Category Archives: Boulder

Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race | streets.mn

At streets.mn, I have the following post: Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race. 

“In less than a decade, the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway (Minnesota) has quickly risen to one of America’s most beloved darlings of a bike path[1]. Similarly, the short stretch of the Cedar Lake Trail to the Twins Stadium provides much needed closure over an important stretch for cyclists in downtown Minneapolis. Both are critical assets for […]“

 

 

The perfect is the enemy of the good; making lemonade is sufficient

Some bike paths serve as semi-icons for their city. The Creek Path in Boulder, Colorado (US) ranks up there with the Seattle’s Burke Gilman Trail and the Chain of Lakes network in Minneapolis (both US). But the origin of the path’s construction had some rough beginnings.

A bit of history: The area around the path was originally called for in Boulder’s Creek Corridor plan (1984), which stipulated the use of the creek corridor as a linear, topographically sensitive park. This park would incorporate riparian zones and wetland sensitive elements[1]. The creek comprised one of the primary watersheds for the city and a few years later, the city purchased adjoining land to the creek for a wetland and greenway program. This led to further integration of habitat restoration and water quality augmentation elements into the use of once forlorn features of Boulder’s ecological fabric. But over time, community-wide momentum was building for how the area could also enhance flood mitigation efforts together with more “mainstream modes” of transportation such as walking and cycling (in addition to kayaking)[2].

Rather than scour for the pennies that were available at the time to build bicycle facilities, the city tapped into federal grants for flood control and environmental remediation; these coffers were three to four times larger. The city creatively parlayed bike trails into this process. The flood mitigation efforts were considered to have largely passed the extreme test that the city experienced owing to biblical floods in September of 2013.

But the specific planning of the bike portion of the Boulder Creek Path was somewhat of a separate issue. And, Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for the city at the time, approached it with vengeance. He focused on ensuring it got built—not planned for—but built. Lacy considered formal permits a nuisance; conscientious and collaborative plan-making was too time consuming. He relied on a “Robert Moses-esque” philosophy and sometimes took a page out of Chicago Mayor Daley’s planning playbook[3]. Rather than abide by city protocol, he went solo and blazed sections of the trail by moonlight. He took to the backhoe to move obstinate boulders along the way. Where the earth would not move, he built the path around it.

Lacy’s semi-barbarian approach to make the path is etched into local folklore. And the path itself would have made the hair stand up on the neck of the authors who penned the 4th edition Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities by the American Association for State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO)[4],[5]. Sight lines are jeopardized, travel lanes were inconsistently wide, and some right-angled turns (frowned on in bike path planning) continue to be sprinkled throughout. Friends in town claim the trail is hazardous and a downright safety hazard. But the path got built—the city has since smoothed out some of the path’s rough edges—and it now serves as a beacon for the city and a seminal spine for the rest of the its cycling network.

The development of Boulder’s Creek Path represents a planning story where the perfect was not the enemy of the good. Things got done, despite not being perfect. There were some issues along the way—some of them safety oriented, others process oriented. But its evolution begs the question in the world of bicycle planning, when is a facility “good enough.”

Similarly, the “so-called” bicycle facility outside my home in Bologna (Italy) is a meandering stripe that bobs and weaves, literally at right angles between newsstands and trees. It sometimes pinches the rider down to mere inches. I presume it was laid by an Italian public works employee after too much grappa. But do these sketchy attributes warrant it as a non-useful facility? Is providing substandard bicycle facilities worse than none at all?

The dilemma reminds me of a scene in Cher’s 1987 Academy award winning film, Moonstruck (the movie, likewise shares Italian origins). The father, Cosmo Castorini, is a plumber who is explaining to a client in his deep Italian accent his philosophy of preferred plumbing materials.

“There are three kinds of pipe. There’s what you have [aluminum], which is garbage – and you can see where that’s gotten you. There’s bronze, which is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there’s copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.

Did Cosmo have it right? Are there problems in the bike planning world that stem from constructing the equivalent of ‘aluminum’ or ‘bronze’ facilities?

