A Load of Pretty Good News

24 Feb

Unless city council decides to torpedo it, the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street is going forward (see RTD story here and a very detailed account of how it worked out in a blog post by Max Hepp-Buchanan here).  The Planning Commission approved a modified plan yesterday.  And although the General Assembly killed a few bike-friendly bills, they also approved a couple, and blocked some that would have been very unfriendly.  We owe a huge thanks to the advocates from Virginia Bicycling Federation and Bike Walk RVA, along with many others, for these successes.

Modified Floyd Plan Passes

With Floyd, the city officials and consultants were apparently able to convince commission members that they had addressed concerns raised in the previous meeting, including: better signage etc. at some of the crosswalks; more specific plans for ADA sidewalk ramps, lighting, and filling tree wells; and making sure the street is marked as special corridor for people on bicycles and on foot.

The plan that passed also contained a couple of recent changes, most notably the replacement of four traffic circles with raised crosswalks at Strawberry, Rowland, Plum, and Harvie.  They will look something like this:

 

It’s kind of like a speed hump, but not as high, and also serves to highlight the crosswalk.

I was hoping raised crosswalks would find their way into the plan anyway.  They were included to address concerns of some local residents (and their council reps) and commission members.

I’m really not crazy about how much a few vocal property owners seem to be able to sway their council representatives, especially given the large majority of residents who expressed support for the plan earlier.  (Along with the fact that the few “parking spaces” they are so worried about are actually illegal and dangerous).  But getting involved more seriously in bike-ped advocacy has brought home to me the reality of what is so often said about government: it’s messy and you have to be prepared to 1) compromise, 2) to think long-term.  It’s also crucial to be just as vocal and persistent as the opponents.

We have to work on many fronts to build up support for this kind of project so that it doesn’t continue to be a major battle.  Educating and lobbying council members, electing folks who are sympathetic, having a master plan, and many other things will tilt the balance in our favor over time.

General Assembly Successes

This years successes prove especially clearly that persistence is key when it comes to the GA.  Most of what was passed this year has been proposed before, but a bill getting past of the various hurdles depends on a bunch of things that have to align just right.

Check this VBF post for the full run-down, but here are the highlights:

• Vehicles can now legally cross a double yellow line in order to give the required 3 feet of space to people on bicycles and other slower road users.

• Localities that decide to do a road diet (reduce motorized travel lanes to create a bike lane) will not lose state transportation funding for doing so.  (Previously the state only counted pavement used for motorized traffic).

• Existing law for following too closely now also applies to non-motorized vehicles.

A couple of particularly worrisome bills also died.  One would have made it illegal for someone on a bicycle to be on a road if there is a bike path nearby.  This would have banned cyclists from parts of Route 5 where the Capital Trail is, for example.

Some others, like imposing a penalty for dooring a cyclist, and requiring hands-free technology when using phones etc. will no doubt come back for another try next year.

Life in the Slow(er) Lane

15 Feb
Slow-Zone-thumb

A newly installed neighborhood slow zone in Brooklyn, NY, as part of NYC’s Vision Zero program. From BrooklynBridgeParents.com.

 

This is the last in a series of 3 posts focused around a simple idea:

We’d all benefit from slowing down.

(The two previous ones are here, focused on recent reports about the relative safety and danger of bicycling, and here, about a new movement called Vision Zero that seeks to reduce traffic deaths of all kinds to zero):

The Costs of Speed

I’m very much in favor of protected bike lanes and good sidewalks and paths, but people in cars or on foot or on bicycles still have to interact with motorized traffic even with the best sidewalks and bike lanes.  Slowing all traffic down would be the easiest and possibly most game-changing thing we could do to make things safer and more inviting for everyone, and make our communities more livable in the process.

This probably seems like a crazy idea to many because as a society we put a premium on time and therefore on speed, and because we’ve just gotten used to traveling relatively fast, especially in cars.  Driving 35 or 40 on a street like Boulevard, for example, feels normal because the street is designed that way, everyone else is driving more or less that speed, and that’s what we’re used to.  As I’ve suggested in earlier segments of this series, however, we pay a fairly high price for that — or we indirectly force others to pay it — in lower levels of safety for everyone, as well as the danger and unpleasantness of going by foot or bicycle.

The crazy thing, when you think about it, is that we’ve accepted that the way we handle traffic now is worth large numbers of deaths and injuries among people in cars as well as others.  There’s no way to prevent all collisions, but it’s odd that significant loss of life and limb are regarded as acceptable costs for driving the way we do.  And we know — it’s been proven over and over — that slower speeds make for fewer deaths and less severe injuries for people in cars as well as on bike and foot.

