Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Transportation: Is it really all about cars?

Yesterday I attended a City Council briefing on design choices for the west end of the 520 replacement bridge. As currently designed, a shared use pathway for people on foot and on bikes will cross Lake Washington, but will not continue across Portage Bay to the junction of 520 with I-5.

One of the people who testified in favor of completing the pedestrian and bicycle connection pointed out this statement in the Draft Community Design Process Final Report handed out at the hearing:

"A well-designed transportation project can go much beyond its primary purpose of moving motor vehicles by positively influencing the futures of communities and the health of their residents."

"This is wrong," she stated. "The primary purpose of transportation is to move people and goods - not to move cars."  She went on to argue that it would be inexcusable not to complete the pedestrian and bicycle path.

This got me wondering what our transportation professionals have to say about their role. Are they really all about cars?  I looked up the mission statements of the Seattle, King County, Washington State and United States departments of transportation.  Here they are:

SDOT Mission:
To deliver a safe, reliable, efficient, and socially equitable transportation system that enhances Seattle's environment and economic vitality.
King County DOT Mission:
Our mission is to improve the quality of life for people in King County by providing mobility in a way that protects the environment, helps manage growth, and reduces traffic congestion.
WSDOT Mission:
The mission of the Washington State Department of Transportation is to keep people and business moving by operating and improving the state’s transportation systems vital to our taxpayers and communities.
US Department of Transportation:
The mission of the Department is to:
Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.
These are all good sentiments, but these agencies continue in various ways to act as if their primary goal was to move motor vehicles. People who travel by bike or on foot are rarely acknowledged as part of "transportation" at all.

For example, this summary of the Washington State Department of Transportation budget for 2011-2013 does not mention non-motorized transportation at all, and this lengthy report on the State of Washington Transportation mentions pedestrians and bicycles only once (on page 5) as an isolated line item, not as a critical component of the transportation system.

This summary of findings from a study of transportation around the Seattle sports arenas does not mention pedestrians or bicycles at all, despite the critical importance of limiting car trips to this area.

The mission statements give me hope - and if you want to explore further, you'll find that each of these public agencies has goals and objectives that suggest at least a beginning recognition that transportation really is about people, including people who walk and ride bikes.

But meanwhile, whenever I see a reference to transportation (including parking, driving directions, transit) that doesn't include people on bikes or on foot, I'm the Transportation Nag: so I'll nag.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reclaiming the Arboretum: A Cautious Hooray for Sharrows and Speed Bumps

The section of Lake Washington Boulevard that runs through the Washington Park Arboretum began as a bicycle path, developed before cars arrived in Seattle. Later, the Olmstead Brothers incorporated this road into their grand plan for an interconnected network of peaceful parks and boulevards.  By the time I moved to East Capitol Hill 35 years ago, however, this road had degenerated into a speedway for people driving cars to and from the 520 freeway.  The 25-mile-per-hour speed limit was observed only as a sign at the entryway.

Riding a bike along this narrow road was only for the bravest of the brave. (disclaimer: this photo was not taken in the Arboretum).

Even though I consider myself an "enthused and confident" bicycle rider, I did not ride along this road. 
But yesterday, all this had changed. As I often do, I rode my bike from the University District through Montlake, pedaled into the Arboretum along a gravel path and across a footbridge, then strolled with my bike along the lovely Azalea Way pedestrian path.  To continue on my way home, I usually wait awhile for a break in the roaring traffic before crossing Lake Washington Boulevard by the Japanese Tea Garden.

Yesterday, to my surprise, the first driver to approach me stopped and let me cross the road.  That's when I noticed the fresh paint on the roadway:

The freshly-painted sharrows are meant to remind people driving cars that people also ride bikes along this road.  I'm not especially fond of sharrows; research shows they have little or no influence on how people behave in traffic, and do almost nothing to make bicycle riding feel comfortable and appear safe.  How could these sharrows make such a dramatic difference here?

When I looked around, I realized that other changes were forcing people to drive more slowly.  A few yards to my right I saw this sign:

I walked over to check it out.  A steady stream of people in cars cautiously and slowly approached the raised crosswalk.  Those who failed to slow got a good jolt - I could see the cars bounce, then slow. I walked my bike back and forth a few times just for the pleasure of seeing people in cars slow down and stop for me.

