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Bike routes vs where I ride

November 28, 2018

I spoke at a recent meeting of our town’s selectmen about a proposed bike path, and mentioned how planners often have a blind spot about what people on bikes actually want. And to be clear, this is not “what they should settle for” or “what they deserve” or “their fair share” — this is what they want, or at least what I appear to want — and if I don’t get what I want, then I’ll ride somewhere else, or not ride.

These examples are routes that I ride from time to time where I have a choice, and what I chose, and why I made that choice.

The first example compares two routes across the edge of Harvard Square, one using alleged bike routes on Garden, Cambridge, and Broadway, versus the one I take, that uses a stub of Concord Ave, cuts across Cambridge Common, then in front of the Littauer Center, across the Science Plaza, then onto Broadway. The route I take has no cars, but does have plenty of people, sometimes children, and at times I have had to ride for a minute or two at a walking pace (I have video) or do a sharp stop for a child (I have video). If I had to spend two minutes at a walking pace every day I might find another route, but that is not usual.

Why do I prefer this often-slower route? (I’ve measured, it is, by maybe 30 seconds, i.e., the delay of not quite making a green light in Cambridge).

The other route has two problematic sections. On one section, marked in yellow, the lanes are extremely narrow and there is also a line of parked cars. It is not very comfortable, and it seems like I might eventually have some small collision there; not a bad one because everything is slow, but something to avoid. It’s 100% uncomfortable for a new rider, they don’t know what to do (do they squeeze through the tiny gap? Do they just sit in the middle of a lane in a line with the cars, or wait at the edge of a lane?)

In the next section, marked in red, bikes and cars go into an underpass together. In theory the bikes have their own lane, but in practice cars frequently swerve into that lane (video), sometimes when it also has bikes in it. The grooved pavement makes it very noisy, too. Sometimes cars are changing lanes there or swerving around stopped traffic, and that is also unsettling and probably dangerous. If Cambridge were willing to reinforce the painted lane separator with Jersey barriers I’d be more interested in taking it, but for some reason that doesn’t happen (I think that drivers and I both fear that they might drive into the bike lane, and have different feelings about the function of Jersey barriers should that happen — i.e., not only does it feel dangerous, but the use of mere paint in such a scary place makes it clear where bicyclists fit in the safety hierarchy).

The return route is marked in orange, it has the same problems as the red.

In Belmont, there’s a marked bike path on Blanchard that gives the impression that this would be a good place to ride a bike. However, I prefer a different route if I am riding past Concord, especially if my destination is the bike path to Alewife or the businesses near the intersection of Blanchard/Brighton and Hittinger Street. (The arrow marks drawn on the road indicate a grade).

Blanchard is somewhat narrow, yet drivers get the impression that they can move relatively quickly on it. The curbs are sharp-edged granite, which could cause serious injuries in a crash. It feels unwelcoming and unsafe. Bright Road, in contrast, is wide, and traffic is a little slower. It does include a small hill (Blanchard dips, and then rises, so about the same). Across Concord, Blanchard continues to be narrow and trafficky, where Baker is residential and has slower and less traffic. Continuing across Concord, it’s also instructive to notice how drivers cut the chicane so close that the have scrubbed all the paint off the edge of the road. Is that a safe place to ride a bicycle? So I prefer to ride elsewhere.

To ride from Belmont Center to Arlington Heights, the fastest way (saving a few minutes) goes up Belmont Hill and then up Park Avenue into Arlington. This is a steep climb that not too many people do. One sometimes-recommended route is to go up Clifton, to Prospect, to Park. Most of the car traffic, however, also goes up Prospect, and it is narrow and also has sharp-edged granite curbs. A slightly longer route is to continue on Clifton and then up Rutledge. This has several advantages. First, the climb up Belmont Hill is hard, but the section of Clifton after the rotary is flat and gives you a bit of a breather. That route also has much lower traffic (hardly any at all) and no curbs, not that you feel much risk of a crash anyway.