As reported earlier, a number of countries and now several U.S. cities have begun to say that this cost is too high — in the form of a program labeled Vision Zero.  It basically means taking measures to reduce traffic deaths to zero.  This signals a welcome and monumental shift away from accepting those costs that we’ve previously treated as an unavoidable reality .  It says, “We don’t have to accept death and injury as inevitable consequences.  We can prioritize safety and still have a functioning system that works for everyone.”

Inaugurating a new Arterial Slow Zone in NYC on a major commercial street.

Inaugurating a new Arterial Slow Zone in NYC on a major commercial street.his includes is slowing down traffic on “arterial” streets like Boulevard.  I would argue that you could slow down traffic  in Richmond and it wouldn’t make a very big difference in the time we spend traveling, but would make a big difference in safety and quality of life.

 

This includes is slowing down traffic on “arterial” streets like Boulevard.  You could slow down traffic everywhere in Richmond and it wouldn’t make a very big difference in the time we spend traveling, but would make a big difference in safety and quality of life.

“But I’m in a Hurry!” Experimenting with Slowness

It comes down to this: the difference between 20 and 30 mph, or 30 and 40 for that matter, is not that big in terms of travel time, especially when you’re driving through the city.  You usually can’t maintain a higher speed for long in any case due to signals and other cars, and the time difference in the end is no more than a few minutes.

I did an experiment last spring with the help of some friends over at Bike Walk RVA to test this out.  For purely self-serving purposes (having a nice lunch at a favorite spot), we decided to test how long it would take to get from Union Hill to a restaurant in Carytown, a distance of about 4 miles.  We did this on multiple occasions, always leaving near 1:15 p.m. from Union Hill, comparing “slow,” “normal,” and “fast” car driving as well as more “law-abiding” vs. “law-bending” bicycling.

Car vs. Bicycle

The first test: car vs. bicycle.  I imagine that one reason some do not embrace riding a bicycle for transportation is that doing so would take up too much time compared to driving.  So my partner-in-experimentation and I left Union Hill at the same time (1:15 p.m.), I on a bicycle and he in a car, selecting somewhat different routes through the city (not using the expressway).  Driving at the posted speed limit and taking into account time to park, it took him 18 minutes to arrive at the door of our destination in Carytown.  As the one on a bicycle I stopped at all stop signs and signals, and rode at what is for me a normal pace — neither leisurely nor hurried, probably about 12 mph.  It took me 26 minutes.  So, not surprisingly, driving a car was faster.  But for getting halfway across down it was a difference of only 8 minutes.  And unlike my partner, I had already burned off some of the chips I ate for lunch.

Speed Limit vs. Slow Driving

The second test was driving the speed limit vs. driving slower.  I drove the same route that my partner did on another day at the same time of day, but kept my speed at 20 mph or below the whole way.  I drove mostly on Main Street through downtown and the Fan.  It was actually hard to compare my speed to the speed limit because there are very few signs indicating the limit.  The one sign I could find on Main St. between Shockoe Bottom and Belvidere read 25 mph.  Given the general understanding that speeding a bit over the limit is normal and won’t get you in trouble, I would bet that the average speed is usually 30 mph at least.

There were certainly times that I felt self-conscious going that slow, feeling like a slow poke getting in everyone’s way.  It shows how hard it can be to resist “going with the flow” of traffic and how strong our sense of “normal” speed is.  The result?  It took me a whopping 22 minutes to travel the same route — 4 minutes more than going the speed limit in a car, and only 4 minutes less than on a bicycle.  5-10 mph difference probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it can make a big difference, actually, in terms of reaction time and whether someone you hit lives or dies, not to mention how the street feels to more vulnerable users.

Regular vs. “Hurried” Bicycling

As a final test, we asked a volunteer to ride a bicycle a bit faster and without following the rules of the road as strictly as I did (rolling through stop signs, etc.).  It took him a little over 20 minutes.  So going at a slower pace and sticking with the rules of the road cost me about 6 minutes extra.  If you think about the various things you do (or don’t do) in a day that take 6 or 8 or 10 minutes, it’s hard to think that you’re wasting precious time by taking it easier on the road.

Cost of Slowing Down vs. Cost of Speed

I realize that this is not a rigorous scientific experiment.  But the results are not surprising and I think they point to something.  There is a cost to slowing down — going faster and driving less carefully can get you somewhere a bit faster (assuming you don’t have an accident on the way).  And driving a car is somewhat faster than riding a bike.  But the difference is just not that big.

