are gong through mid-block areas so when a cross-street comes up it is not where cars expect them.  The west side of this path is pretty good with a few exceptions. There is a minimum of cross-streets, and where there is it tends to be lightly traveled or well controlled. Going east there are more cross-streets so things do slow down some. A bit more work may need to be done to warn motor vehicle traffic of the path.

Overall though mixed use paths are a welcome relive from on-street bike lanes. Their popularity shows how much they are appreciated by bike users. I only wish we had a lot more of them.

The bigger issue is that they don’t necessarily go where folks on bikes need to go. Many are built more for recreation rather then commuting. Nearly all  are built along creeks, lakes shores, and former railroad tracks. To expand the network land must often be purchased which adds a good deal to the expense. There is certainly going to be limitations as to how extensive a network can be set up.

As nice as mixed use paths are, in order to build a high quality bike infrastructure that functions well for commuters and actually gets people from point A to point B, there needs to be a closer look at other ways to get around the limitations of mixed use paths. Along with the limitations of on street bike lanes there are some large gaps in the bike infrastructure of Madison.

A problem area I’ve already mentioned is the Fish Hatchery Road area and points south of the Beltline, though this areas will be greatly helped with the upcoming Cannonball mixed use trail that is in the planning stage or under construction.

I could easily throw in East and West Washington Avenue. East Washington is a street that shows the limitations of on-street bike lanes This is a major arterial street that runs from the Capital in the heart of downtown all the way to East Town Mall. A good deal of the way has an on-street bike lane. The problem is that it is little used because the people of Madison have wisely decided that on-street biking on an arterial road with traffic moving at 35+ mph is just not a good thing. I remember all to well driving with a friend on East Washington and pointing out the bike lane. I didn’t see a single bike all the way. I don’t blame bike users for avoiding it. It has a low subjective safety level.

Something missing from the infrastructure is cycle tracks, especially along critical arterial streets that would move cyclist from one part of the city to another. That along with intelligent intersections that get bike users through busy intersections with a minimum of bike/car interactions. This is something almost completely absent for the cities bike infrastructure. Without this it will be much more difficult to create a high quality infrastructure that actually gets bike users around the city with a high degree of real and subjective safety. Something that people will actually use. Fact is it will very likely be impossible without it.

This of course entails doing something that very much goes against the grain of a car-centric attitude. That would be taking space away from the infrastructure for motor vehicles and giving it over for bike infrastructure. Something as easy as taking away on-street parking on critical bike corridors and replacing it with a protected cycle path would greatly enhance bike use in the city. This is the easiest, least expensive, and best way to get more folks on bikes by creating a much safer experience for cyclist. Heaven forbid we should actually take away a lane of traffic.

Then set up intersections so bikes can safely get through with a minimum or interactions with motor vehicles and we’ve immediately greatly improved what we now have with minimal cost. No need to buy more land as the city already owns plenty to do the job.

Unfortunately that is hugely controversial with the car-centric approach to transportation that now exist. Even in a supposedly progressive place like Madison for the most part bikes are still not considered a serious mode of transportation. Or at least not serious enough to take anything away from motor vehicles. Until recently bikes where considered largely for recreation and sport.

That attitude is beginning to change as more people are now using there bikes for basic transportation.

With the heavy use of the mixed use bike/pedestrian paths the city will have to be very careful. By dangling a tasty appetizer in front of bike users we may just want to have the whole meal.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Madison Bike Lanes Continued

I covered some of the limitations of bike lanes here. As this is the major type of bike infrastructure in Madison it needs to be explored farther.

Johnson Street heading out from
This is a photo of Johnson Street heading north out of downtown. This is good example of a badly designed bike lane.

As can be seen from the photo Johnson Street is a one way two lane road at this point with parking on both sides of the street. Between the parked cars and moving traffic is a narrow space marked as a bike lane on the left side of the street. This is narrow even by bike lane standards. Because of the parked cars and the dangers of riding in the car door zone bikes are forced uncomfortably close to moving traffic. It is just not that wide of a street and even cars are uncomfortably close to the other lane of traffic. Biking on this street is not an inviting experience. Everyone dislikes it including motor vehicles.

East Gorham Street heading
into downtown
Going into the Isthmus one block over is East Gorham Street. This is another multi-lane one way street. This is a bit confusing as the right side of the street is not marked as a bike lane, though it is about as wide as Johnson. I did see a bike lane sign but no markings on the pavement. It may be an indication that the sidewalk is a bike lane. I’m a bit confused on this and it’s a good guess most other bike users are also.

