Friday, July 29, 2011

The Good and the Bad of the Madison Platinum Bicycling Committee Report

The Platinum Bicycling Committee Report was adopted by the Madison Common Council in April of 2008.  It’s been over three years since report was adopted by the city council and I thought it might be interesting to see if any recommendations in the report have actually come to pass, and just what some of those recommendations where.

I’ll stay with the committees suggestions for bike infrastructure even though there are many others. As for the others, some are good, many are indifferent, and many of them trail off into the bureaucratic jungle…. where I won’t follow.

First a few of the good recommendations, with a number of them now being moved forward.

This is on page 20
Study and determine a location for two to three bike boulevards. Construct one and evaluate.
Details : A bicycle boulevard is a corridor where bicycles have preferential status. No through motorized traffic is allowed. Only local motorized traffic is allowed (for instance, to residences). A combination of signs and traffic calming devices are used to limit automobile traffic. Typically, a bicycle boulevard would have few traffic signals or signs causing the bicyclists to have to stop. Bicycles are thus provided a long linear stretch for quick and efficient travel. Bicycle boulevards tend to work best on grid street systems, where alternative parallel routes exist for motorized traffic. Examples include East Mifflin Street and Kendall/Bluff Streets. If successful, expand. 
The above is very likely the best recommendation of the committee, though a few of there ideas on boulevards have not been fully realized. The “no through motorized traffic” hasn’t come to pass as of yet, but at least the boulevards are off the ground and running.  Bring ‘em on as we need a lot more.

On page 27
Allow two-way bicycle operation on short one-way streets.
Details : Example is Henry Street from Dayton to State. Possible additional locations are East Mifflin and East and West Main off of the Square. Examples exist in Denmark and Switzerland.
There are an increasing number of the above in the downtown area. I use them on a regular basis and can attest to how well they work. Taking a little short cut by going against traffic on a one way can be a big benefit to bike users.

On page 19
Construct Bike Boxes at select and appropriate signalized intersections  
Details : A Bike Box is an advance stop bar for bicycles. It provides a safe area for bicyclists to wait at traffic controls/signals that allows them to get an advance start on motor vehicle traffic, which stages at a stop bar behind the bicyclist. Often, the pavement within a Bike Box is painted. Potential locations are inbound Williamson Street at John Nolen/Blair and westbound State Street at Henry/W.Johnson Streets.
Bike boxes showed up in numbers in 2011. I use the one on Park and Dayton on a daily basis and can say without hesitation that they work very well. The longer I use it the more I like it. The main function is simply moving traffic back a few more feet which gives pedestrians and bike users more space. It’s good for everyone, including motor vehicles.

On page 35
Conduct a review of complex intersections and determine solutions to improve bicycle/pedestrian safety and comfort.
Details: Review intersections and determine solutions (examples include Monroe/Regent and Blair/John Nolen/Williamson/Wilson)
The intersection of Monroe/Regent was redone in the spring of 2011 and includes a bike specific light. Well done. Blair/John Nolen/Williamson/Wilson remains the same and needs work.

On page 48
Institute a Sunday Parkways ride once per month. 
Details: Sunday Parkways are times set aside on weekends and holidays for traffic-free biking and walking on a network of selected streets. In effect, streets are transformed into trails. Hundreds of thousands of cyclists use Sunday Parkways called Ciclovia in Bogotá, Columbia, and Via RecreActiva in Guadalajara, Mexico. Sunday Parkways do not impact motorized traffic flow like other special events, since all cross-traffic flows normally. Participants stop at all traffic signals, so that only the closed street is affected. Often on a divided arterial, the Sunday Parkway uses one half of the roadway and motorized traffic uses the other half. Sunday Parkways provide close-to-home recreational opportunities for all ages and all types of active travel.
This has evolved into Ride the Drive. A big success for the bike culture of Madison with turnouts into the tens of thousands. Of course it’s only twice a year but it works. A nice time for all.

On page 63
Investigate implementation of a bike sharing program
Details: Many communities throughout the world are using bike sharing programs or short-term, on-demand bike rentals to encourage bicycling. Madison had a brief bike sharing program called “red bikes” in the 1990s. Currently, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is researching a bike sharing program. The city should work with the university to investigate expanding such a program citywide.
This has come to pass with the B-Cycle program sponsored by Trek. There are now about 24 bike kiosk on the Isthmus with more to come.