The question for us to ask ourselves is whether the 5 or 10 minutes we may save by virtue of the transportation and driving choices we make are worth the costs.  That can be tricky for us humans to calculate because the costs are not always right in front of our faces — and they may be costs to other people more than ourselves.

The real idea is just to start a conversation that hasn’t been happening much in Richmond yet.  To introduce an idea that many would not even contemplate because the status quo seems, well, so normal: that we might shift our priorities and the way we think about travel in a way that recognizes how much streets are not just places that each of us uses to get where we need to go individually, but really a place of coexistence and given-and-take.

What can you do?  One is to choose to drive slower — at the speed limit or even below, considering how non-motorized folks out there, not to mention people who live along such streets, are experiencing your speed.  The other is to find ways to bring up this radical idea of slowness — nudging friends and family a bit from their sense of normal speed and “where I need to be” toward sharing the road in a more profound sense.

 

Non-Floyd News

10 Feb
Protected bike lane in Long Beach, CA.  From la.streetsblog.org.

Protected bike lane in Long Beach, CA. From la.streetsblog.org.

The Floyd Avenue project has occupied my somewhat limited time to post lately, so there’s a bunch of other cool stuff to catch up on.  Here are some highlights:

Bike Walk RVA has been nominated by Bicycling Magazine for the People’s Choice Advocacy Award.  Vote here for to help this local organization get well-deserved recognition.  Channel 8 News also reported that the Mayor’s Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Trails Commission has been one of the more productive and successful of those formed by Mayor Jones.

The General Assembly is (hopefully) passing bicycle-friendly legislation.  Check out the Virginia Bicycling Federation site here for a detailed account of the legislation and what’s still in the pipeline.  It seems like the general trend (based on last session and this one) is greater support for this stuff.  In past years many such bills were killed in committee, but now many are making it to full senate and house votes.

This year there is a bill to change a policy that discourages the use of road diets (reducing travel lanes) for bike infrastructure by reducing the funding the state provides for roads that undergo such a reduction (see this Why Richmond, Why? column in the RTD for an explanation).  There are also bills making it illegal to door a cyclist (holding drivers responsible for opening doors safely), and to follow a cyclist too closely (the current law applies only to motor vehicles); and there’s one to make it legal for a person in a car to cross a double yellow line in order to safely pass a person on a bicycle.

Protected bike lanes coming to downtown!  The RTD confirmed that at its last meeting the Planning Commission approved acceptance of funding to do design work for protected lanes on Franklin and Main Streets (eastbound on Franklin and westbound on Main) between  Belvidere and Ninth Streets.  This is just the first step, of course, but a welcome sign of robust infrastructure on the way!

Chesterfield is showing real momentum with bike-ped planning.  In a relatively short time Chesterfield County has put together a bicycle and pedestrian plan, which is now open for public comment (see RTD piece here).  In time you could see a lot of multi-use paths along roads in the county.

Pedal party is coming to RVA.  According to RVA News, you’ll soon be able to join 13 of your closest friends on a “bike trolley” aka partly on wheels.  It’s hard to describe (there’s a photo in the RVA News story), but it looks like a covered bar with “stools” (bike seats) and pedals on all sides by which you will propel yourself through the River City.  So you can burn off calories in between brewery stops!

Have You Signed the Floyd Avenue Petition?

3 Feb
Bike boulevard with traffic diverters in San Luis Obispo, CA.  From labikas.com.

Bike boulevard with traffic diverters in San Luis Obispo, CA. From labikas.com.

This is a quick reminder that BikeWalk RVA has a petition drive going to help nudge the Planning Commission in the direction of approving the plans for the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street project.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to express support, click here.

At the last meeting the commission postponed a decision for 30 days to give Public Works traffic engineers time to address commission members’ concerns in more detail.  My understanding is that Public Works is really trying to do this, although some of the things may be hard to incorporate into the plan officially because it is being financed through a federal program that is specifically about traffic calming.

I’m hoping that what Public Works can do will be enough.  As I’ve argued in earlier posts (here and here), it makes sense to make this project as good as it can be.  At the same time, unlike some other projects, this one can involve assessment and further adjustments or additions if it doesn’t work as well as intended.  I’m fine with delaying the implementation of other similar projects until we see how this works and possibly put in place general design standards for future projects of this kind.

Here’s What We’re Dealing With

This is also a matter of accepting some political realities.  There is a small but very vocal group vehemently opposed to this that will appear vindicated by a rejection of the project — even if the reasons the commission might do so are not related much to the critics’ concerns.

In addition, some of the more robust measures that were considered in early discussions, such as more bump-outs (that narrow the roadway at intersections and prevent cars from parking too close to the corner, which is illegal anyway) and diverters (which would have channeled cars to other streets at a couple of key intersections) were seen by council members and engineers as not having enough public support.  And apparently the fire department sees Floyd as a major route and will not accept speed bumps or anything of that sort.

