My opinions about the Causeway Street project

The discussion about bicycling at last night’s public hearing about Causeway Street reconstruction quickly devolved into a debate between the consultant and various advocates over whether there should be a “cycle track” on Causeway Street. Advocates for the cycle track included Steve Miller from Livable Streets, and two friends who sat at the same table with him; Pete Stidman of the Boston Cyclists’ Union; and free-lance traffic engineer Tom Bertulis. They maintained that there is a way to build a cycle track, or it could be found. Anne Lusk gave her usual impassioned plea, citing the 28% lower crash rate claimed for her study of Montreal’s two-way cycle track, a study which has been thoroughly demolished – and the author of the critique has informed her of this. One criticism was that the Montreal study ignores injuries bicyclists cause to pedestrians, a very serious concern on Causeway Street with the hordes of pedestrians swarming into and out of North Station and across the street.

The consultant, on the other hand, maintained unswervingly that there isn’t room for a cycle track, conceding at one point that some cyclists would ride on the sidewalk, although that wouldn’t be encouraged.

My own opinion is that the project planners and the advocates all take a narrow view, in different ways. The project planners concern themselves mostly with how to move motor traffic between the two busy intersections at North Washington Street and Lomasney Way/Staniford Street while accommodating pedestrians, and with pick-up and drop-off locations. Bicycling gets lost in the mix: while the plan shows a number of improvements to pedestrian crossings, intersections and lane allocations, the bike lanes are perfunctory and dysfunctional. A 5-foot wide bike lane sandwiched between a 10½-foot travel lane on one side and taxis, buses and duck boats constantly loading and unloading, pulling in and out on the other side, is a door-zone bike lane with an extra kick. To be safe, a bicyclist would have to ride outside the bike lane.

The advocates expressed similar concerns about the bike lanes, but I think that the advocates’ focus on a cycle track on Causeway Street as a solution turns a blind eye to some very serious problems. A cycle track can reduce conflicts with parallel traffic, but it only worsens problems with crossing traffic, which is the major concern in this location. Adding a separate channel in the roadway reduces space for everyone due to to “shy distance”, and there isn’t space to spare here. Adding extra signal phases delays everyone and leads to disrespect for the signals. Not adding signal phases results in conflicts, and with streams of motor traffic turning across a cycle track, these can be hard to avoid, and deadly. Cycle tracks are hard to keep free of ice in winter. But the worst problem of all in this location is with the hordes of pedestrians who would be crossing a cycle track. Expect bicycle-pedestrian collisions here if bicyclists are placed in a channel separate from the main roadway.

Then there is the issue of diversification of vehicle types. As fuel prices rise, expect more motor scooters as well as cargo tricycles that are a tight fit on a typical separated cycle track. Problems with such a segregated system are manifest in Amsterdam, where motorcyclists commonly use the cycle tracks and squeeze past bicyclists a high speed. There is also reduced opportunity for faster bicyclists to overtake slower ones. Under crowded conditions, all bicyclists are reduced to the speed of the slowest. A conventional traffic lane offers much more room, and flexibility.

There is promise in simply slowing down the traffic. The speed tables in the middle of the project area are intended to achieve this, but the project plans show little attention to speed control at the ends, and especially not at the Keany Square (North Washington Street) end. I am reminded of the 15 mph speed limit on the terminal roadways in Logan Airport. I have ridden my bicycle there, without any problem, on an organized group ride back before bicycle access shifted over to the roadway to the central garage. How is Causeway Street different in any important way?

Still, Causeway Street would be no picnic. Opportunities should be sought to provide alternate routes for bicyclists so they don’t have to ride on Causeway Street. One alternative has already been proposed, as an Artery-Tunnel mitigation measure — a bicycle-pedestrian overpass over the tracks behind North Station. Steve Miller of Livable Streets told me that he expects that this indeed will be built one day. It would provide an alternative to Causeway Street for east-west travel. Another possibility is a path alongside the tracks on the railway bridge, as an alternative to the Charlestown Bridge and to the pathway across the New Charles River Dam locks, which is often interrupted as boats pass through the locks. (The railroad bridge is a lift bridge, but it lifts rarely except on weekends.) These paths could connect to the doors of North Station and to bicycle parking and the Hubway installation. My suggestion for south of the station is to designate and improve a couple of streets that T into Causeway Street, so bicyclists can get Causeway Street behind them by simply crossing it, and at intersections which already must be signalized for pedestrians. I already use such a route when arriving at North Station, or leaving it, on my bicycle.

So, I stand with the project planners in excluding cycle tracks, but I think that there are things which could be done which would serve bicyclists better. The wider problems that lead to the deficit in planning vision are, as I see it, on both sides, the lack of area-wide planning due to the focus on a single project which is slated for funding; on the project side, a lack of imagination, and working to meet design standards which defy engineering judgment here; on the advocates’ side, a tunnel-vision focus on bicycling to the exclusion of other travel modes, and on cycle tracks, which are the current bicycle-facility design fad and buzzword.

I have another post reporting on he
August 9, 2012 public hearing:

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