The indignity of biking in South Philadelphia

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A woman bikes on 13th Street

People who choose to cycle in American cities are chronically subjected to physical intimidation (purposeful or otherwise) on the part of others driving large, heavy, fast motor vehicles.  Our current legal-spatial-cultural system of city street use transforms what would otherwise be a pleasurable, useful activity into a stressful and dangerous experience.

Reoccurring conflict

Last Friday after crossing the Delaware River by ferry into Philadelphia, I began my 2.2 mile bicycle ride from Spruce Street Harbor Park to a friend’s birthday at Pep Bowl (at the corner of Broad and Federal Street) in South Philadelphia.

Spruce Street, having a buffered bike lane, was fine (notwithstanding potholes).  I was lucky going south on 6th Street.  Then, after turning onto Federal Street, the conflict began.  Riding in the center of the lane – predictably and in full compliance with the “rules of the road” on a narrow street – I felt the presence of a car approaching to my rear.

The driver didn’t honk or break the law, but the way she palpated the engine signaled her impatience with my speed (at my comfortable pace, say 13 mph, I had no obligation to speed up).  My heart rate increased as the sense of joy and freedom of cycling on a summer evening in Philadelphia disappeared.

I could have ended it right away by pulling off the street, but I didn’t because I have a right to cycle on the street as a dignified human being.  I could have also ended it by moving to the right – into the door zone – and letting her pass.

Most cyclists do this – so drivers come to expect it.  But it is extremely unsafe to pass a cyclist with cars parked on both sides of a narrow street (each row having a 3-foot door zone).  And it is illegal (according to Pennsylvania’s 4-foot passing law).

So I held my ground, continuing west on Federal Street as if I wasn’t being tailed by an irritated person, operating a 3,500 lb machine, having the capacity to kill me at any moment.  For seven blocks riding at my normal pace, there was never an occasion to let her pass without going out of my way.  Even if she did pass me, it would have been for naught, since I would have likely caught up to her at the next light (the paradox of “fast” cars using gridded streets).

By the time we reached Broad Street, the two women in the car shouted “fuck you”.

Crowding out choice

The point of this story is not about me, but rather the indignity suffered every day by all the people who cycle in Philadelphia including women, senior citizens, children, parents, and those who bike out of economic necessity.  Regardless of their choice – to hold their ground or pull aside – they lose either way.

They suffer this indignity because of the spatial arrangement of streets, in which the storage of motor vehicles crowds out places for safe, comfortable biking.  They suffer because of a legal regime in which rules for cars are awkwardly misapplied to bicycles, and in which drivers are often not held accountable for killing and injuring other people.  And they suffer because of a cultural system wherein those operating motor vehicles are taught to believe they’re entitled to drive fast through city neighborhoods.

The feeling of chronically being in the way of automobiles violates human dignity everywhere.  However, the tragedy is compounded in South Philly where the bicycle – given the district’s scale, density, variety, topography – should be an elegant tool of freedom and economic efficiency.

Instead, the anxious movement and frenzied storage of motor vehicles crowds out most other uses of street space.  As a consequence, South Philadelphians, their visitors, and their customers, are robbed of even the choice of exploiting the bicycle’s sweet spot.

What are we to do? 

Long-term solutions, though politically difficult, are obvious, because they’re already established in cities around the world.  In the short term, we can protect ourselves and others by holding our ground – taking the full lane, staying visible, out of the door zone – and training drivers to expect it.

It may feel uncomfortable to inhibit a car from passing you, but on a narrow one-way street, it is the only safe and dignified response.  Remember the law (cited earlier) is on your side, and in this particular case, it is sensible.

Also remember you are doing no harm – more so the opposite.  There is hardly a reason to drive faster than a bicycle through a compact gridded neighborhood.  Usually doing so won’t get you to a destination any sooner.  Furthermore, to reduce the danger, noise, and pollution created by speeding cars, motorists should drive slow through our communities.

So, South Philadelphians: be confident, ride at your pace in the middle of the lane, and hold on to your dignity.

 

 

Fast-moving vehicles – not people walking – are the hazard in Pittsburgh

 

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A vision for a safer Forbes Avenue

A recent Post-Gazette article by Ed Blazina – Viewing Oakland through the windshield of a Port Authority bus driver – propagates the same car-centric worldview that’s bred acceptance of senseless death on American streets since the 1920’s.  Despite the fact automobiles kill more than 90 people daily in the US – including Pittsburgh’s recent victims – its people on foot who “create the greatest hazard”, according a Port Authority bus driver.

