IDEAS: Parking, Walk Signals, Wider Sidewalks, Painted Lanes, Contra-Flow, Park-and-Pedal

This, my last blog post before taking the summer off to work on my Advocacy book, includes a series of quick, mostly one-paragraph thoughts.  (Who would have thought I could write something short!) -- The need to rethink our use of urban curb space to deal with the rise of shared cars, rapid home package delivery, bicycles, and an aging population.  How to increase pedestrian walk time without changing nearly anything else.  A suggestion about where to put parking meters on streets with “parking protected bike lanes.”  Praise for Everette’s creative use of painted lanes for placing transit, parking, and bicycles in their appropriate spots.  A plea for language clarity in descriptions of different bike lane configurations.  Urging greater use of “contra-flow” bike lanes.  Pleasure at the simple but wonderful idea of “Park and Pedal” locations.  I hope you all have a great summer!


The growth of shared-ride vehicles like Uber and Lyft, added to the astonishing increase of rapid home delivery of on-line purchases, is putting enormous pressure on our curb space.  Both types of services require frequent pull-overs to pick-up and drop-off, taking up parking spaces and delivery sites, blocking bike lanes, obstructing handicapped spots.  We know that parking space in commercial areas is more efficiently used if “demand-responsive” pricing is properly implemented.  But maybe we also need to rethink our use of “reserved” spots to include more than handicapped.  Perhaps there should be a “drop-off” spot on every block.  And while we’re at it, what about a “bike corral” reserved spot as well.


I was crossing a Cambridge street the other day and was delighted by the large number of seconds the Walk Signal timer seemed to be giving me.  It was such a re-assuring difference from the small numbers other towns seem to provide.  And then I realized that Cambridge was showing me the entire amount of time available.  It included a 3 to 5 second advance start for pedestrians (technical term: Leading Pedestrian Indicator, LPI), plus the full concurrent walk period while the parallel traffic light was green – not hitting zero until the light turned red.  Most other towns don’t start showing walk time numbers until they reach the “count down” time at the end of the green light – making the duration of the preceding walk-sign feel less secure and effectively turning the numbers into a warning rather than an encouragement.  They also often reach zero when the green light turns yellow.  So, the displayed numbers start small and quickly run out.  I’m sure there are good arguments for the shorter version, but it feels like just another remnant of the car-centric, pedestrian-slighting, imbalance that we are supposedly trying to leave behind.


Creating a protected bike lane by putting it between parked cars and the curb is a huge safety improvement.  But associated parking meters are often left on the sidewalk next to the curb with the money-insertion side facing the street – making car drivers stand in the bike lane as they feed the meter or read the app instructions.  In Quebec I saw that parking meters were relocated to the building side of the sidewalk, not only reducing bike-lane conflict but giving pedestrians a wider space for their own use.  Looks nice; feels better.


Jay Monty, the City of Everett’s Transportation Planner, not only helped create the region’s first rush-time bus priority lane – which has won praise from both bus riders and car drivers (happy to get the buses out of the car lane) – but also came up with a creative way to signal what goes where on that lane.  The 12-foot-wide, red-painted, bus lane is reserved for mass transit from 4am to 9am.  But the paint has 7-foot-wide “blanks” left along the curb showing where parking is allowed at other times.  And sharrow markings have been placed on the remaining 5-foot-wide section to make it clear that bikes belong.  Good work in a tough situation!!!


While older designs are still appropriate for low-volume, low-speed streets, we now legitimately demand a lot more in less bucolic conditions.  But I find that we sometimes confuse each other by the words we use to describe the desired facilities.  A “traditional” or standard bike lane is to the left of parked cars.  If not wide enough to allow bicyclists to avoid being in the “door zone” (where an inattentive driver can suddenly open their door and knock us under an on-coming truck) is sometimes described as a “naked” bike lane. Having a bike lane next to the curb is better – whether separated from moving traffic by a painted line, a painted buffer, flex posts, parked cars, or a curb.  But each of these is a distinct design.  The painted line and buffer and flex post combination creates a “separated” bike lane.  Being on the sidewalk side of the parked cars (separated from them by a painted buffer and, preferably, flex posts) is a “protected” bike lane.  Also described as protected, but sometimes called a “cycle track”, is a bike lane on the other side of some kind of physical barrier (e.g. planters) or the curb, at either street or sidewalk level.  And best of all is an off-road or alongside-the-road separate path with distinct “lanes” for slow (walkers, baby-pushers, kid cyclists, wheel chairs, joggers) and fast (runners, regular cyclists, electric chairs, Segways, low-power e-bikes) movement.  