On page 28
Convert current bike route network and signage to a destination-based network.
Details : Signs will indicate where bicyclist can get to and the distance. Examples exist in Chicago and Portland. May include the naming of some routes and the signage may be phased in.
A nice idea but as of yet I haven’t seen it. At least not on my normal commuter routes. Hopefully they will show up in the future.

There are a number of other interesting ideas but I hit on most of the big ones.

And now the committee falls down a good long way as we move into the bad. As good as some of the above points are, the ones below show just how out of touch the committee was as far as bike users go.

On page 24
Review the impact on commuting bicycles of the Rush Hour Parking Policy that converts parking lanes to motor vehicle lanes.
Details: Investigate solutions to current conditions. Many excellent streets for bicycling (such as Monroe Street, Williamson Street Regent Street and segments of Park Street) become virtually impassable for bicycles during the rush hour. Solutions may include improved alternate routes and signing.
This one is a bit off the wall as some of the streets named easily fall into the category of bike hell. Regent Street between Park and Monroe is among the worst streets in Madison for a bike user. Lots of traffic on a two way street with parked cars on both sides with little to no space for a bike. Williamson and Park Streets are not much better, and there are parts of Park Street that when ridden once is not repeated except under extreme duress. Monroe is the best of the lot but still to be avoided. With a mixed use path running parallel a block over why bother. When I read this I began to wonder what city they where talking about, or what planet they where from.

On page 17
Adopt and implement a Complete Streets Resolution.
Details : Complete Streets are defined in the Themes section of this report. While paths are useful, especially for recreation, paths can only be safely located in certain areas. Streets must also form the core of the bikeway system. The resolution should state that all new arterials, collectors and select commercial streets shall have bike lanes. Reconstruction of existing streets (such as East Washington) will likewise be updated to meet Complete Street criteria. Place design and construction of bicycle facilities (street and path) at the same level as other modes.
The idea of complete streets is a good one, but the devil is in the details. The reconstruction of East Washington is now completed exactly as the committee recommended, and it is very much a failure. This is a good example of how not to design bike infrastructure. Putting an unprotected bike lane on a high volume arterial road is a bad idea. With traffic moving at 35+ mph the subjective safety level is very low. It is simple being avoided by the majority of bike users. The area is a bicycle desert compared to the mixed use trails and bicycle boulevards closer to the Capital.  Expecting this to be a main corridor for bike users shows a lack of understanding of what the majority of bike users want.

This is likely the most critical missed point of the study. Arterial streets are often the only way to move from one part of the city to another. Get these wrong and the whole system falls apart. The committee got it wrong and bike users will be paying the price for decades.

On page 39
Include specific recommended bicycle connections to major activity centers in neighborhood plans.
Details: Neighborhood plans should include specific recommended bicycle connections to major activity centers within the neighborhood, such as employment areas, business districts, parks, schools and other civic uses, adjacent neighborhoods, and city-wide and regional bicycle transportation routes and facilities. These plans should recognize a hierarchy of bicycle facilities that may include off-street bicycle paths and trails, marked on-street bicycle lanes, and identified routes to major neighborhood destinations using low-volume local streets, which may or may not be officially designated, that can provide an alternative for younger or less-experienced bicyclists who are not comfortable using the bicycle lanes provided on collector and arterial streets.
The last bolding is my own in the above. This is a continuation of the complete streets point. After several years of study the committee came to the conclusion that the reason folks are not using arterial streets as bike corridors is because they are younger or less-experienced.  This is rationalization at its worst.

This idea is not only extremely misguided, it nullifies large areas of Madison to the great majority of bike users. This is a hugh stumbling block for Madison’s goal of reaching a greater share of bike use for commuters.

