Car-Free Sunday Streets; Night Light Follies; Priority Bus Lanes

Three short items in this week’s post:

1) Transforming Boston into Mayor Menino’s goal of a “World Class Bicycling City’ requires a multifaceted strategy. One action area: creating the kind of car-free safety zone that lets “ordinary” people feel it is safe to cycle.  In addition to the creation of “cycle tracks” – bike lanes that are physically separated from moving traffic in some way, it is also possible to build on the example of Hub On Wheels and temporarily ban cars from some section of a street, or to create a off-road (perhaps “multi-use”) greenway paths.

2) In this dark well-bottom of the year, only lunatics don’t use lights on their bicycle.  Of course, it’s what the law requires – but more importantly, it’s what survival requires.  In fact, any cyclist riding the roads later than 4:30 that doesn’t wear bright (preferably yellow) outerwear covered with reflective tape should have their live insurance cancelled and their motives examined.  But this begs the real controversy, worthy of several rounds of beer at your favorite spot – should bike lights blink or be steady?

3) Finally, as a former techie, I’m always interested in the latest ways to make our systems “smarter.”  But even more, I’m impressed by the presence (or depressed by the absence) of a smartly-designed infrastructure beneath the electronic sensors….like priority bus lanes.

Riding Forward from Hub On Wheels:  Sunday Streets & Metro Greenways

I know I’m more than biased, but I love Hub On Wheels.* The thousands and thousands of all kinds of people, from nervous newcomers to spandex speedsters, lined up on Boston city hall plaza with the police and traffic staff waiting to help, ready to tour the city.  In Boston!  Who would have believed, just a couple of years ago, that such a thing could happen!  And the amazing thing is the level of cooperation between the city and state groups – the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the State Police.

The absolutely best part, the piece that captures everyone’s imagination, is the stretch down Storrow Drive.  Ten miles of almost giggly pleasure along the river on a road that probably should never have been built in the first place and is now, to compound the insult, normally unsafe to cycle on or walk across.  Except for Hub On Wheels Sunday!

But why stop there?  How can the city and state build on its success?  Four suggestions, the first three all focused on summer Sundays:

1) Close Franklin Park to traffic on summer Sundays.

2) Close Storrow to traffic early on summer Sunday mornings.

3) Close particular city streets, all together or one each weekend, every summer Sunday until noon.

4) Create a Metro Region Greenway Network – open all the time, all year.



1) Close Franklin Park to traffic every Sunday from May through September.  (City) Or just pilot the idea for a few Sundays.  The road into the zoo’s parking lot and the public golf course should remain open, although reduced to one lane in each direction.  But the rest of the road should become a safe place for people to walk and bike and play and enjoy each other’s existence – just as has been done in New York’s Central Park.  It won’t block any neighborhood streets.  It won’t block any traffic flows.  It doesn’t require any new construction.  It only requires putting out some orange cones and arranging for a police detail or two.

2) Close Storrow every Sunday, from 8 AM to 10:30 AM, along the same stretch from Charles Circle to the Eliot Bridge.  (DCR with cooperation from City.)  If doing this every Sunday is too scary, start by picking three days over the summer to pilot the idea.  Or just close the outbound side of the road, allowing in-bound traffic to continue.

The relatively light early morning traffic could be easily diverted to the Cambridge side, and Storrow would reopen before Memorial Drive closes at 11.  Despite the early hour, I predict that the expanded Esplanade would be full of roller bladders, joggers, as well as cyclists.  But why not also invite people to conduct dance lessons, lead outdoor games, teach art classes, and find other ways to celebrate the reclaiming of our public space!

3) Designate a network of city streets to be closed to traffic every Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm, or some other time span. (City)  Or pilot the idea on four separate Sundays.  Or close one street each Sunday, rotating the location around the city.

If the city wants to create a complete network of neighborhood festivals on uncongested streets, it might start by closing one side of several of the wide boulevards, leaving the other side open (with cones down the middle) for two-way traffic – as is done in Bogotá’s cyclo via’s every week.  The network could extend out from Franklin Park (see #2) via Seaver St. and Columbus Ave. to the Southwest Corridor; via Columbia Rd. to the Harbor; and down Blue Hill Ave to Milton.  To complete the circuit, the city could go beyond the boulevards to include Talbot Ave. and Dorchester Ave. from where it intersects Columbia Road to the Neponset River Greenway.