Disregard the overwhelming number of heavy machines (cars) with non-professional drivers holding smart phones, speeding dangerously on Forbes and Fifth.  Forget the Public Works Department, the Port Authority, and PennDOT who’ve thus far neglected – grossly – to create alternatives to driving through the busy corridor.  Don’t blame the universities for failing to institute and enforce a slow school zone through Oakland, where thousands of people cross the streets during rush hour.

No, the problem – the “hazard” – is all those damn people.  This is classic Orwellian Doublethink.

Omission and Emphasis

Blazina explains recent deaths on Pittsburgh’s streets from the “windshield” perspective:

Traffic through Oakland has been at the forefront since last month after a bicyclist was killed in a chain-reaction crash on Forbes Avenue and a Wilkinsburg couple died after getting off a bus near Petersen Events Center.

Missing here is the fact motor vehicles killed these people.  Because of course, the threat is people walking and biking.

The same events recounted by others (emphasis added):

The death of cyclist Susan Hicks in Oakland on Oct. 23, crushed between two cars while she was properly waiting at a Forbes Avenue red light on her ride home from work…

Brian O’Neill, Post-Gazette

Hicks was struck by a vehicle that had been hit by another car and pushed into a third vehicle as they waited in traffic at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bellefield Street.

David Conti, Tribune Review

Susan Hicks was riding home from work in Oakland when she was killed by driver [sic] at the corner of Forbes and Bellefield.

Bike Pittsburgh

Henry Walker, 73, and Carol Christine Williamson, 68, killed after being hit by SUV [sic] and ran over by bus [sic]…

Accident Data Center

These victims were not killed by people wearing headphones or riding bicycles.  Susan Hicks, Henry Walker, and Christine Williamson were killed by fast, heavy, powerful, clumsy machines.

Propagating the Windshield Perspective

In light of history, the following is absurd:

“Lights aren’t taken very seriously by pedestrians,” [the bus driver] said. “If they see a break in the action, they go.” …

Pedestrian signals, which show how much time a person has to cross the street, and fences to force pedestrians to use crosswalks have helped, the drivers say, but not enough. …

Mr. Bream said he favors stronger enforcement of jaywalking laws, which was the case when he lived in the Los Angeles area.

People walked all over city streets for thousands of years before heavy, fast machines became dominant.  Traffic signals emerged to address conflicts created by heavy, fast machines.  Why then is it surprising humans instinctively disregard electronic signs which “show how much time a person has to cross the street”, especially when the street is obviously clear?

We’ve instituted “fences to force pedestrians to use the crosswalks.”  Why not zones of traffic calming and enforcement to force people driving cars to stop killing everyone?

Furthermore “Jaywalking” is a term invented in the 1920’s by the automobile industry.  And in terms of street life and walkability, Los Angeles is not a place Pittsburgh should emulate.

Efficient Disobedience

And those people riding bicycles – two feet wide – who “create their own lane” between vehicles clogging the street.  How scary it must be for motorists!

Forget about the fact each single-occupant car is 6 feet wide.  Forget about the negligence of the City and PennDOT to allocate street space for people who’ve chosen to require less of it for equal purposes.

No.  Speeding and stationary machines are the most important consideration.  God forbid anyone would choose to become lighter, more narrow, travel the same average speed as cars, and “freely go” through Oakland.

Orwellian Doublethink

In the end, if life in Oakland is threatened by the presence of people walking and biking, then Pittsburgh’s river trails, used exclusively by these worst-of-the-worst,  are death zones.

If these perils of the traffic nightmare in Oakland make professional Port Authority bus drivers nervous, imagine what those conditions can do to regular motorists.

Blazina has it backwards.  People driving motor vehicles – having the unique capacity to kill – ought to be nervous.  They should be concerned about killing someone if they don’t slow down and pay attention.

Instead, the family, friends, and colleagues of Susan Hicks are paying for the gross negligence of those blocking an immediate reconfigure of Fifth and Forbes through Oakland.

We can thank Ed Blazina for feeding the windshield worldview that enables city, state, and university officials to sit on their bloody hands.