Then I swung my bike onto the road and pedaled through the park.  Nobody whizzed by. Sure there were cars on the road, but they no longer felt threatening.  I passed another traffic-calming feature: a speed bump near the park entrance (but I was so happy to be riding, I didn't stop to take a picture!). 

Do the sharrows, speed bumps and raised crosswalks mean that Lake Washington Boulevard is now a low-stress route that will invite people of all ages and abilities to ride bikes and walk?  No - for many people (children, people with disabilities, folks older and less mobile than myself) it will never feel safe to ride a bike on a road with this high volume of car traffic, or even to cross on the raised crosswalk, even if the cars are moving only 15 or 25 mph. Fortunately for the more wary, additional changes are planned for the Arboretum.  A car-free shared use path will soon parallel this road.

So for now, I welcome the sharrows, the speed bumps and the raised crosswalk, and look forward to the day when Seattle fully reclaims the Olmstead vision of a beautiful city interwoven with welcoming, peaceful connected paths for walking and riding bikes.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why did you choose those knobs? Safety and Perceived Safety

I've been talking with other bikey folks about the perception of safety for bicycle riding and walking.  We want routes for bike riding and walking that are not only objectively safe - engineered to prevent collisions, falls, and crashes - but also appear safe. These two kinds of safety - objective safety and perceived safety - are equally important, we think, because it's perceived safety that determines whether people will actually use a street or path for biking and walking.

I was thinking about this issue when I went to the Blood Bank yesterday to fulfill my civic duty of blood donation.  Looking through the singularly dry selection of reading material in the waiting room, I settled on the Winter 2012 issue of Bent.  I'd never heard of it - it's the journal of Tau Beta Pi, a fraternal organization of construction engineers.  I'm a nurse, and I 'm not really interested in construction engineering, but I was bored and ended up reading most of the articles in the journal.

One article tied in with my bikey thoughts on perceived safety. Under the title, "The Limits of Logic," the author described his experience designing and building a complicated production test unit (whatever that is!) as an engineering intern.  The finished unit worked perfectly, and his boss acknowledged this. "But why did you choose those knobs?" the boss asked.

The author had chosen the knobs because they fit the hand, they fulfilled their function as knobs and they were inexpensive - "What's not to like?"  The boss's reply: "Those are the ugliest knobs I've ever seen!" It had not occurred to the young engineer that "ugly" could matter for the logical, practical project at hand. He concludes:

Good engineering does certainly employ logic, but it also must, at times, involve feelings or emotions, intuition, a sense of beauty, esthetics—a whole host of non-logical parameters. Thence, [the author's] Lyle’s Law of the Limits of Logic: Think, but also feel.
I hope as Seattle builds out its network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the engineers will keep Lyle's Law in mind.  Too many segments that appear (at least to a non-engineer) to meet high standards of objective safety still make me cringe:

  • The trail across the I-90 bridge: nice and wide, separated from traffic, paving in good condition, the grade not too daunting on a bike. But yuck!  There's no place to stop, sit down and enjoy the view - and how could anyone really enjoy the view with the traffic roaring by so close and so loud?  What if I have a flat or my kid needs to pee?  
  • Various segments of the Alki Trail that go under and adjacent to the bridges - it's a nice wide trail, mostly far enough from traffic to be reasonably quiet, and parts of it are even bordered by an attractive vine-covered fence - but it feels creepy and isolated along here. I can handle this during the day, but at night I think I'd choose the bus.  And I wouldn't send a kid along here alone!
  • The SODO Trail - bordered by the Light Rail on one side and bus storage yards on the other: nice and wide and freshly paved, and there are even some cool murals along the trail. But I feel hemmed in here - with fences along both sides of the trail, I can't get out without going the length.
Please, my friends the traffic engineers and planning professionals, when you build out our bike and pedestrian network, pay attention to the knobs - the sights, sounds and overall feel of the route.  We want our city to be safe, but also to appear safe - and lovely, and delightful - for everyone out there riding and walking.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Be Predictable - Part 2: Finding the SODO Trail

Ever since I first saw this poster on the back of a bus, I've been paying close attention to the challenges involved in being predictable on a bike.  Today, for example, I decided to ride as predictably as possible from my home on East Capitol Hill to the Seattle Public Schools office in SODO.

