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 — deleted by now posted on my own site, http://john-s-allen.com/pdfs/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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Is it all right?

At the Boston Bicycle Safety Summit, February 23, 2016, in a small breakout group, Cyclist Jonathan Traum drew a sketch like this:

Right-hook conflict illustrated

Right-hook conflict illustrated

(Thanks to John Schubert for this version, which looks like Traum’s, only neater.)

Traum indicated that the right-hook conflict shown in the illustration was a serious problem, with bike lanes which encourage bicyclists to overtake on the right.

MassDOT engineer Lou Rabito replied with by-the-book advice as in the AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) guide to bicycle facility design, that it isn’t OK with a right-turn-only lane, but it is OK with a lane which carries both right-turning traffic and through traffic.

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Arlington Center Safe Travel Project update

Arlington Center has presented a major problem for the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway (rail trail) since its opening. For people who are not familiar with the situation in Arlington Center, the rail line passed diagonally through the middle of town, crossing the two largest streets in Arlington within a couple hundred feet of their intersection. The connecting segment of the bikeway was not built. The project represents an attempt to remedy that situation.


I have discussed Arlington Center before, in blog posts and with a video, and in case you wish to review my comments, here are links to them:

My comments as of January 2012 — my comments on the project as it was being described at that time.

Arlington Center Westbound: Avoiding the Right Hook — describes a safe and convenient route through Arlington Center westbound for a cyclist operating as a driver in mixed traffic, with a video — which also shows cyclists who have unfortunate misconceptions about how to be safe. Not mentioned is that a similar route is possible eastbound, using the street adjacent to the rail trail to enter Mystic Street.

Further Suggestions for Arlington Center (as of November, 2013) — this gives my proposal for a route which I think would be most satisfactory for casual and young cyclists.

More recently, I attended a public meeting on March 23, 2016 at Arlington Town Hall. The main presenter at this meeting was Nathaniel Curtis, who works for the consulting firm for the project, Howard Stein Hudson. Dan Fielding and Chris Lahey from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation were also present, but did not speak.

The drawing below, from a 2013 presentation, shows the the design proposal at that time. The rail line followed the white, interrupted swath from lower right to upper middle, and beyond. The short stretch of blue at the lower right is the start of the eastern segment of the bikeway, ending at a small street, Swan Place. Massachusetts Avenue is the east-west street.  Mystic Street heads south at the lower left and Pleasant Street heads north at the upper left. The start of the western segment of the bikeway is the wide green strip to its left.

Arlington Proposal as of 2013

Arlington Proposal as of 2013

Changes — the main stem

I’ll first discuss the main stem of the project, Massachusetts Avenue between Mystic Street/Pleasant Street and Swan Place.

The proposal has changed somewhat since 2013. Some of the more troublesome features have been modified. You may compare the newer image below (from the town of Arlington Web page about the project) with the older one above.

  • The impractical sharp turn in the bikeway (middle right, above) has been made less sharp.
  • At the lower right where bicyclists enter from the street, the green bike lane now proceeds from the street rather than from the sidewalk.
  • At the upper left, the bikeway continues across the intersection rather than jogging to the right.
Drawing showing new bikeway alignment

Drawing showing new bikeway alignment

Other problems remain.

  • Though parking stalls are not shown in the newer drawing, they still exist near the top right where the bike lane is spaced away from the curb. The bikeway runs next to the parking spaces, largely in the door zone. Bicyclists crossing Massachusetts Avenue will be outside the field of view of motorists’ rear view mirrors until rather late, and potentially also hidden by vehicles waiting for the traffic light ahead.
  • Right-hook conflicts remain at three points already already mentioned, one at the upper left and two at the lower right in the drawing.
  • The eastbound bikeway (at the bottom of the picture above) crosses one or two commercial driveways — it isn’t clear whether there are two — with additional conflicts.

At the meeting, Mr. Curtis indicated that risks to cyclists will be reduced by the elimination of the six parking spaces on the south side of Massachusetts Avenue. That is likely so, by improving sight lines for motorists using driveways, though conflicts still exist. The south-side bikeway is the straight one in the image below.

