Mass Ave, Arlington, and two approaches to bicycling

This article is about Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, but at a deeper level, it is about two very different approaches to bicycling.

I’ll start by recalling Massachusetts Avenue as it used to be.

Massachusetts Avenue was striped with two lanes. They were very wide, because there once was a streetcar line down the middle. The Avenue was wide-open and free for me and for other bicyclists who understood how to ride safely in a wide lane — keeping a constant distance from the centerline, allowing only enough space to our left for motorists to pass easily and safely. In this way, we kept enough space on our right to avoid walk-out, drive-out and right-hook threats.

Here’s a photo I took from the back seat of my tandem bicycle, in 1985.

Cycling on Massachyustts Avenue, Arlington, 1985

Cycling on Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, 1985

This location in a Google Street View, as of December 2011 — not much different. My photo is not in the segment which has recently been restriped, but the street cross-section is similar and it’s the only photo I have.

Riding this way worked fine for me and other confident bicyclists. On the other hand, for bicyclists who ride at the edge of the street in fear of being struck from behind, and for children who are incapable of reliably following the rules of the road, Massachusetts Avenue was highly uninviting.

In early October of this year (2015), I rode to Arlington for an appointment with my dentist and found a newly-repaved, wonderfully smooth Massachusetts Avenue, still without lane stripes. I rode it the same way I always did.

The dentist told me that I needed a filling replaced, and I made another appointment.

Thursday, November 12, I rode to Arlington again, to get the tooth filled. Turning the corner onto Massachusetts Avenue from Chandler Street,  I  encountered a woman stepping out of her car, just as I called out to myself, in astonishment, “door zone bike lane!” Because, there it was, stretched out in front of me, and she was standing in it, a door-zone bike lane. The woman asked me why I said that, and I told her.

She told me that she had her own problem with the Massachusetts Avenue installation: she is a member of Arlington’s Disabilities Commission. Raised planters on the sidewalks, surrounded by granite curbs, are so close to the edge of the street that disabled people cannot unload wheelchairs from their vans.

But, let me get back to my own story. See for yourself, about the door-zone bike lane. Chandler Street is the one-way street coming in from the right in the photo below, one block east of Lake Street. If a car door opens in front of you, and you are riding at normal speed for a bicyclist, there’s no way to avoid the door except to swerve left. If the right-hand end of the handlebar nicks an opening door, that will sweep the bicycle out from under you to the right and topple you to the left, into the path of overtaking traffic. Riding in the door zone also leads to walk-out and drive-out hazards, right-hook and left-cross collisions.

Massachusetts Avenue at Chandler Street

Massachusetts Avenue at Chandler Street

This location in a Google Street view, as of August, 2014

Here’s another example, looking to the west just after Winter Street.

Northbound, truck unloading

Westbound, truck unloading

This location as of September, 2014

Winter Street is opposite and slightly west of Lake Street, at the same signalized intersection. At the left in the photo are the  three eastbound lanes –left turn, through  and right-turn lanes. If you look past the truck, you can see cars parked up to the edge of the bike lane, even though it weaves farther toward the middle of the street after it passes the start of the left-turn lane.

Yes, the unloading truck is parked in a bus stop. The driver had no other choice. A bus at this bus stop would occupy part of the bike lane, the same as the truck. Riding safely past a stopped bus here requires controlling the travel lane, to be far enough away to avoid going under the bus if it pulls out.

From a public meeting early in the design process, I recall plans for a  single travel lane and bike lane in each direction and a median, which could leave bike lanes outside the door zone and included more curb extensions than are in the final design. (Plans are accessible on the Town of Arlington Web site. The early plan I recall is here. The final plan is here.)

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation Project Development and Design Guide describes and advises integrated multimodal development: consideration should be given to walking and bicycling, as well as motor traffic. This project, however,  was designed primarily to increase capacity for motor traffic: the width of the street has been divided into more lanes — as many as four lanes at some locations. There are two or three lanes at the few spots where there are median pedestrian refuges. The bike lane gets squeezed in against the parked cars.

It has been common practice for decades on Massachusetts streets and highways to stripe an increased number of lanes to increase capacity for motor traffic. A segment of a street or highway with two wide lanes would be restriped with four narrow lanes. A paved shoulder would be converted into a travel lane, sometimes only before intersections, sometimes for miles at a stretch. A left-turn lane would be added, by narrowing the through lane.

Streets striped this way can still work for bicyclists who possess the confidence to ride in the middle of  a narrow right-hand lane, so motorists will wait for a safe opportunity to pass or pass in the next lane.

Now, with the bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, the same basic formula has been applied, except that the bike lanes got squeezed in. They are either entirely or partially in the door zone, except where there is no door zone because there is no curbside parking. The photo below is of one of the places with the most room , at the west end of the project.

North end of project

West end of project

The dashed lines in the photo below are supposed to indicate that motorists should merge into the bike lane before turning right, but what effect will those dashes have, with the huge right-turn arrow in the next lane?

Mass Ave at Marion Street

Mass Ave at Marion Street

This location in Google Maps, without bike lane, as of September, 2014.

The bicycle symbol in the bike lane is for a traffic-signal actuator. I’ve been calling out for bicycle-sensitive traffic signal actuators for decades, but the devil is in the details. The placement of this one encourages bicyclists to ride up to the corner, into right-hook territory, the “coffin corner”.

The “coffin corner” is the wrong place to wait, regardless. A bicyclist who reaches the intersection when no motor vehicles are waiting should wait in the lane to the left of the bike lane, so any motorist intending to turn right will pass on the right or wait behind. A bicyclist approaching the intersection when motorists are waiting might move ahead cautiously and slowly in the bike lane, but should not move up next to, or pass, the first vehicle waiting in line. It could turn right without the driver’s ever having noticed the bicyclist. These are basic principles of survival, unawareness of which has cost several  bicyclists their lives in the Boston area over the past few years.