Here are two routes where I have a mild preference, but less experienced riders would probably have a stronger preference. The apparently straight route is Concord, however the higher traffic makes it much less pleasant. Concord is narrow, in the first part (climbing from left to right up to the intersection with Huron), but generally I can squeeze through. There’s also an additional light, compared to Garden.

Garden has much less traffic, which is good and bad. It’s good because it’s not usually necessary to squeeze into tight spots, it is bad because sometimes drivers have an expectation that they should be able to zoom! up or down the road, and will sometimes honk at you for no reason other than you are “in the way”. The fewer lights on Garden are also somewhat more “hackable”, if you happen to be in an inbound hurry. At the intersection with Huron, if you miss your light (easy, it is run by a sensor and cycles quickly if you are not traveling with cars) you can veer left across the fire station parking lot and cross with the last of the traffic from Sherman. At the Linnaean light, the road on the right is very lightly traveled and you can either safely run the light after stopping and looking, or dismount and jaywalk (the socially acceptable way to run a red light). Where Garden and Concord join, the plan is to bear left across the sidewalk onto the stub end of Concord. This is not easy to do if arriving from Concord, but if you arrive on Garden, the light makes it easy, and you also have the option of crossing over to the sidewalk early if you can pass through a gap in traffic.

Traveling westthrough Harvard Square on official bicycle routes requires a bit of a detour, shown in yellow. A shortcut that is possible if the lights are favorably timed is shown in red — take a U turn immediately after the north point of the pedestrian plaza and join the auto traffic there. I decided that was not safe enough and now tend to use the route shown in green, walking where it is dotted. This probably saves time over the official route, and is probably also safer.

Most times you see discussions on the internet of global warming, traffic congestion, and road safety, the advocates of the status quo are quick to claim that “we cannot ban cars, because [reasons]”. I’ve got no respect for this style of arguing the point because #1, even pseudo-serious calls to actually “ban all cars” are quite rare ( this recent article is the strongest statement I’ve seen, and that’s just one writer at Gizmodo ), #2 the reasons all assume that we’d do nothing to adapt and when possible remedies are proposed, new reasons are concocted (we can play this game all day), and #3, there’s real live reasons to reduce car use by quite a lot, and those cheerfully get ignored.

Just to motivate this, here are some very good reasons to drive a whole lot less. It’s also helpful to keep this in mind when considering alternatives; if they’ve got the same problems, then maybe they’re not good alternatives.

  • Cars kill thousands of people in crashes, including over 4000 pedestrians per year.
  • Cars kill their drivers through lack of exercise, enough to raise their annual mortality risk by about 25-30% 

    (summed over the population of car commuters, this is probably more early death than results from cigarette smoking ).  As long as exercise is its own separate activity, you’re unlikely to get enough of it.

  • Ignoring the less-death part of the equation, the regular exercise that you get from not-driving to work and results in just plain better health; you get more wind, more stamina, more flexible joints. It tends to help you keep weight off, tends to help blood pressure, tends to help blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, tends to ward off type 2 diabetes.  None of this is guaranteed for any one person, but it’s a really good bet.
  • Cars are a source of both particulate and noise pollution, which both contribute to poor health. Noise pollution from cars makes public spaces more annoying and less useful; you can’t hear as well.
  • Cars use roads very inefficiently. In urban areas the resulting congestion is so serious that one additional car added to Manhattan traffic is calculated to have an aggregate cost of $160 through delays to others on the roads.
  • Cars are a major source of CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change.
  • Paying for fuel for cars puts money into the pockets of nations and groups that do not share our values. Al Qaeda was mostly funded from oil money. Daesh is funded from oil money. Iraq would have been a non-issue without oil money (murderous dictators of poor nations don’t get much attention from us). Iran, officially an enemy of the US and ally of our enemy in Syria, runs on oil money.
  • From an economic-theory point-of-view, cars are a poster child for market failure. Their use is not independent of other people’s choices; if I want to take the bus, traffic from cars makes my bus ride slower and more expensive. If I want to ride my bike, cars can make the ride so much more unpleasant that many people won’t ride a bike. Even if I want to compromise and just drive a smaller car, the mass of larger cars makes me less safe in any collision; even for cars, it is a safety arms race. These externalities (pollution, noise, risk) are not accounted for in gas taxes. Even the direct costs of driving itself–repair and expansion of the roads–is not fully paid by the gas tax. The one reason that economic theory says ought to motivate people not to drive–that driving is very bad for your health–falls victim to human over-optimism about their good intentions and future luck; we won’t invest rationally in our (near-) future health, because we think we’re “healthy” and don’t need to do more. All this means that you can’t use hand-waving appeals to popularity and market outcomes to prove that profligate driving is what happens in the best of all possible worlds.