And Newberry Street might want to host a Sunday Festival all on its own!

This would require a major commitment to work with neighborhood groups, merchants, and churches to work out details and win local approval.  But….Wow!

4) Create a Metro Region Greenway Network.  (City and State) This may be the most visionary, long-term, but important idea of all – create a city-wide (with some extensions into the surrounding suburbs) network of mostly off-road, tree-lined, multi-use paths suitable for family activity.  Where segments of the Greenway would have to be on-road, it should be set up as a protected or buffered bike lane (aka “cycle track”) that separates cars from non-motorized users.  Much of this vision already exists or is being built along the Emerald Necklace, around the Harbor, next to the Charles and Neponset Rivers, and down the Southwest Corridor.  Some of the needed extensions already exist, such as the Minuteman and the Community Path.  Filling in all the missing links will require decades of work, but key conceptual work has already been done.  (See a map and presentation by Northeastern University College of Engineering Professor Peter Furth at

But even if the entire network is too much for us to construct under current fiscal conditions, we can set it as a goal and begin working on filling in some of the easier gaps.  Because as these growth it will permanently transform the city and region’s transportation system!  Again….Wow!

*Hub On Wheels Conflict of Interest Disclaimer:  I was one of the co-founders.

For more, see:

Livable Streets – From Theory To Practice” 

Ten Steps To Make Boston A World Class Bicycling City” 

Making Boston A World Class WALKing City”  


Should Night Lights be Blinkies or Spots?

As darkness comes earlier each day, discussion turns to the best ways to stay visible at night.  Bright yellow jackets, helmets, and pants are good, but not as effective as during daylight.  Covering the clothing with silver reflective tape is a huge improvement.

But, depending on the state you live in, the law requires either or both reflectors and lights – white in the front and red behind.  This, of course, raises the complicated issue of should the lights be blinking or steadily on?

Obviously, if you are using a headlight to see what’s in front of you, the light should be on all the time.  But this isn’t an issue for me — I tend to ride on city streets with regular street lights so my lights are relatively low-power.  Furthermore, I’m not sure that I fully trust my ability to see dangerous road hazards in time to keep myself safe if the only illumination was from a bike-light, even if it was one of the expensive super-powerful kinds.

My only goal is to use my lights to increase the likelihood that car drivers will see and avoid me.  So I paid attention a few weeks ago when several people said that leaving my lights on makes it easier for car drivers to track your motion.  And, they said, the blinking is somewhat annoying to others.

Staying alive and avoiding unnecessary conflict are significant motivations, so I’ve paid attention every time I’ve been out on the dark roads since then – both bicycling and in my car.

Based on my limited observations, blinking is better.

If the goal is to catch the attention of driver busy fiddling with the radio or cell phone and watching out for the bright lights of other cars, then a blinking light is much more noticeable.  Whether white or red, the blinker’s disruptive irregularity stands out from the background at a much further distance than the slow gracefulness of a steady-on fixture.  Yes, it is slightly more annoying to a driver who is right up close to me as we wait at an intersection.  But that’s not the key circumstance – my main concern is about the drivers approaching from a distance in front or behind me who are traveling at the road’s usually-too-high-for-safety design speed.  Catching their attention could save my life.

Now, the question is what is the best rate of blinking?

For more, see:

Baby Strollers & Bikes on the T; Helmets & Impact; Walk Signals; Car Lights”  



Sensors & Coordination Improve Traffic Light Efficiency

Researchers in Germany have found a way to allow traffic lights to vary the length of their signal cycle by sensing the volume of traffic in the intersection.  In addition, each signal is connecting to the neighboring ones so that “large number of cars approaching” warnings can be passed forward.  Computer simulations suggest that this self-regulating system can reduce waiting time by 56 percent for buses and trolleys, 9 percent for cars, and 36 percent for pedestrians.  The cities of Dresden and Zurich may install pilot projects to test the idea under real-life stresses.

What’s most impressive about this news is not the innovation itself, which seems like an obvious “smart streets” improvement.  The most impressive, yet hidden, aspect of the announcement is that the difference in gains for transit versus cars implies that there is a separate bus/trolley lane and that they get priority at intersections.  Now that’s an idea for the MBTA to consider!

(For more, see “The Tao of Traffic,”  by Rachel Ehrenberg, Science News, 10/23/2010;

And also:

Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense For Us” 

Improving Intersection Safety; Defining Path Lanes; Bus Prioritization 

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