There are a couple of places where the bike lane is correctly placed to the left of a right-turn lane. Here’s one at Lake Street, a block before Chandler Street. I was standing facing east, directly opposite Winter Street.

Right-turn lane at Lake Street

Right-turn lane at Lake Street

The right-turn lanes require the removal of a few parking spaces, and so they become the object of political battles. The parking spaces get removed only where right-turning traffic is heavy and a strong case can be made for right-turn lane to avoid traffic congestion. But only one motor vehicle is necessary to right-hook a bicyclist, at any intersection.

Edge rider on Massachusetts Avenue at Varnum Street

Edge rider on Massachusetts Avenue at Varnum Street

Now I’ll address the issue of different riding styles. The photo above, from Google Street View, is of of a bicyclist on Massachusetts Avenue who is keeping near the right side of the street. He is only marginally far enough from the parked cars to avoid dooring. The last parked vehicle short of the corner has been concealing him from the view of the pickup-truck driver who has pulled out far enough to see traffic approaching in a more normal lane position. If you click on the street surface in the street view online, you can follow this bicyclist most of the way the way down to Alewife Brook Parkway. You will see that he weaves left to pass around the front of the pickup truck, ducks into a gap between parked cars and passes several parked cars in the door zone. He disappears from the Street View for a while when he runs a red light and the Google camera car waits, but he reappears when it catches up.

Judging by this bicyclist’s size, his equipment and his riding on Massachusetts Avenue, he is an adult, regular bicycle user, yet he is riding contrary to basic principles of street safety.  He is stuck in the edge-riding paradigm. That is how I rode too, for my first few years in Boston, until I read the book Effective Cycling, and learned to use the streets safely.

The next photo, as a counterexample, is a Google Street View showing a woman on a motor scooter waiting to turn left onto Lake Street. Her choice of the motor scooter, her confident use of the left-turn position and her clothing — especially the slippers — suggest that she is from Taiwan, where motor scooters predominate in street traffic, or maybe from mainland China. She is operating as a driver, the same way I do it on my bicycle. Good for her!

Left turn from Massachusetts Avenue onto Lake Street

Left turn from Massachusetts Avenue onto Lake Street

Google Street View online

The new installation on Massachusetts Avenue makes no special provision for bicyclist left turns. The legal options are to turn left as a driver, as this woman did, or to use one of the few crosswalks.

At the far right corner of a few intersections in the Boston area, two-step turn queuing boxes have been installed: spaces for bicyclists to turn their bicycles 90 degrees to the left, wait, and then cross. These can be useful where a conventional left turn would be especially difficult, or is illegal. But they are practical only at intersections where a traffic signals stopa the cross traffic, and they increase delay because it is necessary to wait for the signal at both stages.

Now, let me draw some conclusions and make some projections.

Is the restriping with more travel lanes necessary to handle motor traffic volume?

There is a lot of excitement in the urban planning and advocacy community these days about how a smaller percentage of young people is getting driver’s licenses.  There is also excitement about how more people are choosing to live in cities, or inner suburbs, so they will drive less. But nonetheless, with an increasing urban population, more people will be driving. My dentist told me that large apartment complexes are being built nearby. They all have parking garages. So, even if the percentage of people driving falls, their number will increase. It would take a major upheaval to get them out of their cars and onto bicycles, and onto the #77 MBTA bus which runs on Massachusetts Avenue.

How will the restriping affect safety?

I’m not an expert on motor-vehicle safety. I think that the redesign may improve it by slowing traffic: on the other hand, the street layout is more complicated. Time will tell. The curb extensions, clearly-marked crosswalks and new traffic signals are well known to improve conditions for pedestrians.

Bicycling safety is a different issue. As the example of the edge-riding bicyclist shown earlier illustrates, it’s hard enough convincing bicyclists to control the travel lane when necessary. But now, advice is painted on the streets reinforcing the hazardous behavior. The bike lanes direct bicyclists to ride into hazards, and also recruit social pressure from motorists to enforce that behavior: horn honking, yelling out of car windows and close passes. A bicyclist who rides outside the bike lane is perceived as a renegade, an outlaw, though there is no law against that in Massachusetts. I never used to get abuse in the Boston area for taking the lane position I need in order to be safe. Now I do, and frequently.

The door-zone bike lanes reinforce the incorrect belief that being struck from behind is the main hazard, and that riding in the door zone must be the best we can do,  even though close calls quickly build a prevailing sense of unease about in the door zone.

Many bicyclists I see on the streets of the Boston area these days have no idea that they can operate as bicycle drivers, actively communicating and cooperating with motorists using lane positioning and hand signals. Only the few bicyclists who know better think otherwise. A passive approach to safety prevails: helmets, riding on paths, edge riding while on streets. Few understand that our safety as bicyclists is something cabm abd should, take into our own hands. Doing or teaching that is becoming more difficult as road markings increasingly promote unsafe behavior.

The door zone bike lanes are also seeding a generation of motorists with the belief that This is My Space Over Here, and That is Your Space, and so, Stay Out of My Space.

I used to see all this as only leading bicyclists down a descending spiral of poor behavior. But it’s worse now. The bike lanes, the special space, are seen as an improvement — by bicyclists, motorists, public officials and planners. But inadequate bike lanes don’t solve the safety problems, and riding on the road as a bicycle driver is believed to be worse, and so we must move in the other direction, to barrier-separated on-street bikeways. I see the advocacy community now increasingly  pushing for them.

Barrier-separated bikeways are to be installed on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston, so we’ll get to see how that works out. I don’t think that is a good solution there, I think that there are better solutions, and I’ve explained why. I’ll have more to report when that actually happens.