Looking west across Swan Place

Looking west across Swan Place

The driveway barely visible at the near side of the building at the left in the image serves traffic exiting a drive-up ATM at the Cambridge Savings Bank. The Google Street View below, from August, 2011, shows this driveway as seen from Massachusetts Avenue. The blue sign at the left, reads “EXIT ONLY – Drive-Up ATM Entrance On Pleasant Street”, and there is a a one-way arrow on the pavement only in the ATM lane. There is no arrow  in the adjacent part of the driveway which serves the  parking lot in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post (the gray building in the background). It is unclear to me whether vehicles entering that parking lot also must enter from Pleasant Street.

Cambridge Savings Bank and VFW Post drievway

Cambridge Savings Bank and VFW Post driveway, August, 2011

In September, 2014, on the other hand, there was an arrow painted so as to indicate more clearly that this is only an exit driveway.

Cambridge Savings Bank driveway, August, 2014

Cambridge Savings Bank and VFW driveway, August, 2014

Whether vehicles are effectively prevented from entering this driveway is of concern, because entering vehicles pose a risk of right-hook collisions with bicyclists in the bike lane. At the March 23, 2016 meeting, Mr. Curtis described only exiting traffic.

A second driveway serves both entering and exiting traffic for the Kickstand Café and Anton’s Cleaners; apparently also the VFW post.

Driveway to Kickstand Café and Anton's Cleaners

Driveway to Kickstand Café and Anton’s Cleaners

The curb and grading plan on page 20 of the project plans shows the driveway unchanged, but the traffic signs and pavement markings plan on page 33 (as in the image below) shows a sign (SOUTH 3 EAST 2A) planted squarely in the middle of this driveway, and the drawings on the main Arlington page about the project (included above) do not show this driveway at all. Is it to be eliminated? If so, that eliminates crossing and turning conflicts at the driveway, but only by moving them to Swan Place, where the parking lot has another entrance. Motor traffic on Swan Place, used by bikeway traffic, also is increased, and removal of the driveway probably has a negative effect on the businesses served by the parking lot.

Part of page 33 of the plans showing sign planted in driveway

Part of page 33 of the plans showing sign planted in driveway

Next, let’s move east, to Swan Place, where the eastern segment of the bikeway ends. MassDOT and the consultant propose to install a pedestrian hybrid beacon  (also called a HAWK — High-intensity Activated crossWalK — beacon) facing Massachusetts Avenue. This combines some of the features of flashing lights used at a railway crossing with those of a conventional traffic light. The beacon’s sequence, with lights that blink yellow, then go to solid yellow and red, then blink again, is unusual and can confuse drivers who are unfamiliar with it. I have commented on the very similar installation at 41st and Burnside in Portland, Oregon — useful as background information.

There are to be a stop sign and bicycle signal head (conventional traffic signal with a bicycle symbol in the signal face) facing Swan Place. The beacon is to be actuated by video detection of bicycles and by pedestrian pushbuttons.

In this connection, meeting attendee Scott Smith has pointed out an inconsistency in the plans: Sheet 34 of the 100% plans shows a Bicycle Use Ped Signal sign, while the equipment list on sheet 26 includes video detection and a bicycle signal.

Commenting at the meeting, I suggested LeddarTech LED ranging detection, which is more reliable than video detection. I got no response to this suggestion.

I understand that an ordinary traffic signal was proposed earlier for this intersection. One possible reason to use a pedestrian hybrid beacon here that it might reduce delay for traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. That is especially so near the end of the phase when pedestrians are crossing. If they have finished crossing, the pedestrian hybrid beacon allows drivers to start up, by going into flash mode. But then, so can a ranging system, by sensing when the pedestrians have finished crossing.

