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Monday, June 22, 2015

Who Owns the Travel Lane?

Traveling Under One's Own Power

"Sharrow Panda" by
Richard Masoner, under CC-BY-SA.
I rarely use my car. I bike, walk, or take public transit. That means I get a great view of how people use the designated human powered travel lanes. I live in an urban area outside Boston and we have lots of these lanes, and most have  important accessibility and safety enhancements.

We have sidewalks with curb cuts and and raised dots. We have talking crosswalks. They say: "Wait!" and then play the walk rhythm when it's safe to go. We have bike lanes and "sharrows." We have a rail trail (officially the Minuteman Bikeway) that we call "the bike path."We have elevators and escalators to our below ground subway stops and buses that kneel to the curb and/or have fold out ramps. It's a great place to travel under your own power!

I find it fascinating to see how these public resources are used and sometimes, abused. I've been tuning in to see if there is guidance as to how to use them and if that advice is taken to heart. Here's some of what I've learned.

Stand Right, Walk Left

Airports often have those "moving sidewalks" and most have audio or signs that indicate that those "riding" or "standing" are to keep right, while those who want to walk, even as the sidewalk is moving, should do so on the left. My experience is that this works reasonably well.

Looking down the longest escalator in the MBTA, at Porter station.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
And, while there are no such signs in our subway stations, many users do the same thing on the long, long escalators at my local station. Usually, it's not a problem to pass a stander (no matter on which side) but some people place their groceries or musical instruments next to them and block the entire step. Other times, pairs of standers block the path.

There are three escalators at the station. And, depending on the time of day, two run in the busy direction (down for the morning commute into the city, up as people come home from work in the evening). I wonder if designating one full escalator for "riders" and the other for "walkers" would help traffic flow better?

My Bike Lane

Over the past few years I think cyclists and drivers have gotten better about using the bike lanes. A fresh coat of green paint helps them stand out. But there is a still a hierarchy in the bike lane, at least according to one local cyclist. On a recent walk home I was heading down a one way street on the sidewalk, against traffic. A fellow was running in the bike lane in the direction of traffic. The cyclist behind him called out "Please move out of the bike lane!" The cyclist was moving faster than the runner, but not by much!

My understanding as a runner, is that in general runners should run against traffic on the side of the road. But, with a one way street, if you are running in the direction of traffic, you have no choice. And, if the side of the road is also the bike lane, that's where you run. What interested me was that the cyclist felt the correct way to "pass" the runner was to remove him from the bike lane. Perhaps the cyclist felt the bike lane was his and only his. Of course, the bike lane is for cyclists, but cars can and do enter and cross it regularly, to park cars, among other things. 

I wonder if the cyclist would have moved into the car lane to pass another cyclist? That's the correct procedure. I wonder why that didn't seem to apply in this case?

My Sidewalk

My walk home on Father's Day included catching up to two men pushing strollers, side by side, on the sidewalk. They filled up most of the sidewalk, and virtually all of it when they passed one of our street trees. (We love our street trees!) I made a bit of noise as I came up behind them to let them know I was there. They were engaged in conversation with one another so perhaps they did not hear me. I walked out into the road to pass them. 

As a cyclist, and a member of my cycling group's "safety committee," I'm very aware of when I'm in a "two abreast" situation on the road. It's fun to ride with a friend and chat, but both riders need to be keenly aware of blocking other traffic and be ready to "single up" when a car or other vehicle is behind and wants to pass. I see reasonable compliance with that way of thinking on our bike path with its bike, trike, push scooter, foot, rollerblade, ski blade and other human powered traffic.That behavior is not as common among walkers on sidewalks. 

My Stoplight?

The Porter Square MBTA stop is on a triangle of land where Massachusetts Avenue "splits" and Somerville Avenue heads left and Mass Ave continues "straight." There are bus stops and many crosswalks and many stoplights. While the cars stop at the red lights, cyclists sometimes get confused.

"Why," they wonder, "is the light red if there is no turn and I'm going straight?" The answer is that there's a crosswalk! But, many, too many for my taste, simply whiz on by. I've taken to calling out "Red light!" as we did in the children's game of "red light, green light" to remind the cyclists of their obligation to stop. I fear for the many seniors who cross there daily and fear a spandex clad cyclist traveling at 20 miles per hour taking out grandpa. 

Perhaps the answer is to add a dedicated bike signal. There is one for those coming in the other direction. In this case it would always be the same as the car signal, but it would make it plain as day that cyclists are expected to stop. 

Our Relationship to these Public Travel Spaces

I think this aspect of the geography, the relationship of human powered travelers to their dedicated lanes is worthy of note. And, I think part of how we behave in them relates, at least in part, to our sense of ownership of them. Walkers clearly own the sidewalk, cyclists the bike lane and cars well cars can and do go where they like. There are several subtle ideas that will make users of these lanes safer and even increase their use:

1) These are public multi-use spaces. In my city it is legal to ride your bike on the sidewalk outside of business districts. So, bikes, pedestrians and those pushing strollers all need to share. The challenge is that unlike the bike path, that was design as a multi-use path, most sidewalks were not and are only now being retrofitted to serve individuals on various kids of wheels.

2) Make preferred use clear. The bike lane on the one way street I noted does have an arrow showing it goes one way; the arrow reinforces the streets own "One Way" sign. Why not explicitly indicate how to use the escalators?

3) Bikes on the road still vehicles. Bike lanes are not universally accepted as the best or safest solutions for the two types of vehicles to share space. But, if that's what's in use, cyclists need to know and follow all the rules of the road, bike lane or no bike lane.