But on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, I don’t see any such thing happening.  The design which has only  just now been implemented reflects existing demand for on-street parking, and projections of traffic volume which are probably realistic barring a major social upheaval. I do expect the volume of bicycle traffic to increase, but then it won’t fit into the bike lanes . Aside from their safety problems, they aren’t wide enough for one bicyclist to pass another. They may have made Massachusetts Avenue appear more attractive to some bicyclists, but if the crash rates on Commonwealth Avenueand the results of several safety studies in other cities offer any example, they do not offer safety.

There was some opposition to the Massachusetts Avenue project during the planning phase but  that opposition was, was, in my opinion, a distraction, from an Arlington resident and his supporters who suggested that bicyclists could use the Minuteman Bikeway instead. The bikeway is very direct way to get from the center of Arlington to Alewife Station, but the bikeway gets farther and father from Massachusetts Avenue as it heads south. The opposition was reminiscent of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby’s suggestion that bicyclists should stay off the streets and go for a nice ride in the Arnold Arboretum.People aren’t going to go a mile out of their way, riding two sides of a triangle, to reach a destination on Massachusetts Avenue.

I supported the Arlington project, based on the early plans I saw, until I saw on November 12 how it turned out in the end. I don’t live in Arlington, so I didn’t pay it much attention after I saw the early plans.

I’d have been satisfied enough with the final design if the bike lane stripes had been omitted — or if there were only two travel lanes, so bike lanes could be placed outside the door zone — but that would reduce capacity for motor traffic, and capacity for motor traffic was clearly a major concern in the design of this project.

All in all, unfortunately, I don’t think that there is any good, practical, moderately-priced solution for Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington. Perhaps sometime, the USA will take the bull by the horns and work to solve its transportation problems. I can envision a subway under Massachusetts Avenue, or under the Minuteman, projects of the same scope as the 1980 Red Line extension to Alewife. These improvements would have some hope of decreasing traffic volume.  But major improvements require raising taxes to pay for construction and maintenance. Heavy taxes on motor vehicles and fuel are an important factor in promoting bicycling in the northern European countries which are often held up as examples. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen in the USA. Or, maybe, do hold your breath, as the traffic goes by!

As for myself, I’m going to continue to use a safe lane position when I ride on Massachusetts Avenue. In most places, motorists have a passing lane, or if not, the right-hand travel lane is wide enough to share. But not everywhere, and where it isn’t, riding in a safe lane position will be more difficult, thanks but no thanks to the bike lane striping and the attitudes it fosters.

I encourage other bicyclists to do as I do. You may need to grow a thick skin to cope with horn honks, but your safety is more important, and it builds character.

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The Boston Globe’s photo album

Ah, the Boston Globe.

On the one side we have right-wing columnist Jeff Jacoby suggesting that bicyclists should all go for a nice ride in the park and stay off the streets.

Though I’m a registered Democrat and liberal to centrist on most political issues, I often find Jacoby’s columns illuminating. But with this column, he really put his foot in his mouth if he is to call himself a conservative. Conservative about bicycling, to me, means standing up for equal rights to use the road. Liberal would be to advocate for well-designed improvements.

Maybe to try to make up for Jacoby’s rant, the Globe Web site published several photos in early September, 2015, under the headline “five ways to make bicycling safer”. Problem is, the Globe doesn’t know from good design. Some of the photos show bad design. One shows a bicyclist who doesn’t know how to stand over his bicycle. Let’s have a look at each of them.

Photo # 1: “Cycle tracks are exclusive bicycle facilities that are physically separated from motor vehicle lanes through grade changes, parking lanes, curbs, or landscaping.”

"Cycle tracks are exclusive bicycle facilities that are physically separated from motor vehicle lanes through grade changes, parking lanes, curbs, or landscaping." Photo by Eric Moskowitz for the Boston Globe

“Cycle tracks are exclusive bicycle facilities that are physically separated from motor vehicle lanes through grade changes, parking lanes, curbs, or landscaping.” Photo by Eric Moskowitz for the Boston Globe

The Globe editors are actually taking the same side as Jacoby, that bicycles don’t belong on the street. Travel lanes in Massachusetts, by the way, are not “motor vehicle lanes”, except on limited-access and express state highways (Storrow Drive, the Southeast Expressway, the Turnpike…).

Nonmotorized vehicles — bicycles, pedicabs, horsedrawn wagons (and yes, there’s a company runs these for tourists in downtown Boston) are permitted on streets, even one with a separate bikeway running alongside.

The photo shows a two-way one-side-of the street bikeway under a railroad bridge, in Montreal —  Google Street View identifies the location. The overhead Google Earth view reveals that this is along a route which partly is on paths in parks, but mostly runs alongside streets.

Exclusive? Physically separated? Because of the descent to go under the bridge, bicyclists pick up speed, and two-way travel in this narrow space is more hazardous. Separation consists of a curb which will topple a bicyclist into the adjacent travel lane. In the foreground, there is no separation, and bicyclists are instructed to ride opposite the flow of traffic in the adjacent travel lane. At night, bicyclists headed away from the camera are facing the bright side of motorists’ headlamp beams — an even worse problem because of the changes in slope. Also there is a driveway at the left, where motor vehicles turn across the bikeway and drivers must advance into a sidewalk past a fence and crane their necks to look for approaching bicyclists. In winter, Montreal’s separate bikeways become unusable and are taken out of service, though a network of designated bicycle routes on low-traffic streets would remain serviceable.

And the bicyclist in the foreground is wearing his helmet tilted back on his head like a sunbonnet. Not a great example.

Germany’s two-way, one-side of the street bikeways have proven extraordinarily dangerous unless on streets with very few, and signalized, intersections. Germany is replacing these bikeways with conventional bike lanes and shared low-traffic streets, making it legal once again to ride in the street, even when there are separate paths.