 

 

 

Why PopenStreets was so powerful

A child cycles on 10th Street

A child cycles on 10th Street

Friends walk on Sansom Street

Central Philadelphia became an unexpected happy experiment during the Papal visit.  Not only was the public realm free of the noise, pollution, frustration, and danger of motor vehicles, it was well-used by smiling people of all shapes and sizes, many of whom rode bicycles.

By allowing people to experience human-oriented streets, the sudden and widespread freedom from cars had an effect no amount of logic, graphics, advocacy, or public meetings could achieve.

It is unclear to what extent the people-centered utopia was anticipated.  The doomsday-like media coverage probably scared thousands out of town – and hurt small businesses.  But Alexandria Schneider, a Philly cyclist had the foresight to plan Pope Ride, a mass bike ride to take advantage of security-mandated Open Streets.

The Pope Ride was lots of fun, and likely increased the number of bicycles, but what struck me as extraordinary was the sheer mass of city streets and intersections being used exclusively by people.

The traffic box produced something radically new.  Never before had people reigned car-free over as large an area, for that much time, on streets made of smooth pavement mostly free of horse dung and trolley tracks, riding modern bicycles, some pulling trailers with toddlers, each person having the ability to capture photographs and share in distributed media platforms.

Open Streets on steroids

More and more cities are holding Open Streets events, in which an isolated street is temporarily closed to vehicles – and opened to people – but the papal security plan inadvertently triggered Open City.  The area in which people reigned free of cars was massive.  And it lasted for more than two days, far longer than the few hours typically allotted for Open Streets.

The sheer amount of space and time over which we enjoyed people-oriented streets was unprecedented.  At first it was strange, but we got used to simultaneous quietude and vibrancy.  Moving vehicles were so uncommon that we keenly noticed the few that did move.

One of the greatest displeasures was seeing cars again at borders like South Street.  A woman from the Pennsylvania National Guard playfully foresaw our disappointment at 38th Street in West Philly.

Experiential advocacy

Open Streets is one of an innovative set of approaches known as Tactical Urbanism (also the name of a book by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia).  Originally borne of the first Open Streets in Miami, Tactical Urbanism seeks to short circuit preconceived notions and bureaucratic planning by allowing people to experience low-cost changes on a temporary basis before committing to permanent conversions.

When people feel the immediate benefits of a curb bump-out made of orange cones, a protected bike lane made of flower pots, or a crosswalk painted by vigilantes, they and their elected representatives are much more likely to buy-in to permanent changes than they otherwise would be if the improvement was described verbally or graphically.

The same is true for restricting automobiles on city streets.  Most well-meaning Americans can hardly imagine such a thing.  For all who visited Center City this weekend, however, imagination is no longer necessary.

Thousands of adults and children walked, biked, and played in the streets and intersections.  The often spoken consensus was that it was wonderful.  It felt as natural and instinctive as it should have for a species that walked freely on city streets for thousands of years.

More Open City

Thousands of people experienced something new and positive during the Papal visit.  It follows that the net level of support for enhanced public space, active transportation, and Open Streets is greater than pre-Popenstreets levels.

Cities like Paris, Madrid, and New York are restricting automobiles in significant parts of their centralities.  Philadelphia just proved that massively restricting cars in a car-dominated American city is not only possible, it can be transformative.

There is little reason not to repeat this exercise regularly at varying scales, without any need to restrict highways, major bridges, or transit systems, or to deploy secret service, national guard, or miles of fencing.  Rather than scaring people away, Open City should be about welcoming people to Philadelphia and its businesses.

PopenStreets withdrawal

 Pope Francis speaks a message of social, economic, and environmental equality, but he is likely unaware of the blanket of civilized justice he bestowed on the streets of Philadelphia just by showing up.

By Monday afternoon street life in the city returned to the reality that is automobile dominance.  We felt some level of PopenStreets withdrawal, being forced back onto the sidewalk by the powerful momentum of cars and car culture.  But the seeds were planted in our brains of what an Open City feels like, and that too is powerful.

Why doesn’t Manhattan have alleys?

An alley, Philadelphia (photo by author)

An alley, Philadelphia (photo by author)

Did you ever wonder why piles of garbage bags are a staple on New York City sidewalks?  Neither did I, throughout my 2008 stint in the UWS, until a stranger in Chicago pointed to a striking fact: there are no alleys in Manhattan.*

Given the important functions alleys serve, this is a glaring omission by the planners of the city’s famous, massive grid.  It probably wouldn’t keep me from choosing to live there again, but I believe the deficiency accounts for much of New York’s perceived harshness and uncleanliness.