The bright spot in the report is the emergence of bicycle boulevards. It is really the last great hope, along with an expansion of mixed use paths, of putting together a coherent network that works for everyone. The rest of the report is more of a tweaking of what already exist. Unfortunately, with the committees rejection of protected cycle tracks, as they are not even mentioned, the job building an infrastructure that attracts more bike use will be much harder.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bicycle Boulevards Continued

The above videos show advanced design for bicycle boulevards for the city of Portland Oregon. Not only does Portland have a lot of them, the city is planning on greatly expanding the network.  They even have innovative designs as in there boulevard flower on intersections where two boulevards intersect. They have also gone a long way to make it inconvenient for motor vehicles to use these streets as a commuter route. It has made for a much better experience for bike users of all types, including children.

The city of Madison has just started experimenting with bicycle boulevards. The first for the state of Wisconsin came in the city of Madison in 2010 with East Wilson. That was followed up in 2011 with East Mifflin and Kendal Avenue. Admittedly they are not up to the standards of what Portland is doing, but it’s a start. There are two more in the planning stages in Madison. A short one on Spaight St and a much longer boulevard on Ruskin Street on the North side.

Off the top of my head I can think of one more that would work well for a bicycle boulevard. West Shore Drive and South Shore Drive running around Monona bay would do well being turned into a boulevard. It’s already heavily used by bicyclist and even has a number of traffic calming technics in place. It wouldn’t take much to turn it into a boulevard.

No doubt there are many other streets that would do well as a bicycle boulevard. Of course it’s important they actually go to places bike users need to go. It’s especially important to cover areas that are not well served with good bike infrastructure.

What the videos show is how much bicycle boulevards can enhance bike use for a relatively small amount of money. It’s more an act of political will rather then economics. From what I have seen both East Wilson and East Mifflin are well used. Even in this short period of time they can easily be called a success. Let’s hope the city of Madison fast tracks more bicycle boulevards as they are much needed and appreciated by bike users.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Push for Cycle Tracks and Buffered Bike Lanes

In northern Europe it is well known that the best way to increase bike use is to use protected cycle tracks. By giving bike users a protected space it encourages all types of people to use bikes. This includes young and old, school children, mothers with children, blue collar workers, white collar workers, and anyone else who wants to give it a try. Unfortunately the Wisconsin DOT has been dead set against them as can be seen from there guidelines in “ WISCONSIN BICYCLE FACILITY DESIGN HANDBOOK". I covered there misguided approach here

There may be hope for a better future though. The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin has recently released a position paper on cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes. 

It’s about time as it’s long overdue for Madison and the state of Wisconsin to take a serious look at what a positive effect protected cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes could have on bike use in  Madison and throughout Wisconsin. All the evidence points to the fact that implementing these facilities would be a sure way of increasing ridership and bike use in our state.

Here is a bit of what the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin has to say about protected cycle tracks:

Enhanced safety sensitivity: Buffered bicycle lanes and cycle tracks increase bicyclist perception of safety over a standard bicycle lane and provide more room to avoid collisions with parked car doors or other obstacles.
Decrease bicyclist/motorist conflicts: Both facilities better define a space for bicyclists on streets than standard bike lanes. It is clearer where both bicyclists and motorists belong, lessening bicyclist/motor conflicts and interactions.
Increased ridership: Data from New York City and Vancouver, British Columbia, suggests that buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks increase bicycle ridership as much as 30%.
Appealing to more Madisonians: Large numbers of people who are not comfortable bicycling in standard bicycle lanes or in traffic report that they would be comfortable bicycling in buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks.
Appealing to women and children: Evidence from Europe shows that women and children are more likely to bicycle when facilities such as cycle tracks are available.
By adding buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks to the Madison bicycle network, the city can increase overall bicycle ridership, particularly among women, families and those not comfortable riding on existing on-street bicycle facilities.
I couldn’t agree more. Another group that is starting to push for cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes is 20by2020. This is a Madison advocacy group that has a goal of trying to get bike use up to 20% for all commuter trips made in the city of Madison by 2020. No doubt they realize that without some big changes to the bike infrastructure of the city the goal of 20% is unreachable.

We can look at some of the major bungles the city has made recently to illustrate how far we are falling short. Two major road construction projects in the last few years have been East Washington Avenue and Monona Drive. Monona Drive is in the city of Monona but I’m including it here because it is a major arterial street and therefore relevant to this discussion.