Council members have the ultimate say about such projects, and they also get antsy if they think too many constituents (especially neighborhood associations) are opposed to something.  In a case like this I’m convinced that it would have been worth the risk, since people very often end up liking such things once they actually see them working.  But then I’m not trying to stay in office.  The point is that the engineers have opted to not include some things that would have done more to reduce speeds and traffic volumes because they were told to.  I’m not usually the biggest defender of our traffic engineers, but I think in this case they are being squeezed between cautious council members and skeptical residents on the one hand, and commission members who want more on the other.

So here’s the way I see it: with something decent in place, we can look carefully at how well it works or not over the first few months as people get used to it, and then if it’s not working as well as we would like, try out diverters or other measures at a couple of intersections on a temporary basis using traffic cones.  Working to convince residents and their representatives to accept this sort of addition would be easier than starting from scratch a couple of years down the road.

Imagine Slow(er) City Streets

29 Jan
New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City.  Image from Streetsblog.

New speed limit on Atlantic Avenue in New York City. Image from Streetsblog.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about what the statistics tell us about the safety and danger of our streets for bicyclists.  The following is the second of three installments about the still-radical idea of (drum roll) slowing car traffic.     

Richmond is taking small but important steps toward safer streets.  Bigger steps are sorely needed.  In the annual “Dangerous by Design” report from the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Richmond area ranked lower than D.C. and Hampton Roads for pedestrian safety.  See the report here and the RTD article here.

The RTD reported last summer that city council passed a resolution put forward by Parker Agelasto adding an additional $200 to fines for speeding on sections of Cary Street and Semmes Avenue.  On Cary it’s between Addison and Meadow, and between Granby and Cherry (one block was left out because law restricts the increased fine zone to residential areas), and on Semmes between 22nd Street and Dundee.

The current speed limit on these parts of Cary is 25 mph, on Semmes it’s 35, but it’s been determined that at least 85 percent of drivers on these streets are going more than 10 mph over the speed limit.  It’s striking that it has to be that bad to justify doing anything.  And it’s also not that surprising that many drivers go this fast because it’s come to be taken for granted that going faster than the speed limit (up to a point) is acceptable.

I could see taking this effort a lot further.  It’s not easy to slow drivers down, especially if the road still encourages higher speeds.  But at least the problem is being recognized.  Richmond has a number of streets that serve as quasi-highways (another example is Laburnum Ave. in my neighborhood).  These “arterial” streets are dangerous and uninviting for pedestrians and cyclists.  The physical design often sends the message that motorists own the road, and not surprisingly, drivers act accordingly.  They could and should serve other users but are so heavily tilted toward traffic flow that people using other forms of transportation effectively shut out, or at least discouraged from using the space too.

Speeds on other streets downtown and in neighborhoods are also often too fast for an urban environment with bicyclists and pedestrians as part of the mix.  Is there really any reason why anyone should go more than 15 mph on a neighborhood street?  Combined with cultural and psychological factors that make for relative impatience, we’ve made it more dangerous and unpleasant to walk and bike than it should be.

An Emerging Movement?

There has been quite a bit of press in recent months about emerging efforts to reduce deaths and injuries of pedestrians in New York City (see this New York Times piece, for example).  A group called Families for Safe Streets, founded by relatives of individuals killed by motorists, has joined forces with local advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives to lobby city and state leaders.

Recently elected Mayor Deblasio has embraced the movement with his Vision Zero action plan, an effort to bring traffic deaths down to zero.  (In 2013, 286 people, mostly pedestrians and bicyclists, were killed by motorists in New York).

One of the first concrete results of this initiative was unveiled earlier this month: arterial slow zones (see the Streetsblog report here).  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  But that’s the point; like Cary, Semmes, Laburnum, and other similar streets in Richmond, New York has streets that serve as thoroughfares and have traditionally seen heavy and fast traffic.  In the “slow zones” the limit has been reduced from 30 to 25 mph — which probably means that many drivers have been traveling at 40+ mph.  These streets will also be redesigned and see targeted enforcement to encourage slower speeds.

It’s striking in this regard that in Richmond the effort to reduce the speed limit on Floyd Avenue from 25 to 20 as part of the bike-walk street proposal has proven difficult, mostly because the standards, assumptions, formulas etc. used by traffic engineers are so narrowly structured: these decisions are based on current traffic speeds and accident statistics, but no sense of whether the street is actually inviting to cyclists and pedestrians.  The manuals and models and formulas do not tend to take into account this basic and obvious fact: a person walking or on a bicycle is at an incredible disadvantage against 2-tons of metal and plastic.  People walking or on bicycles are by definition (very) vulnerable road users, but our roads and policies do not really reflect that fact.