What is Manhattan really lacking?  Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, in their 2000 book Suburban Nation, explain the purpose of alleys:

The alley is often criticized for its lack of neatness, but that is its essence: it’s where all the messy stuff goes.  From garage doors to trash containers, transformers, electrical meters, and telephone equipment, the alley takes them out of public view…

New York still has the messy stuff, and the result in parts of Manhattan: every other street tends to act like an alley.

For instance, 34th Street – home to the Empire State Building – is a main thoroughfare filled with retail and throngs of tourists.  33rd and 35th streets, on the other hand, are lined with loading docks, dumpsters, garages, and rear entry to 34th Street properties.

Elsewhere in Manhattan (notably the LES) facades of most older buildings are covered with unsightly fire escape stairways.

There are so few (if any) alleys in New York that even Jane Jacobs, in her 1961 landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, doesn’t mention alleys – except in Philadelphia to contrast Manhattan’s too-long blocks:

…in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia…what were once back alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting on them, and users using them like streets.  … The standard Philadelphia block is 400 feet square (halved by the alleys-become-streets where the city is most successful).

Interestingly, Jacobs doesn’t point out the charming fact that alleys in Philadelphia have sidewalks (or that I happen to live on Panama alley-become-street).

And so, why doesn’t Manhattan have alleys?  How could the planners of New York’s main grid omit an essential component of the basic city block, then repeat it thousands of times?

For now the answer to this quandary is beyond my research capacity.**  If you have any insight, do share.

*This is true insofar as that which appears consistently in every other American city I visited appears hardly at all in Manhattan.  

*Despite my limiting discussion to Manhattan, I can’t recall seeing alleys in any of the five boroughs I visited.

**This in-depth source does not use the word “alley”.  This forum contains an unsubstantiated explanation and mentions a few places which can only be called alleys in name.

Low car speeds – not lines of paint – promote safety in North Park

North Park Lake and its spillway

North Park Lake, its spillway, and valve house (20 June 2015)

North Park Lake, a suburban oasis 10 miles from Pittsburgh and a product of the New Deal, is ringed by a 5 mile system of enhanced roadway shoulders, heavily-used by people walking, running, and biking (almost exclusively for recreation).  While PennDOT and Allegheny County recently widened Ingomar Road in an attempted safety upgrade (photos below), the unexpected willingness of people to walk, run, and bike directly adjacent to vehicular traffic is much less a function of roadway design, and is instead a result of strictly enforced speed limits. 

(I do mean road in this case, not street – and thankfully – not stroad.)

North Park Lake and surrounding on-road lake loop (credit Google Maps)

Since childhood I’ve enjoyed the lake loop on foot and bicycle, as have most other people I know in the area.  Until recently, the facility consisted of a roadway shoulder – a mere painted line (like Pierce Mill Road pictured below).  There was no spatial or physical separation between people and motorized traffic, no delineation between people walking and biking,  no bike markings, no off-street trail or path, and no protected bike lane.  Yet the common perception was of a safe place to walk and bike with children – in stark contrast to the broad assumption that biking close to moving cars is too dangerous for most people.

I believe the explanation is McCandless Township’s strict enforcement of a 25 mph speed limit, which has been in effect as long as I (and my parents) can remember.

Since I was old enough to drive (say 14 years old – wink), I was keenly aware of the speed limit along Ingomar Road.  The reason for driving slow was obvious, having experienced the road outside of a car.  Although Ingomar Road does not incorporate design features known to naturally induce lower speeds (e.g. narrower vehicular lanes), the McCandless Police have made speed enforcement a priority in the area.  I estimate 85% of drivers on Ingomar Road do not exceed 25 mph.

That ordinary people feel comfortable walking and biking with children on Ingomar Road speaks to the value of slowing down cars (outside of limited access freeways).  Education and design treatments are crucial for encouraging people to walk and bike for transportation in cities and suburbs, but effectively slowing down cars generates instant life- and money-saving benefits for people walking, biking, driving, and paying taxes.  

The County and Township should be commended for taking engineering and enforcement measures to promote the health and safety of people circling North Park Lake.  But hold your applause.  The township’s recent projects and future plans don’t even attempt to ameliorate car dependence, preserve undeveloped land, strengthen the local economy, orient development around existing (surprisingly rapid) transit to downtown Pittsburgh, or take seriously biking and walking as beneficial forms of transportation.