East Washington is a major arterial street which underwent significant reconstruction a few years ago. What bike users got was a bike lane on a heavily used major street that is very intimidating for many if not most bike users. After the Yahara River there is no good way to access the area on a bike. The Capital City Trail does intersect it a bit farther up from the Yahara but that can be well out of the way for some cyclist. After that you’re on your own. Biking out to East Town can be a nightmare. This would have been an ideal place to have a protected cycle track running from the Yahara River all the way to East Town, opening up a large part of the city for increased bike use. Instead we got a lousy bike lane on a high volume street that gets little use. You wouldn’t want to see your kid out on this one. I say thanks but no thanks to this one.

More recently, Monona Drive is much the same story. It’s a major arterial that is undergoing reconstruction. This could have been a major route for bike users if done right with a cycle track. Instead we have yet another on street bike lane on a high volume street. This was done despite the fact that it has been repeatedly shown that many, if not most bike users will avoid it. Add to that an ever shrinking sidewalk. The sidewalk was initially going to be 10 feet. Then it shrank to 8 feet, and then it shrunk a bit more and then I lost interest in the whole debacle. A lack of vision for the area by the powers that be is an understatement.

It has been assured that motor vehicles are the only from of transportation the city considers legitimate in these areas.

Madison is still doing some good things. The new bicycle boulevards are a step in the right direction. Overall though there is a decided lack of vision as can be seen in all the major reconstruction projects. There is another major project coming up on Fish Hatchery Road that looks to be headed it the same direction.

Let’s hope with groups like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and 20by2020 now starting to push for advanced bike infrastructure we can begin to move beyond the 5 foot on street bike lane into something much more appealing for far more people than what we have now.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Ride On The Boulevard

I admit I don’t often ride my bike on the East side of Madison. Except for an occasional run to Willie Street Coop my usual commuter routes simple don’t take me in that direction. What I’ve missed is a new type of bike infrastructure that has shown up as of recent. This is of course the Bicycle boulevard.

This is what Bike Madison has to say about Bicycle boulevards

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. 

They also provide a link to the concept of Sharrows which are integral to Bicycle boulevards

Sharrows are pavement markings installed in travel lanes, reminding motorists that they should expect to see and share the road with bicyclists by slowing down and passing only when safe, giving at least three feet of clearance when passing.
Sharrows can be used on a variety of street types. They may be used on busier streets where we would prefer to have bicycle lanes but do not have the space for these, or they can be used on lower volume streets where we are encouraging bicycle traffic (bicycle boulevards).
In areas with on‐street parking, sharrows help bicyclists position themselves within the lane so as to avoid being hit by a suddenly opened car door. Although it is the motorist’s responsibility to check for bicyclists or other traffic before opening their door, riding too close to parked cars is still a common mistake that can lead to serious injury.
Sharrows are also used to help bicyclists position themselves in a lane near an intersection to avoid turning movement crashes such as the “right hook”.
What do sharrows mean for bicyclists and drivers?
BicyclistsUse the sharrow to guide where you ride within the lane— generally through the center of the sharrow. Remember not to ride too close to parked cars—watch for opening doors. Be aware of your surroundings and follow the rules of the road.
DriversExpect to see bicyclists on the street. Remember to give bicyclists space when passing. At least three feet of clearance is required. Be aware of your surroundings and follow the rules of the road.

Sharrows have been around a while as can be seen by the faded Sharrow markings on both East Wilson and East Mifflin. The designation of a Bicycle boulevard first appeared in 2010 on East Wilson Street. That was a first for the state. This connected parts of the mixed use bike path running parallel to Williamson Street. In 2011 most of East Mifflin Street was also designated a Bike Boulevard. The four blocks remaining that lead into the Capital Square are in the advanced planning stage.

The more recent East Mifflin boulevard is providing a much needed bike corridor to the North side of the city. When it is completed it will run from the Capital all the way to the Yahara River. There are certainly problems if you want to bike farther north, but with this critical link bike users do not have to use the longer route of the mixed used path running along Williamson Street and then turn north along the Yahara mixed use trail. Worse then that is to brave the heavy traffic of the East Johnson/East Gorham corridor, or the heavy traffic of East Washington. All the these streets have bike lanes but because of heavy arterial traffic are unattractive for many bike users, including myself.