See Berlin bikeway standards.

Also see reports by Jan Heine, publisher of Bicycle Quarterly magazine.

Cyclepaths in Berlin

Separate or Equal? — An examination of two-way bikeways in the Seattle area

Best of all possible worlds

A summary

Despite the European experience, here in North America, two-way one-side-of-the street bikeways are being promoted by the bicycle industry lobby (“PeopleforBikes”) as a safety feature, and the Globe is uncritically beating the drum for this approach.

Photo #2: “A bike box is a designated area at the head of a traffic lane at an intersection that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase.”

"A bike box is a designated area at the head of a traffic lane at an intersection that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase." Photo by Dina Rudnick for the Boston Globe

“A bike box is a designated area at the head of a traffic lane at an intersection that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase.” Photo by Dina Rudick for the Boston Globe

Thanks to the Lady Grace store on the opposite corner, I was able to identify this location: Beacon Street at Webster Street, in Brookline — Here’s a Google Street View.

A bike box is a safety feature? Visible? It is an invitation for bicyclists to overtake in motorists’ right rear blindspot, placing them in the “coffin corner” where they can be run over by right-turning vehicles, and upon reaching the intersection, to swerve out in front of the first waiting vehicle without any way to know when the traffic signal is going to change. The bicyclist in the photo is shown not using the bike box. Want to see how a bike box in Boston is actually working? Try this.

Photo #3: bicycle signal.

Bicycle signals have good uses, but they need to be used with discretion, because added signal phases can  result in unnecessary  delay, increasing the temptation to violate the signal for bicyclists and motorists alike. It isn’t possible to tell anything from this photo, though, because it offers no context.

"Bicycle signals make crossing roadways safer for bicyclists by clarifying when to enter an intersection and by restricting conflicting vehicle movements." Photo by Don Pablo for the Boston Globe.

“Bicycle signals make crossing roadways safer for bicyclists by clarifying when to enter an intersection and by restricting conflicting vehicle movements.” Photo by Don Pablo for the Boston Globe.

Photo #4: “Bike lanes designate an exclusive space for bicyclists through pavement markings and signs, and are located adjacent to motor vehicle traffic.”

 "Bike lanes designate an exclusive space for bicyclists through pavement markings and signs, and are located adjacent to motor vehicle traffic." Photo by George Rizer for the Boston Globe

“Bike lanes designate an exclusive space for bicyclists through pavement markings and signs, and are located adjacent to motor vehicle traffic.” Photo by George Rizer for the Boston Globe

There are bike lanes which make sense and there are bike lanes like this one. Exclusive? The bike lane shown, like most in the Boston area, is in the door zone of parked cars. The photograph avoids this issue by showing a section where no cars are parked, however, in the background, a large truck, nearly cropped out of the picture, extends most of the way across the bike lane, so the bicyclist will have to merge out into the travel lane. At least in this way, he will avoid the “coffin corner” at the next intersection. Any proposed law banning trucks from parking in bike lanes will not be enforced, if experience is any example.  Another proposal has been for trucks to park in the travel lane outside the bike lane. I’ve said more about this issue, which has seen some attention in New York City, in another blog post.

Photo #5: “Sharrows are road markings that indicate a shared lane environment for bicycles and automobiles.”

Shared-lane marking betwene dashed lines on Brighton Avenue

“Sharrows are road markings that indicate a shared lane environment for bicycles and automobiles.” Photo by Martine Powers for the Boston Globe

Not that shared-lane markings should be necessary to indicate this. Sharing lanes is normal. However, shared-lane markings do clarify the situation . I discussed the installation shown in this photo — and even included the very same photo — in another post on this blog, a couple of years ago.

Photo #6: “For more ideas, check out this “bike tool box” at the Cambridge Community Development Department:

"A bike box is a designated area at the head of a traffic lane at an intersection that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of queuing traffic during the red signal phase."

“For more ideas, check out this ‘bike tool box’ at the Cambridge Community Development Department:” Photo by Dina Rudick for the Boston Globe

This photo was shot at the same intersection as the one of the bike box, photo number 2, and shows a two-way left-turn queuing box, a useful type of installation if done well. This photo offers a poor example, though: the man risks toppling the toddler in the child seat onto the street, by not knowing how to mount and dismount, and the rear tire of his bicycle is seriously underinflated. Another photo showing the same cyclist appeared on the cover of the Globe West section on Sunday, September 6, 2015.

Photo which appeared on the cover of the Globe West section September 6, 2015

Photo which appeared on the cover of the Globe West section, September 6, 2015

The two photos clearly were taken during a staged photo shoot. In my previous post, I asked where the Globe finds cyclists like this for its posed pictures.

The Globe claims that all of the measures it shows in its photos are safety measures. Some can indeed be safety measures, if installed and used correctly; however, much of the infrastructure shown is flawed and some is downright deadly. A cyclist recruited by the Globe to show as an example doesn’t know basics of safe riding. There are better infrastructure solutions as well as non-infrastructure solutions: education, enforcement, etc. Mostly, though the message I get is that the Globe is drowning in its own credulousness.

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Boston Globe Article Falls Flat

My letter to the editor of the Globe today.

To the editor:

Yes, I know this is too long to publish, but I hope that you will find it informative.

A major impediment to safe bicycling and good street design is lack of knowledge. In the feature article “Safer Passages”, on the cover of Globe West, Sunday, September 6, and online at, the Globe reveals a serious and unfortunate lack of depth in reporting about bicycling, publishing an article rife with technical error, and photos showing bicyclists who clearly do not know basic riding skills, also unquestioningly and enthusiastically making and relaying unsubstantiated claims of safety. In this way, the Globe fails to inform the public about bicycling, and about planning and design for bicycling.