It’s no wonder, then, that many people will not even consider riding a bicycle to get around and would rather not walk either: it feels too risky because, even on a relatively calm street in the Fan, there are enough cars going fast enough to make it intimidating.  That issue gets missed in the arguments that such streets are already fine for biking and walking; they may be for those who already do, but not for the large number of people who would consider it if the streets were more inviting.

I have heard the concern that the Vision Zero idea, which originated in Sweden and is now being embraced by a number of U.S. cities, that we should be careful about the increased enforcement aspect because of persisting racial disparities in who gets pulled over for traffic violations.  This is an important concern that should be taken into account in the formulation of these strategies.

Keep an eye out for the final installment in this series next week: a case for life in the slow lane, and how it’s not as slow as you might think.

 

Bike Walk RVA Academy Round 2

26 Jan

bike-walk-rva-newsletter-bannerLast fall Bike Walk RVA held its first academy — an 8-week course for people passionate about making it safer and easier to get around Richmond by foot or bike.  The goal is to help those people make connections with like-minded folks and learn more about how to help get better infrastructure and policies for those kinds of transportation.  Graduates from the first academy have been holding meetings in their neighborhoods over the last couple of months to help build that community further.

They’re now accepting applications for the next round — a new group of Richmonders to go through the academy and join the growing ranks of advocates.  They ask for a commitment of eight two to three-hour sessions, along with passion for these issues and residence in the city (there will be sessions of the academy specifically for residents of individual counties later).

If you’re interested, check the details and submit your application here.  The deadline is January 30.  
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What’s Up with Floyd?

24 Jan

Following the deferral of a decision on the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street on Tuesday, BikeWalk RVA has started a petition to the Planning Commission urging its members to pass the Floyd Avenue bike-walk street project.

As Style and the RTD both report, the Planning Commission decided to delay a final vote on Floyd until February.  After the plan was voted down by the Urban Design Committee, Public Works came back with some additions to address issues the UDC had asked them to deal with back in September.  The text below from the Tuesday meeting’s minutes suggests that the commission wants Public Works to address them still more definitively and in more detail:

The Commission stated that they would like to see the following issues raised by the Urban Design Committee included in the plan when it returns at the February 17, 2015 meeting:

(1) Addressing a lower speed limit for the length of the project. This would be in the form of a recommendation to City Council.

(2) Committing to a full planting plan including street trees along the extent of the bike/walk route.

(3) Making the project fully accessible with accessible ramps along the corridor.

(4) Addressing unique signage and pavement markings and identity that celebrates this as a bike/walk trail as part of a larger way finding effort.

(5) That the project be evaluated 12 months after the completion of construction and adjusted as needed, and that that evaluation involves the public and a presentation to the Planning Commission.

(6) That the project address lighting along the length of the corridor.

(7) That the project more fully considers the impact on parking and considers limits on types or permits of parking specifically in Zones 1 and 2 of the project.

The Commission also requested the applicant to include the following issues raised by the Commission in the plan when it returns at the February 17, 2015 meeting:

(1) Explore pedestrian initiated signals at Belmont and Harrison.

(2) School X-ing or Ped-Xing markings replace one of the sharrow markings on each block.

(3) Safety should be the first priority.

 One the one hand I am happy that Public Works is being asked to beef up the design.  I’ve commented before on their tendency to take the minimal route when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

But I’m also worried that DPW (in coordination with the Bike-Ped coordinator Jake Helmboldt and their consultant from the Timmons Group) may not be in a position to fully address all of these in a few weeks.  The first item is pretty easy — they’ve expressed direct support for lowering the speed limit.  And they could commit to prioritizing accessible ramps along Floyd.  Extra markings for crossings should not be too tough.

It’s less clear that the budget and coordination with other departments (Urban Forestry, Public Utilities) are there to incorporate the tree and lighting issues.  Those particular items, if I’m not mistaken, involve a bit of moving the goal posts: I’m pretty sure that those were not mentioned previously.  The additional signage is something I’ve supported, but Public Works’ point was that the city (via Planning and Community Development) is working on a wayfinding system and signage on Floyd should be worked into that plan.

Hopefully with clear expressions of support from us and some more detail on the things that Public Works can deal with in 30 days, we’ll see a vote in favor of the project mid-February.  Thanks to all of you continue to follow this saga and help Richmond get its first bike-walk street.

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