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 in 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 Chralesgate 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 of 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 where the path and ramp would meet near the bridge. A roundabout might allow for smoother traffic flow. I have also shown curb cuts so bicyclists can 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 deom 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 iamge above. A few feet 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 only paving 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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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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