The top photo in the article is captioned “A bike box at a Brookline intersection allows bicyclists to wait ahead of vehicles during a red light.”


The Globe uses the term “bike box” incorrectly. A bike box would be placed before, not after the crosswalk. The arrow and sign in the photo clearly identify not a bike box but a two-stage turn queuing box. It purpose is not to allow bicyclists to wait ahead of vehicles, but to allow bicyclists to turn left from the right side of the street.

A two-stage turn queuing box is usually slower than a conventional left turn from near the center of the street, requiring waiting through an additional traffic signal phase — but is useful when merges across multiple lanes of traffic would be needed or conventional left turns are prohibited. The two-stage turn queuing box has been approved by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which reports to the Federal Highway Administration, see .

(And I should here indicate my personal involvement with preparation of that document, as a member of the National Committee’s Bicycle Technical Committee. My other credentials are listed here: .)

The Globe has posted another photo from the same photo shoot online:


The location is Beacon Street at Webster Street, in Brookline:,-71.1230358,3a,75y,357.97h,87.95t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s_oKhnGg-L8bfe7sTok50Rw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

Issues raised by these photos:

* The same cyclist with the toddler in a child carrier appears in the two photos taken at different times and from different angles. These are not candid news photos. This was a posed photo shoot, though that is not acknowledged.

* The man’s rear tire is very soft.

* The man is sitting on the saddle, precariously tiptoeing with both feet. He does not know how to stop and restart on a bicycle, and is at considerable risk of the bicycle’s falling over with the child on board.

* He is carrying a bag over the handlebar where it interferes with pedaling and disturbs steering. There is a risk that an object carried on the handlebar might fall into the front wheel, jamming it and pitching the bicycle forward.

* The woman cyclist in one of the photos, though she has a purse, is illegally carrying papers in her left hand (author Lefferts, carrying notes for her story?), preventing her from using the brake or shift lever on the handlebar. She also has just started from a tiptoeing position: having just raised her left foot off the ground, she should be standing ahead of the saddle, not sitting on it. The rear tire of her bicycle is even softer than the one on the man’s bicycle — nearly flat.

(Where does the Globe find people like this to use as examples of “safer passages”? Think about how this reflects on the Globe’s level of understanding of bicycle issues.)

How to start and stop:

* The cyclists in the larger photo are positioned as if they had entered from Webster Street, though the turn box is intended for entry from Beacon Street. It would have been illegal and discourteous for them to ride across the crosswalk from Webster Street on a red light to wait after the crosswalk, unless to make a legal right turn on red after yielding to pedestrians.

* The photos show a brick crosswalk bordered in granite curbstones. These are expensive to install, do not conform to national standards, are hard to see in wet weather, and as the pavement settles, the brick breaks down and the curbstones produce a jarring bump for bicyclists. The use of brick paving and granite curbstones for crosswalks is endemic in the Boston area and in my opinion rates as a scandal deserving of attention from the Globe Spotlight Team.

A few years ago, much of Kenmore Square was outfitted with such crosswalks, and block pavers. How these paving materials work in practice is described in the blog post here:

and illustrated, in the first 30 seconds and again at 1:05 in the video here:

But now about bike boxes, as they have been mentioned. Are they a safety measure?

A bike box, see incites bicyclists to overtake in motorists’ right rear blindspot, placing them in the “coffin corner” where they can be to be run over by right-turning vehicles. The bike box encourages bicyclists, upon reaching the intersection, to swerve left in front of the first waiting motor vehicle without any way to know when the traffic signal is going to change. Portland, Oregon has reported a doubling of the crash rate at some intersections with bike boxes,

including two gruesome fatalities and a severed leg:

Want to see how a bike box in Boston is actually working? Try this 5-minute video.

NACTO, by the way, lacks official status and a vetting process like the NCUTCD. Please read my comments about the NACTO pages on the two-stage turn queuing box here, to understand these issues.

Now, let’s examine the other purportedly safe example shown in the smaller photo on the Globe West home page.This is a so-called through bike lane which runs diagonally across another lane. It assigns priority to bicyclists in a lane change, discouraging them from looking back to see whether that is safe. The one in the photo is on Concord Avenue east of Blanchard Road in Cambridge. This design was included in 2011 in the first edition of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, then rejected in the 2012 edition as unsafe, even by NACTO. See: (see lower right).

The problems were already obvious with the first Cambridge installation years ago, see

How this design works in practice is illustrated in the video here, shot at the Concord Avenue location.

All in all, again, the Globe’s coverage of bicycling needs a major revamp. Thanks for reading this.

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Some Plain Talk about Plainville

The town manager in Plainville, Massachusetts, has complained about a new bike lane which has been installed in connection with upgrading of a casino by the side of Washington Street, US Route 1. He thinks that the bike lane should be removed, because he considers it unsafe. You may hear about this in a news story including video on the TV Channel 10 Web site.

The design of the bike lane is, however, correct in some ways which the town manager and the news reporters do not mention and evidently do not understand. Right-turn lanes are to the right of the bike lane at the entrance to the casino and a Route 495 on ramp, so motorists merge across the bike lane before turning right, rather than cutting off bicyclists as they turn right. There is a buffer between the bike lane and the through lane, for clearance from passing motor traffic. With the new traffic signal at the casino entrance, this section of Route 1 is less of a speedway than it once was.

Photo by Mike George of the Sun-Chronicle newspaper

Photo by Mike George of the Sun-Chronicle newspaper

Not clear in the still from the video on the Web page, but clear in a photo in a Sun Chronicle newspaper article, reproduced here, is that the project includes 5-foot long  slots for sunken reflectorized pavement makers, which can steer the wheels out from under a bicyclist, and should never be installed anywhere except on a limited-access highway. Also, there is no sidewalk.