Nice wide street on the
East Mifflin Bike Boulevard
Another plan the city has that connects to the East Mifflin boulevard is a cycle track from Pinckney to Fairchild along Mifflin Street. This would run right by the Capital counter flow of traffic and would be a critical link. It would connect the heavily used State and West Mifflin to the East Mifflin Boulevard. As of now bike users have to either bike around the square, or if you want a shortcut ride on the sidewalk. I would have to assume this would be much like the counter-flow cycle track on University Avenue.

It would not be a good idea to get to excited about this part just yet as it's only in the planning stage. This is the definition of planning stage from Bike Madison

The project is out in future, most likely without a definite construction year, no construction funds budgeted in current year and no design-level survey completed. We are still looking at the feasibility of the project and possibly seeking federal or other funds.
As nice as it would be there may be a bit of a wait on this.

I took a bike ride on both boulevards recently to get a feel for how it works.

They could use some tweaking, but overall it’s very nice. It is many times better then the adjacent East Washington bike lane or the East Johnson/East Gorham bike lanes. They are also better then even the best on-street bike lanes. The day I tried it out was a Sunday and traffic was very light. Actually I saw one van pulling out from a house and that was it. It was a pleasant trip that would be very attractive to both bike commuters and recreational users. On a Sunday I saw plenty of the latter.

A few to many of these
There are a few to many stop signs on both boulevards and even some uncontrolled intersections on low traffic streets on the East Wilson section. There are no traffic calming measures in place and it could likely use a few. Especially if the stop signs are to be faced the other way to give bikes the right of way. It would be to tempting for motor vehicles to use it as an alternative commuter route without something to slow them down. My suggestion would be to block off a few intersections so it is not a through street for motor vehicles. This could be done with bike users allowed through. There would still be local access but this would essentially guarantee very low motor vehicle traffic. Perhaps even more so then standard traffic calming.

There is one boulevard on the West side on Kendall Ave. I was not as impressed with this one despite the fact that it has some traffic calming. These include three bike friendly speed bumps and a traffic calming island. The problem is Kendall Ave is very narrow in parts. Narrow enough so that with the one side of the street with parked cars it is difficult for two cars to pass each other, much less trying to squeeze bikes into the mix. It was much to busy on the day I took a ride and it doesn’t take much to create congestion. To be fair this may have something to do with construction on Old University one block over which is temporarily one lane. Regardless, this boulevard is ripe for more serious traffic calming to discourage motor vehicles. Eliminating parking where the street is narrow would also be a big help, along with giving bike users the right of way on the all to many stop signs.

Overall bike boulevards are a very necessary addition for the bike users of Madison. It will be very difficult, if not impossible to create a comprehensive bike infrastructure with the use of mixed use paths even though they are by far the most popular type of bike infrastructure in the city. They are also much cheaper. As an example a new bike boulevard in the planning stage is on Ruskin Street starting at Aberg Ave up to Elka Ln and to Windom Way. This would be 14 blocks and cost $17,000. That’s a fraction of what a mixed use path would cost. Admittedly that doesn’t include any traffic calming.

With the seriously misguided refusal of the state of Wisconsin and the city Madison to use cycle tracks but for a last resort in extreme situations, as opposed to the first choice as it should be, boulevards  may be the next best alternative to fill in the bike infrastructure that mixed use paths can’t do. I like to think of them as glorified bike lanes that gets past many of their limitations if done well. It's a realistic way of achieving a high quality infrastructure for cyclist.

This is the underpass of East
Washington Avenue, a major arterial street.
This mixed use path runs along the Yahara
River and connects the East Mifflin
Boulevard with the Mixed Use Path/Bike
Boulevard running parallel Williamson
Street. Very nicely done
As with the mixed use trials I would like to see a lot more Bicycle boulevards in the city. Especially in critical bike corridors that are now ill served. As with cycle tracks, no additional land needs to be purchased so the cost is relatively small. As they become more popular with bike users they can be tweaked at a later date to meet the demands of increased bike use.

Hopefully the powers that be are noticing the increasing demand for better bike infrastructure and are willing to stand up and do something about it.

A good blog article appeared last year in "Over the Bars in Wisconsin" (Formaly "Over the bars in Milwaukee"). This covered the initial East Wilson Boulevard.