I've tried this before, following the hope-inspiring wayfinding signs to the SODO Trail, but I've never found the trail, instead ending up wandering around between stadiums and freeway on-ramps in a terribly unpredictable way.

Today I started out riding south on 19th, where there are sharrows painted on the pavement to tell me I'm welcome on my bike. I lose the sharrows where 19th crosses Jackson, but I manage to find my way to Dearborn and Rainier anyway.  Once I cross Rainier, I'm nice and predictable on the Dearborn bike lane. Soon I see this hopeful sign:

Simple enough, I just need to turn left across two lanes of traffic. But wait - there's NO LEFT TURN at this intersection!  And the arrow in the bike lane indicates I need to go straight!

Fortunately, there's an exception for me on my bike:

So it's OK for me to turn left here - but I'm in a bike lane on the far right, with two lanes of traffic going straight ahead, and the street I'm supposed to turn left into is one way the opposite direction.

It would be perfectly legal for me to cut across those two lanes of traffic and take a left here (as long as I put my arm out to signal predictably).  But is that really "being predictable?"  Or sensible? Or safe?

Instead I choose to cross the intersection with the light, swing my bike around so it's facing the way I want to go, and wait for the light to change (in case you hadn't heard the term, this is known as a "Copenhagen turn" or a "two-stage left.").

But now I'm in another awkward situation:

I've stepped back a bit to show you the big picture.  I'm actually waiting at the corner right behind that car that's turning right (another car right-hooked me from the left lane just before the light changed, by the way).  From the markings on the street, you'd think I was required to turn right with the car.  But fortunately, there's another exception just for me:

You may notice that this sign clearly shows drivers where to position their cars - but it's no help to me.  Am I supposed to stay to the right and hope nobody hits me when they turn right?  Am I supposed to set my bike on that little line between the RIGHT ONLY arrow and the LEFT ONLY arrow?  Do I have a predictable choice?

I ride about a half block in a nice buffered contraflow bike lane, then see another indication I'm on the right track to find the SODO Trail:

It doesn't take me too long to figure out that I need to angle RIGHT to use the sidewalk (can I ride?  or is it more predictable if I walk?), before I follow the arrow to the LEFT toward the SODO trail.  There are a couple more well-marked turns, and then I find myself stopped at a Light Rail crossing, looking for any indication of where to go from here.  The last time I searched for the SODO Trail, it was right around here that I lost the scent and ended up in unpredictable territory.

There's a train coming, so I have a few minutes to look around.  None of those nice little green wayfinding signs anywhere in view; there's the Light Rail station platform, and the entrance to a Light Rail maintenance facility off to the left:

But wait!  What's that little fleck of green?

I've found it!  It's the SODO Trail!

 I still need to get there - there's a nice pedestrian crossing button to help me:

But even here there's no indication this is meant for ME, on my bike!  So what do you think, my reader?  Am I predictable?

Be Predictable - If You Can!

"Be Predictable!"  Sounds like good advice.  But ever since I first encountered this poster on the back of a bus, I've had a nagging feeling this may not be a very helpful message.

What does it mean to "be predictable" when riding a bike?  Follow the rules of the road, right?  But sometimes the rules are ambiguous, especially when I'm on my bike sharing a lane with a bus (which is actually a whole lot taller than I am, despite what you see in this graphic).

There is one street in this city where I have no problem at all being predictable.  That's Dexter, where bus islands and a buffered bike lane allow me to ride on past when a bus is stopped.

But more often, I'm riding up and down Pine with the Number 11.

There's a bike lane on Pine between Boren and 15th.  When a bus picks up passengers, it pulls in front of me into the bike lane and stops.  I have three legal options.  I can wait by the tail pipe and breathe exhaust;  I can act like a car driver and pass the bus on the left; or I can jump onto the sidewalk and get around the bus that way.  If we're going uphill and the bus is taking awhile to load and unload, I'm most likely to get on the sidewalk.  If we're going downhill and the way is clear, I'll pass on the left.  Sometimes I'll breathe exhaust and wait.

What's "predictable" in this situation?  Should I wear a sign on my helmet in mirror-writing to let the bus driver know my decision-making algorithm?  Or should I just choose one option and follow it consistently?

Until we have more sensible infrastructure like the bike lane and bus islands on Dexter, I'd rather not be scolded for being unpredictable as I breathe in bus exhaust and try to decide how to safely share the road - and the bike lane.