Comments by the TV reporter that the bike lane starts and ends abruptly might be taken further. A bicyclist must pass an on-ramp, an off-ramp and another on-ramp after the end of the bike lane at the Route 495 intersection. Before each on-ramp, there is a concrete rumble strip, see Google Street View.

Tellingly, while the town administrator complains that bicycling is unsafe, he never mentions the lack of a sidewalk. His approach to safety is to eliminate bicycling, and as walking has already been effectively eliminated, he doesn’t even have to mention it. We can all drive cars, and so we can all be safe.

The TV reporter complains that he has to cut across a travel lane to reach the bike lane. Well, yeah, that is called a lane change, and any bicyclist needs to practice it as a matter of course, because it is necessary on any street, even on shared-use paths when the person in front of you is a pedestrian or a slower bicyclist. The reporter skids his rear wheel at the end of the video. It’s painful to watch — this kind of skid wears a tire out after only a few stops. Whether the reporter does that for effect or just because he doesn’t know how to use the brakes, I don’t know. And, as he skids, his front tire looks quite soft.

Neither the town administrator nor the TV reporter accounts for differing skill levels of bicyclists. In the Sun-Tribune article, Richard Fries of Massbike is interviewed and properly makes the case for education and law enforcement, but also, a situation which looks unsafe and in fact is unsafe for a child, novice or untrained cyclist may be entirely reasonable for a skillful, adult cyclist. Traffic conditions also vary greatly from hour to hour and day to day. I might sometime have the opportunity to put those statements to a test by actually riding through the installation, and if so, you’ll read about that here. I’ll take care though to avoid the slots in the pavement and the rumble strips.

Actually, it does appear that there is another entrance to the casino, on a path through the woods from quiet Mirimichi Street, off Route 152– see Google Earth aerial view. This entrance may have been used only during construction, or it may be for a utility connection or emergency access. An alternate emergency-access route is often required in case a main access is blocked — but also, an alternate entrance is often gated, and often only emergency responders are allowed to use it.

North of  Route 495 interchange, Route 1 actually is, if noisy and unpleasant, easy to ride and walkable, with wide shoulders paved to the same standard as the travel lanes — see Google Street View. South of Route 495, into the built-up part of Plainville, much of Route 1 could be described as a “traffic sewer” bordered by guardrails or by parking lots which come right up to the side of the travel lanes.

Bicycling and walking conditions were once tolerable on most of on Route 1. Degradation has occurred over a span of decades, with the worst insult being the Route 495 interchange. There are also no pedestrian crosswalks at the Route 152 intersection, see Google Street View. Well, there’s a logic to that, as there are no sidewalks to connect to crosswalks. As the area has become more built up over the years, more and more useful short trips might have been made on foot or by bicycle, but instead, they have been shut out bit by bit through highway redesign and non-planning of land use, in a death of a thousand cuts.

The bike lanes are a first, though certainly imperfect and incomplete attempt to remedy the situation. Fully accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians, though, would require a designated bicycle and pedestrian entrance to the casino, sidewalks along Route 1, and preferably an alternate crossing of Route 495 for bicyclists.

Who might cycle or walk to and from  the casino? Employees, and people who had made one too many trips there already and had to sell their cars :-) There are other people with other trips to make, too, including residents of nearby neighborhoods.

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New Product — ShelBroCo Magic Green Paint

Here’s a high-tech product which deserves to be used in every new bicycle infrastructure project. The linked page gives a thorough description and videos!

An example from one of the videos

An example from one of the videos

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Commonwealth Avenue victory?

I submitted the following comments in response to a Boston Globe article reporting on proposed bikeways on Commonwealth Avenue.

Real solutions to bicycle and pedestrian mobility in the Commonwealth Avenue corridor can be found by connecting parallel streets, an initiative which ties in well with the proposed Allston Turnpike Interchange Project. I have commented on these issues at length.

Convenient bicycle travel for the student population in the Commonwealth Avenue corridor isn’t practical on Commonwealth Avenue itself. Why not? Because it has a median with few crossings. Any separated bikeway, or the adjacent sidewalk, will attract wrong-way traffic. To follow the right-way rule, a bicyclist will have to start a trip traveling opposite the desired direction, cross the Avenue, travel past the destination, cross again and then double back.

Commonwealth Avenue cross section. This was published in two halves in the Boston Globe.

Commonwealth Avenue cross section. This was published in two halves in the Boston Globe.

The term “protected bike lane” is propaganda. Most car-bicycle crashes occur due to crossing and turning movements at intersections. Hiding bicyclists behind parked vehicles until shortly before each intersection is no solution to this problem.

In addition, the proposed 6.5 foot wide bikeways, between curbs, are too narrow for one bicyclist safely to overtake another. All will be limited to the speed of the slowest. Turning motorists will have to stop and wait for through-traveling bicyclists in the separate bikeways, seriously increasing congestion. Plowing the narrow bikeways is impractical, and in their gutter location at street level as shown in the cross-section drawing, they will catch and refreeze meltwater from snow plowed from the travel lanes.

Shoehorning third-rate bikeways into a major road reconstruction project is a politically convenient but unimaginative and impractical way to go. A bolder, broader initiative is needed, and in the case of the Commonwealth Avenue corridor, real solutions are not hard to envision.

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A letter to a neighbor

March 8, 2015

To my neighbor at [address]:

Aside from the usual traffic interactions, I had two unusual ones this morning while riding my bicycle to and from church.

On my way home, I passed some neighbors who were walking their dogs on Villa Street. One of the dogs tugged at the leash and barked at me. I heard the man holding the leash say: “Sit, sit! I don’t know what’s wrong with you! It’s just a man on a bike!” I rode a few hundred feet and then decided to turn around and ask “can I help your dog understand bicycles?” I stopped 100 feet short of them so as not to agitate the dog again. The man agreed, they walked up to me and the dog sniffed around at me as a friendly dog will. The man said “he’s friendly: he just gets weird around bikes.” Well, maybe now the dog will know better. That friendly interaction made my day.

