Riding Lexington Street, Waltham, July 4, 2015

It should be noted that bike lanes have been installed on much of the stretch of Lexington Street shown in the videos. Videos showing the new conditions are in preparation.

Two videos, for now:

A demonstration of lane control in a slow, uphill bicycle ride on a suburban speedway, with light, fast traffic. How controlling the right-hand lane on a multi-lane street makes for safe overtaking by motorists. How traffic law permits lane control. How most though not all motorists respect bicyclists’ rights but even the others overtake safely when the bicyclist controls his or her space.

Another video of a downhill ride on the same street, later the same day, demonstrating lane control technique and with one incident of harassment by a motorist.

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My e-mail in support of West Station

Alexander Strysky is the reviewer for the Massashusetts Environmental Protection Agency reviewer for the I-90 Interchange project in Allston. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has backed off from plans for prompt construction of  anew West Station on the Framingham-Worcester commuter-rail line, which is an essential element of the project. My comment e-mail to Mr. Strysky is below.


To: alexander.strysky@state.ma.us

Subject: I-90 Interchange project, EEA # 15278

Date: January 31, 2018

Dear Mr. Strysky:

I am writing in support of prompt construction of West Station as part of the I-90 Interchange project. West Station offers not only an alternative to increased traffic clogging the Turnpike and surface streets, but also north-south bus, pedestrian and bicycling connections, all the more important with the massive development project on the former Beacon Yards, and the option for a transit connection to Cambridge on the Grand Junction rail line.

I am pleased that Harvard University has stepped up and increased its commitment to this effort, but all other necessary measures must be undertaken so the prompt construction of West Station occurs.

Very truly yours,

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My letter to the Globe about the Kurmann fatality

I’ve read the Op-Ed piece by Andrew Fischer and Alan Wright, “Killing Bicyclists should be a crime” in the Sunday, January 28 Globe.

I agree with Wright and Fischer that a charge of involuntary manslaughter against the trucker in the Anita Kurmann fatality is warranted, as he precipitously and illegally turned right from the second lane; also, that the police report on the crash is deeply flawed in holding Kurmann at fault. She violated no law. She did, however, ride into what a well-informed cyclist would have recognized as a potential deathtrap.

Any good which may be drawn from the Kurmann tragedy is in preventing others in the future. And, as cyclists in many recent tragic collisions, including Kurmann, have had academic connections, colleges and universities must understand that instruction in safe cycling would pay for itself, even if considered only in terms of avoided loss.

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Bicyclists always had the right, the Globe got it wrong

The Starts and Stops column in the Metro section of the Sunday, June 10 2012 Boston Globe, and in Boston.com, included a discussion of whether bicyclists are required to ride in bike lanes, under the subheading “Bikers get the right” and concluding that there is no such requirement in Massachusetts.

The article quotes Boston Bikes Interim Director Kris Carter:

Cyclists are not required to stay within marked bike lanes, Carter said via e-mail.

“This is for a variety of reasons – opening car doors, potholes, and utility covers, double parked vehicles – [that] sometimes prohibit safe travel in the bicycle lane,” he said.

Carter pointed me to the ­Bicyclist Safety Law enacted four years ago.

Among the law’s many provisions, it established fines for people who open car or truck doors into the path of bicyclists or other traffic (known as “dooring”) and made motorists liable for hitting bikes riding to their right.

The headline “Bikers get the right” is inaccurate. Both Carter and Globe columnist Eric Moskowitz convey the impression that the right to ride outside bike lanes is a novelty. In 1973, the late State Senator William Saltonstall (R, North Shore) introduced the previous major revision to Massachusetts bicycle laws. It included no requirement to stay in a bike lane, and no special “keep far right” provision, as exists in many other states. There was none before that either, and if you want to go into boring detail about that, go here.

Carter and the Globe convey a mixed message: bike lanes must be good, after all, they’re being striped all around the city. On the other hand, most of these are full of hazards — the opening car door, the right hook, the left cross, the pedestrian running out from between parked or stopped vehicles.

True, there’s generally somewhat more room for motorists to overtake bicyclists on bike lane streets, but still, whatever the law may say, bike lanes get motorists annoyed with cyclists who don’t stay out of “their” space, and encourage cyclists to ride into the hazards.

I’ve put a video online of a ride I took with a friend eastbound on Commonwealth Avenue, from Kenmore Square to and through the Massachusetts Avenue underpass. (See blog post with the embedded video and a description.). We choose our lane position to optimize safety and to keep moving. Sometimes we are riding in the bike lane. Often, we are not. When the bike lane is next to parked vehicles, we are at the very least riding on its left-side lane line to stay out of the door zone.

