Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mapnifiscent Needs More Bikeshare

There's a great site called Mapnifiscent. You put in a location, it calls up the Google Maps GTFS API (probably), and it tells you where you can get in n minutes. What if you have a bike? If you have a bike, you can change the settings and say "I have a bike!" and it will factor that in to the equation. (One minor point of contention: it assumes 3 mph straight-line for walking, but just 6 mph for bikes. 3 mph in a straight line for walking seems quite fast, as it probably equates to 4-5 mph when roads are taken in to account. 6 mph seems slow, although when I calculated Hubway speeds it is actually a pretty good estimate for straight-line urban biking speeds.)

What if you have a Bike Share fob? Well—that's anyone's guess. A great new feature would be for Mapnifiscent to scrape the XML feed off of bike share sites (for instance, here's Boston and DC) and plug locations in to their formula. It could then offer an option "are you a Bike Share member" which would allow estimates based on combined transit-bike share-walking trips; and show how bike sharing can enhance transit by expanding access. Because, let's face it: you don't always have a bike with you. And sometimes it's not allowed.

Hubway Expansion Station Locations Not Always Optimally Located

Boston Bikes and Hubway are in the midst of a public input process for adding shared bicycle stations to several neighborhoods in Boston. Not only are these additions welcome for the general public, but the city has decided to use a local start-up, CoUrbanize, to solicit input. CoUrbanize has a map- and tag-based comment database, and seems like a good, simple platform in the often-confusing public comment sphere. So all systems are in place to get some good comments, and get the stations on the street, right?

Not really, because instead of putting the stations in thoughtful locations where they will do the most good, they are scattered across the study area and located in places where they make no sense (while leaving out obvious locations like major commercial corridors and transit stations). So instead of having a good discussion about the merits and detractions of various locations, the public is now discussing how some of these locations make no sense at all as bike sharing locations (at least in the current iteration of bike share), and why other, disparate locations, would work much better. This seems less productive than would be desirable.

An issue seems to be that the station maps were created to cover as much of the map as possible without much thought to whether the locations were best of bike sharing. This seems like a political play to keep constituents happy, but seems to assume that constituents will be content if their neighborhood is covered by a circle on a map, but not care whether or not there is a useful network of shared bicycles. The Jamaica Plan expansion—the largest of the three proposed—is a good example of how this plays out. Most of the study area is in or near a circle buffered around a location. However, the way in which the stations were placed means that there are no bikes at any Orange Line station, and that the southern portion of the Centre Street business district is underserved as well. For anyone with more than a passing interest in Hubway—and most public commenters likely fall in to this camp—the illogic of some of these station placement is obvious.

There are three neighborhoods being studied right now: Jamaica Plain/Roxbury, South Boston and Charlestown. All of them seem amenable to bike sharing. Yet several of the locations chosen in each bear little resemblance to successful bike sharing locations. Let's review several important factors in siting a bike share kiosk, which I'll define as

The Five -tions of Bike Sharing
  • Population density (there needs to be someone to use it)
  • Destination (it needs to be somewhere people want to go)
  • Elevation (bike share locations on hilltops require frequent rebalancing as people take advantage of gravity in one direction only)
  • Connection (they need to be part of a dense network)
  • Transportation (bike share needs to complement existing transportation infrastructure)
While these are certainly not the only factors necessary for a successful bike sharing system, they are quite important. The proposed locations, in many cases, fail one or more of these tests. In addition, logical, and in some cases obvious, locations were overlooked. It certainly seems that they were chosen not to become part of the existing network, but instead to cover the map. This may be an unfortunate part of the planning process, but in this case it seems to just gum up the works.

Here is some short commentary on the locations:

Jamaica Plain / Roxbury is a fertile location to grow Hubway. There is significant existing bicycle infrastructure, good transit and density, and a burgeoning bicycle culture. A logical system would follow existing transit corridors—Centre Street, the Southwest Corridor (transit and bike path) and Washington Street—in JP, and similar corridors in Roxbury. (I will admit that I know less about the transportation infrastructure in Roxbury than in JP.) Instead, locations are put in some rather inconceivable locations:
  • JP-1 fails due to its location atop Mission Hill. Which is steep! It has population and destination, but would likely require frequent balancing as riders took bikes down the hill but walked up. This would be better moved to the VA Hospital on South Huntington or to Jackson Square, which inexplicably falls outside any of the circles, despite being a major transit hub with significant new development taking place.
  • JP-2 is a logical location, at a business node on a dense transit corridor.
  • JP-3 makes no sense and fails on all five of the -tions above. It is in a relatively sparsely-populated part of JP, away from any transportation infrastructure and high up on a hill. In addition, the only way to access the rest of the proposed and existing network is by navigating the bicycle-unfriendly Pond Street-Arborway corridor. This location will certainly not come to be any time soon, and it's disingenuous to propose it.
  • JP-4 lies on the Southwest Corridor but is, for whatever reason, halfway in between the Green Street and Forest Hills Orange Line stations. Perhaps it would be a good location in the future, but the first priority should be locating bikes at the stations themselves. Furthermore, there are no locations anywhere near Centre Street through the heart of Jamaica Plain, and this location is about as far from Centre Street as any location along the Southwest Corridor.
  • JP-5 is at Upham's Corner in Roxbury and is a decent location for a station, although it is somewhat far from other locations.
  • JP-6 is a good location in Egleston Square, but again suffers from the fact that there are no nearby stations, especially along the Orange Line. Egleston was once an elevated station, and Hubway could be a good resource for getting to and from the current Orange Line stations, but if the Orange Line is eschewed, it loses some usefulness.
  • JP-7 is similar to the location above, although at least closer to the current Hubway station at Roxbury Crossing.
South Boston is another good location for bike sharing. It is quite dense and located in close proximity to the Downtown area, but lacks rapid transit except on the western fringe. One issue is that it is surrounded by three sides by water, so connectivity to the rest of the system is a bit of an issue. And while the three stations proposed do not provide coverage for the whole of the neighborhood, they do not fall as far short as some of the locations in Jamaica Plain. It helps that there are existing Hubway stations at Red and Silver Line rapid transit stations on the north and west sides of South Boston, so these stations can act as feeders to there, and to downtown Boston as well. I don't know Southie that well, but this chart (from Southie Bikes) is a great representation of why Hubway should do quite well there.

Charlestown's main issue is that the proposed stations do not complement the existing stations in Charlestown that well—let alone the rest of the system. (NB: there is a new station at the new Spaulding Hospital not shown on this map.) C-2 is a logical spot at the Charlestown Community Center. But C-1 is located between two existing stations. And there are no proposed locations at either the Community College or Sullivan Square Orange Line stations, or logical connections to the Hubway locations in Cambridge or Somerville. While C-3 is labeled as "Sullivan Square," it is quite a distance from the actual Sullivan Square MBTA station. As the roads in Sullivan are redesigned and as the area is (hopefully) developed in to something more than an array of highways and parking lots, the station may be differently located. But for now, it should be located at the MBTA station, where it can provide connectivity not only to the new and existing Charlestown stations, but to Somerville as well.

It is good to see the City partnering with CoUrbanize to invite public comment for these location, and the comments—some of them my own—have certainly hit on where these stations should go. Hopefully the Hubway expansion steers clear of some of these less-than-desirable spots. Luckily, the stations are portable and easily moved, so, unlike most infrastructure, the system can be rejiggered if it is not optimally sited at first. But it would be even better to have picked better locations from the outset.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Poor signage harms viability of the temporary cycletrack in Lexington

Two cyclists correctly using the temporary "cycletrack" along
Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington.
Biking through Lexington a few weeks ago, I noticed that the Minuteman Bikeway was set to close for most of May for construction work related to a collapsed culvert. And at an opportune time: the first day of construction would coincide with Bay State Bike Week's start, and it would last through the rest of the month, Memorial Day included. The Minuteman is certainly a recreational asset, but is also heavily used for commuting; the site of the construction is only five miles from the Alewife MBTA station, where many cyclists transfer to the Red Line or other bicycle facilities.

The only logical detour? Massachusetts Avenue, a.k.a. Routes 4, 225 and 2A. In other words, it's not a quiet country lane. While some cyclists are comfortable riding the road (and it can be faster cycling than the bike path), many are not. Ideally, there would be a detour around the construction work. But with a narrow right-of-way and heavy construction equipment, this is not possible. So the town of Lexington, to its credit, did something remarkable: they banned parking along Mass Ave and "barreled off" a lane of traffic to create a contraflow cycletrack for a half mile around the closure. As far as I know, it is the first such facility in the state.

And if you want to see it, you better act fast: it will be gone in two weeks.

As well-intentioned as this temporary infrastructure is, the communication to the public could be better: signage both at the site and even online is confusing to cyclists who will already be thrown out of their comfort zone. The crux of the issue is that when you are implementing a new and different infrastructure plan, you need to be clear to the users what they should do. Unfortunately, both signage at the start and end of the lane and at the project's website (description and sketch; both pdf) is ambiguous, and thus users were unclear as to how to traverse this section of roadways. It seems that highway engineers created a good plan, but the signage was not properly thought through and vetted. 