The other incident was on Bedford Street on my way to church. The traffic signal changed to green and I had just pulled across South Street when a driver behind me leaned on the horn, over and over. It’s clear that this driver wanted to pass me. I lowered my left hand in a slow signal. The honking continued.

TThere were parked cars on the right and approaching cars on the left, on a street narrowed by snow. I wasn’t going to risk my life by sneaking off to the right into the range of a car door which might open and inviting a pass which would barely clear my elbow. But, after a few seconds, the approaching cars had passed behind us and the street widened out. That’s where the driver – you — passed me, just as you would have been able to without the horn honking. Was it worth the aggravation?

I don’t think that I own the road. I extend every reasonable courtesy to other people who are using the road. But you don’t own the road either. The rules are the same for motorists and bicyclists: first come, first served, and pass only when safe. That’s the traffic law. There’s no special right for you because your car can travel at the speed limit, while a bicycle, backhoe with a snowplow, or semi-trailer truck going uphill can’t. I don’t have to pull off the road, stop and wait to let you by, when you will have a safe opportunity to pass in a few seconds. Certainly, if I am causing an unreasonable delay, I’ll pull aside and stop. But if you think that the delay I caused you – much shorter than the delay at the traffic signal or any number of other delays on our narrow, snowbound streets, was unreasonable, please think again.

Sir, your horn honking was harassment, it spoiled my mood for the church service and until I encountered the dog walkers, and what makes it more irksome is that as you passed, I immediately identified you as my long-time, close neighbor. I don’t know that I’ve ever met you, but you have had the same, short, easily recognized license plate number ever since I moved into this neighborhood over 25 years ago. I have walked, driven and bicycled past your home thousands of times. On my way home I saw the same car, same license plate, parked right where I expected, at [address].

So, sir, I am asking for an apology from you unless you have some very convincing reason, on the order of “I was on the way to the hospital to give birth, and the baby was about to come out!” But that didn’t look to be so. Please reserve the car horn for real emergencies, to avoid “cry wolf” situations and bad feelings. I really don’t want to have to think “this neighbor of mine is a jerk!” every time I pass your home, so please respond appropriately, and all will be forgiven.

Very truly yours, your neighbor,

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Boston Police bicycle training

Are the Boston Police getting the training they need to be safe and effective on bicycles?

I don’t think so. I don’t know how they train, but I have seen how they perform.

In another post, I described how a participant in a protest march pushed a Boston bicycle patrol officer over — intentionally or not, it isn’t clear. Evidently, the officers’ task was to prevent the march from spilling out from the street onto the sidewalks. The officer who fell — and others on both sides of the phalanx of marchers — were astride their bicycles, as shown also in the photo below. For crowd control, officers should stand with the bicycles between them and the crowd.

Officers standing over bicycles at December 13, 2014 protest march. Boston Globe photo by John Tlumacki.

Officers standing over bicycles at December 13, 2014 protest march

Some of the officers in the photos have their feet up on the curb. They are sitting on the saddle, not compatible with the best astride-the-bike stopping and restarting technique. The video below shows officers’ awkwardness in basic mounting and dismounting.

Correct starting and stopping techniques are described on this Web page. The video below shows the astride-the-bike technique.

A police officer from another city describes the techniques taught in International Police Mountain Bike Association training courses:

Disengage pedal from your retention. Swing the drivetrain (right) leg across, stand on the left pedal with the left foot, the right foot tucks behind the left at the ankle. You can now coast for a ways or step forward off the bike onto the ground (right foot first) and away from the bike – that is a dismount and exit. It is simple and works whether going fast or slower, in tactical situations, suspect contacts, or normal stops. With practice the rider can use their right foot to lower and engage a rear-mounted kickstand, mounted on the rear stays instead of behind the bottom bracket. With the kickstand down, the rider can walk away from the bike leaving it upright on the stand.

Looking at the videos again it seems they had an assortment of pedal retention, but it appears a number have none at all. That makes mounts, dismounts, and starts even easier to learn and perform, but more dangerous over obstacles where pedal retention helps hold the foot securely on the pedal.

For a simple stop, swing across to the left side, stand on the left pedal and put the right foot onto the ground either in front or behind the pedal – both work. The balance needs to be centered and care used on the front brake. An endo is still possible in that position. Officers are not encouraged to stop with the bike between their legs when dealing with a suspect or an unknown person. You can’t fight or react with a bike between your legs. It is obviously seen as okay at a stop sign, traffic signal, etc. They are encouraged to move forward off the saddle, having downshifted, and put their bike into a power pedal position. We also teach a power slide to dismount. EMS mostly uses road style techniques due to the balance they have with heavily loaded bags.

For starts we  teach the technique you call the cowboy – also the road start where they swing over and straddle the bike, put bike into the power pedal and pedal away, and a modified cycle-cross. Push the bike forward, jump across the saddle and land on the saddle, perhaps not centered, power the first pedal that reaches your feet. I don’t know that we address the issue of starting on an incline unless a student brings it up. We require use of some sort of pedal retention, so that becomes in an issue early in class. Most use toe clips with straps or strapless toe clips.

There’s also the image below — found during an unrelated Google Maps expedition. Boston Police wait at a traffic light to cross into Franklin Park to go on patrol. The officers all have a foot on the low pedal, ready only for a shuffle start, not a power pedal start. An orderly and lawful stop behind the stop line and a brisk restart would have been more appropriate, more polite for the pedestrian and motorist in the photo, and a better example to citizens who ride bicycles.

