Time To Critique Cycle Tracks In Nation’s Capitol

Background Reading


DC Bike Commuters

DC Bike Commuters

Most of the friction that comes about when Vehicular Cyclists debate “cycle tracks” with Protected Bike Lane fans revolves around a disconnect between the two arguing groups. It is an argument that is reminiscent of the ones held a quarter century ago when Microsoft DOS users were being assailed by Apple Mac users.

Apple Mac eventually won out. The reason was that their User Interface was embedded in their Operating System. The early Windows systems were running DOS with the icon-based Windows user environment overlaying it. It was clumsy and never seemed to work as well as that on the Macintosh. Being a long-time Apple user (I began with an Apple II) at that period of time was a bad then as being a critic of Bicycle Infrastructure efforts today.

What we are currently using today as “Dutch-Style Cycle Tracks” is like laying an Icon-based User Interface on top of DOS. It sorta works, but not very well. The Dutch are running cycling’s equivalent of the Macintosh OS. They have tried all the permutations and found out what works and what does not. We on the other hand are trying to force Protected Bike Lanes (our special version of segregated bike lanes) onto streets which are in large part not suitable for the treatments we are giving them. These roads represent Microsoft DOS.

This Ain’t No Religion. It’s An Exercise In Problem-Solving

And where this shoe-horned environment starts to come apart and fray is generally at intersections. Jan Heine did a masterful job of trying to explain the basic failings of this approach to bicycle infrastructure. And as expected the DOS crowd decided to rain hellfire down on him for violating the Faith.

Urban Cyclists are largely like Catholics who have been taught a certain version of Truth and feel that anyone even remotely critiquing it should be ex-communicated. We need to get over this sort of thing. The fact of the matter is that as with religion, there are hundreds if not thousands of differing religious viewpoints. Christianity itself suffers immensely from its fractured state. Anybody with a building, and a mail order doctorate can open shop in any inner city in America and make a decent living preaching his version of “The Word“. It has been going on for decades now and will continue.

The current version of bicycle infrastructure being imported into the United States is largely coming not from Amsterdam but from Copenhagen by way of a consultant who has taken onto himself the mantle of High Priest of the Church of Urban Cycling. He preaches hell fire and brimstone as the Judgment of God on automobiles. And he espouses a minimalist view of bicycles and the accessories worn with them. In fact he goes so far as to say that the bicycle helmet is not just a worthless talisman but actually evil and dangerous.

We do not need that kind of divisive thinking injected into a problem which is largely one of proposing a hypothesis and then developing a test to determine if the hypothesis is true before trying to apply the hypothesis to every mile of roadway in your city. It is that simple.

Washington D.C. Is Doing A Bit Of Self-Criticism

The first thing to say about Windows running on top of DOS is that the idea is worth exploring. But the actual experience is lacking. This is what is happening with Protected Bike Lanes in DC. Martin Dicaro writes in his recent article:

On this Bike to Work Day, when more than 14,000 people locally are expected to pedal to their jobs, cycling advocates say Washington has made significant progress in promoting bicycling — but add infrastructure improvements are needed if the District is to join the world’s elite bicycle cities.

The goal is to integrate bicycling as a mode into the overall transportation network,” said Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, L Street downtown, and 15th Street NW are examples of the District’s progress, advocates say, although even those facilities still require enhancements.

So we can take away from the experience in DC that the experiment looks promising but the execution is lacking. Two-way cycle tracks like the one we have in Chicago’s Dearborn Street are problematic to say the least and just the kind of design the Dutch have decided no longer to use:

A two-way cycle track protected by parked cars and the sidewalk, 15th Street is one of the most popular bike lanes in the District.

On a typical work day, lines of cyclists form during morning rush hour waiting for the traffic signal—a pedestrian walk signal—to cross intersections. But in the years since it opened the bike lane has degraded, now marked by small potholes and bumps. The lanes were painted without resurfacing what had been the parking lane on 15th Street.

“I’ve heard from people who’ve had near accidents because they were avoiding potholes. I heard from a father-to-be who wants to take his infant to daycare by bike but he’s afraid all the bumpiness would be bad for the baby,” said Kishan Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner who has lobbied the District Department of Transportation to resurface the 15th Street bike lane.

