Tag Archives: #dangerousbydesign

Equitable Bike Advocacy Includes Bike Infrastructure

Even as mounting evidence such as a research report from Governing reminds everyone that bikes aren’t just for white urbanites, biking has continued to gather a reputation as a domain of hipsters. As a result, despite the diverse ridership, the folks actually advocating for bike improvements have continued to not exactly mirror the people majority of people who are doing the pedaling. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to some friction and calls for more diversity in bike advocacy. The advocacy organizations haven’t missed the memo and have begun efforts like LAB’s Equity and Women Bike initiatives. Additionally, more community-based groups like Slow Roll Detroit have taken a more active role in advocating for bikes as not just transportation alternatives, but vehicles for social change in the community.

Nevertheless, many bike advocacy organizations and staff might consistently not look very much like the largest class or group of people biking. But that might not be inherently a bad thing. The changes that they (usually) advocate for do stand to help disadvantaged communities (of color) just as much as they help MAMILs. There’s no denying the safety benefits of dedicated bikeways and few would argue that a comprehensive network of bikeways that connects a community together and to destinations where its residents can find work, school, recreational activities, and more is somehow detrimental to the communities in which it is located. With many disadvantaged communities already ticking off a higher number of people taking trips by bike, making those trips better and easier to undertake will almost certainly provide an improvement in numerous facets of their lives.

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A man and woman ride salmon on Route 66 in San Bernardino, CA. Bike infrastructure would immensely improve the bikeability of this location.

But what if the community isn’t asking for bike infrastructure? Certainly, there is a concern that advocating for infrastructure in underserved communities that aren’t asking for them is forcing something on the community that they don’t want. Thanks to both the lingering after effects of the highway building era then decades of disinvestment and neglect and because of a concern that bikeways bring gentrification, some advocates are even going so far as to say that disadvantaged communities should not get bike infrastructure and that focusing on “northern European” designs and solutions is out-of-place in communities that frequently have mostly non-white populations. But there are two major issues with the strategy of advocating for bikes by not advocating for bikes that will ultimately do more harm than good.

First and foremost, there’s the safety aspect. Where good, quality bike infrastructure exists, biking tends to be safer. As such, it really sounds extremely backwards to suggest that in the areas that often already have some of the most dangerous streets of a region, safety improvements shouldn’t be undertaken because the community hasn’t asked for them. At the end of the day, people still will continue to have to ride in those areas, often in conditions that are embarrassingly deplorable on many different measures. Not only do they deserve to have a safe place to ride, but it is they who need it most as they frequently have few travel alternatives and many have already been victims of traffic violence too. This is a heightened issue in regards to projects that involve once-in-a-generation opportunities to change the layout of a thoroughfare. Those should not be passed.

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A bikeway in Utrecht provides connections for all to the city center and train station.

Additionally, the backlash against bike solutions that are primarily Danish and Dutch as being inappropriate in communities of color is misguided. There are some things that are just done better in some places than in others and as it so happens, those two countries do bikes well. Not only do they tick off the highest rates of biking in the world, but the stellar provisioning for bikes provides those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder a viable affordable option for transportation so the poor aren’t forced to own a car. That’s crucial because while certainly there are plenty of disadvantaged households in America that don’t own a car, many more are practically forced to because it’s the only realistic option in their community, something that’s really becoming a problem in suburbs.

Secondly, bikeways are a commodity and like all commodities, follow the general principles of economics. Students of the discipline know that the availability of something is directly related to its price. In this case, the fact that good, quality bikeways are still relatively scarce in this country means that the few places that they do exist attract a premium in price as people and businesses seek out locations near them. The best way to counter that is not by keeping bikeways out of some neighborhoods, but to instead make sure that they’re everywhere. Ideally, that means that the plan should not be just single lanes here and there, but entire networks that form a comprehensive grid of LTS2 bikeways that are installed as completely and quickly as possible.

However, bike infrastructure is obviously also becoming a victim of its own success. As early advocates undoubtedly had to find a way to justify to their communities why money should be spent on infrastructure that “no one uses“, study after study was undertaken in relation to the economic impact of bikeways. Most of these studies have shown that bike infrastructure can bring positive economic change to a corridor or area. But those improvements do not happen in a vacuum. Increased receipts and especially values lead to higher rents. Once again, the solution isn’t found in not building, but in building everywhere. But, that does mean that going forward, it is perhaps time to lessen the focus on the potential financial benefits of any single project in favor of safety benefits that it would provide (though people also seek to live in places that are “safe”, so that makes it a similar driver of demand).

So with that in mind, organizations interested in engaging in equitable advocacy should do one of two things. When faced with substantial projects, such as placing or moving curbs, the bike aspect absolutely should not be compromised. In many communities, projects like that only happen once a generation or less. It is imperative that whenever they occur, that the very best designs for both safety and efficiency are used because redoing it later would be costly in not just monetary terms, but also lives and political capital. However, for projects that are less involved, it might be better to take some time to further engage the community to develop a concept that truly works for them instead of just ferrying outsiders through.

As more bikeways get built, more communities are asking for them. We need to make sure that they’re able to access those changes and benefit from them. While bikeways do bring change to a community, that change doesn’t have to be bad if the community gets involved to make sure that it works for them, including by broaching other topics that go beyond the bike aspect. Communities need to get in front of change and embrace it instead of waiting for it to arrive and trying to delay it. Doing so will bring many benefits for all.

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Bikeways and Traffic

A common complaint and critique of separated bikeways is that “competent” bicyclists can travel at the speed of traffic in the roadway and would be “held up” on bike-specific infrastructure and therefore bikeways shouldn’t be built at all. Though that reality has been repeatedly shown to be inaccurate on well-designed facilities, the belief is still carried forward and trumpeted that bikeways restrict the speed of riders.

