Drainage Failure on Causeway Street

I took the photo below around 10 PM on January 5, 2017 looking west on Causeway Street in Boston from in front of North Station. Here’s a link to the location in Google maps. The default view in Google Maps is from before installation of the bikeway, as I write this.

Ice patch , Causeway Street bikeway, January, 201

Ice patch , Causeway Street bikeway, January 5, 2017

Streets are crowned (higher in the middle) so water drains off. In winter, the center of the street clears once plowed, and stays free of ice even when plowed snow is piled in the gutters.

The bikeway in the middle of Causeway Street, not opened yet, has two storm drains visible in the photo, just behind the ice patch which extends most of the of the way across. The drains are not at the lowest point. Only heavy and continuous salting could keep ice from forming at this low point when water drains off the concrete barriers and freezes. The barriers slope toward the bikeway.

The  barrier on the left also impedes access to Lancaster Street (where the black car is turning out of the photo), the most convenient way to get to Merrimack Street and head toward downtown Boston from North Station on a bicycle. The concrete medians have mountable curbs opposite Lancaster Street so emergency vehicles can cross over the bikeway, but turning across one of these barriers on a bicycle could be dicey when icy, and require dismounting to get over a pile of snow.

The problem here reflects construction error, in that the lowest spot along the bikeway does not match the location of the storm drains — but there are some larger lessons to draw from this failure.

Much in street design rests on long experience and tradition. Civil engineers know how to crown and drain a street so well that design failure is rare. Design elements are robust enough that minor construction errors — say, a drain which is not precisely at the bottom of a dip — are unimportant. A puddle or ice patch may form but it is in the gutter where it doesn’t pose a serious problem. As already mentioned, the street will still drain if snow is piled at its edges. When snow is melting, meltwater usually will undercut it and find the storm drains.

But the bikeway here is much narrower and there is is much less room for error. Traditional techniques and equipment fail to accomplish what is needed. Placement of drains is much more critical. Paving machines are not designed to produce the smaller-radius crowning which would carry water to the edges. Even with crowning, the water would intrude into traveled width of the bikeway.

A well-designed shared-use path has a sideslope and will drain onto a grassy area on one side. This practice is well-known, though not always applied in practice. A sidewalk or Copenhagen-style raised bikeway adjacent to a street, if designed to drain properly, also has a sideslope, so water drains down the curb into the street. Most American urban sidewalks apply this design principle, as well they must. If they drained away from the street, they would flood the buildings alongside. The building owners and tenants would be unhappy, to say the least. But, if part of a roadway’s width is reconfigured into a sidewalk or bikeway, all the drains have to be moved, and that is expensive.

Most American on-street barrier-separated bikeways, even those at the edge of the street, were installed as retrofits, afterthoughts, and do not drain properly. I have an example of another bikeway with this problem online. A couple of bikeway projects in Cambridge, as much as I may have other problems with them, were installed in connection with street reconstruction which replaced all the drains. This worked for the bikeway on the south side of Concord Avenue — though not for the one on the north side, where many obstacles prevent proper drainage and snow removal. Blogger David Chase has posted about this.

A median bikeway between barriers, like the one here, could possibly drain if the surface had been left at its original height, or raised, with a sideslope and frequent cut-throughs in the barriers. That approach would avoid the need for additional drains. Snow would still pose a problem. The conventional waffle-iron drains here, without a sideslope, fail. Bicyclists will be riding through a puddle during and after every rain; through sand after snow has melted; and through ice after a freeze.

The problem here may be considered as one of engineering but also of politics, reflecting a rush to install special infrastructure for bicycling when the expertise and political will to apply best practices are lacking. This problem is especially acute in the USA but it also occurs in countries which are usually singled out as exemplary. As a general rule, it might be stated that planning and design of bicycling infrastructure reflect funding limitations, political pressure to “do something,” and planning, engineering and construction work which are behind the curve on best practices.

All of these issues arise with the Connect Historic Boston project, of which the bikeway on Causeway Street is one segment, and I have addressed the project more generally in previous posts on this blog.


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More comments on the I-90 Allston Interchange project.

Some important improvements: parkland along the Charles, an overpass over Soldiers Field Road and a  better Franklin Street overpass, but also same old, same old, People’s Pillar to Post instead of a People’s Pike. My comments following the December 8 public meeting are online. More extensive earlier comments are in another post on this blog.