Police wait in disarray at Elm Hill Avenue and Seaver Street in the Roxbury section of Boston

Police wait in disarray at Elm Hill Avenue and Seaver Street in the Roxbury section of Boston

This image in Google Maps

Here’s a Google Maps image from a few seconds earlier, showing that the pedestrian had to walk behind the group of police officers who had stopped in the crosswalk.

The pedestrian had to make her way around the police to cross in the crosswalk

The pedestrian had to make her way around the police to cross in the crosswalk.

This image in Google Maps.

Boston police also ride opposite the flow of traffic, for no evident reason, and violate the traffic law in other ways. The photo is from Congress Street, downtown Boston, November 18, 2009, 12:30 PM. I observed the officer riding a whole block opposite traffic.

Boston police officer riding opposite traffic in the door zone

Boston police officer riding opposite traffic in the door zone

There’s another example of a Boston police officer riding opposite traffic, with additional comments, on another page.

At the very least, what I have observed does not conform to best bicycling practice, or to good police practice. And it matters, for the sake of the officers’ safety and the effectiveness of their mission.

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Narrow-Gauge Rail Trail, Bedford: safer to walk across the street?

The photo below, from summaer 2011, is a cylindrical panorama: Hillside Road, at the right, is at a right angle to Route 4-225 (the Great Road) at the left. The Narrow Gauge Rail Trail runs from front to rear in the photo, alongside Hillside Road and (at the rear) Bacon Street. (Google map of the location) You can click on the photo to enlarge it and get a better view.

Route 4-225 and Spring Street, Bedford, Massachusetts, USA

Panorama — Trail at Route 4-225 and Hillside Road, Bedford, Massachusetts, USA

There are heavy, steel gates across the trail at either side of Route 4-225, so bicyclists must thread through narrow openings. Someone has posted a sign, “Walk bikes in crosswalk for your own safety.”

Is walking really safer? My take is that it depends on who you are. If your bike-handling skills are lacking, it probably is safer, because you will be able to pay more attention to the traffic in the cross street.

If your bike-handling skills are good, that is, if you can slow nearly to a stop without losing your balance, look around for traffic and accelerate smartly, riding will be safer, because you get across the street sooner, and you are more maneuverable riding the bicycle than walking next to it.

In either case, the bicycle will be broadside to the traffic as you cross in the crosswalk, a much wider target for an errant motorist to avoid than a pedestrian without a bicycle.

My own preference is to avoid using the path here entirely, entering the intersection as a bicycle driver on the street, so I do not have to look behind myself for turning traffic. Car-bike collisions are common when motorists turn in front of bicyclists on paths which run alongside roads.

As to those steel gates: well, they’ll slow down most people, only causing a crash occasionally if someone fails to see a gate, or collides with a post threading through a narrow gap. There are better ways to slow bicycle traffic where a path approaches a street: for example, see the third photo from the top on this page.

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Boston Police tactics at the December 13, 2014 protest

I express my appreciation to the Boston Police for crowd control without excessive force at December 13’s protest march. Anything less would have been very unfortunate, particularly in connection with a peaceful march protesting use of force and police immunity from prosecution.

But there’s a different issue with police conduct at the march. A Boston Globe news story  includes the report that “[t]here was also a brief altercation on Tremont Street near Boston Common, when a protester was pushed into an officer on a bicycle. The protester appeared to become angry and kicked the bicycle’s rear tire, causing the officer to fall. The officer rose and tackled the protester to the ground, but did not detain or arrest him.” The caption to the photo below, which ran with the story, reads “A Boston officer grabbed a protester who had knocked him off his bike on Tremont Street; the officer later let him go without charges.”

Police and protester scuffle on Tremont Street, December 14, 2014

Police and protester scuffle on Tremont Street, December 14, 2014 (John Tlumacki photo for the Boston Globe)

Where this happened: (Google Street View)

Good police practice? If you’re around suspects or people you don’t know/trust, you don’t straddle the bike unless you are riding it. The officer in the back in the photo is also astride his bicycle.

Here’s another photo taken a few minutes earlier:

Boston police bicycle patrol lines up astride bicycle at start of protext march.

Boston police bicycle patrol lines up astride bicycles at start of protest march (John Tlumacki photo for the Boston Globe).

This photo was taken when the march had just started from Boston Common (Google Street View). The police officers were straddling their bicycles, at risk of being pushed over, as one in fact was.

The officers should have been walking alongside the bicycles, keeping the bicycles between themselves and the protestors and using the bicycles as a shield. These officers need to get to an IPMBA Bicycle Rapid Response class.

IPMBA is the International Police Mountain Bike Association, which trains police, paramedics and security guards in effective use of the bicycle.

The IPMBA blog offers an example of crowd control in Seattle. Quoting from the blog post:  “On Monday night, when violence broke out during what had been peaceful protests, police officers, behind a wall of bikes, pushed protesters back in what some say is becoming the cutting edge of crowd control.” There is also a video showing these tactics. The Seatlle protest was not peaceful, and the police response wasn’t pretty either, but on the other hand, it’s quite clear that the Seattle police tactics prevented injuries and property damage.

Police in some Massachusetts communities are trained by an outfit called COBWEB — Cops on Bikes with Education for Bicyclists — which has a very meager online presence. An officer from another city says this about training of Boston police:

“COBWEB has no connection to IPMBA at all. Boston EMS IS IPMBA trained and their Deputy Director Neal Blackington is also past Vice President of IPMBA and a really good guy. I’m not sure if BPD even uses COBWEB, they probably do their own thing. But I’m not sure. I know that Cambridge was using IPMBA years ago, but I have no idea now.”

A deeper examination of bicycling and police practice would have led the Globe to cite poor police tactics as contributing to the incident on Tremont Street, as I have done. Further examination might tell us more about training of Boston police and about COBWEB.

(I have used Boston Globe photos and text in this article as commentary, under fair-use provisions of copyright law.)

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