The biggest risk of substandard facilities are the unmet expectations that they create. Cyclists, seeing signs, markings or other might are comforted into letting down their safety guard, for example. There is subsequent confusion about the role, rights, and responsibilities in the transportation hierarchy. Cyclists are all too familiar with the bike lane painted within mere inches of the impending car door opening. Or the bike facility that, in a pinch, mixes you with pedestrians and then switches the side on which bikes are supposed to ride. Then there is the blissful cycling corridor that abruptly dumps you into four lanes of auto traffic. In my own research, I found that users particularly struggle with these later situations when facilities end at bigger intersections, locations with on-street parking, and locations with relatively narrow travel lanes[6].

With most transportation networks being surface oriented, mainly along streets and primarily occupied by cars, it is useful to have prescriptions, guidelines, and even sometimes standards to guard against these situations. In an ideal world, a planner would take stock of the context, consult the guidelines, prepare the design, and execute. If only it were that easy. History gets in the way. Cultural peculiarities get way. Nature gets in the way.

There are many cities—almost all of them in industrialized countries—who are moving toward this consistent model. If you ask Dutch cycle planners, they immediately pull off the shelf their tattered Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic[7]. They leaf to dog-eared section 4.4.2 where they point to a figure with two axes—how many cars are along a particular route (e.g., traffic volume) and the speed of those cars. Five different types of suggested facilities are depicted based on these two factors alone. Adhering to some core principles put forth by the prototype model is gaining steam in the US[8] and cycling treatments are approached with increasing method and consistency.

At the other end of the spectrum lie cases where bicycling treatments are less than satisfactorily completed. That might be an overstatement. They are downright dangerous. These might consist of the cavalier bike path that was laid through a stretch of road—lacking attention to its connecting points—to enable a politician could deliver on a promise to a constituency. It might be the case where road engineers are blindly following a city’s guidelines; they might measure three feet from a street curb’s edge, lay a stripe, and call it a day regardless of the context. It might be the proverbial case where a bike facility passes over a storm sewer with drainage slots that miraculously measure the same width as a bicycle tire. No self-respecting transportation professional would endorse these outcomes. They present unexpected conditions, safety hazards, and problematic signals to both cyclists and car drivers.

In the broad spectrum of bicycle facility planning contexts, there are environments that are shy of falling into the above category. But, they don’t lend themselves to rigid standards (or expectations) offered in guidebooks. Try finding room for a bike path in the historic center of any city that was inhabited by the Romans. The typical right-of-way might be three meters wide and shared between five or more different modes each traveling in two different directions. While most situations are not this stark, the bulk of planning contexts—especially in historic cities across the globe—are in situations where the bike planner is dolled a bunch lemons. Cosmo might have had it wrong. Realizing that not everywhere in a city can be built with ‘copper pipe’ cycling conditions, bike planners must make due and prescribe treatments that are far from perfect. They must make lemonade, even thought it carries some risks.

Otherwise, what are their options? They could sharpen their pencils designing the perfect intersection which might come to fruition once the political will arrives. Alternatively, they could do nothing.

Making lemonade means that formal standards might be abandoned. Cyclists need to adjust their expectations. Car drivers need to acclimate. Life goes on. Bike facilities need to start somewhere. They need to be granted freedom to experiment without backlash. What might be considered a substandard intersection treatment today will eventually graduate to something more mature. For example, a painted stripe that winds through a parking lot, might be upgraded to a perimeter route next year, which would then eventually be dovetailed into a larger separated network. A green swath at an intersection now would convert to a bike box next year which would then be complemented with a prioritized cycling traffic signal in the following year. Doing “something” provides a much-needed nod to the cyclists. It is usually better than doing nothing at all and helps set in motion a process whereby facilities can mature. Cities are constantly evolving. This includes their transportation infrastructure. That is, over time, the lemonade gets sweeter and sweeter. Cycling treatments usually pale in comparison to the costs of auto or transit infrastructure. As long as lives are not gravely put at risk and accidents largely avoided—a big caveat, I admit—cycling treatments are inexpensive experiments. If they succeed, they are built on and further developed. If they clearly fail, they can be erased.