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Vision realistic

From an e-mail about the 2016 Progress Report of the Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition:

Based on our assessment, the City has made progress, but the City will need to dedicate more capital resources and funding for staff in order to eliminate traffic fatalities in Boston by 2030.

It  may be an uncomfortable to hear, but the expression “eliminate traffic fatalities” makes me uncomfortable. Why? because it is fantasy. The number of traffic fatalities can be reduced, but they cannot be eliminated. As long as people are in motion, there will be crashes, and some of them will be fatal.

If crash reports are collected over a small enough area and for a short enough time, though, the count may be zero. It is possible to make claims of zero fatalities even now. As an example, there are only one to five traffic fatalities per year (see data) in Waltham, the city of 62,000 residents where I live. With such low numbers of fatalities, occurring at random times, the statistical variation is very large, and in any given month it is more likely than not that there will be no fatalities. If a campaign to reduce fatalities succeeds, then for some entire year, there will be none and a claim may be made that they have been eliminated. But even for the safest modes of transportation — train, bus, commercial air travel — there are fatalities. The task of reducing fatalities is never finished, and from time to time it faces new challenges, as demographics, behavior, infrastructure and equipment change. One example is distracted driving due to use of cell phones, which is being held to account of a slight increase in fatalities in recent years.  Vehicles with robotic crash avoidance, on the other hand may result in a major decrease, but will never completely eliminate fatalities.

The bicycle industry advocacy organization has already used the tactic of collecting data over a small area and short time to claim results which woudl not stand with a wider sampling — example here.

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An Alternative to the Inman Square Peanut Proposal

I have posted comments about the proposal for a “peanut roundabout” in Inman Square, and other proposals for the Square, on the Cambridge Civic Forum blog. I think that the City’s “bend Cambridge Street” proposal — with a minor modification to make bicycling safer and more convenient — is the best one which has any political traction. The image below is of the “bend Cambridge Street” proposal. My modification would have bicyclists continue straight ahead (into the blue area in the drawing) where Cambridge Street bends left, so as to have to wait for only one traffic signal, facing straight into the intersection.

The "bend Cambridge Street" proposal"

The “bend Cambridge Street” proposal”


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Pushback on Cambridge bicycle plans

Cambridge Civic Journal blogger Robert Winters have posted a thoroughgoing critique of a proposal for a great expansion in the number and mileage of on-street, barrier-separated bikeways.

City Councillor Craig Kelley also has raised questions on his blog (and sent out the same message to an e-mail subscription list).


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My comments on the North Washington Street Bridge project

The comments below were addressed to Patricia Leavenworth, Chief Engineer at MassDOT.

ATTN: Bridge Project Management, Project File No. 604173

Dear Ms. Leavenworth:

I attended the 75% design about the North Washington Street bridge project on October 19, and I am commenting on that project.

The quote below is on page 13 of the minutes of the December 28, 2015 25% Design public hearing,

PJ (Para Jayasinghe): That is a very important point- the future impact of traffic. The best way for me to address that type of concern, because it has been raised, is to tell you that today the bridge surface has two lanes coming in and two lanes out. The city has made a modal choice to allocate a certain amount of space to cyclists. That vision or objective is germane to the city to shift modality. That’s what we’re hoping for. If it turns out that no one is cycling, we could add an additional lane. Here’s what we have done- the bottom of the bridge is structured so that the top part of the bridge can be reprogrammed without much pain.

Mr. Jayasinghe, the City of Boston engineer on the project, reiterated this comment at the October 19 meeting, while indicating that the design now will have 5 travel lanes including a dedicated bus lane southbound.

The proposed bridge pier detail on page 24 of the presentation at the April 16 meeting shows that the bikeway is directly over the outer bridge piers and of the same construction as the roadway — able to carry the weight of heavy vehicles. Only the sidewalk is cantilevered out beyond the piers. That has not changed, and so the possibility of increasing the number of travel lanes by eliminating the bikeways definitely exists. The barrier, plantings and decorative structures would have to be removed to accomplish this.

