"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

January 17, 2008

Cycling Safety And Transportation Priorities In Northampton MA.

"A true bicycle network is one that can be safely used by a child. Otherwise what we have today, those bicycle lanes in my opinion are almost useless. It's really to have that, or not have anything is almost the same."
-Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota Colombia, 1998-2001.

On Friday of last week, a cyclist was hit on her bike at the intersection of State and Finn St. The news hit the wire almost immediately. The cyclist was taken to the hospital, and released later that day. This prompted a discussion of cycling related issues on the MassBike Yahoo Group; some selections of those discussions follows, where Wayne Feiden, Director of the Office of Planning and Development for the City of Northampton also weighed in.

Lily Lombard, newly elected to the city's Community Preservation Committee, noted her experience as a cyclist in the community,

Here is my experience: Snow plows do not push snow all the way to the curb; instead, many feet of snow protrude into the zone where bicyclists occupy. Along South St. many parts of the bike lane are blocked by snow. Along Elm St., cars park in the bike lane b/c the parking zone, (to the right of the bike lane), is snow-filled.
Lily further notes two issues, being that sand on the street gravitates to the edge, and the practice of repainting bike lanes in the fall. With respect to the first issue, she asks,
does it really make sense to continue to place bike lanes on the right side of our roads? Any movement on the Transportation Committee to re-think where we put bike lanes?
Expounding on her second concern, Lily says, "By spring, the paint is worn off by weather and snow plows. So in effect, these bike lanes are not visible during most of the year."

Jackie Misa wrote in soon after, and raised some valid concerns and issues.
"I agree with you on the dangers of biking in town. I actually have a bike and I've almost always had one but I've become loath to ride in town. It doesn't feel safe. I think a large part of the problem is drivers' inattention, poor traffic design and planning a close second...

Since Mr. Huntley has been copied here one thing I'd like to add is how treacherous West Street is for cyclists and drivers alike, especially in snow. For some reason parking is allowed on a large portion of the north side of the street. The road is much too narrow for this to begin with and when you add snow it's really quite dangerous as westbound travelers are often in the oncoming lane. Now that there's a large construction project or large construction projects there are very often large commercial trucks added to the mix and it's pretty hairy. Any weekday I would think safe passage on a bike is impossible...

Anyway, what I like BEST about your post with its succession of notes is how it highlights what's best about Northampton, the community and our sense of community. This is really a small town, that's what's best about it. And I wish more would be or remain mindful of that, especially those with grandiose plans -- including the hotel, the fairgrounds, hospital hill, etc., not to mention Smith College expansion -- and/or making all the big decisions."
Jackie raises a question for me that should be be addressed publicly by our city officials. With the long range plan for Northampton to become more of a destination, with more large scale development, more visitors and more traffic, what steps are being taken to provide equitable and safe transportation issues for all who live and visit here?

And that's where Wayne Feiden writes in, addressing that very concern, and more.
I think Lilly raises important points about the need to do more to make our roads safe for bicycles (and for pedestrians). I certainly hope that there will continue to be public support and public funding for more bicycle lanes and snow and sand removal. I have seen such a dramatic sea change in the last few years and dramatic improvements, but the advocate in me wants much more done.

Off-road improvements do NOT replace the need to make roads safer, but five great off-road projects are coming that will at least provide options. Thanks to all who have contributed politically and financially to make these projects a reality:

1. The bicycle/mixed use trail from Ice Pond Drive to Florence Road is 90% complete and completely usable now. The final coat of asphalt (right now it has a thin binder coat down) will go on in the spring.

2. The Manhan Rail Trail from the Roundhouse parking lot downtown to Earle and Grove begins construction in February. When this project is substantially done at the end of 2008, there will be a safe alternative from Earle/Grove Street to West Street (by National Felt) and to downtown.

3. The Manhan Rail Trail and Norwottuck Rail Trail from the Roundhouse parking lot to the Francis P. Ryan Section, Norwottuck Rail Trail at Stop and Shop begins in the spring and will be substantially done by the end of 2008. It includes new bridges across Main Street and North Streets and a new pedestrian signal across King Street.

4. The Norwottuck Rail Trail from Look Park to Florence Street or Grove Avenue in Leeds will be advertised this summer for 2009 construction.

5. We helped get the state Norwottuck Rail Trail done this last summer to Woodmont Avenue(as an advocate, to purchase the final right of way, and to obtain the wetlands permits-- otherwise this was a state project). We hope to install signs marking a route from this trail to the city trail this summer.

We are also working on future rail trails and improvements (e.g. future trails , a tunnel under the rail road line to connect the state and city trails, ramps to provide access to the Norwottuck Rail Trail and Manhan Rail Trail from more neighborhoods) in an effort to continue to improve these options. Contributions to these efforts (contributions of work, support, or cash) are extremely useful.
The improvements Wayne notes are welcome, and will add greatly increase the effectiveness of traveling by bicycle in the City of Northampton. Though as Wayne noted, "Off-road improvements do NOT replace the need to make roads safer."

Often I wonder about the bike lanes painted on city roads, and question why they are not placed with a buffer zone of parked cars to their left. So in practice, instead of a row of cars to the right of the bike lane, abutting the curb, a seemingly safer practice, and one that is use in other municipalities across the country and world such as Boulder CO., Bogota DC CO., Paris, London, Montreal, etc...etc...would be a physically separated bike lane with the bike lane abutting the curb, parking cars to the LEFT of the bike lane. Effectively isolating the bike lane from traffic by providing a buffer zone. Though you can isolate the bike lane by any number of means. Flower pots, curbing, barriers, etc...

Though not practical on every street, on South St. for instance, there is an appropriate amount of space to undertake such a project. In fact, in response to community concern about these very issues a few years ago, (cycling and traffic calming) the city DPW painted bike lanes AND widened the yellow medium in the middle of the road on South St., with the intent to narrow the width of the road, slowing traffic. Another option that might be attempted there might be to, instead of widening the yellow medium, installing these aforementioned types of buffer zone along the bike lane. You would both narrow the road, and widen the bike paths, purposely creating an exclusive, safe, and equitable mode of transportation for bikes.

The video linked here, though directed at the population of NYC, has numerous examples of physically separated bike lanes, and their use elsewhere. If examples from the national and international communities of intellectual and financial elites creates suspicions for you about black helicopters, a stellar example you might want to to look at would be one that Germantown TN., is setting, where they are developing a Bicycle Master Plan for the city, even though the city already can lay claim to facts such as,

"All of the Germantown public elementary schools are accessible by bike lanes from the surrounding residential neighborhoods."

"All of the proposed bike routes begin and end at a City park to insure adequate parking and to allow for water and restrooms."

As well as having five bike lane loops that circle varying sections of the community.

Germantown TN is a city of 40,000 people, with a median income of almost $100,000. Granted, a wealthy community. But surely if a backwater community in the deep, deep south of TN, under Republican leadership, can have the vision and wherewithal to create such an network of safe and equitable bike paths, surely our progressive, liberal, and environmentally conscious community of Northampton can attempt to approximate the same, no?

Interestingly enough about the Germantown example, is the benefits of their policy. The bike lanes they have developed can be used by any group of people as an effective mode of transportation. Children can ride them to school. People can bike to work effectively and safely. As opposed to recreational and sporadic bike paths, which are useful mainly for recreational benefit, on the week-end, or for effective transportation use by limited and privileged groups.

(all photos in this post were found via google images, and are not photos of bike lanes in Northampton. To see images of bike lanes in Northampton, squint and look along the side of the road on Elm and/or South St.)

Labels: biking, infrastructure, public space, public policy, transportation