Fortunately there is a bike Boulevard on East Mifflin St. the city has been working on. Though it hasn't been completed as of yet the boulevard will serve as the main bike corridor coming into and out of the area. This is new for 2011 and is long overdue.

The question has to be ask how the city of Madison made, and continues to make, such obvious blunders in its bike infrastructure?

The answer may lie in the WISCONSIN BICYCLE FACILITY DESIGN HANDBOOK. This is a guide for traffic engineers for the state of Wisconsin on how to build bike infrastructure. With few exceptions it is followed religiously, even when common sense and experience tells us it's not going to work in a given situation. The handbook goes into detailed guidelines on how to design on-street bikes lanes, and in fact that is the main method recommended for moving bikes about. Unfortunately the guide has serious flaws and misconceptions as to what works for bike users. It often appears to be written more for the convenience of traffic engineers rather then the good of bicyclist. One major flaw in the handbook is the wholesale rejection of protected bike paths. Most other flaws flow from that.

A few paragraphs on page 3-7 are all that is said about protected bike paths. Added to the list below are my observations.

Barrier-delineated bicycle lanes were popular in the early days of bicycle planning and design (fig. 3-10). However, their popularity has largely waned over the past several decades. This is particularly the case in communities with active bicycle facilities programs. With few exceptions, raised barriers (e.g., pin-down curbs, raised traffic bars, and asphalt concrete dikes) should not be used to delineate bicycle lanes, for a number of reasons:
• Raised barriers restrict the movement of bicyclists needing to enter or leave bike lanes (e.g., to make left turns); - It's difficult to understand the logic of this as the barrier is obviously not in use on cross streets. There is no problem with entering or leaving the bike path.
• A motorist entering from a side street (fig. 3-10) can effectively block the lane; - Clear markings are needed on the street to tell motor vehicles where to stop. Colored bike paths are also a big help in delineating the bike path and clueing in vehicles as to where to stop. Bad driving habits are not an excuse for the continuation of bad bike infrastructure. This may be more an issue of being a bit more inconvenient for motor vehicles. In a car-centric infrastructure this is number one bad.
• They make it impossible to merge the bicycle lane to the left of a right-turn lane; - This one seems to be a variation of the first one. It’s hard to critic it as it doesn’t make sense.
• They are often used incorrectly by wrong-way bicyclists; - Well designed protected bike lanes and infrastructure do not invite misuse by bicyclist, in fact quite the opposite, just as well designed streets do not invite misuse by motor vehicles. 
• They can be considered a hazard that can catch a bicyclist’s pedal or front wheel, especially in narrow bike lanes; - Obviously bike lanes should be designed wide enough and with well designed curbs to eliminate the problem.
• They use space that could be included in the bicycle lane; - As bad as the rest of the logic is for not using protected bike paths this one is really off the wall. It's quite obvious that with a protected bike path there is no need for an on street bike lane. The handbook appears to have jumped from contorted logic into La La land.
• They collect debris and increase maintenance needs, as well as impede standard maintenance procedures, including snow removal - Bad maintenance is no excuse. The actual maintenance on protected bike lanes is far less then streets for motor vehicles. This is just a way of treating bikes as second class. The attitude appears to be “If it’s to much hassle we won’t do it”.
What the handbook has done is taken the worst designs in cycle tracks and used that as an excuse to abandon the idea. Instead of working to solve any problems, and they are all readily solvable as has been shown in other parts of the world, and more recently in places like Portland Oregon and NYC, they simple called it quits.

What the handbook fails to mention is that in northern Europe, which has the highest level of bike commuting in the western world, protected bike paths are the major reason why bicyclist are safely able to get from point A to point B with such ease, and why so many people use bikes as a basic mode of transportation. This includes all types of people including the old and young, mothers with children, slightly overweight, or not so slightly, and all the other working Joe and Jane's that make up the tapestry of cities. It’s a proven method that works. The city of Madison has a dysfunctional bike infrastructure and they have followed the Wisconsin handbook to a tea.

What is needed is to look at what bike users need to feel safe and what encourages their use. As an example take a look at the heavy use of bikes on the mixed use protected bike/pedestrian paths in the city to see what bicyclist want. In order to feel safe there needs to be a separation of bikes from motor vehicles whenever possible. The daunting bike lanes that are all to common in the city do not give a feeling of safety. This is especially bad as many of these bike lanes are the only way to get around the city in any reasonable way. It severely limits where a bike can go and who is willing to use a bike as a basic mode of transportation.