There was much discussion at the meeting of the need for more travel lanes on the bridge. Though I am a bicycling advocate, I understand that concern, and I have others:

  • The proposed bikeways, 7 feet wide with a curb on one side and a fence on the other, are inadequate in the light of the wide range of bicyclists’ speeds, and will become more so due to the increasing popularity of electrically-assisted bicycles — with top speeds under electrical power up to 20 MPH, or 28 mph for the fastest class, not to speak of gasoline-powered mopeds. Overtaking is not safe in this confined space. Bicyclists must ride with the wheel track two feet from a curb and three feet from a fence to be safe. Then handlebars two feet long are touching each other.
  • To get to the overlooks on the bridge for sightseeing, bicyclists in a curbed bikeway will have to stop and lift their bicycles over the curb, blocking the way for other bicyclists, and will be tempted to stay on the sidewalk when continuing their trips, rather than jumping down over the curb.
  • These considerations suggest that the bikeway should be at the same level as the sidewalk, in which case the usable width also would be greater due to the absence of a curb. On the Harvard Bridge, much narrower sidewalks accommodate both bicycles and pedestrians, if awkwardly.
  • The fence adjacent to the bikeway shown on page 36 of the April 16 presentation does not conform to AASHTO Guidelines, as it does not have a handlebar-height rub strip. The vertical posts are likely to catch bicyclists’ handlebars and topple the bicyclists across the bikeway.
  • Mopeds and fast electrically-assisted bicycles do not belong on the bikeway adjacent to the sidewalk, but will use it if traffic backs up in the travel lanes and there are no bike lanes. Designated bike lanes on the roadway would seem possible, as there are already shoulder stripes, and would accommodate the faster bicycle, electric bicycle and moped traffic. These could be in addition to bikeways in sidewalk space, or if the roadway is widened to 6 lanes, then bike lanes become even more important, though some bicyclists will still travel in sidewalk space as they do on the Harvard Bridge.
  • The connection to the streets at City Square, Charlestown invites “right hook” collisions by forcing motorists to turn right from the left side of bicyclists. I don’t see any safe way for bicyclists to continue straight or to turn left without a separate signal phase, which will increase delay for everyone. Tourists and other casual bicyclists may put up with the delay which will be necessary if there is a separate traffic signal phase, but people who want to make time are better served by travel on the roadway. As there is an underpass under the north end of the bridge, I’d hope that the northbound bikeway had a direct connection to it to get to/from Paul Revere Park, and an option to merge into the flow of street traffic to continue on North Rutherford Avenue.
  • There is no direct connection between sidewalks and bikeways on the bridge and the bicycle-pedestrian underpass under the south end of the bridge: cyclists and pedestrians must travel on Causeway Street to make this connection. I recall discussion of an elevator but I’d like to see a route suitable for casual cyclists.
  • Merging distance for bicyclists turning left from the bridge onto Causeway Street in the left-turn lane is short, with two lanes to cross. The proposed two-stage turn queuing box involves waiting for an additional signal phase. Many bicyclists and moped riders will not have the patience for this. This is another reason for bike lanes on the bridge, which would allow merging earlier.
  • The bike lanes on North Washington Street are in the door zone of parked cars. Shared-lane markings and designation of alternate routes on parallel streets would be preferable, lacking the option to remove parking.
  • I might also ask why Endicott Street couldn’t be brought out to North Washington Street farther from Keany Square, as at present, or even farther back — to avoid the need for a separate traffic-signal phase to avoid conflicts with right-turning traffic from North Washington Street.
  • This is a transportation project but elements of it are being designed as an art project. I agree with presenters at the October meeting that the Zakim-Bunker Hill bridge is iconic, but to me the proposed decorative structures above the deck of the new North Washington Street Bridge do not echo it and are just silly: they look like a dinosaur skeleton. The expense of these totally nonfunctional decorative structures might better, in my opinion, go into features which improve the functionality of the bridge, particularly the connections I’ve proposed to Paul Revere Park and the underpass at the south end. Roofs over the proposed overlooks so tourists can enjoy them in wet weather would be functional as well as decorative.
  • I was assured at the October 19 meeting that plans are underway to construct a bicycle and pedestrian path crossing the Charles River on one side of the bridge at North Station, as well as an overpass over the tracks. I applaud these proposals, both of which hold promise to reduce demand for bicycle and pedestrian travel across the North Washington street Bridge, and make many trips shorter.

I list affiliations below [in my letter to Ms. Leavenworth], but the opinions I express are my own.

I thank you for your attention.

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A response to Steve Miller

The paragraph below is a response to Steve Miller’s call for “better bike lanes” — separated on-street bikeways — on his blog. I also published the paragraph as a comment on his blog post.

