Comments on Arlington Center Proposal

I attended the Wednesday, January 12 meeting about closing the gap in the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway in Arlington, and I have submitted the written comments that follow. But first, some links:

The proposed design options for the Minuteman path are described here:

http://www.arlingtonma.gov/Public_Documents/ArlingtonMA_DPW/projects/ArlCtrSafeTravel/ACST_MemoPres11212011.pdf

Adam Auster’s excellent report on Wednesday night’s public meeting is here:

http://tinyurl.com/ArlMtg

Laura Wiener, the town planner who is assigned to this project, and to whom comments are to be addressed, is reachable at

lwiener@town.arlington.ma.us, (781) 316-3091.

My comments:

Ms. Wiener:

I attended the meeting Wednesday night and I thank you for the opportunity to comment.

The gap in the path in Arlington Center is a serious problem indeed and I am pleased that an attempt is being made to address it.

On the other hand, there are serious issues with all of the options put forward. As someone else said at the meeting, the problems have existed for 150 years. They weren’t solved for the railroad and unfortunately, the political will doesn’t exist to solve them for the path. Nothing short of a grade separation would solve the problem of the gap in the path, so we’re stuck with some incomplete solutions.

Beyond this, however, I find the proposal as presented by the consultant to be incomplete in a number of ways. Several other commenters made the same observation. Any plan like this should include a crash history. I don’t see any. The plans also say nothing about signage, and nothing about signal timing other than that it will be “improved.” There are some additional issues not addressed.

The NACTO Guide, cited by one commenter, appears to be the source for some proposed design options. It is best understood as a cornucopia of designs imported from Europe, but lacking an examination of context and alternatives. It lacks official status and sanction, unlike the AASHTO guide (currently under revision, nearly finished draft version online: http://design.transportation.org/Documents/DraftBikeGuideFeb2010.pdf).

Many of the elements of the proposed “crossbike” and cycle track designs are nonstandard and would fall into the category of experimentation under the Federal Highway Administration, cooperating with the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices., http://ncutcd.org. The FHWA process offers review of a project and immunity from lawsuits in return for research into the performance of the installation. I strongly recommend taking this approach. There are important lessons to be learned here, on the most heavily-used multi-use path in the USA. I am a member of the Bicycle Technical Committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which meets January 18-20. I will bring this project to its attention.

Given the politically possible options, here are my specific comments.

With every option, pedestrians should continue using sidewalks. Signage needs to indicate the differing bicycle and pedestrian routes.