According to the detour notice (pdf), the following detours occur:
  • Westbound bicycle traffic will take a left on to the Seasons Four driveway, and a right on to the Mass Ave sidewalk, following the sidewalk to Woburn Street and taking a left to get to the trail crossing and proceed up the trail.
  • Eastbound bicycle traffic will take a right on to Woburn Street. It will then turn left across Woburn Street and proceed on the far-left (north) side of Massachusetts Avenue between a row of barrels and the curb—this is the (temporary) protected, contraflow cycletrack. At the end of this facility, they will take a left on to the Seasons Four driveway, and proceed as normal along the path. 
  • Any cyclists who wished to use the roadway along Mass Ave should use the traffic lanes as usual but should note that lane width will be constricted by the construction.
In other words, a cross-section of Mass Ave looking westbound would look something like this:

Simple right? Well, not really. Here are the problems with the communication:
  • The project notice is buried on a town website. It's easy enough to find with a Google search but not well publicized. Once you find it, however, it is a poorly-formatted word-doc-turned-PDF. I don't want to toot my own horn (or, pardon me, ring my own bell), but the bulleted section I wrote above is much more informative than trying to parse the information from this document.
  • The sketch which accompanies this notice (but is not linked from it) is clean and simple, but unfortunately leaves out important information to show users how to use the facility. It shows what appears to be the front of a car in the westbound travel lanes, when in fact this should be the rear of a vehicle. This is a fine engineering mock-up, but this is a case where more detail is necessary. It also is too simplified to show the direction of travel, and would be well-supplemented by an overhead sketch as well. It even lacks a proper title, such as "Mass Ave looking westbound" for user orientation. You certainly don't want information overload, but in this case, important information is left out.
  • The signage onsite is abundant, but lacks important information. In a case such as this one, it is not enough to use uniform highway signage: you are dealing with a different user group, and with a situation which is unique. And even then, the signage is ambiguous. Imagine showing up as a cyclist and trying to make heads or tails of the picture below. Kind of difficult.
  • The written sign shows a picture of a bicycle and pedestrian (fine) and then the text "Temporary shared use trail. Keep right." Keep right of what? Is this referring to the sidewalk or to the "cycletrack" lane? Does it mean "keep to the right of the sidewalk" or "keep to the right of the cycletrack" or "of the sidewalk and cycletrack, use whichever is furthest right"? 
  • Good idea, poor signage. This sign makes very little sense.
    Do they mean keep to the right of the on-street lane, or
    keep to the right of the sidewalk? Who knows!
  • Below this sign is a which shows two directional arrows (which bend for no particular reason) around a center island. This is also very ambiguous. Does the island refer to the area between the sidewalk and the "barreled off lane"? Or does it refer to the barrels? Is it telling westbound cyclists to use the "cycletrack" and eastbound cyclists to use the roadway (presumably with traffic on the other side)? Coupled with the signage above, it is no closer to making any sense.
What it needs is more of a cross-section, with words and pictures (see above). Yes, it might be a larger sign, but it would also make it much clearer who was to use the trail, and where. Many trail users take the path daily, so a clear sign on the first day would allow them to properly use the facility during the entirety of the construction. This was, unfortunately, not the case.

As for the sketch, a few minor tweaks could make it more usable. Here is the original sketch, and below my retouched sketch with some annotation regarding changes. It's still not perfect, since it doesn't show the whole road, but it at least leaves less room for confusion and interpretation.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Site/app idea: Citizen Summons

I just almost got killed by taxicab. Again.

This is an exaggeration (I was able to brake in plenty of time after the cab cut in front of me, and then called me and the female coworker I was biking with faggots, because yeah that makes sense), but not much of one. I've found that taxicabs in Boston are frequently the ones hurling invective at cyclists, blocking bike lanes, dooring cyclists (oh, no, wait, the City found that), failing to yield to pedestrians, driving with their lights off at night, and generally driving in ways that endanger the public, and especially vulnerable road users.

And while every car has a license plate, cabs are particularly well-adorned with identifying markings: they have the medallion number on the front and rear, and frequently on top of the cab, and their license plate also frequently matches the medallion. In addition, taxicabs have (or at least should have) more scrutiny regarding their driving habits, as they are on the road constantly, and have more of an opportunity to be the cause of accidents (or conversely, by driving well, part of the solution). Driving a taxicab is certainly a difficult and low-paying job, but that is no reason that taxicab drivers should not be safe and courteous. With thousands of taxicabs hurtling around the area, there are certainly dozens of near-misses a day, where dangerous, reckless and even malicious behavior by a taxicab driver results in a situation where a vulnerable user is put at risk. Yet there seems to be no easy way to report these behaviors, and therefore there is little accountability.