The safest way to ride on today’s streets requires skill, assertiveness, an understanding of how the rules of the road work to reduce danger, independence of thought to apply those rules even when bike-lane stripes suggest otherwise, and a modicum of patience. This has worked for me for over 40 years. Steve, by caricaturing people who ride in this way as “risk-taking street warriors,” you make teaching this, already a hard sell, a harder one. I agree that bike lanes in the door/walk/out/drive out zone, don’t improve safety but I have said this since they first went in, 25 years ago. To promote them, then turn around and regard them as having been only a stepping stone to bigger and better things is a bit of a devil’s bargain. As to the new crop of separated bikeways, better? I’d say, different. I’ve had nice things to say about the one on 9th Avenue in Manhattan and I had what I consider a better plan for the one on Concord Avenue in Cambridge, but I’m unimpressed with what I see in the Boston area, due to issues with safety, capacity and convenience.

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Forcing the right hook at Mass and Beacon

The installation of a separated bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, leading from the Harvard Bridge to Beacon Street, forces motorists to turn right from the left lane — and establishes as the norm, bicyclists’ overtaking on the right, just as in the crash which killed 38 year-old medical researcher Anita Kurmann at that location and which led to the installation.

The fundamental assumptions behind this installation are, clearly enough:

  • that the most important car-bicycle collision type on Boston streets is the rear-end collision, and so we should take every opportunity to avoid riding in line with motor traffic (not true — overtaking collisions are rare; right hooks are common, and deadly);
  • that we bicyclists can do nothing to protect themselves from being struck by motor vehicles: that is entirely up to the motorists — vulnerability equals defenselessness, and we bicyclists are brainless and unteachable, so don’t even bother trying;
  • that the same motorists we fear will run us down if we are riding where visible, directly in line with them, will have an easier time avoiding us if we are overtaking in their right rear blindspot.

It is, however legal, possible and safer to avoid the separated bikeway and the door-zone bike lane which follows it: please see this: https://vimeo.com/141463263

I’m not the only cyclist concerned about this installation. Dave Stevens said, in an e-mail:

I live about 1/2 block away from the Beacon Street/Mass Ave intersection and have biked through it hundreds of times. While I appreciate the effort, the intersection feels much less safe than before the separated bike lane was installed. In the past, non-18 wheeled vehicles turning right would get all the way to the right, allowing bicyclists the opportunity to merge into the middle lane and pass the vehicles on the left. This is not possible anymore because of the bike lane. Cars turning right also have less visibility of the bikers because of the separation and often accidentally cut off bikers. I’ve also seen many bikers cut off right turning vehicles because they have momentum coming down the slight decline of the bridge.

The day the flowers were put on the road to create the separation, I stood at the intersection and observed the traffic flow for a few cycles of the lights. At least once during each cycle of the lights an accident almost occurred between cars turning right and bikers going straight.

In this context, I like to quote the great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman:

“Never treat anyone in the public realm like and idiot. If you treat him like an idiot, he will act like an idiot.”

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Gilooly’s presentation

Deputy Commissioner James Gilooly’s presentation about the planned separate bikeways on Commonwealth Avenue is online at the URL below. I am preparing a version synchronized to his talk about it at the 2015 Moving Together conference and will announce that here when I’m done.

Gilooly, J. (2015, 11 01). Commonwealth Avenue Phase 2A… Retrieved June 25, 2016, from http://www.movingtogetherma.org/Pdfs/2015presentations/Gillooly-Issued_Move%20Together%20-%20Session%202D.pdf

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The 2015-2016 crop of bills in the Massachusetts legislature

My opinion on these proposals, in general: all well-intentioned, but the the law of unintended consequences comes into play with some.

S. 1117, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, by striking out the words “16 years of age or younger”, would require bicyclists of all ages to wear a helmet, and would encourage bicyclists to wear fluorescent clothing above the waist. The helmet requirement as it presently exists for children and youth is not enforced, and the bill establishes no requirement, only encouragement, of fluorescent clothing. I favor, and wear, a helmet and wear bright-colored clothing, but this legislation would have little effect other than to give defense lawyers more to hold against bicyclists. There is a particular problem with bike-share programs, with which it is inconvenient to provide helmets. Though the next clause in Chapter 85, Section 11B prohibits violation of the helmet rule from being used as evidence in a civil case, public opinion can sway juries. What actually increases helmet use is promotional campaigns.

