SHORT TAKES: FROM DESIGN ABSTRACTION TO DAILY FACTS: Bridges Aren’t Highways; Who Are We Designing For; The Impact of Surfaces; Why “Bike Sharrows” Aren’t Enough.

A few quick thoughts….Even in the city, some bridges contain long stretches of uninterrupted pavement; does that mean that they are a kind of “highway?”  Or are they better seen as part of the urban network, just another city street?  But even then, a bridge is not “just” a city street, especially if its over a river it is also a special place in itself – a place that people, if given the chance, would love to walk over, sit down on, and look out from.

In a parallel vein, its time that the American cycling community stopped using the wanna-be racer as the “model user” for bike design.  Speed and sleekness are not what every bicyclist is looking for – sturdiness, ease of use, the ability to carry packages or children are top priorities for an increasing percentage of the market.

The huge growth in cycling over the past few years means that our facilities need to be retrofitted for the new types of users.  Sometimes this is complicated or expensive; but not always – there is a small footbridge over Storrow Drive near BU that is crying out for a 3” wide strip along the side of the stairways so cyclists can wheel their bikes.

Part of the suburban self-image of many Americans is a yearning for quiet, tree shaded walkways.  Aesthetics are wonderful; but in the city, walkways are often community gathering points and the path surfaces need to be suitable for a variety of activities – including allowing little kids to learn to skate or bike, jump rope and run around.  As we plan for future greenways we need to remember the value of multi-use inclusivity.

Finally, a paper being submitted to the national Transportation Research Board describes better than I could the problem of just assuming that placing “sharrows” on a road will solve the potentially contentious negotiations between car drivers and cyclists over who gets what share of the road.

The rest of the post includes the text for….


LIFE-CYCLE REALITIES:  The Myth of the “Model User”


AESTHETICS & FUNCTIONALITY:  The Importance of Path Surfaces

WHY SHARROWS AREN’T ENOUGH:  What it Means to “Share the Road”





I was presenting ideas about how to make the Longfellow Bridge better able to meet the latent but growing demand for inviting walking and cycling facilities when someone blurted out, “It’s a highway!  Why don’t you just leave it alone?”

And it struck me that the fact the Longfellow Bridge – like several of the other Charles River crossings – currently looks like, and is driven over as if it were, a highway is exactly the problem.  It may be signed for 30 mph, but drivers regularly zoom over the mid-span hump going nearly 50.  While Red Line riders take advantage of their time on the bridge to gaze out at one of Boston’s most beautiful scenes, car drivers press the pedal and exult in the freedom to speed.  It reminds me of the people who roar out of a red light when all that lies ahead is another one.

But that doesn’t mean we should indulge this fantasy.  The Longfellow is an urban street.  It connects two networks of city streets, emerging from the maze of Kendall Square simply to get dumped into the chaos of Charles Circle.  There is absolutely no reason why this stretch of road shouldn’t be treated with the same Complete Streets approach that every other city street is required to get.

If an exception is to be made, it should go in the other direction.  A bridge, unlike most streets, can be treated as a place in itself, as a destination rather than just a pass-through.  In that light, the Longfellow – and the other bridges – should be designed to invite walkers and cyclists to stop for a minute, sit, or just look out at the scene.  There should be an extremely wide promenade, with benches and perhaps even coffee and ice cream carts.  Why can’t the Longfellow be Boston’s version of London Bridge, or the Ponte Vecchio?

But not a highway.


LIFE-CYCLE REALITIES:  The Myth of the “Model User”

Either explicitly or implicitly, designers of buildings, furniture, outdoor spaces, vehicles, and transportation systems all have a “model user” in mind.  The model user has size, weight, strength, flexibility, level of attentiveness, clothes, and even aesthetic characteristics.  If the designer is not very careful he does what we all typically do – uses himself as the yardstick and therefore creates the kind of product or system that he would feel comfortable using.  Typically, this makes the model user an able-bodied, young to middle-aged, literate and reasonably self-confident, white male.

But it turns out that most of our population doesn’t fit that model.  We are younger, older, taller or shorter, fatter, less physically fit or even disabled, non-white or non-English-speaking and therefore much less confident that the surrounding society will treat us with respect, or not male.

In transportation, until recently (and all too often even today) the model user was assumed to be able to walk steadily and quickly across wide intersections, or ride a bike with skill and daring while sharing a road with moving cars.

As my own body gets harder to start moving in the mornings, as I begin to walk around the neighborhood with the next generation of very young children, as I walk slower so my octogenarian mother can keep up with me despite her aching knee and hip, I am constantly reminded that the real “model user” is someone in need of infrastructure that responds to her vulnerability.  Do most of us know, for example, that of the 36 million Americans currently over age 65 – a number that keeps increasing every year – only 3 million are in nursing homes or assisted living.  All the rest are “aging in place” – and a huge percentage are walking around, even if slowly.