In other words, there is certainly not an app for that.


So here's the idea: a website and app that would allow for the collection of data by bicyclists, pedestrians and other standers-by about the driving behavior of taxicabs. This would include a variety of features and the data could be used in several ways:

  • The data from this could be used to match poor behavior to certain cabs or operating companies, as well as to find particularly problematic locations. 
  • The program could easily send reports to the various taxi licensing agencies in local cities and towns, and to the appropriate police contacts. 
  • It would allow citizens—the ones who are almost bumped when cabs pull in to crosswalks at red lights, or the ones who see cabs lined up neatly in bike lanes awaiting fares or nearly mow down pedestrians because they can't be bothered to turn their lights on at night—to easily send a report to the right authorities. 
  • It would allow anyone interested to view reports and find dangerous areas or medallions with particularly abhorrent safety records. 
  • It could be scaled in to a full-scale reporting system based on license plates, and focused on dangerous urban driving habits. It's one thing to yell at the guy who honks at you and then cuts you off. It's another to publicly shame him.

Cabs in particular seem to operate with some amount of impunity from police enforcement, but that's no reason we shouldn't try to gather data and hold them accountable. Plus, such a site could also allow bicyclists, pedestrians and even cab passengers to laud good driving in cabs which were courteous to bicyclists and yielded right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks. If nothing else, we—people who walk and bike—account for much of their customer base. We should demand accountability.

If anyone is interested in helping set this up, let me know. I've created some simple user-generated content sites (this and this), but this might be a bit beyond my technical expertise.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The one rule I always follow on a bike: Yield to Pedestrians

It's big bike time, with Bike Days/Weeks/Months sprouting up across the land (some are in June; Minnesota moved theirs after we all froze our behinds off in 2009). And it's time for bellyaching about bike sharing in New York, apparently. Oh, and for arguing about whether or not cyclists should have traffic laws enforced to the same degree as motorists.

I fall in to the "not" camp, with several exceptions. This is mainly because bicyclists and motorists are orders of magnitude apart in terms of kinetic energy, and thereby damage. Consider:

Average weight (rider, bicycle, accessories): 180 pounds
Average speed (in city riding): 12 mph
Top speed (in city riding): 25 mph
Average potential energy: 1175 joules
Top potential energy: 5099 joules

Average weight: 4000 pounds
Average speed (in city traffic): 25 mph
Top speed (in city driving): 45 mph
Average potential energy: 113310 joules
Top potential energy: 367120 joules

In other words, the average vehicle has—give or take—100 times more kinetic energy than the average bicycle. I think we'd all agree that if the fines fit the potential kinetic energy (they'd be akin to jaywalking fines, which are $1 in Boston and $2 in New York) they'd be tolerable, if laughable. (And this page is on the record as being opposed to the concept of jaywalking being illegal.) But increasingly, policies towards bikers are moving in to the "fine first, ask questions later" camp.

When it comes to red lights and stop signs, the only person a bicyclist is really endangering is him or herself. No one has ever heard about a bicyclist running in to a vehicle and injuring the occupants inside. If I go through a red light (I should say "when …"), you can be sure I've checked the intersection to assure that it is clear of all traffic. And much of the time in such situations I am going through so that I can get on to the next stretch of roadway ahead of—and visible to—traffic behind me.

But the one traffic rule I always do my best to follow? Yielding right-of-way to pedestrians. First, it sets a really good example. Drivers have a tough time being all high-and-mighty when they blow by a cyclist who's stopped to yield to a pedestrian (especially when said cyclists then meets them at a red light and chastises them for their behavior, but I digress). But it's also important because pedestrians are, in relation to cyclists, orders of magnitude less energetic. In the vulnerability hierarchy, they have much less ability to cause damage:

Average weight: 150 pounds
Average speed: 3 mph
Average potential energy: 61 joules

Here's a simple Excel chart to illustrate (Except that the top blue bar should be about half-again as long, it broke Excel. Well not really, but it's illustrative.):

It's not the same differential: a bicyclists only have one order of magnitude more energy than a pedestrian; vehicles have two more than bicycles (and three more—more than 1000 times more—energy than a walker). And while it's rare, bicyclists have killed pedestrians. (To be fair, the cyclists are generally injured in such accidents, which rarely happens when a car does something like plowing through people on to a crowded sidewalk.) But when I'm cycling, I always try to stop for pedestrians.