Given this motivation, let’s suppose we did ban cars. The question I’d like to see thought about and answered is not “why is this impossible?” but rather “what changes do we need to get by in a hypothetical car-less future? What changes would a lack of cars allow us to make?” My hope is that we would make some of those changes now, so that more of us won’t feel like driving a car is our only option. If the assumption is “cars are banned”, that removes the option of not thinking about a problem by assuming “well of course, for that we would use a car”.

One problem with using the thought experiment for this purpose is that there’s a difference between cars-banned and cars-reduced. If we actually banned cars, we wouldn’t need “bike lanes” because we’ve already got bike lanes. They’re called “roads”, but right now they’re full of cars. But if there’s still many cars on the road, we don’t get those “bike lanes” for free.. So keep that caveat in mind; if we’re planning to use tools from the hypothetical world in the real world, because some might not survive translation.

Another problem is: “what about the car-like things?” This might mean delivery trucks, golf carts, buses, trikes. What about self-driving cars? What about really big “bicycles”? Are those cars? Do we ban them too? I think what makes sense is to look at the costs of each and how they interact with what’s around them. Anything heavy tends to impose unusual wear-and-tear on the roads; this includes city buses. Anything human-guided has the potential for inept or careless use, so there should be some combination of small size, low speed, and/or safeguards to mitigate that risk. Inefficient transportation will produce excess CO2 until our energy supply is properly carbon-free. Even if a motorized robot-guided chair is carbon-free, safe for others, and kind to roads, it is still a motorized chair and will have the same detrimental health effects for its passenger.

 

So, to consider some of the problems:

There are people who cannot ride a walk long distances or ride a bike.

Anything that assumes bike riding or increased use of transit by default assumes some basic fitness, and some people lack that. How should they get around? In practice I think quite a few of them would use mobility scooters of some sort; modern electric wheelchairs travel as fast as 5mph (according to a wheelchair user I asked) but if they could be made stable we’d want more than that. I think they could be made stable. A larger, faster real-world example is a golf cart, though this is cheating slightly on the “ban cars” assumption. For people who lose their balance a tricycle sometimes works.

There are people with very long commutes.

Back before cars were so popular we tended to use a lot more rail; people would take the train in to urban areas to work. Would we restore our train networks? If the rail line doesn’t pass close by home and work, how are those endpoints connected? My default answer is “bicycles”. Another answer is to modify the zoning regulations that prevent people from living close to transit and work; artificially restricting that supply drives up prices and forces longer commutes. I expect this is one of the harder changes to make because it involves change near where people live; allowing greater density near transit would financially benefit anyone owning that property, and it would also provide an advantage to those somewhat near transit who wanted to use it (higher density allows transit to function efficiently allows better service). However, widespread density increases closer to urban centers might have the effect of reducing property values sufficiently far out as a simple consequence of increased near-urban supply reducing far-suburban demand.

For an all-bicycle commute, from personal experience I’d say 6-7 urban miles is fine, but 10 miles is pushing it, though that depends on conditions. The median commute is nearly 9 miles, which means that half might be done on bikes, but half also almost certainly will not. It’s possible to make biking somewhat faster — current bike routes often contain many gratuitous stops or are far from direct, and bikes with aerodynamic fairing or modest electric assist can cruise at 20mph (a human doing this without “cheating” is likely to get very sweaty) which reduces the time for a 10-mile ride to 30 minutes, which is about what my 6-mile commute-with-stops-and-old-legs takes.