Here is a Google satellite view of where we rode. The salmon-colored marker is at the start of the ride. Hereford Street, where we finished, is at the right side of the image. Bostonbiker won’t let me embed the Google map, but you can view it here with all the Google bells and whistles — scrolling, zooming, etc.

During this ride, we also pass through the bike box at Charlesgate East. We reached it on a green light, so it did nothing for us. We merged out of the bike lane before we reached the bike box, and in the next block, we merged the rest of the way across to the left-side bike lane under the underpass.

That brings up another issue: the picture at the top of the article shows the bike box with the caption,

Cyclists stopped for a red light in the bike box on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. They provide the cyclist a safe space to wait ahead of cars at traffic signals. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)

Here’s the photo. This use is covered under the fair use provisions of copyright.

Photo from the Boston Globe Starts and Stops column, June 10, 2012

Photo from the Boston Globe Starts and Stops column, June 10, 2012

It’s clearly a posed photo. The bicyclists are all smiling for the camera. It’s unclear how they got to the positions where they wait, though that has to have been easier in light mid-morning traffic. The ones clser to the camera are headed for a forced merge where the lane they are in becomes a perking lane on the far side of the intersection.

I have a discussion of the bike box online, along with a video showing how other cyclists use it.

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Harvard Bridge connection to the PDW path: proposed improvement

Let’s look at how well bicycle routes around the Boston end of the Harvard Bridge (Massachusetts Avenue bridge over the Charles River) might be improved.

Here is a Google maps overview of the area. There are two special bicycle routes in the area: the Paul Dudley White bicycle path along the river, and the ramp from the path to the downstream sidewalk of the bridge (lower left in the picture). There are bike lanes on the bridge; bicyclists also ride on the sidewalks, and for some trips, have no alternative because the Paul Dudley White bicycle path on the Boston side connects only with the sidewalk on the downstream side of the bridge.

South end of the Harvard Bridge and Charlesgate as of 2017

South end of the Harvard Bridge and Charlesgate as of 2017. Click on the image for a larger view.

Up to the 1980s, there was only a stairway up from the Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path to the sidewalk.

Stairs from the PDW path to the Harvard Bridge, Boston end, 1970s.

Bicyclists could carry their bicycles up and down the stairs, and able-bodied pedestrians could use the stairs too, but there was no wheelchair access. Bicyclists headed toward Boston had to travel opposite traffic until they could cross Massachusetts Avenue. Bicyclists headed for Cambridge could ride on the narrow sidewalk until they reached the Cambridge end of the bridge; similarly, but in the opposite directions, for people headed to the path.

When the Harvard Bridge was reconstructed in the late 1980s, a ramp up to the sidewalk replaced the stairs, providing wheelchair access. Bicyclists could now ride their bicycles to and from the downstream sidewalk, too.

Ramp between the PDW path and Harvard Bridge, Boston

Ramp between the PDW path and Harvard Bridge, Boston.

Crossing from the upstream side of the bridge still required going to the crosswalk at Beacon Street, as I described in an earlier post:

Currently, there is no way to get down to the Paul Dudley White path along the riverfront on the upstream side of the bridge. This leads to bicyclists’ riding down to Beacon Street and then cutting across in the near-side crosswalk so they can use the ramp on the downstream side, resulting in additional delay and risk. There is an example of this in my video. Dr. Peter Furth has pointed out that there is inaccessible parkland just upriver from the Harvard Bridge. Comprehensive improvements would both make the path accessible and provide access to this parkland. Easy access to the path and to Back Street, on the inland side of Storrow Drive, would allow bicyclists to continue their trips on streets which are less troublesome than Massachusetts Avenue.

The route which bicyclists take from the bridge to the path is shown as the red line near the left side of the image below. I frequently see bicyclists taking this route.

Route from Cambridge to the PDW pathy on the Boston side

Route from Cambridge to the PDW path on the Boston side. Click on the image for a larger view.

The only other alternative to the route shown is to ride on the downstream sidewalk, and that can involve delay and hazards at the Cambridge end of the bridge.

There really needs to be a ramp on the upstream side as well — here.

Harvard bridge, seen from the west. Click for a larger view.

Boston end of the Harvard bridge, seen from the west. Click on the image for a larger view.