[1] A portion of the creek was reconfigured as a white water recreation park, thereby incorporating another level of complexity to the flood mitigation strategy. Gary Lacy, a recreation planner for Boulder and an avid kayaker, would reportedly boat to his downtown work location along the creek.

[2] Greenways Master Plan.   City of Boulder2001 update.  http://bouldercolorado.gov/files/Utilities/Greenways/MasterPlan.pdf. Accessed January, 2012

[3] Daley’s playbook: Meig’s field was a fully functioning private airport runway strip on Chicago’s pristine lakefrong. Citing security concerns in 2003, Mayor Daley ordered the bulldozers tear up the runway and they did so in the middle of the night to avoid obstruction and protesting efforts.

[4] American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.

[5] This is a document that ASHTO was so proud about that they produced a video for its release, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeE62AGXQZg

[6] Krizek, Kevin J. and Rio Roland (2005). What is at the End of the Road? Understanding Discontinuities of On-Street Bicycle Lanes in Urban Settings. Transportation Research, Part D. 10(1): p.55-68

[7] This report is the world’s most authoritative manual on bikeway design and is published by CROW—a Dutch acronym of the Information and Technology Platform for Transport, Infrastructure and Public space, a Dutch non-profit collaboration between government and businesses.

[8] As is evidenced by AASHTO publishing their 4th edition, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (2012). Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition. ISBN: 1-56051-527-2.

Guest post: Kurt Nordback on Bike and Walking Under/over-passes: Separate but Equal

Last week I reported favorably on the new underpass being finished in Boulder. Here is another take on under/over-passes, in general, by Kurt Nordback (kurt@ieee.org), a software engineer who also likes to think about urban design and transportation policy.

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PICT1209.JPGTransportation engineers like to solve traffic problems using engineering solutions, meaning building things out of concrete and steel. That’s in their training and in their nature. In general, they prefer the “hard” approach of physical structures to “soft” solutions based on psychology and subtleties of human behavior.

In the US, for the past 50 years or so that has worked well, thanks to two factors: flush transportation budgets with plenty of room for expensive construction, and policy that equated “transportation” with “motor vehicles”. There’s psychology involved in engineering roadways for cars, to be sure; but cars are hard objects and they respond well to hard solutions.

So when roads intersect, the natural engineering response is to want to separate them vertically, eliminating both “delay” and any chance of T-bone crashes. When roads intersect bike-ped paths, engineers want to physically separate the cars from the people. Thus are born underpasses and bridges.

This separation of modes dates to the early stages of Modernist planning philosophy. Pedestrian underpasses were built in an early “Garden City”, Radburn, NJ, tellingly dubbed the “Town for the Motor Age”. Subsequent suburban developments across the country, inspired by Modernist ideas, also built underpasses or bridges, often with stairs or ramps to get people from their natural ground level to a level where they wouldn’t interfere with the roads.

Which brings us to the doctrine of “separate but equal”, which was used for decades to justify separate and unequal facilities for whites and blacks. The analogy only goes so far — there’s a categorical difference between unequal treatment based on skin color and unequal treatment based on modal choice — but, within its limits, it’s instructive. At any grade-separated crossing, cars go nice and straight, staying pretty much at ground level. People, whether as pedestrians or bicyclists, go up or down stairs or ramps, and around loops or curlicues. Cars get to go fast; people are hidden below ground or up high. The engineers justify this in terms of cost — it’s cheaper to build a big ramping loop for bikes than for cars — but that doesn’t change the fact that the treatment is unequal.