A pedestrian hybrid beacon is meant to be used at mid-block crosswalks. Section 4F of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the U.S. national reference on traffic signs, signals and markings, strongly discourages using a pedestrian hybrid beacon at an intersection with a street controlled by a STOP or YIELD sign:

The pedestrian hybrid beacon should be installed at least 100 feet from side streets or driveways that are controlled by STOP or YIELD signs…

The “should” is not an absolute prohibition — that would be a “shall” — but it is strong.  The problem is this: if traffic is approaching the stop sign, it, unlike a traffic signal, doesn’t indicate when that traffic can cross safely: that is, if traffic is waiting in that street, the beacon could change and traffic could start up at any time, and the stop sign doesn’t say when it will. It is really only safe to enter at the stop sign when no traffic is approaching or waiting in the cross street.

A meeting attendee, Joe Barr from the Cambridge Traffic and Parking Department, made the point that FHWA specifically prohibits a HAWK beacon in connection with a bicycle signal, as proposed here. That is in an FHWA interim approval, and it is a “shall”.

Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons: Bicycle signal faces shall not be used in any manner with respect to the design and operation of a pedestrian hybrid beacon.

I’m not quite sure what is the rationale for this prohibition. It may result from caution in connection with an interim approval. At a crosswalk of a shared-use path, a bicycle signal could allow bicyclists, who are faster than pedestrians, to enter later. One problem might be that the bicycle signal could confuse or entice pedestrians into entering too late, though the same problem can occur with any traffic light.

But this is an intersection of a street with a street, and so there is another problem: there is no conventional signal face intended for motorists. The proposed installation asks drivers entering from Swan Place to second-guess or to take guidance from signals which aren’t intended for motorists — the bicycle or pedestrian signals. Also, the beacon, unlike a conventional traffic signal, cannot have separate right- or left-turn phases, and so it does not protect against motorists’ turning across the path of bicyclists proceeding eastbound on Massachusetts Avenue.

All of these complications suggest to me that a conventional traffic signal installation, or a conventional traffic signal facing Swan place, might be better. This would not be prohibited in connection with a pedestrian hybrid beacon on Massachusetts Avenue.

Uncle Sam Park

I’ve already discussed issues with the westbound bikeway segment leading to the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street. Now let’s have a look at Uncle Sam Park, on the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street.

The  proposed terminus  is clearly better than the present terminus on Mystic Street in mid-block at a sidewalk — yet there are some serious questions remaining.

The curve in the path at the top of the image below (from page 10 of the plans) does not meet AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) guidelines. The curve radius is much too small.

When path traffic is heavy, bicycle and pedestrian traffic traveling in multiple directions will mix at the northwest corner of Mystic Street and Massachusetts Avenue in what I expect to be a free-for-all. An abrupt narrowing of the path just before the intersection is shown in the plans, apparently to preserve an existing tree (lower middle of the image below, from page 10 of the plans). Cyclists and pedestrians can be expected to trample the grass here, or if they go around on the narrow paved strip, they will be changing direction abruptly, increasing the likelihood of confusion and collisions. This is especially a problem, as westbound cyclists and pedestrians will be entering from the left of eastbound ones. The westbound cyclists cannot be expected to stop, and some will be in a hurry to cross before the light changes. Eastbound cyclists will not stop or slow if the traffic signal favors them.

Uncle Sam Park planting plan

Uncle Sam Park planting plan

There is also a visibility issue between cyclists and motorists. The motorists will be coming from behind cyclists, on the left. This problem is exacerbated for cyclists who avoid riding on the grass. Traffic-signal timing here is intended to prevent conflicts, but opportunism and mistakes are likely.

Cyclists are directed to enter the intersection in lightly-dashed bike lanes ahead of boldly-striped crosswalks. Page 23 of the plans shows curb ramps placed in a compromise position, partway across the striped bike lane and partway across the crosswalk (see image below). Cyclists will generally prefer diverting into the crosswalk rather than hopping up or down a curb.