  • In options 2, 3A and 3B, the right-turn lane to the right of a bike lane on Mass. Ave. before Mystic Street is conservative practice and consistent with design guidelines. The flaw in this option is that it does not maintain continuity of the path as a path, and is unattractive to the child and casual cyclists who flock to the path. However, none of the proposals should compromise the option of through bicycle travel on Massachusetts Avenue. Options 4 and 5, which separate path traffic from Mass. Ave. traffic, do compromise it.
  • In the plan document, I see no attention given to bicycle travel on Mystic Street/Pleasant Street even as they affect to the path. How, for example, is a cyclist headed southbound on Mystic Street supposed to enter the path to head toward Lexington?
  • Options 2 and 3A place a median refuge (called a “bike box” in the plans) to the right of motor traffic exiting Swan Place. As on 9th Avenue in New York City, the refuge should be placed in line with Swan Place, so bicyclists don’t have to merge out of the stream of traffic, and then back in again as they turn left into Mass. Ave. westbound. Path traffic dominates on Swan Place, and the occasional motorist waiting in line behind cyclists will probably be able to tolerate the delay — especially as cyclists already will be halfway across Mass. Ave. when waiting. See plans for 9th Avenue in New York City at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/rr_ite_08_9thave.PDF and note on page 3 of that document that the bicycle waiting locations are in the streets, not in the crosswalks.
  • Option 3B, with the bike lane across Massachusetts Avenue at Swan Place, instructs cyclists to turn sharply right when exiting Swan Place, so they are to the right of right-turning motor traffic exiting Swan Place, then turn left to continue across Massachusetts Avenue, a recipe for confusion, delay and collisions. Again cyclists should be traveling straight across.
  • Though some options show bike lanes extending up Mass. Ave. past Mystic Street, none of the options addresses the simplest option for through travel, and one that will appeal to competent, adult cyclists and reduce the burden on the intersection with Mystic Street/Pleasant Street: cyclists leave the trail at Mill Street and turn left onto Mass. Ave. at a traffic signal, continuing to Swan Place (and vice versa for northbound travel). Enabling these options also implies designing for through bicycle traffic on Mass. Ave. as already mentioned.
  • Thanks to unusual signal timing, it appears that the diagonal crossing in Options 3A through 5 may be workable. It promises shorter crossing time, in one signal phase. However, the documents indicate that improvements would be made in signal timing without giving specifics. It is very typical in cases with special bicycle signal phases –  as seen for example in Washington, DC — see video at http://vimeo.com/33063126 — to minimize the added delay by making the bicycle phase very short, leading most cyclists to ignore the signal and/or take undesignated routes.
  • A  “crossbike” is bound to be used for travel in both directions, including by pedestrians. Signal timing, types, locations,  and travel space must account for this. I draw special attention to the work of James Mackay, formerly bicycle coordinator of the City of Denver, in coordinating bicycle and pedestrian signals to account for the faster speed of bicyclists. (Unfortunately, I cannot find a reference to this online at present, but I will inquire of Mr. Mackay.)
  • A couple of well-intentioned commenters recommended converting the sidewalk between Swan Place and Pleasant Street into a bikeway. That is only to perpetuate the current situation. This sidewalk passes doorways, and two driveways, with impaired sight lines, and is inadequate to carry bicycle traffic.
  • The proposed 250-foot two-way “cycle track” or “protected bikeway”along Mass. Ave.in options 4 and 5 has a strong appeal to people who are fearful of riding on the roadway, yet the design shown repeatedly places cyclists in conflict with motor traffic. There are serious safety issues with this bikeway at both ends and at the two commercial driveways it crosses. I am very wary of this design, but there are ways its problems could be mitigated, by addressing the  streams of cross traffic which belie the term “protected”. Specifically:
    • At the Pleasant Street end, the plans show no effective means to prevent a confused or drunken motorist from entering the bikeway, as it may be confused with a travel lane of Mass. Ave. Motor vehicles could enter the bikeway either from Pleasant Street, turning right, or from Massachusetts Avenue heading eastbound. A similar situation on the West Side Greenway in New York City led to a fatal car-bike collision, see http://john-s-allen.com/galleries/NYC/wsgreenway1/Chelsea%20Piers/slides/DSCF0029.html . The consultant has suggested only colored paint as a countermeasure. This does not address the underlying hazard, and in any case, colored paint becomes invisible under many conditions of lighting and precipitation, and wears away. Measures installed on the 9th Avenue bikeway in New York City to prevent undesired movements by motor vehicles do address this problem.. See the photo album at http://john-s-allen.com/galleries/NYC/9thAve/index.html and the plans previously mentioned for examples. I am no fan of bollards in the middle of paths — cyclists also collide with them — but the traffic islands in the 9th Avenue installation are a better option, specifically designed to prevent unintended movements. Islands might be installed at the southeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Pleasant Street, for example by angling the end of path toward the “crossbike” so as to prevent entry from Pleasant Street or Massachusetts Avenue by motor vehicles. In connection with this, removal of a parking space nearest the corner might also offer some kind of a waiting area to avoid queued cyclists’ being delayed to the next signal cycle.
    • The proposed 10-foot-wide bikeway between a curb and a row of bollards is of minimal width to carry two-way bicycle traffic. It should be made very clear with signage that pedestrians are to use the sidewalk. As one inline skater remarked at the meeting, inline skaters take up a lot of room. They also are slower than bicyclists. They belong on the sidewalk. I also strongly recommend paving the brick sidewalk, so as to make it more suitable for inline skaters and people in wheelchairs, who are much slower yet. This also would allow leveling of the surface. Yes, I know that brick is historic and nostalgic, but it is a miserable travel surface. Take up the brick and put it down somewhere else where its deficiencies don’t matter.
    • The exit from the drive-through teller window at the bank halfway along the proposed bikeway is a nightmare. Consider the task burden which motorists would face here. First, they must look both ways for pedestrians on the sidewalk. Then, they most look both ways for faster bicyclists on the bikeway — the view of whom could easily be obstructed by groups of slower pedestrians. Beyond the bikeway in one of the options is a row of parked cars, and so motorists would have to  pull up far enough to see past them before entering traffic on Mass. Ave. — blocking the bikeway. A fundamental principle of traffic operation is to simplify the task burden so sight lines are clear and drivers need not look in multiple directions at the same time. Flaunting this principle is a recipe for confusion, delay and collisions. The bank driveway has to go if there is to be a separate bikeway here. Perhaps motorists could exit back to Mystic Street, or to Swan Street?
    • The parking lot east of the bank at Jam’n’Java, has a two-way driveway that would also cross the proposed bikeway unless closed off, see http://g.co/maps/wx9sa. This is an even worse nightmare than the drive-in teller driveway and was not mentioned in the documentation — or the presentation, unless in the few minutes at the start before I arrived. There was no discussion of it following the presentation.
    • As shown in the plans, northbound cyclists would have to cross to the wrong side of Swan Place, a two-way street, to enter the “cycle track”, approaching a corner where motorists turn right from Mass. Ave., and in one version of the plans, with sight lines obstructed by parked cars. Riding opposite traffic is illegal, and designing a facility which compels illegal and hazardous behavior is a recipe for  trouble. One commenter at the meeting proposed that Swan Place be made one-way. I agree. Making it one-way northbound with a contraflow southbound bike lane  and merging/crossing area could alleviate this problem with any of the proposals.
  • There is also a possibility of a bicycle route crossing Massachusetts Avenue, then on back streets behind the Library, crossing Mystic Street to Wellington Street and reconnecting with the path at Spy Pond. This would be longer and I don’t suggest it as an exclusive route, but it would avoid the difficult intersection with Mystic Street/Pleasant Street.