S. 1818, sponsored by Sen. Creem of Newton, would require a taillamp on a bicycle at night, and eliminate the requirement for a rear reflector. We still sometimes call the small lights on a motor vehicle “parking lights,” but they are rarely used for parking, because the vehicle is equipped with retoreflectors. Retroreflectors work somewhat less reliably on a vehicle in motion, but still, if a taillamp is required, it should be in addition to a rear reflector, as a taillamp can fail without the cyclist’s noticing it. The bill would make it legal for a cyclist to use a helmet-mounted headlight, a reasonable provision, and increase the fine for bicyclists’ offenses from 20 to 50 dollars — usually of little importance, as enforcement is very rare, but a real hardship for people are cited and who ride bicycles because they are impoverished.

H 3706, sponsored by Rep. Howitt of Swansea, would prohibit bicyclists from wearing headphones — and evidence for headphone use could be introduced in a civil case, so the bicyclist is more likely to be held at fault even in a crash which was caused by someone else. Also, there are very important uses for headphones on bicycles, for example in teaching, in police work and in team management in races, and most headphone laws allow a headphone at one ear. This one makes no exception whatever. I have written detailed comments on headphones and headphone laws — please have a look.

H 3081, sponsored by Rep. Sannicandro of Ashland, a so-called “Idaho stop” bill, would make it legal for bicyclists and motorcyclists to cross intersections on a red light if the light is “inoperative due to the size of the bicycle or motorcycle.” The problem is that many traffic signals are controlled by vehicle sensors which do not respond to bicycles and motorcycles. Problems with the Idaho stop law are that it can be unsafe to cross without a functioning signal, that public opinion of bicyclists is lowered, incentive to implement technological solutions is reduced, and bicyclists are encouraged to run red lights whether operational or not. Additionally, this proposal makes no mention of motorized bicycles and motorized scooters, categories intermediate between bicycles and motorcycles. Technological solutions have been known for decades,  become better every year, and any legislation addressing the actuator issue should include provisions to require better actuators. I have already written about the Idaho stop law, see this, and about traffic-signal actuators, see this.

S. 1809, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, is titled “An Act providing for the safety of bicyclists traveling on bicycle paths”, by requiring motorists to yield to bicyclists crossing in crosswalks. That is appropriate, though motorists usually cannot see bicyclists in crosswalks in time to yield to them if the bicyclists are traveling at typical speeds — the bicyclists must slow or stop. So, this law legitimizes stop signs at crosswalks, and resolves an existing confusion where they are installed. A second provision is intended to improve the safety of pedestrians by requiring bicyclists to yield to them. If a bicyclist collides with a pedestrian, either or both may be injured, so this does tend to protecting bicyclists. It is unclear whether the bicyclists who are required to yield are in the crosswalk or on the street — probably, then, both. I have hosted an earlier discussion of crosswalk laws as they apply to bicyclists on this blog.

H 3072, sponsored by Rep. Rogers of Cambridge, would prohibit standing or parking in a designated bike lane, sidepath, or shared-use lane. This would be unenforceable, as double parking is endemic and truckers often have no other option when loading and unloading. The discrepancy between law and common practice is so large that I was moved to write a satirical article about it. Prohibition of stopping in a bike lane would encourage stopping outside the bike lane, so bicyclists run the gauntlet between unloading vehicles and parked cars, as described here. Parking or standing in a barrier-separated on-street bikeway is difficult to prevent, because construction of one usually is accomplished by narrowing the roadway. Prohibition of parking or standing in a shared-use lane means, in effect, prohibition on all streets, as bicyclists are permitted to use all travel lanes — though probably meant to apply only to lanes with shared-lane markings. Whether there is another lane in which bicyclists — and motorists — can overtake is not accounted for in this bill. Bicyclists’ learning how to negotiate to change lanes is a real solution, but education is not mentioned.

S. 1808, sponsored by Sen. Brownsberger of Watertown, is the same as H 3072, already mentioned.

S. 1850, sponsored by Sen. Lewis of Winchester, would establish a “share the road’ license plate, similar to other specialty license plates in Massachusetts and to “Share the Road” plates in other states. This is a good publicity measure. Funds raised through this measure would be allocated to a nonprofit organization or to municipalities for “Complete Streets” efforts. Questions might arise as to where the funds go, but that issue may be addressed elsewhere.

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