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. 

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