So as not to strain your reading endurance, I’ll make necessary technical points in bullet form:

  • 25 mph is certainly better than 35, but a 20 mph vehicular design speed is ideal wherever people are to be found.  Twenty is plenty” however advocates in New York City settled for a 25 mph city-wide default speed limit, which took effect November 7th, 2014. 
  • Despite being frequently referred to as the “North Park Lake Trail”, the facility is not a trail (see triblive.com, post-gazette.com, and the 2012 North Park Lake Area Master Plan by GAI Consultants).  Trails are widely understood to be off-street and/or physically separated from traffic.  No cars or on-street facilities are visible in the first 100 images returned by searching “trail” or “recreational trail” in Google. 
  • Although 25% of park users “get to North Park” on a bicycle and 12% walk, according to survey results in the 2012 master plan, GAI made no recommendation to improve bike and pedestrian safety on roads leading to North Park.
  • Allegheny County aspired to widen Ingomar Road for “at least two decades” according to Ron Schipani, Capital Projects Manager with the Allegheny County Parks Foundation.  Apparently re-striping Ingomar Road with narrower 10 foot vehicular lanes – thereby creating four feet from the existing 12 foot lanes and slowing traffic – was never considered.  This despite the fact that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) encourages the use of 10 foot lanes for lower-speed roadways.  #facepalm

New arrangement on Ingomar Road with delineated bike/pedestrian space.  Speed-inducing 12-foot car/truck lanes remain.

New arrangement on Ingomar Road with delineated bike/pedestrian spaces. Speed-inducing 12-foot car/truck lanes remain.  No physical or spatial separation (buffer) from traffic was considered.


Despite heavy vehicles passing with no physical barrier, slower speeds enable my father to bike comfortably

Despite heavy vehicles passing and no physical barrier, slower speeds enable my father to bike comfortably.


The scenic Lake Shore Drive was similarly upgraded and reduced to one vehicular lane a few years ago, after a pedestrian death.

The scenic Lake Shore Drive was similarly upgraded a few years ago, and reduced to one vehicular lane, after a person walking was killed by a motorist.


Pierce Mill Road, where people willingly walk, run, and bike in the shoulder.  Ingomar Road was identically configured until this year.

Pearce Mill Road, where people willingly walk, run, and bike in the shoulder (because cars move slowly). Ingomar Road was identically configured until this year.


Babcock Boulevard (on the earthen dam) was given a bike lane a couple years ago.  Cars move faster on this stretch.

Babcock Boulevard (on top of an earthen dam) was given a bike lane a couple years ago. Cars move faster on this stretch.


Ingomar Road just outside of the park loop is poorly configured for bike/pedestrian access, let alone safety.

Ingomar Road just outside of the park loop is poorly configured for bike/pedestrian access, let alone safety.

Perceptions of American streets before and after the Dawn of the Motor Age

In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton documents thoroughly the shift in popular perception of what city streets are for.  Drawing on sources cited in 113 pages of footnotes, Norton brings forth the voices of children, parents, pedestrians, police officers, motorists, engineers, politicians, and automobile tycoons of the years surrounding the 1920’s – the decade the Motor Age dawned. 

Norton’s central claim is that before American cities were physically reconstructed for the Motor Age, they first were socially reconstructed.  Prior to the 1920’s, the prevailing social construction of city streets was public space between buildings; by 1930, it was motor thoroughfares.  My purpose here is to communicate prevailing social perceptions before and after the 1920’s by quoting a few of Norton’s paragraphs.  For the story of the revolution in perception, read the book.  It significantly enhanced my understanding of why American city streets – and prevailing notions about them – came to be the way they are today.

12th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

12th and Market Street, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

Before the 1920’s (pg. 16):

“Centuries-old cultural and legal legacies led to answers unfavorable to automobiles in cities.  In 1920 the city street was considered a public amenity for uses considered public, such as street railway service, [children at play,] and walking.  As a public good, the street was to be regulated by experts in the name of the public interest.  Automobiles were individual, private property.  Motorists were tolerated when they did not endanger or impede other users, but wherever congestion or accidents took their toll the automobile bore most of the legal responsibility and most of the popular blame.  In the city street of 1920 the automobile was a nuisance, even an intruder.  Automobiles were extravagant in their use of scarce space, they were dangerous (especially to non-motorists), they had to be parked, and they served only a small minority of city people.  Cities, using police power delegated to them by the states, strictly regulated motorists on the ground that automobiles were newcomers that moved few people at a heavy cost to street capacity.”