A bike is not a car just as a pedestrian is not a bike. We wouldn’t think of placing pedestrians on the street with traffic and we discourage the use of bikes on sidewalks, yet we consistently place cyclist in intimidating situations and expect them to... just deal with it. Cyclist fall somewhere in between so mixing with motor vehicles is certainly acceptable on low volume lower speed streets. Overall though it’s a separate mode of travel that needs its own infrastructure to deal with its own needs. Most certainly on streets with higher volume and speeds.

Bikes travel at slower speeds and weigh much less then even the lightest car. It doesn’t take much to intimidate a bicyclist with a vehicle weighing 3000 lb. or more and traveling at 25 mph+. A badly thought out bike lane immediately places a bike user in uncomfortable and intimidating situations and simple discourages use by many potential users.

The WISCONSIN BICYCLE FACILITY DESIGN HANDBOOK is a recipe for failure. There appears to be little thought as to what works for  bike users trying to get from point A to point B. Its lazy thinking at its worst. Placing an unprotected bike lane on a 35 mph street with motor vehicles actually moving closer to 40 mph doesn’t work. Placing a bike lane between parked cars on one side and moving traffic on the other doesn’t work. The average person choosing to use a bike will avoid these lanes. All the pushing and education in the world is not going to change that because the subjective safety is very low. The experience for a bike user is very much a negative one.

Having said that there are some well designed on-street bike lanes.

Dayton Street with green bike box
This is a photo of Dayton Street close to the University. It is wide enough for comfort, and best of all it has no parked cars on the right side of the bike lane. This adds a much greater real and subjective safety level for bicyclist. The city has also added a green bike box on the busy intersection of Park and Dayton which further enhances its use. Traffic is also slower then the main arterial streets, though if the city enforced the actual speed limit it could be further improved. This is about as good as it gets for a bike lane. This is well used as it runs by the UW dorms, but if it was as badly designed as East Johnson Street there is little doubt its use would be far lower.

Madison has a reputation as a bike haven and that is certainly true for recreational cyclist. Bicyclist can get on a mixed use path and get out of town in short order. The Capital City Bike Path running south of Madison is wonderful for recreation and from there you can move to points beyond. All this done on mixed use protected paths and lightly used rural roads. For commuters trying to move about within the city it’s a different story.

If the city wants to increase bike commuter use as it consistently claims it does it needs to take a different approach as to the question of bike infrastructure. Madison may have been on the cutting edge of bike use 20 years ago, but they are sadly out of date as to what works and what doesn’t. It appears to be clinging to concepts that have proven themselves over time to be very limiting.

The current handbook needs to be thrown out and completely re-written to deal with the realities of what works for bike users, not what is the least expensive or the most convenient to design.

When every time someone uses a bike for a basic commute it becomes an exercise in bravity the use of bikes for commuting will continue to be a small percentage of what it could be. If we really want to get more folks using bikes, and not just the young and fit and somewhat reckless, the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin need to take a much closer look at what people who use bikes need to feel safe when choosing to use a bike instead of a car.

Madison has a strong bicycle culture and its long past due to move it to the next level.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ride the Drive (the mad mad world of Madison bikes)

I spent Sunday afternoon June 5 riding the 6 mile meander through the downtown area of Madison that was the course for "Ride the Drive".  The city of Madison shuts down 6 miles of streets to cars so bicyclist have the whole road to themselves. It's an amazingly relaxed ride when you don't have to look over your shoulder for the next speeding SUV. 

Lots of smiling faces and good times for the estimated 20 to 30 thousand folks who showed up. 

As I said, lots of folk and lots of bikes. A  very relaxing time.
Lots and lots of bikes of course and many booths set up. Recumbents where easily spotted and comfy commuter bikes where everywhere, and of course lots of lycra clad sporty speedsters. But I ended up taking mostly photos of the offbeat whacky bikes. This is stuff you just don't see every day. 

Pictures speak louder then words so have a look

A bit of Cycle Chic right here in Madison. The blond women in the upper center is the owner, with matching dress of course.

A three wheeled cargo type bike with a little one inside

Tandem recumbent with another little tot in tow. 

All those folks sitting down have peddles, though I can't say they where all peddling.  I have seen pictures of this type of bike from the Netherlands, only there they serve beer.

