SMALL STEPS FORWARD: Improvements To Applaud, Improvements To Make

While we’re waiting for the big transformations needed to deal with climate change, resource depletion, dietary distortions, inequality, and the other despair-evoking problems we face, it’s good to remember that incremental improvements are still possible – and may be all we can gain at this particular moment in history.  The first five items in this post applauds small but significant steps forward while pointing out some additional actions that are still needed.

The fifth item picks up a previous post’s theme – the need for bicyclists to discipline their own community about dangerous and anti-social behavior. (See “Time To Stop Behaving Badly On Bikes“)   As our streets are redesigned for pedestrian and cyclist safety, we will have to confront an inevitable backlash as car owners protest the loss of their once-privileged status and businesses worry (mostly inaccurately) about decreased access for truck deliveries, parking-dependent customers, and car-commuting employees.  The last thing we need at this time are stupid cyclists (or jay-walkers) providing good reasons to oppose continued change.

And, finally, despite all my assumptions, I recently learned that federal law does not prohibit adding pedestrian and/or bicycle facilities to Interstates.  Even more, current federal policy requires the inclusion of walking and cycling accommodations in most federally-funded projects – including on bridges!  Maybe the bigger transformations will come….

  • Bike Lanes on Mass Ave. – Incredible! But A Gap Remains…
  • Intersections:  Walk Signals and Bike Boxes…..
  • Ghost Bikes and Memorial Signs Promote Safer Behavior….
  • Bikes on the T – Breaking the Commuter Peak Barrier….
  • Hubway Bike Share:  A Game Changer…
  • Drive Nicely, No Matter What Your Vehicle…
  • “There are no Federal laws or regulations that prohibit bicycle use on…or that prohibit shared use paths along or near Interstate highways or other freeways.”



  • Bike Lanes on Mass Ave. – Incredible! But A Gap Remains…

Trends in the larger world may be depressing, or even scary, but it’s important to remember that smaller, focused improvements are still possible.  It wasn’t long ago that Boston was “the worst cycling city in the USA.”  And now, it is the city’s own Traffic Department that is proposing to eliminate 71 parking places on Mass Ave to make room for bike lanes from the Charles to Symphony – making the only route across the city in that area significantly safer for cyclists.  As I sat in the Public Library meeting room last week, in the middle of nearly 150 people overwhelmingly in favor of the change, I kept thinking how amazing it was, how much we’ve all accomplished since the first Hub On Wheels festival re-framed the idea of bicycling in Boston.

But there are still battles to win.  It turns out that Mass Ave will have bike lanes up to the Symphony area and from there across the South End.  But at Symphony itself and around the Huntington intersections, there will only be sharrows – “share the road” symbols – rather than separate lanes.  We are so close and yet so far.  Although this is a city project, the state transportation agency, MassDOT, is holding a public meeting to discuss plans for the Symphony section on April 26 at the YMCA on 316 Huntington Ave.   Anyone who can should show up to demand that we need bike lanes down the entire length of Mass Ave, that suddenly dumping cyclists into a congested road is unacceptably dangerous.


  • Intersections:  Walk Signals and Bike Boxes…..

Intersections are the most dangerous spot on a road.  Yes, speeding on the straight-aways and loosing control on the curves can kill.  But more people are hurt in intersections than anywhere else – mostly because that is where turns occur.  And the more vulnerable the mode, the greater the odds of injury.

One way to reduce the vulnerability of pedestrians and cyclists after a red light is to let them get into the intersection before cars, giving them priority in the space and forcing the car to wait for them to get across.  Giving pedestrians moving parallel to traffic a 3 to 5 second head start before the car-traffic light turns green, called a “Leading Pedestrian Indicator” or LPI, is the most common technique.  This has become standard practice in many municipalities.  But the same idea should also be applied to bicyclists – meaning that state law should allow cyclists to start along with the LPI walk signal or that separate bike lights should be installed to indicate “go” 3 to 5 seconds before the cars can go.

In addition, bike boxes – preferably painted green or some other obvious color and overlaid with bike symbols as well as curb-side signs – are another effective way to place bikes ahead of the cars so they can either go straight or to turn left before the cars come.  Cambridge and Boston are now beginning to use these proven tools.

However, if the goal is to give bicyclists a head start before cars, it seems to me that the best placement of the bike box is in front of the pedestrian zebra.  This isn’t always physically possible – sometimes the curb cuts are right at the corner and the connecting crosswalk is right at the edge of the intersection.  But there is often a space between the zebra lines and the imaginary line defining the traffic lane of crossing cars.  In those cases, the bike box should go in that space – thereby not only giving cyclists a better head start but also narrowing the cross-travel lane which will reduce the speed of cars as well as the seriousness of intersection accidents.


  • Ghost Bikes and Memorial Signs Promote Safer Behavior….

For some reason, placing memorial signs or crosses at the spot of a fatal accident is controversial.  While Boston has expressed a willingness to explore the possibility of leaving “Ghost Bikes” – a stripped-down, white-painted bike frame – at some locations for a limited amount of time, MassDOT (and other municipalities) haven’t been as open.  The reason I’ve most frequently heard is that it distracts drivers and is therefore a safety hazard.  But I think it’s just that highway officials don’t feel comfortable with such a symbolically powerful acknowledgement of the inherent dangerousness of our roads.  Which I think is a good thing.