Crosswalks at Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street

Crosswalks at Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street

Two-Stage Turn Queuing Box

The two-stage turn queuing box near the southwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Pleasant Street proposed for eastbound cyclists is still in experimental status with the U. S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It is supposed to be used only if a study is conducted in connection with the installation. The purpose of the rule requiring experimentation is to evaluate the  effectiveness of a new traffic marking, sign or signal, and what design features are important.

Intersection of Massachusetts Avenue with Pleasant Street (foreground) and Mystic Street (background).

Intersection of Massachusetts Avenue with Pleasant Street (foreground) and Mystic Street (background). Two-stage turn queuing box at middle left.

I am a member of the Bicycle Technical Committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which developed the two-stage turn queuing box proposal currently in process with the FHWA. In fact, I am one of two people who drafted that proposal. I make that point because I want to stress that I am not opposed to two-stage turn queuing boxes, though the opinions here are my own. I think that two-stage turn queuing boxes have appropriate uses. There are, however issues of design and of suitability at this location. Four issues came up at the meeting:

  • Is the box large enough to accommodate the volume of bicycle traffic, and will individual cyclists on longer bicycles (longtail cargo bikes, tandems, bicycles pulling trailers, etc.) be able to make the sharp turn required by the box?
  • Is this a safe way to accommodate cyclist left turns in this intersection with a motor traffic volume of 47,000 vehicles per day?
  • Does this installation achieve optimum travel time — that is, low delay?
  • Will cyclists using the rail trail, and particularly, casual cyclists and children, feel confident in making their left turns in this way — and so, will this installation in fact solve the problem of cyclists’ riding on sidewalks?

Some of those questions can be answered through analysis of traffic-signal timing; others, only through experimentation. Some may already have been answered through experimentation at other locations, and could point the way to whether an experiment here would be approved. I would submit in any case that this is one of the most challenging locations for a two-way turn queuing box that I have encountered.

Traffic-signal timing

Traffic-signal timing is more or less the elephant in the room with this project. There are many signals in a short a distance along Massachusetts Avenue, and a new one is proposed. There are many different movements — through, left, right, bicycle, pedestrian — accommodated in separate signal phases. These factors result in short times for green lights and walk signals.

Data pages 24 and 26 of the plans, and time-space diagrams on pages 30 and 31, indicate how long the waits will be for through travel on Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street/Pleasant Street. The diagonal swaths in the diagrams on these pages 30 and 31 show the windows during which drivers can pass through the entire stretch without having to stop for a red light, when traveling at 30 miles per hour on Massachusetts Avenue, or 25 miles per hour on Mystic Street. Drivers who miss these windows will have to wait through as much of the rest of the 110- or 120-second signal cycle as remains until the window opens again.

The example below is the most favorable one for Massachusetts Avenue. Motorists traveling at 30 miles an hour have a 30-second window in one direction, 38 seconds in the other, out of the 120-second cycle. Other diagrams on pages 30 and 31 show shorter windows. One is only 7 seconds long.

Tim-space diagram

Time-space diagram

On two-way streets, it is not possible to sequence closely-spaced traffic signals for longer windows or for continuous travel. If the signals favor one direction, they will cause more delay in the other direction. The higher the travel speed and the longer the signal cycle, however, the more green time. Many pedestrian and bicycling advocates promote lower speed limits and shorter signal cycles, which run contrary to the goal of more green time.

Page 26 indicates that bicyclists will get a 24-second green at Swan Place but pedestrians get only a 10 second walk signal before it goes to a flashing don’t walk. That is appropriate, as pedestrians are slower.

Of note, the plans include no time-space diagrams for motorists turning, or for bicyclists, or for pedestrians. An important issue for me is how long it will take bicyclists to get through the entire installation. Clearly, they are going to encounter two traffic signals, whether traveling east or west. Delay — and particularly, delay when there doesn’t appear to be conflicting traffic — strongly affects the willingness of many bicyclists to obey traffic signals. The data to run an analysis exists in the plans, but I’m under pressure to complete this report, and so an analysis will have to wait for later.

