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.

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