That’s exactly what DDOT plans to do.

Cycling Advocates know firsthand what a bumpy unprepared surface looks and feels like when it is delivered in the “showcase” environment that was to be Dearborn Street’s PBL. Yes, it can be fixed. But after having spent $450K for the first iteration one has to wonder why this “fix” was even necessary.

The even bigger question is how will maintenance of the Dearborn Street PBL proceed come next winter. Last winter was terrible and engendered lots of critiques from the Faithful. Problematic too is the placement of the parking lane adjacent to this too narrow two-way cycle track in such a way motorists getting in and out of their cars have to walk in the bike lane. This oversight was simply “silly“.

The world got to see one of Washington’s most popular cycle tracks on Inauguration Day, when President Obama made his way down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue NW and over the two-way cycle track, located in the roadway’s median.

On days when there are no presidential parades, the procession is more mundane: motorists idling at traffic lights, bicycles whirring by—and illegal U-turns.

Dozens of bicyclists—through social media posts and in-person interviews—say the Metropolitan Police Department has failed to enforce a new rule banning U-turns over the center cycle track, which have been blamed for a number of car-bike crashes. They say cab drivers eager to snatch up fares are the most frequent offenders.

In late January the MPD invited reporters to watch officers issue drivers final warnings against U-turns on Penn. Ave. From that point on, violators would receive a $100 fine. But some cyclists say that enforcement has been spotty at best.

There are still U-turns. There are great potential for hazards,” said bike commuter Martin Moulton in an interview outside the Wilson Building. “We need more education and more enforcement.”

Anytime you end up with a problem like this one in DC where a cycle track is running down the center of the street and motorists making U-Turns becomes a problem I would have to question the design of the cycle track in the first instance. Like the Dearborn Street problem I mentioned earlier, sometimes these cycle tracks are being laid down by DOT workers who do not ride bikes at all. They are the ones making the decisions about where this or that feature of the cycle tracks goes. And frankly a good bit of this could be avoided if only everyone realized that you cannot lay down a cycle track without having ridden the stretch in question on a bicycle. And you need to have “newbie” riders in the mix as testers.

L Street is one of the most difficult places where we’ve ever done a bike lane,” said Zimbabwe, the DDOT planner.

Running eastbound from Georgetown to downtown, the L Street cycle track (about one and a half miles) exemplifies the difficult balance DDOT engineers must strike when carving up existing road space between cars and bicycles.

We removed a lane that was parking at off-peak and travel during rush hours and put in a bike lane. At the corners we had to do special things because of the volume of left hand turns off of L Street, so we have what’s called a mixing zone. And it does take some getting used to for everybody,” Zimbabwe said.

Near intersections, the L Street cycle track narrows at it squeezes between vehicular travel lanes and left turn lanes. Zimbabwe says only one accident involving bicyclists has occurred in the six months since the cycle track opened, but advocates want safety tweaks.

There are some improvements that can be made to make the protection better. We’re going to see some of those things implemented in the M Street cycle track going in the other direction that should be coming in later this year,” said Farthing, the head of WABA, in an interview at the intersection of L and 15th NW. “But I think there are some retrofits they could make here [on L Street]. There is a car illegally parked in the middle of it right now, so if there were a curb there that couldn’t happen.”

This Is An Experiment. Deal With It.

Some defenders of PBLs love to get their feathers ruffled when anyone criticizes their lanes. The first thing out of their mouths is that anyone daring to express the notion that the “Emperor is naked” is a hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being critical is what is needed here, not blind acceptance. We are not at a religious gathering folks, we are experimenting with designs.

Citing statistics for the infrastructure benefits found in Amsterdam or Copenhagen always needs to have the “Your Mileage May Vary” tagline added. If a cycle track is poorly implemented it can be worse than what it replaced. And unfortunately if the amount of pre-installation testing was minimal (and in my experience here in Chicago, it is virtually non-existent) then you will not see the flaws until a few months and a couple of deaths or serious injuries later.

That is exactly what is happening in DC. Fortunately they have the courage and emotional maturity to stare at themselves in the mirror and make the necessary changes.

Windows Running On Top Of DOS

Windows Running On Top Of DOS