One of the many side by side tandems that could be seen. Next to it is a tricked out cruiser

A beautiful condition 1968 Raleigh Sprite. This one made in England and fully decked out from the factory with rack, leather Brooks saddle, and five speed internal gear hub as opposed to the usual three speed. The owner bought it at a garage sale in northern Wisconsin for $40.

One of the bikes from a booth set up with many experimental type bikes.  The public was invited to give-em a spin. As far as I know they weren't for sale but just lots of fun.

A large wheeled bike. You can compare it to the 26 inch wheel bike next to it. It's supposed to give you the feel of when you where a kid riding a bike much to large for you.

A grass bike. Quick growing grass seed is glued on the bike and it grows. It last about two weeks. Then I suppose it needs to be replanted.

This one deserves another look so my friend Carol gives it a spin. Yes, that is grass growing on the helmet.

A bike with bowling balls for wheels.

And it's actually ridable.
Unfortunately the mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin, canceled the "Ride the Drive" scheduled for September, though there is one at about the same time next year. Drop on by and bring the kids. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Beyond the Bike Lane

As I mentioned in an earlier article bike lanes are the most common type of bike infrastructure in the city of Madison and surrounding areas. There is good reason for that as It is relatively inexpensive as it’s just a bit of paint. But is it the best option, and more importantly, does it encourage more people to leave their car behind and get on a bike? No doubt it helps some, but there are real limitations as to how far we can go with bike lanes. There is far to much interaction between bikes and motor vehicles for comfort of either, especially on busy higher speed roads.  Add to that the idea of mixing buses and bikes is simple a bad idea with a low level of subjective safety for bicyclist. No doubt it’s not a joy for bus drivers either. Another major problem is parked cars opening doors onto bicyclist. The threat of this pushes bicyclist farther into traffic. All of this and more simple encourages folks to stay off there bikes.

If we really want to encourage more people to use bikes it has to be taken to the next level, and that would be separated and protected bike paths. This also includes carefully thought out bike/car intersections to avoid as much conflict as possible and well thought out bike paths that actually get bicyclist from point A to point B in a fast direct route.

Since this would mean taking up a bit more space then is currently used for bike lanes, in many cases it would mean eliminating a lane of motor vehicle traffic and converting it a protected bike path. There are a number of ways of doing this. A few photos to illustrate what a protected bike path is

This from Vancouver with a physical barrier between bikes and motor vehicles. Notice how the bike path is not also a pedestrian path. It’s separated from all other modes of transportation. This creates a high degree of real and subjective safety for bicyclist. It also makes driving easier.

This from NYC that uses parked cars as a barrier from moving motor vehicles with a buffer zone to create a protected bike path. This is relatively inexpensive as it simple moves parked cars into the street and creates a bike path next to the sidewalk, as opposed to placing the bike lane next to moving traffic. Again, bikes, motor vehicles and pedestrian have their own space. 

One of the major issues with protected bike paths is how to deal with intersections. These two videos show one way to do it. Notice how the intersection is designed to keep bicyclist and motor vehicles separated. There is little problem with interaction as each have their own set of lights.

On this type on intersection below the interaction is even less.

Of course not every road needs this type of bike infrastructure. What’s necessary is to have a network setup so bicyclist can get from point A to point B by the most direct speedy route, same as motor vehicles. In a very real sense we need highways for bikes in urban areas. That’s what this is about. It’s not necessary on residential streets as traffic is normally light and slow. 

Without this bike highway getting from point A to point B can be an exercise in frustration. Bikes are to often forced into intimidating situations. Getting there by the fastest route often means using busy fast roads. Often times it's the only way to get there. Vehicular cycling, which means bikes using the roadways in the same way as motor vehicles, simple doesn’t work well on these types of roads. 

To many bad interactions between bicyclist and motor vehicles is a sign of a poorly thought out infrastructure. A mistake is made in thinking we just need to educate both bicyclist and drivers on... better etiquette... or whatever it is they are trying to educate us on. There is something to better education, but it's only a small part. Without better infrastructure there is only so far we can go. Both drivers and bicyclist would benefit from better infrastructure for bikes. 

Money isn't a problem. We are spending many millions of dollars on roads in Madison and the surrounding communities. A very small percentage of that goes to bicycle infrastructure. Last I head about 3 1/2%. Considering that bike infrastructure cost far less then what infrastructure for motor vehicles cost there is no excuse for what we have. Its simple a matter of political will, or lack of it. 

Another interesting video on peace braking out with motor vehicles. And notice how many bikes there are.