A main reason to make streets one-way is to discourage short-cut car traffic on narrow (often residential) roads – meaning that the road is on a desire line that shortens the distance between two popular destinations.  Car drivers may not like being forced to stay on larger main roads, but they can handle it.  When bicyclists have to do the same, however, the heavy traffic on those busy roads – and the typical lack of protected bike lanes – has been shown to increase the likelihood of injury.  The solution is to allow bikes to go up the “wrong way” on the one-way streets (“contra flow”).  If the road has 25mph or lower speeds and less than 1,000 cars per day it turns out that accidents actually go down.  In fact, having to watch out for on-coming cars forces the cyclist to be more careful, as it does for the car driver who has been properly informed of the possibility of contra-flow bikes – making the street also safer for the kids and others who live and walk around there.  Making bike travel safer, providing access to desire lines, and reducing the muscle power required to get places will help attract additional members of the “interested but concerned” majority to try it, further increasing safety through the “safety in numbers” dynamic.  In fact, because of its obvious advantages, a lot of cyclists already act like “contra flow” users which, in the absence of signage and proper public education, can put car drivers in a scary situation.  (This is especially true when evening and nighttime cyclists don’t have adequate lights or reflective clothing.) Mark Chase, founder of Somerville’s Neighborway program, has produced a 4-minute video about the idea -- take a look.


Some ideas are so simple, elegant, and useful that you just laugh with pleasure when you first hear them.  “Of course,” you smile.  The Dutch Reach is one.  Park and Pedal is another.  Take two facts: many suburbanite’s commuting distance is longer than they feel able to bicycle, and the worst part of the driving (and parking!) is the last stretch into Boston.  Add an obvious solution: reserved parking spots in lots and along streets closer to the city so that commuters can leave their cars and bike the rest of the way, preferably near public transit.  Initiated by David Montague and his staff at the Montague Folding Bicycle Company, there are now about 30 Park and Pedal locations located at DCR parks, MBTA stations, and private companies’ parking lots.  While the drive-in strategy works wonderfully for folding bikes, including the Montague full-size wheel versions, as well as for bike-rack travelers the next step for the program is to put bike lockers at some of these sites so people can leave their bikes at the Park and Pedal spot.  This would make most sense if coordinated with the installation of bike lockers at all suburban MBTA stations, such as the ones at the Framingham commuter rail station, so bike-to-the-T commuters have a secure way to store their vehicles during the day.  But regardless – what an obvious and wonderful idea!


The anti-highway fight that stopped the Inner Belt and other proposed highways from wiping out Cambridge, Back Bay, and the South End (although not before enormous parts of low-income and non-white Boston were already flattened), leading to the availability of federal transportation funds for mass transit as well as roads, is the foundation on which all of todays transportation activism rests.  There are several wonderful histories – Jim Vrabel’s wonderful “A People’s History of the New Boston”, Russ Lopez’s Boston 1945-2015, and now Steve Kaiser’s paper “Inner Belt Step One”, among others.  At a recent rededication of Bernie LaCasse’s “Beat the Belt” mural on the MicroCenter wall, Steve said that the community mobilization that energized the battle was the essence of democracy.  He is right.  In every society, past or in the conceivable future, the more powerful and wealthy – by whatever terms those are measured in that society – will do what they can to maintain their advantages.  Democracy is only superficially defined by the ability of the people to select those who represent them – the process is so subject to distortion, so easily structured to make it difficult (if not impossible) for anyone who does not sufficiently represent dominant interests to succeed.  Without periodic “uprisings” of the usually passive population – expressed physically, financially, culturally, or some other way so long as it ends up disrupting the elites’ and their representatives’ ability to conduct business as usual -- democracy slowly dies. At the same time, without impacting both professional judgement and government decision-making processes, demonstrations achieve little.  So democratic advocacy requires “walking on two legs”, working both “outside” and “inside”, able to both protest and then partner.  It’s not easy.  Movements only occasionally grow large, and even when they express a majority sentiment they are usually the work of minority activism.  But still, the anti-highway fight was what democracy really looks like.  It is something we need to remember as the current wave of authoritarian hatred and social destruction continues its corrosive flow through our society.



Related Previous Posts:

> CIRCLING THE BLOCK:  Saving Time, Space, and Money Through Parking Reform

> TRAFFIC CONGESTION:  Why It’s Increasing, How To Reduce it


> CONTRA-FLOW LANES:  Fear & Comfort on Your Own Block.

> A GOOD WALK UNSPOILED:  Improving Foot Travel


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