Am I successful? Most of the time. There are times when I'm paying too much attention to traffic and don't see the pedestrian waiting to cross. There area few times—and I feel bad about this—when I've had a close call with a pedestrian walking through stopped traffic as I passed on a shoulder or a bike lane (I usually try to apologize, something difficult to do from a vehicle). But much more often, I slow down, and wave a pedestrian across. Quite often, they are surprised at the courtesy, even though they have full right of way. I often extend my arm out to warn passing cars to slow down, and have more than once weaved in front of a car to get them to slow down.

From a practical standpoint, I can usually keep enough momentum that I don't come to dead stop, since once the pedestrian clears my bike I can start moving again (and since I can bob and weave around the pedestrian with more ease than, say, a six-foot-wide car). From a bike advocacy standpoint, it shows courtesy amongst bicyclists to more vulnerable users. (When I see a guy in a full kit on a $4000 carbon frame whipping by pedestrians in Cambridge, I get upset; I'll defer to the inimitable Colin on this.) And from a safety standpoint, it is safer for cyclists and much safer for pedestrians.

So for red lights for me? Stopping is optional. But crosswalks? It's mandatory.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Longfellow Bike Traffic

I usually cross the Longfellow Bridge by bicycle around 7:30 a.m. It's before the peak of the rush hour, and while I'm not alone on two wheels, it's not too crowded. Twice this week, however, I've been crossing the bridge eastbound around 8:30. And both times, when I've reached the light at the end of the bridge, there was a veritable traffic jam of bicyclists, with a lineup of 10 two-wheelers waiting to turn right on to Charles or go straight up Cambridge. We've had a long string of great cycling weather (sunny, dry and cool), Hubway is in full swing, and we're recovering from the marathon fiasco. So there are a lot of bicyclists.

From this small sample, I'm going to make some big extrapolations. I sleuthed out the traffic counts from the intersection from a Red Line / Blue Line connector document (pdf) and sussed out that it is a 100 second light cycle—that it repeats 36 times per hour. Assuming a constant ten cyclists per light cycle for an hour, this would equate to 360 bicycles across the Longfellow in an hour. Is this a big number? I think so. Here's why:

  • This is more than half as many bicyclists as vehicles. Peak morning eastbound car traffic is 707 vehicles per hour. Now, the Longfellow is mainly a transit bridge, and at peak hour the Red Line carries more than 10,000 vehicles. Plus, vehicle traffic decreases (as it has in the Kendall area) and bicyclists' numbers continue to climb.
  • Bicyclists have a sub-optimal facility on the Longfellow. In other words, the bike lane kind of sucks. It's bumpy, narrow and squeezes down at the Boston end of the bridge (although it is better-paved there). The future lane will be a bit wider, although to preserve two lanes of inbound traffic it won't have a buffer built in. Still, it won't be as squeezed as it is now. (MassDOT pdf)
  • This illustrates the importance of keeping the bridge open to cyclists during construction, as is the plan. Even as traffic is limited to one direction, bicyclists and pedestrians will be allowed to cross the bridge in both directions. With hundreds of bikes per hour, it's a vital link in the regional bicycle infrastructure.
  • Finally, the roadway is currently more efficient at carrying bicycles than motor vehicles. 707 vehicles use two lanes per hour, at a rate of 354 per hour. Bicycles use one lane, and there are (by my assuredly crude calculations) 360 bicyclists. But wait! Aren't traffic lanes a lot wider than bike lanes? Yes. 360 bicyclists traverse the Longfellow in only 5 feet of bridge width, at a rate of 72 vehicles per foot. The 707 cars have 24 feet of bridge width, a rate of only 29 vehicles per foot. Even if we assume 1.25 people per car, bicycles are still twice as efficient at transporting people. (And, yes, the Red Line inbound, in 14 feet of bridge width, transports more than 10,000 people, making it ten times as efficient as the bike lane.)
Of course, the bike lane is certainly not at capacity (neither are the vehicle lanes; although the Red Line is quite crowded). Leaving two lanes for vehicular traffic in the new bridge design is contentious, and a single-lane design with a wider, buffered bicycle facility—akin to the outbound side of the bridge—would do more to encourage cycling. Even narrower lanes—and a wide bike lane—would help cyclists (and slow speeding motorists, as well). But even without that encouragement, bicyclists don't seem to be shunning the Longfellow.