If you wish to check my credentials, they are online at http://bikexprt.com/bikeres3.htm. I thank you again for the opportunity to comment.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Comments on Arlington Center Proposal

  1. Pingback: Support, skepticism for center bike-crossing plans « The Word on the Street

  2. Bob Sprague says:

    I have linked these excellent comments to the news summary at http://www.yourarlington.com/development/4351-center-11212

    Bob Sprague

  3. Mark says:

    Wow, thoughtful, comprehensive post! Let me add some info. Drunks turning right from Pleasant to Mass and driving through the 2-way bike track will first need to run over the traffic signal in the middle of it at the corner. One is needed there to tell westbound riders when they may proceed on the diagonal cross. Sober drivers, trucks, and perhaps snow plows will also regularly hit this light post in the roadway. Drunks hitting riders in the track area is very unlikely. The Minuteman closes at 9pm due to no lighting, and the mostly light bike traffic on Mass Ave becomes non-existent in off-hours when most impaired drivers operate.

    A little over 20 years ago, one woman occupied the intersection day after day for weeks until the town added an extra light phase for exclusive right turns, thus making WALK time 30 seconds every light cycle instead of on demand. This pessimized intersection efficiency, worsening congestion problems from the narrowing of Pleasant Street a decade before, and making left turn lane storage too short. It put cut through traffic on near by Jason Street. Westbound Mass Ave drivers headed to Rt.2 now cut through Swan Place to Swan Street, then left on Pleasant to avoid waiting for two left turn cycles at the light.

    If the intersection efficiency were restored, there would be virtually no traffic on Swan Place, just a little for Jam n Java and the cleaners. Swan Street is one way into Pleasant and supplements the parking shortage on Pleasant for offices in houses before the corner. It would be a nice place for a contra-flow bike lane so Pleasant Street riders headed east on Mass could avoid the tight intersection. Parking is needed on both sides, unfortunately, so there isn’t room to dedicate a bike lane. Parking was added on Pleasant back when right turns were disallowed during the through cycle. Right turn storage for 3-4 light cycles was a waste as locals go straight, then behind the center, and back up to Mass Ave.

    Note that the suggested changes are for adult riders. Children don’t seem to have a problem dismounting to walk bikes on the crosswalk and sidewalks, usually directed by their parents. This will still be the safe thing for them to do.

    Besides pointing out the 150yo conflict area, I pointed out the excessive sidewalk width on the north side of Mass Ave. The walkable coalitions who want more profits for landscaping advocate oversized sidewalks – too often it hurts safety and squeezes cyclists in door zones. It would be really great if a foot could be removed from the north sidewalk. Its so wide that many recreational and young cyclists can’t resist the temptation to ride there, making it a 2-way bike track.

  4. Exiting the bike path at Mill street and riding to the traffic light at Mass Ave to turn left is unpopular amongst cyclists for two reasons: 1. Its a steeper uphill ride on Mill than Mystic; 2. The unprotected left turn is difficult at Jason/Mill due to all the traffic avoiding Pleasant St due to congestion caused by inefficient traffic signal phase use and no right on red or through. That route to Summer Street(2A) via Jason also avoids two extra traffic lights. An apartment complex is now being built on Mill at the former Brigham’s Ice Cream plant, adding more traffic, left turn difficulty, and risk.

  5. jsallen says:

    I’ll have to try the route again to see whether I can agree with this. Mill Street and the left turn didn’t pose any problem for me last time I tried that route. I think it’s not widely used for two reasons: it requires riding on Mass. Ave., and many cyclists, especially family groups and children, are uncomfortable with that; and many people simply don’t know about it. For confident adult cyclists it is much more convenient than dealing with the sidewalk route on Mystic Street and the left turn onto Mass. Ave. there.

  6. Adam says:

    John, thank you very much for coming to this meeting and writing these comments. I am glad you had the time to do it.

  7. Adam Auster says:

    John, you may already know this, but last night Arlington approved a version of Option 2, relying on bike lanes rather than the diagonal path to get cyclists through the intersection. It’s similar to Option 2B from the meeting.

    I have a brief report at The Word on the Street.

    Thanks very much for writing comments on this.

  8. jsallen says:

    Thanks. No, I didn’t know. This seems like a reasonable option but it should be supported by signage etc. I’ve already made my suggestions along those lines.

  9. Adam Auster says:

    John, Arlington has made some changes to this plan, not all for the better to my unskilled eye.

    One of the bike lanes is now shoehorned next to a 7-1/2-foot parking lane.

    I guess there are worse things in the Boston area, but still.

    MassDOT has already approved a design exception for this. The 25% hearing is April 23.

  10. Pingback: Arlington Center Safe Travel Project update | Street Smarts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *