Archive | February, 2015

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.