Notice that the ground slopes up almost to the level of the bridge deck at the right side of the image. Over Storrow Drive and the path, the bridge structure extends well below the bridge deck. These conditions allow for a ramp which connects with the bridge on solid ground, and extends less far over the water than the existing ramp. The proposed ramp is shown at A in the image below.

Making connections. Click for a larger view.

Making connections. Click for a larger view.

Connecting the ramp to the bridge on solid ground offers another benefit. A new path (at B in the image) can connect from the bridge to parkland which is presently inaccessible from Massachusetts Avenue. As I already mentioned, this possibility has been suggested before, by Dr. Peter Furth, in connection with a proposal to improve bicycle access over the Bowker overpass, (shown at the top right in the image). A similar proposal is described on the Web site of the Charlesgate Alliance, probably reflecting input from Dr. Furth. I developed my proposal entirely independently before discovering the materials on the Charlesgate Alliance site, and the routing of the paths is nearly identical.  The Charlesgate Alliance proposal does not include a ramp on the upstream side of the bridge. Instead, that proposal includes a new crosswalk across the bridge. Traffic is either fast here, or backed up from the traffic light at Beacon Street. I regard a crosswalk as a cheap and unsatisfactory alternative. Is the goal to make bicycle and pedestrian travel safer and more convenient, or to create an obstacle course for motorists?

I have shown a T intersection between the ramp and the new path. A roundabout might allow for smoother traffic flow. I have also shown curb cuts so bicyclists could move between the sidewalks and bike lanes.

The Bowker overpass is one of the great travesties of road construction in the Boston area, burying Olmsted parkland under concrete, and in poor repair (note all the patches) but that is a story for another place. Be it as it may, the parkland is accessible from the Bowker Overpass end by a route shown with an orange line at C in the image above. Here are some Google Street View images from points along that route.

Bowker overpass end of connection to parkland

The image above is from the Bowker overpass and shows how a connecting path could pass from Beacon Street under a ramp to Storrow Drive eastbound (right side of image), and then connect with an existing driveway which is used only occasionally by maintenance and emergency vehicles.

Continuation of route to parkland

Continuation of route to parkland

The route continues around the building also seen in the previous photo and under the eastbound lanes of Storrow Drive. Then the route turns and goes uphill toward Massachusetts Avenue.

service road and proposed path to Massachusetts Avenue.

Connection between service road and proposed path to Massachusetts Avenue.

Lawn-mowing equipment passes around the end of the wall in the image above. A few feet of the wall should be removed (or the path elevated) for more clearance from the roadway.

The ramp to the path is an engineering project of the same order as the existing ramp. Making the remainder of the connection would require paving only about 500 feet of path, and signage.

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Sheet of ice draws praise from advocates

Snowmelt drains across "protected" bike lane on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

Snowmelt drains across “protected” bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

The headline of the Boston Globe article with this picture is “Snowbank becomes accidental hero for area cyclists”.

The shiny area in the bikeway is meltwater from said snowbank. When the temperature drops below freezing, the meltwater becomes a sheet of black ice. This problem is unavoidable with a street-level barrier-separated bikeway. I discussed it at length years ago in connection with the 9th Avenue bikeway in Manhattan, a bikeway which, on the other hand, I have some nice things to say about.

Neither Steve Annear, author of the article, nor anyone quoted in it, makes any mention of the black ice problem.

From the article: “’I like this snowbank-protected cycle track,’ Ari Ofsevit, a local cyclist, said on Twitter.” Ari ranges widely, imaginatively and thoughtfully in discussing transportation improvements his blog. I usually agree with him, but not in this case.

The article cites Joe Barr, of the City of Cambridge:

Barr acknowledged that the snow mound separating the bike lane and the road has offered a sense of protection to cyclists, but he said it could also be masking damage to the base of the flexible posts.

“We won’t know that until we get some more melting. But it certainly looks good on the street,” he said.

And Richard Fries, Executive Director of Massbike, commented: “It’s great. It won’t last that much longer, but it does help to hammer into people’s heads [road] patterns and driving habits,” he said. “Because it’s there, it makes the existing bike lane more visible to drivers and more prominent.”

Segregation promotes a sense of entitlement on the part of the majority group –in this case, motorists. How do I explain to horn-honking motorists that I have to ride in “their” travel lane, now narrowed to make room for the barrier, to avoid crashing on a sheet of black ice?

Or for that matter, to progress at my usual 15 miles per hour so I’m not stuck behind a cluster of bicyclists who are traveling at 8 miles per hour?

Or to avoid being right-hooked and crushed under the back wheels by a right-turning truck at Douglass Street?

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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 for 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 would 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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