The timings work only as long as traffic is flowing smoothly. They fail when traffic is congested. I am not aware of any level-of-service analysis which would show how the installation would perform under congested conditions. Mr. Curtis spoke about adjusting the signal timing, but he did not mention a level-of-service study.

It can be said though that bicyclists following the designated routes and using bike lanes will not face congestion as motorists do — unless motor traffic congestion is so bad that it backs up into the intersections.

Discussion following the presentation

Much of the discussion following the presentation at the March 23, 2016 meeting was about construction staging issues and their effect on local businesses. At times, travel lanes on Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street will be blocked for reconstruction of the median. Construction crews will need space for their equipment, and particularly for the work on Uncle Sam Park, however, this would appear to require only a few parking spaces in the municipal parking lot adjacent to the Rail Trail west of Mystic Street.

One citizen was unhappy with the bisecting of Uncle Sam Park by the Rail Trail. Another asked whether there would be a direct connection from the Rail Trail to the sidewalk (such as is now the only connection at the end of the Rail Trail); Mr. Curtis was uncertain about this, but as already mentioned, the plan is for “grass pavers”.

Another issue is the use of the sidewalk on Swan Place by an auto body shop for parking, and dumpsters which occupy part of the width of the sidewalk, as in the Google Street View below.This picture also illustrates the right-hook risk with the white truck entering Swan Place from Massachusetts Avenue.

Looking up Swan Place toward Massachusetts Avenue

Looking up Swan Place toward Massachusetts Avenue


Mr. Curtis indicated that there was no room for change in the project: it is going to be built as shown in the presentation, and that it had been “vetted”.  Yet four features of the project — the stop sign and the bicycle signal in connection with a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the two-way turn queuing box, and the sharp turns in the bikeway at Uncle Sam Park — do not conform to national design standards. These issues, the inconsistencies in the plans and the number of other questions and safety issues which still remain, lead me to ask to what degree the project has actually been vetted, and by whom.

Mr. Curtis also repeatedly referred to the two-stage turn queuing box as a “bike box”. That is not the correct name. A bike box is a different type of installation.

All in all, the impression I get is that MassDOT and Howard Stein Hudson are treading in unfamiliar territory and have pulled innovative but questionable designs out of a hat, whether they meet standards or fit the context — these designs must be good because they are new, right?

(Projects in Massachusetts get away with violation of the national design standards because of a strong sovereign immunity law, which limits the awards in lawsuits over design issues. However, violation of standards can affect release of Federal funding.)

The name of the project, Arlington Center Safe Travel Project, makes an assumption about safety which I find questionable, and directs attention away from concerns about the actual safety and practicality of the designs proposed.

All in all, I still strongly favor the proposal I made in my earlier comments, Further Suggestions for Arlington Center. My proposal much simpler, it removes fewer parking spaces, it avoids door-zone issues and the two-way turn queuing box in the middle of the busy intersection. It offers a connection which is consistent with what casual cyclists, parents and children expect and find elsewhere on the Minuteman.

The diagram from my proposal is repeated here, but for details, please read the proposal in full. I’m open to suggestions for improvements.

Proposed route for bikeway through Arlington Center

My proposed route for a bikeway through Arlington Center


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Spam, and lost comments

Spam has become such a problem in WordPress blogs that I don’t have time to read through all the messages which have the Aksimet spam filter has marked as spam: I just delete them.

Recently, in  the moment between when I clicked “delete” and the messages disappeared, I noticed one which was a serious comment about Massachusetts traffic law.  Oops, gone.

BostonBiker.org also deletes messages marked as spam on a regular schedule, so I don’t even have the opportunity to review some of them.

So, if you have posted comments on this blog and they have not been posted, please accept my apologies. Please in the future keep copies of your comments so you don’t lose them. If they don’t show up, you may send them to me by e-mail. My e-mail address, in a form readable by humans but not spambots, is here.