However, as cities across the country and globe increasingly realize that there is no way to ever build their way out of congestion, they’re instead turning to other mechanisms and methods of dealing with the growth that is occurring. As priorities change, complete streets policies are being enacted that reallocate the space of existing roads for all modes as well as dictate how new roads should be constructed to make the best use of space to move people, not just cars.

What happens when such a change occurs? Overtoom in Amsterdam (pictured below) gives us a good example. One of the main routes heading into and out of the city, it has space for all users. The exact profile differs based on location, but very generally is arranged with buses/trams/taxis in the central lanes, one lane per direction for general traffic, parking for cars and bikes, separated bikeways, and of course, sidewalks. The result is a thoroughfare that has the capacity to move far more people than the number actually moved on typical arterial that scars many cities, but just as long as they’re not trying to drive alone in a car.

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The predominant configuration of Overtoom for the majority of its length.

The following two videos show how the street looks and works in real life.

This one is composed of several snippets of how the street functions over the course of the evening rush hour. At times of high congestion, the bikeway is absolutely faster than the general travel lanes, even for those who are not riding particularly fast at all.

This second video shows the entirety of the street as it heads out of town.  The location where the first video was filmed is to the right at 0:16, in the shop with the yellow awning. At over four minutes to go just over a mile, the speed of transit for the corridor by car is slower than many people can comfortably bike, even though this doesn’t appear to be filmed during rush hour per se.

As cities grow and become more congested, bikes will continue to be looked as as a way provide an alternative to driving. Though not typically well-understood by many, bikes actually do offer competitive travel times to driving a car, even with infrastructure that people like to assume mandates slow biking. That’s a view that simply isn’t supported by the evidence, especially the prevalence of scooters using Dutch bikeways (often illegally).

SANBAG’s Poor Design Leaves Pedestrians Scrambling for Alternatives

A couple months ago, SANBAG announced the completion of the Hunts Lane grade separation project and had a little shindig to celebrate. At that time, I commented that the project is a net benefit for pedestrian access in the area. I spoke too soon.

You had one job! But seriously. These 'shark teeth' are backwards.
The ‘shark teeth’ on opening week. They’ve since been reoriented to the correct direction.

When the bridge opened, the construction crews were still working on a couple other things, such as the ‘shark teeth’ that had been installed wrong as well as ornamental plants. At that time, I also commented on some other potential issues with various other design details that were causing line-of-sight problems.

The crosswalks at the intersections have been purged from the final design.
The crosswalks at the intersections have been purged from the final design.

SANBAG has addressed some of the issues that were brought up in the last post, especially the line-of-sight problems.  This has been accomplished by removing all pedestrian elements that were in place. And while it may have been part of the original plan that had yet to be implemented when the initial review was done, they’ve added insult to injury by installing barriers to prohibit (CVC 275) pedestrians from crossing east or west across Hunts Ln. So while pedestrians wishing to cross the river of speeding cars must detour nearly a quarter of a mile to legally do so, drivers get to sprint across 135 feet, made all the more easier by the improved sight lines courtesy of the removed crosswalks.

This comes as a double slap in the face because efforts were made to open a cul-de-sac with a nice landscaped path that connects to the very corner in question. Needless to say, the majority of people would prefer a straight crossing over a landscaped meandering path that takes them out of the way as can be seen by the people who cross anyway.

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All hope is not lost, though. SANBAG can fix the issue by redesigning the intersection. At a minimum, a pedestrian island should be installed that allows pedestrians a safe passage across Hunts Ln. in the place of the current painted island (pictured above) with at least rectangular rapid flashing beacons. Ideally, that island should also be designed to only allow left turns onto Commercial and Riverwood and remove the ability to turn left or cut across the intersection for cars. This will likely have the added effect of keeping the communities from being effective ‘rat runs’ like they currently are.

It’s unfortunate to see this level of disregard to practical mobility options for those who are not in a car. With these latest developments in the final design, I am forced to downgrade my initial perceptions of the project’s impacts to pedestrians from favorable to unfavorable. The new sidewalks to cross the tracks are nice, but access in general has actually been decreased because though it was a river a cars, there was no actual prohibition on crossing Hunts Lane before, which could potentially be really easy when traffic was stopped for due to any of the dozens of daily trains that passed through there. Hopefully, SANBAG takes up the challenge and remedies the discrepancy for the better.

More photos available on flickr.

Thinking Backwards

Earlier today, I sat down with city staff to discuss the finer points of a project. A project that is purported to improve access to a local high school, mind you. At one point, the conversation over one proposed piece went something like this:

City engineer: …the EIR [that was done when the school was built]  wasn’t adequate, so now we have to go back in and add more capacity so that traffic can keep moving.

Me: Right, but right now, a lot of kids walk to school. What is proposed will be bad for pedestrians because of the wider distance to cross and multiple threats.

CE: But we have to think about the motorists and do something to improve the LOS. [Not anymore!] We can use signals to control the multiple threat situations.

Me: Okay, well then at least put in pedestrian refuge islands.

CE: Hmmm, not sure if those will fit.

Me: Well, how wide are the lanes?

CE (looks at drawings): One is 12′, one is 11′.

Me: How about we just chop say a foot off of each of those, then?

CE: But then that make things tight and slows traffic down.

Me: Good!

CE: But then people won’t be able to get through there fast.

Me: Good! This is after all a school zone, they shouldn’t be driving fast anyway.

Is it really too much to ask that we think of the children first and the motorists second?