There’s weather.

Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows, sometimes it’s hot. As a general rule the only truly difficult weather is hot weather; we can add rain coats, umbrellas, gloves, boots, and hats for the wet and cold. Some cities have building codes that allow for pedestrian awnings, and those help with sun, snow, and rain. We’d probably do more of that in a car-less world. One useful thing about banning cars is that you no longer need to deal with your car and the weather; no need for car washes, no need for digging cars out of the snow. A pedestrian or a bicycle can fit down a narrow lane, or if in a hurry, can simply push through/over a snow pile rather than shovel out a wide path.

There’s kids.

It turns out bikes work pretty well for hauling tiny kids, and once they’re too large to haul, they can ride their own bikes.  With cars banned it’s vastly safer for little kids to ride bikes (turns out a ban isn’t even necessary if you design your infrastructure right).

Grocery shopping.

Not much need to adapt here. People who walk already use folding carts. My old retired now-deceased neighbor just carried his bags. People riding bicycles have many options, everything from backpacks to huge messenger bags to front racks to baskets and panniers mounted on racks. Even on a “normal” bike proper equipment allows six bags of groceries (2 front panniers, 2 rear panniers, 2 in basket). Actual intended-for-cargo bikes carry more.

There are heavy things that require heavy machinery to deliver.

True, but this is far from the common case. Delivery vans nowadays are large to amortize the cost of the driver who guides them, and then they drive as fast as allowed to also amortize the cost of that driver. The van is large, but the delivery generally is not. Consider the potential capabilities of self-driving delivery vehicles that need not to be large and fast. We can estimate this somewhat by looking at what humans on bicycles and tricycles are able to deliver. The point is not “this is what humans should be doing” or “look at those crazy people”, but rather, with a small vehicle and a small motor, it is possible to deliver this much stuff if you aren’t in a terrific hurry. Examples: Haley Trike and 400 lbs of sand (video); a chicken coop; a trailer full of Citibikes; a ludicrously large pile of stuff; a mattress, table, chair, and box. Robots could deliver loads of this size, and if it becomes economical for self-driving cars to ferry people around, then it will also be economical for self-driving carts to ferry cargo around in smaller batches.

Emergency vehicles

Well of course, for that we would use a car.  With all the other cars and trucks banned, they should be able to move really quickly through the traffic that’s not there.  (Bikes don’t take up much space and you can haul them completely off the road if you need to clear a path for an ambulance.)

Steep Hills

There is already (one) cable-lift assist for bicycles.  E-assist also helps, if a hill must be crossed regularly.  For one-shot annoying hills, walking works.

Rural Areas

No good answers here yet.  Horses?  Even electric vehicles are dicey, for sufficiently cold and remote values of rural.

E Bikes in China

January 3, 2011

Was reading the put-charts-in-comments post at the oil drum.

Saw this comment:

Which included a link to this photo (and comments, GO READ, click photo for link): Photo by Steve Jurvetson, some rights reserved.

Update, for 2010, Jurvetson comment on his photo: “update from Weinert: E2W sales in China in 2010 were 28 million, bringing the installed base over 150 million.”
28 million, that’s growth.

Which in turn included a link to this presentation (pdf): http://www.jonathanweinert.com/presentations/E2W-CAFCP.pdf

Very, very interesting. Not too surprising to someone who rides a cargo bike, and thinks about electric assist from time to time. If I were running China, I would approve of this development.

See also so-when-we-run-out-of-oil-how-will-we-get-around (proof that I’ve been thinking about this)

Note that exclusive use of electric power is far less safe (higher mortality rate) than pedaling, because we need the exercise.

This presentation (Jurvetson presentation, linked from comments on picture below, requires Flash) starting at slide 16, also has some interesting numbers on e-bikes.

See also: Photo by Steve Jurvetson, some rights reserved.