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2015 (photo by author)

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, in 2015 (photo by author)

After the 1920’s (pg. 254):

“As a symbol of the transformation of the American city for the sake of the automobile, the 1956 highway act was far more prominent than any report of the Hoover traffic conferences 30 years before.  But perhaps it was less important.  The Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance of 1927 codified a new social construction of the city street.  Once a public space for mixed uses and ruled by informal customs, the street was then becoming a motor thoroughfare for the near exclusive use of fast vehicles – especially automobiles.  The Hover conferences, and especially the model traffic ordinance, recognized, legitimized, and promoted a revolution in the perception of the city street.  Though old perceptions persisted, thenceforward most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares.  As such, streets were suddenly woefully inadequate in a new way.  They were too narrow and too poorly paved, with too many points of access, conflicting paths, and grade intersections – and too many non-automotive users.  Under this new social construction of the city street, the physical reconstruction of a new kind of urban thoroughfare that addressed all these problems was striking, but not revolutionary.”

Norton’s concluding chapter relates the story to his broader field of study: the social construction of technology, and offers a hopeful fact. (pg.256) 

“The incompatibility of different constructions of a shared technology raises the stakes for relevant social groups.  In a shared system [such as city streets], when a new construction becomes dominant, one group cannot easily secede from the prevailing denomination into a dissenter group where the minority construction prevails.” … “Thomas Hughes’s work on electrification showed how such systems tend to develop a ‘momentum’ that is hard to divert.” … “In recent decades, policymakers seeking to promote alternatives to driving alone find that decades of physical and social infrastructure make their task almost hopeless.  As we have seen, however, the long-standing construction of the street as a public space was diverted, despite tremendous momentum.  The case of American city streets can therefore help us see how substantial momentum can be overcome so that interpretive flexibility is reintroduced.”

Perhaps today’s advocates for safe streets and livable cities – and the Bike Lobby – have something to learn from the overwhelming success of 1920’s Motordom. 

Philadelphia’s most dangerous intersection

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Most dangerous intersection in Philadelphia: Roosevelt Boulevard and Red Lion Road (credit Google Maps)

A Google image search for “Roosevelt Blvd” returns many grizzly car crash photos.  This is not unexpected as the notorious Roosevelt Boulevard (US1), built over a period of 60 years last century, is the twelve lane at-grade roadway slicing through densely settled North Philadelphia.

Maintained by PennDOT, the Boulevard sports an atrocious safety record.  A GIS analysis by Daniel McGlone at Azavea Atlas, using PennDOT’s own data, identified statistically significant crash “hot spots” at intersections along Roosevelt Boulevard.  The worst nexus, at Red Lion Road (pictured above), was ranked the second most dangerous in the United States by Insurance Journal.  Over 300 (reported) crashes occurred in two years at this spot where at least 18 traffic lanes intersect.

Notably, while Roosevelt Boulevard contains many complicated intersections, this one is simple: two roadways meeting at a right angle.  It is commonly understood outside of the traffic engineering profession that complex environments induce users to slow down and pay attention, while simple ones induce them to speed.  Stuart Florida’s Confusion Corner, where six streets and a railroad intersect, is known to be paradoxically safe.

Considering the inherent danger automobiles pose, and the large number of people killed and injured by them every day, it is ironic, almost Orwellian, that PennDOT’s safety campaign is titled Just Drive. Translation: “use only the most dangerous form of transportation known to humanity.”  Orwell isn’t lost on PennDOT, however, which is more fittingly, and was formerly, named PennDOH.

Happily, both the safety and utility of Roosevelt Boulevard will be improved in the coming years.  Plan alternatives include the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit, grade separation in some areas, a cycle path, and significant safety upgrades for people on foot.

 

 

 

 

 

A prototypical American cycle path – the Cannon Creek Greenway

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On Wednesday I vented about the questionable use of shared lane markings on North Boulevard in Richmond, Virginia.  Although Richmond is full of people-repelling streets – not unlike most American cities – it is chalk full of vibrancy, inherent advantages, and a few gems of bike infrastructure.

I hope to present a more comprehensive treatment of my Richmond experience, but today I’ll highlight one glistening example- the Cannon Creek Greenway.