In 1954, the US Supreme Court finally saw through the lie of “separate but equal” in its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Coincidentally, just three years earlier Jane Jacobs had published her critique of Modernist planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs did not speak to underpasses, but her embrace of robust urbanism and design that engages people in the active street life of the city leave little doubt as to how she would view them. The urban planner Jan Gehl, who follows in Jacobs’ footsteps 50 years later, has this to say about underpasses in his influential and insightful book, Cities for People: “Seen in the perspective of current visions of inviting people to walk and bicycle more in cities, clearly pedestrian underpasses and bridges can only be solutions in those special cases where major highways must be crossed. Solutions must be found for all other roads and streets that allow pedestrians and bicycles to stay on street level and cross with dignity…. Today the world is full of abandoned pedestrian underpasses and bridges. They belong to a certain time and a certain philosophy.”

Underpasses and bridges disengage pedestrians from the urban sphere, and hide them from the view of motorists. They are appropriate in certain circumstances, such as where an interurban path crosses an interstate highway, and also along greenway corridors, where path users are already intentionally disconnected from the city around them. But where they’re used just to get non-motorists across a city street, they are symptomatic of a less-than-wholehearted embrace of multimodalism, a clinging to the failed precepts of Modernism. The engineer may object that there’s no safe way for pedestrians to cross a high-speed road in the city, but the real question should be: what is a high-speed road doing in the city?

Moreover, the enormous cost of an underpass, in a time of declining transportation budgets, means forgoing lots of other, cheaper facilities. Boulder is in the midst of construction of an underpass costing $3-4 million, as part of a larger $7.4 million project. That much money could build a lot of sidewalks, refurbish a lot of bus shelters, plant a lot of street trees.

The better alternatives to grade-separated crossings are traffic-calming, road diets, reconnecting the street grid, allowing full movement at every intersection, and putting sidewalks on every street.

The Town for the Motor Age ushered in underpasses as a transportation tool; Cities for People deprecates them. The contrast is stark, and the conclusion is clear: though underpasses and bridges are nominally for pedestrians and bikes, their design comes out of an auto-oriented Modernist mindset. They are separate, but not equal, and urban design is best served by changing that mindset.

 

 

Plan Boulder County Presentation

This coming Monday, I will be speaking at Plan Boulder County.

How Green is Boulder’s Land Use Transportation System?

30 Jul 2012, 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM. Location: Shine, 2027 13th Street

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A Report on the State of the Community and Future Challenges – Kevin J. Krizek
Kevin J. Krizek is Professor of Planning and Design at the University of Colorado Boulder where he also wears a variety of other hats, including:

-Director of CU Sustainability Research and Education;
-Senior Transportation Fellow for the Environmental Center;
-Co-Director, Active Communities/Transportation Research Group;
-Founding co-editor of the Journal of Transport and Land Use.

His research and teaching interests integrate transportation and land use. Krizek has been the Principal Investigator for close to $3 million of externally funded research; much of this activity focuses on transit, walking and bicycling. All of it aims to shape national policies on land use/transportation and advance local and regional planning efforts that further sustainable infrastructure. For example, the Design for Health project (www.designforhealth.net; US APA’s National Planning Excellence Award for Best Practice) developed health impact assessments, research briefs and other tools for planners to assess policies. A report recently released by Kaiser Permanente documents a research and outreach project to identify a set of robust, consensus indicators for measuring Active Transportation in Colorado.

Krizek moved to Boulder in 2007 after serving on the faculty at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. He lives on the Hill with his wife and 6 year old son and blogs at vehicleforasmallplanet.com.

Boulder’s lavish new Broadway Bike/Ped Underpass

Intersections are the source of more than half of all conflicts between motorized and non-motorized modes. We know that most non-motorized users really appreciate facilities that are separated from cars. But separate facilities—particularly those that are grade separated—requires space and money.

Boulder, Colorado has a strong tradition for coming up with the funding for these underpasses. In the city’s 25 square miles, they just finished constructing another adjacent to the University of Colorado Boulder Campus. The city has over 80 underpasses (I think) and this one is close to their most expensive. It came in at $7.4 million with $3.4 million in federal transportation funds. The local match for this project was composed of funding from five agencies.

As an owner of property less than 2 blocks away—and one who formerly crossed this intersection multiple times per day—I cannot help to be pleased. I no longer need to wait at the onerous light and have my child come anywhere close to the somewhat fast moving auto traffic on Broadway.