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For a real People’s Pike

“People’s Pike” is a group of citizens with concerns about the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s I-90 Allston Interchange project, the main goal of which has  been to replace the deteriorating Massachusetts Turnpike viaduct. The People’s Pike group is concerned mostly with improvements to the project for local access. A new commuter rail and bus terminal has already been promised, but the  management of traffic entering and leaving the Turnpike, and development of the adjoining 23-acre Beacon Yards, an abandoned railroad yard, raise many questions. An active task force with many People’s Pike members has met repeatedly with project planners and contractors, but many issues remain unresolved. I published the comments below as a post on the People’s Pike Facebook page. In the interest of finding a wider audience for my comments, I publish them here as well.


Bicycle and pedestrian access, and as suggested at last week’s Task Force meeting, bus access too, across the tracks at the new West Station are laudable improvements. So is the proposed replacement of the Franklin Street bicycle/pedestrian overpass.

A bicycle and pedestrian overpass over Soldiers Field Road is also certainly nice, but all of the connecting east-west routes which the project planners have proposed cross multiple multi-lane streets carrying traffic to and from the Turnpike.

Last week’s Boston Redevelopment Authority presentation showed a grid of 6-lane streets, with bicycle and pedestrian amenities alongside them, typical of what is built when there is no other choice but to put them in street corridors at grade level.

This is the story I’ve seen, over and over, at one meeting after another, with minor variations. There was no People’s Pike in the proposals at last week’s meeting, but instead, People’s Pillar to Post, with long waits at intersections and bizarre swerves across three lanes of motor traffic to prepare left turns.

It doesn’t matter whether the bikeway is behind a row of parked cars, as in the Boston Redevelopment Authority proposal shown at last week’s meeting, or in a nice green linear park on one side of New Cambridge Street, as shown at the MassDOT public hearing late last year. The heavy cross traffic at the intersections guarantees danger and delay. (Delay for motorists, too, not just bicyclists, I might add. There are only so many seconds in the minute, and dividing them up more ways to accommodate conflicting traffic streams gives each of them less time, and requires wider streets to hold the backup…)

The Mass Pike and Soldier’s Field Road at North Harvard Street and downstream of it have grade separations now and will have them in the new plans. There is a grade separation for the Paul Dudley White Path under the BU Bridge, and there is one planned at the Anderson Bridge.

If there is to be a People’s Pike, it too should have grade separations where it crosses the heavily-traveled streets which lead to and from the Turnpike. If not, we’re right back to the situation we have now, only with even more problem intersections.

We aren’t retrofitting an existing street network here. We are constructing an entirely new cityscape, offering the opportunity to do it right. The added cost is minor if the plan takes advantage of elevation changes which will be necessary anyway for West Station and the Turnpike ramps.

As the Beacon Yards project is on Harvard University property, I don’t think that I am being presumptuous in pointing out that there is already an important grade separation on the Harvard campus — in Cambridge, the Cambridge Street tunnel. That must have been very expensive to construct, as the four-lane street had to go below ground level, but Harvard and the City determined that it was worth the cost. Taking a path over or under a couple of Turnpike ramps is a much smaller challenge.

[Task-force member] Ari Ofsevit has already put forward a proposal for a connection from West Station to the Charles River, not crossing any streets. That is half of a People’s Pike, and it could be extended with all-important links to the Boston University east campus and to Cambridge.

At the other end of the project, there is width under the Cambridge Street Bridge for a path on one side or the other of the Turnpike, maybe both sides, with some careful design. Do we need  a Turnpike ramp extending  under the bridge, taking up the present empty space on the north side of the Turnpike? Will the railroad under the bridge on the South side need to have 4 tracks, as at present? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, there you have it: a grade-separated connection from North Allston into the project area. (The south-side connection would use the Franklin street overpass — I like the north-side idea better, because the route is more direct.)

The signalized crossing at Lincoln Street also is tolerably good, if a tunnel under the Turnpike remains, as at present.

The remaining issue is of connecting the west end of the project with West Station on a grade-separated path. And while we’re at it, making this into a linear park.

That is the laudable goal which People’s Pike originally set out, and I don’t think for one second that any of us should settle for  less.


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