Bikeable Richmond recommended seeing the trail segment in North Richmond (see map below).  My photos are also below.  My favorite shot is of the greenway paralleling Henrico Drive, reminiscent of Dutch-style cycle paths.

In its isolated condition, the greenway probably doesn’t enjoy much bike traffic, but given a state-of-the-art (for America) design, it is valuable as a demonstration piece, a prototypical off-street cycle path to be emulated across the country.

Richmond is by no means awash in bike infrastructure, but there are a couple impressive examples.  Of significant note is the Belle Island pedestrian marsupial bridge, a series of precast concrete planks suspended by cables from the US1 highway bridge (the solid green line crossing the James River).

Richmond Virginia (credit Google Maps)

Richmond Virginia – Bottoms Up Pizza in Shockoe Bottom – awesome food, beer, live music, and historic building. (credit Google Maps)

A pristine curb cut, signage, and steel bollard give the sense of newly minted greenway.

A pristine curb cut, signage, and steel bollard give the sense of newly minted infrastructure – uncommon in the US.

IMG_0953

Part of the greenway runs in front of houses, closely paralleling Henrico Drive – reminiscent of Dutch-style cycle paths.

Two segments of trail are connected by a very appropriate use of shared lane makrings, on a low-traffic, low-speed neighborhood street.

Two segments of the trail are connected by a very appropriate use of shared lane makrings, on a low-speed, low-traffic neighborhood street.

The trail is complete with bicyclists-oriented way-finding signage.

The greenway is complete with bicyclist-oriented way-finding signage.  Imagine a network of similar greenways throughout every region of the country!

How space could be rearranged on Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Green bike lane on Ben Franklin Boulevard

Green bike lane on Benjamin Franklin Parkway (photo by author)

On Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the bike lanes are painted green.  But don’t be fooled, this visual nicety is unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  A simple rearrangement of street space could have made this street feel (and be) worlds safer for people riding bikes, say, with their children.

By shifting lines on a computer screen during the design phase, engineers could have created a parking-protected bike lane (like the ones pictured here in Chicago).  Estimating visually from left to right, we have a nine foot parking lane, a ten foot vehicular travel lane, and a five foot bike lane.  Nine feet is excessive for parking lanes, which are often six feet wide.

If the designer wanted to bestow on society the many benefits of protected bike lanes, they would have recommended the following (from left to right): ten foot vehicular travel lane, six foot buffer (for the door zone), and the bike lane remains where it currently is.  Notice that the curb line doesn’t move and no travel lanes are removed.  Street space is simply rearranged.

       

Terribly dangerous shared lane markings in Richmond VA

Shared lane marking on North Boulevard, Richmond, VA

Shared lane marking on North Boulevard, Richmond, VA (photo by author)

Shared lane markings (share the street arrows, or “sharrows”) are a good way to indicate mixed traffic on low-speed, low-traffic neighborhood streets.  Placing sharrows on a high-speed stroad, however, raises questions.

On this stretch of North Boulevard in Richmond, Virginia, near the Richmond Flying Squirrels ball field (and its enormous parking lot) I chose to ride on the sidewalk despite sharrows indicating my right to “take the lane.”

The video below should clear up any disagreement regarding my judgement to disobey the Rules of the Road.

As dangerous as this situation appears, a professional engineer placed his or her seal of legal responsibility on the roadway design pictured.  While my area of competency is structural engineering (not transportation), I am nevertheless curious about the thought process used to arrive at this design.

Did the engineer perceive any incompatibility between cars moving 40 mph (or greater), and people on bicycles moving 12 mph?  If they are merely selecting pre-approved designs from the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), should we consider the work they are doing to be engineering, or is it that of a technician?

Beyond the particular engineer involved, these are questions for the civil engineering profession, for Department of Transportation officials, about our regulatory apparatus, and about what we as citizens are demanding of the former three.

It is difficult for me to decide whether these markings are hurting more than helping, or vise versa.  Are they effective in warning motorists of the presence of cyclists?  Or, are they attracting less experienced cyclists into a dangerous situation?  

My intuition at the site was to avoid using the actual roadway.

Maybe our friends in Richmond will share some insight.

Update: To be clear, the problem of sharrows on high-speed, high-traffic roads pervades most American cities.  I am not picking on Richmond, a city with great bones, history, architecture, and natural setting – albeit somewhat lagging in bicycling infrastructure.  Rather, my photo/video representing the sharrow problem happened to be snapped in Richmond.