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
downtown
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.

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