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.

1 comment:

  1. Alan, thanks for pointing out the bike specific light on Monroe and Regent. Really cool! I wasn't aware of this. It certainly makes that busy intersection of bikes, peds and motorists more orderly.