In fact, I think we need more of these reminders of our vulnerability.  In particular, I think we should post a “ghost bike” at every location that a cyclist has been killed or even seriously injured by a car.

These types of displays are emotionally important to the family and friends of the injured and killed.  Even more importantly, rather than being a distraction, I think these testimonials will promote more careful driving – by both car drivers and cyclists.  And they will remind all of us of something that public health advances – antibiotics, vaccinations, and sanitation – have allowed those of us who haven’t spent time in combat to conveniently forget: how lucky we are to be alive and how important it is to be careful about staying that way.


  • Bikes on the T – Breaking the Commuter Peak Barrier….

The MBTA deserves lots of credit for becoming more bike friendly.  There are huge increases in both covered and open-area bike parking facilities, bike racks on nearly all buses, expanded access to commuter rail (except during weekday peak hours in peak directions), unrestricted use of the ferries, financial support for the regional Bike Share “Hubway” program, more hours of subway usage – including the newly announced six-month trial of Blue Line access anytime except 7am-9am inbound and 4pm-6pm outbound.

The “T” is our region’s major hope for providing a viable regional alternative to commuting by car, and allowing our region to handle the challenges of increasing fuel costs, climate and environmental protections, and traffic congestion.  As family budgets tighten, mass transit becomes even more important:  According to December 2010’s Transit Savings Report from the American Public Transportation Association, individuals who ride public transportation rather than drive saved, on average, $9,581 last year.

In order to succeed, the “T” needs to find ways to welcome every possible population group.  Disability and senior citizen groups have waged a decades-long fight for improved access and the state is (slowly) responding.  The coming of Hubway makes increasing bicycle access the next pressing issue.

The current “bikes on the T” regulations don’t ever allow bicycles into several stations (Park Street, Government Center, and Downtown Crossing) or on the Green and Mattapan Lines.  Bikes aren’t allowed on the Red and Orange Lines weekdays between 7am-10am and 4pm-7pm, and at peak times on the Blue Line.  But rush hour is, by definition, when most people commute.

Subway cars can get crowded during rush hour.  And bikes take up more room than a person.  But so do today’s SUV baby carriages.  We need ways to allow both.  Perhaps, during peak hours, one bike could be allowed in each car in a subway train.  Or perhaps one or two bikes could be allowed to ride in both the first and last cars of a train.

General Manager Davey and his staff have been creative about finding ways to improve the T despite the Legislature’s refusal to provide appropriate funding.  They need to continue expanding the T’s ridership and value by finding ways for bicycling commuters to get on board.


  • Hubway Bike Share – A Game Changer…

Maybe.  Getting six hundred additional bikes on downtown streets will significantly escalate cyclists’ visibility.  It will make it easier to push for better “novice-friendly” bike facilities such as buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks.  It will, hopefully, add to the current cultural cool enjoyed by cycling.

But challenges remain.  A bike share system needs to be geographically concentrated with lots of stations located a short distance from each other.  Will Boston be able to resist the well-meaning pressure to spread the initially limited number of stations to too many neighborhoods?  Will the bikes work properly, not get stolen or damaged, and be quickly returned from the popular drop-off points to the popular pick-up points?  Will the accident rate drop, or sky rocket?

And will all those new cyclists help calm the risk-taking culture of today’s bike-messenger influenced street culture, or will they simply add to the chaos?  Which brings me to the next topic….


  • Drive Nicely….No Matter What Your Vehicle

I agree that people who complain about dangerous bicyclists need to be asked if they’ve ever jay-walked or sped up to get through a yellow light.  I agree that cars are much more dangerous than bikes and that when a cyclist treats a red light or a stop sign as if it were a yield sign she is actually reducing her chances of being hit rather than arrogantly disobeying the law.  And I agree that installing cycle tracks or bike lanes makes a road more bike-friendly, thereby attracting a more mainstream population of cyclists and changing the general culture of the bicycling population from its current risk-taking slant.

But I also agree that too many cyclists are acting like jerks – flying into intersections full of cross-traffic, weaving around cars regardless of safety, not showing lights (or reflective clothes) at night, and scaring the hell out of pedestrians in intersections.

You don’t get respect unless you give it.  It’s time for the cycling community to stop giving our own miscreants a free ride.  It’s time to tell people to “turn on your lights” at night, to yell at those whose behaviors endanger others.   If we don’t do it the police will – and they’re much less likely to understand the nuances.


  • “There are no Federal laws or regulations that prohibit bicycle use on…or that prohibit shared use paths along or near Interstate highways or other freeways.”

Read that sentence again.  It’s a quote from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) website.   The website makes it clear that states have the power to prohibit either practice, but “prohibition is not a Federal requirement.”  If the Interstates are no longer reserved for cars and trucks, can any other part of our transportation system be off limits?  Probably not:  here’s what the new federal policy, 23 U.S.C. 217(g) and (e), now says (emphasis added):

“Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems. Because of the numerous individual and community benefits that walking and bicycling provide – including health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of life – transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.”

“Bicyclists and pedestrians should be accommodated in new construction in corridors where there is current or potential demand… [and] in conjunction with all new construction and reconstruction of transportation facilities….[Bicycle accommodations must be included anytime] a highway bridge deck being replaced or rehabilitated with Federal financial participation is located on a highway on which bicycles are permitted to operate at each end of such bridge.”

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