Bike Infrastructure Design Verification

Questions We Need Answers To

  1. When you create a design for your infrastructure, how do you know whether it will actually work BEFORE going to the expense?
  2. When your infrastructure has been installed, how do you test whether it is actually effective in increasing the safety of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists?

In videos like the one below, the lane positioning and the overall design seem chaotic. Perhaps worse than some I have seen here stateside. So when your local DOT goes to build new infrastructure is there a book they use for the purpose?

We know that there are key government documents that purport to show the best ways of creating infrastructure. But every situation is a bit different, right? So after having built a key piece of infrastructure you would always want to be able to determine if you were successful. Are there some strategies for telling whether the design is actually working.

I Am A Software Engineer

When you write a piece of code you know before hand that there are nice subroutines or objects that a can be used to help craft the application you want to build. But unfortunately there really are no simple ways of telling you how to assemble the various elements into a working whole.

But you do have some rather basic tests that you can run to tell you if the ‘finished product‘ actually works. You can measure things like speed, accuracy and user satisfaction with the finished product.

Where are the equivalents of these simple sorts of ‘tools‘ in the infrastructure design world? Noting the kinds and placements of some of the bike lanes in the videos I see, apparently there are widely divergent ideas about what will or should work.

But let’s say that I am a novice municipality wanting to avoid paying money to install a network of bike lanes in my town. The kinds of questions I would want to know the answers to BEFORE I started building out my infrastructure would be:

  1. Which current streets are best adapted to this new paradigm?
  2. How wide should my lanes be and where should they be placed?
  3. Will my users need training on how to use this new infrastructure? If so how do I distribute the most effective information?
  4. What sorts of tests does one perform BEFORE installing new infrastructure? Do I need to know where new stop lights and stop signs are best placed.
  5. When traffic is merging are there rules about where bike lanes should be and even whether they should be used at all in that particular situation.

Why Do I Keep Seeing The Same Mistakes?

Every time I see a bike lane placed alongside car doors I know that someone did not anticipate the problems they were creating. In fact when I see two foot wide bike lanes that are against the curb and are separating boarding buses from their passenger waiting shelters I am shocked. Why would anyone place a bike lane there?

So I am immediately questioning the efficacy of whatever design tools or methodologies are being used to create the infrastructure design being used. There really should be some way to rid ourselves of the sillier mistakes in design that everyone keeps repeating, but I see no evidence of this.

So what am I missing? Are we really just ‘feeling our way‘? If so God help us!

Even Our Street Furniture Is Difficult To Use Properly

The problem of ‘getting it right‘ extends to the mundane aspects of infrastructure design. For instance how does one convey to the general public the proper way to lock up a bicycle to a specific type of bike rack?

Recently the ‘Wave‘ version of the bike rack on a street in Chicago was being used to lock up multiple bikes. The users had locked their bikes to it using the same paradigm as they might have employed with an ‘inverted-U‘ rack. But using that way of locking a bike (involving two U-locks) in incorrect on a ‘Wave-style‘ bike rack.

Since there are no illustrative signs adorning the rack or the ground around it, how does a person ‘know‘ the best way to lock up? This seems like a simple thing to be able to convey to people, but like so very much in the Brave New World of bicycle infrastructure design much seems to be haphazard.

One of the beauties of the Divvy bike station rack is that it is self-certifying. If the bike is not docked properly you do not get a ‘AOK‘ response from the circuitry that controls the station. How could we design bike manual bike racks so that mere mortals could use them most effectively?

Installing Bicycle Infrastructure Is A Bit Like Doing Surgery

Our present solution to everything is ‘more‘. We find that here in Chicago the idea is to reach a goal of 100 miles of bike infrastructure lanes. But that really makes no sense if the lanes design are out of context where installed.

Consider the Lake Street bike lanes heading into Oak Park. Would you have designed them that way, knowing what they feel like now? I would not.

When you come across a town like Evanston that has a one-way bike lane that crosses town from east-to-west but until recently had no alternative which ran west-to-east would you have installed them in that order? In fact I see much of the current design of bike lanes both there and in Hyde Park and shake my head.

Once the green paint has begun to fade to that rather ugly color it takes on the newness of the situation begins to fade. And suddenly you are faced with a street where half or more of the PVC bollards laid down the previous year are gone. Cars are no longer obeying the restriction to avoid parking in the bike lane. In fact along the main east-west bike lane route through the heart of Hyde Park winter use is nearly impossible. Why?

The bike lane (being against the curb) gets plowed under. In fact when I drove that route this spring (before all the snow had melted) I was convinced that the bike lane had been removed. There was no visual evidence of its existence.

But my spouse finally spotted some of it and sure enough it was still there. So how then does a winter cycling commuter use such a system. In fact if you were a visitor to Hyde Park who had no idea that a bike lane was present, how would you avoid improper interactions with cyclists?

I Cannot But Feel That The Infrastructure Effort Is BullShit

In suburban areas I am noticing that IDOT has adopted a pretty good design that takes the bike lane off the roadway and instead uses a very wide sidewalk/trail design to allow cyclists to travel year-round.

I have seen it along busy thoroughfare where four to six lanes exist and it works perfectly. I have seen it employed as far north as Trinity University and as far south as Frankfort, IL. And in each instance the roadway being used is state-owned.

Did IDOT design this infrastructure themselves? It services both pedestrians and bicyclists alike. It in many cases always has a 20 foot wide parkway just beyond the curb that separates the entire thing from the speeding traffic.

The intersections that cyclist have to cross have nicely appointed cutouts. And in some cases there are street signal controls with countdown timers where the path crosses a large north-south avenue.

The design is the same in each instance I have seen it employed. And I have ridden them and found them great. Nothing fancy here. There are no parked cars with opening doors that one has to avoid. No problems with which side of the traffic one wants to be on. Why? No cars are involved at all in the direction of bike/pedestrian traffic flow.

It is as if you are on a separate superhighway of your very own. You are relaxed and can keep an eye on what is happening at each intersection. It is a great design!

So why is something like it not being used in other places? Chicago has such an olio of design attempts it almost feels as if school kids from 6th grade did the designs and got the chance to install them nearby. But I’ll be danged if any of it makes much sense. Why is that?

The Problem Is Not How Many Miles of Infrastructure

The problem is how well does any of this stuff work. An awful lot of the stuff I read tends to make me think that the Pope of Bicycle Heaven has turned his children’s ideas into design methodology.

The approach of a 6th-grader is to remove the cars. That is kinda what Hitler did in Germany. Find that segment of the population that gives you heartburn and remove it.

But that is a rather brutish way to get things done. So how does one go about getting to satisfy everyone? It seems to me that IDOT has managed to find a good starting point. Now all we need to do is complete the ‘last mile‘ segments on the feeder trails and routes that link into their east-west bike lanes and we could be onto something.