In the bike world, despite the growing number of females and young people getting involved, the popular image is still of the young, spandex-clad (or grunge-outfitted), slightly reckless, white male.  After a visit to Denmark, writer Florence William said, “Americans have a fairly narrow relationship with bicycles.  We tend to think they’re for exercise or for screaming thrills.  We want them carbon-fibered, built for speed.”  We need to not only design our bike facilities for an extremely wide spectrum of users, we also need to design our bikes for the same wide range of people – and an equally wide range of uses.

(The Williams quote is from “A Strange & Not Unpleasant Experience,” by Florence Williams, Bicycling Magazine, Oct. 2010.)




I regularly bike along the Charles.  But getting from the Esplanade to the BU bridge when coming upstream on the Boston side requires taking a ramp over Storrow at Silber Way long before you come near the bridge.  There is a footbridge much closer to the BU bridge, located right in the middle of the BU campus, but it has very step steps on both sides, forcing cyclists to carry their bikes.  Despite this, nearly every time I go by or use that footbridge there are double or triple the number of cyclists than pedestrians on it.

It would be best if the darn thing was torn down and replaced by a wheelchair accessible ramp.  But in the meantime, why wouldn’t it be possible to lay a 4” wide piece of metal along one of the railings so cyclists could more easily roll their bikes up and down?


AESTHETICS & FUNCTIONALITY:  The Importance of Path Surfaces

When my kids were little the small park near our house was the family gathering spot, not just for us but for all the neighborhood families with little children.  Even though the grass was patchy and the paths worn smooth, it was perfect for picnics, teaching kids to catch a baseball or kick a soccer ball, playing “chase me”, and learning to ride a bike or roller skate.

But when the city decided to do a much-needed refurbishment of the area, the people who came to the planning meetings wanted to recreate a more relaxed, less active environment more suitable for sitting on benches and contemplative strolls and preserving their image of a gentrifying residential neighborhood.  A key element of the chosen design was the creation of a rough pebble pathway.  Most of us were paying no attention to this planning process and were caught off-guard when the path surface suddenly became more difficult to bike on, a barrier to rolling balls and a jagged danger to running children’s soft skin.

All this happened nearly two decades ago.  The cohort of kids who were using the park, whose families had moved into the area in an uncoordinated wave, were on the verge of growing too big to be satisfied with a play area so close to parental supervision.  And it was too late to fight the new design – much of which was a welcomed improvement.  So the focus of family interactions shifted to the Little League and soccer fields, and the park was taken over by adults walking their dogs.

Ironically, enough time has passed that a new wave of young families has entered the neighborhood and the “new” path has itself grown worn and smooth.  Once again, parents and kids are playing together in the park.

I was reminded of this experience by the recent debates about the proper surface for multi-use paths in the Alewife area and the Bruce Forman trail:  pressed dirt or asphalt.  The dirt was considered more aesthetic, more in keeping with the natural environment around the path and the neighborhood self-image of abutters.  But it is very hard to plow snow off dirt, making the path unusable during parts of the winter.  And experience has shown that no matter how well constructed (which is a big issue in itself) pressed dirt gets eroded by our increasingly severe rainstorms during the rest of the year.  Of course, a poorly designed asphalt path will also erode and buckle.

Dirt won.  Aesthetics, and the need to placate neighborhood opposition, won over functionality.  Now we can only hope that global warming doesn’t hasten the deterioration process too much.


WHY SHARROWS AREN’T ENOUGH:  What it Means to “Share the Road”

These quotes, assembled from several parts of the cited paper, need no commentary…

“”Studies…show that with bike lanes added, bicyclists demonstrate greater confidence by riding further from the hazards on the right, thus actually riding closer to the moving cars – before they know that motorists will see and respect the bike lane line as the boundary of the bicycle zone.  [But] when a street is too narrow to have exclusive bike lanes, cars and bikes have to share a lane, and negotiate for the boundary of the bicycle zone.  The stress created by this [unequal] interaction induces many cyclists to ride close to right side hazards, and discourages many people from cycling in shared lanes, so that they ride instead on the sidewalk, or not at all….Many motorists seem to hold it as a fundamental principle that cars should not be ‘blocked’ by bicycles.  They often do not appreciate the hazards bicyclists face on the right.  When they see what looks like a large margin between a bicyclist and a parking lane, they don’t understand why the bicyclists don’t move further to the right and ‘share the road.’  If cyclists move still further toward the center of the road in order to make motorists understand that in order to pass they should completely change lanes, research shows that cars overtake at an even closer distance.  Because they fail to designate a recognizable bicycling zone, sharrows still leave intact the stressful negotiation between cyclists and motorists that result in cyclists yielding space.

<“More Than Sharrows:  Lane-Within-A-Lane Bicycle Priority Treatments in Three U.S. Cities” by Peter Furth, Daniel Dulaski, Dan Bergenthal, Shannon Brown, under review for presentation at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board and publication in Transportation Research Record (2011).>

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