When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

Social change through a bureaucratic manual

Producing a manual may not seem like an effective pathway to social change but it can help in certain areas, such as new standards for bicycling in American cities:

To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.

The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space…

The publication of the NACTO bikeway guide didn’t directly result in the creation of any new bike lanes. But the planners and engineers who wrote it recognized that for each of them to further progress in their own city, they had to collaborate on standards that would enable progress in any city.

As it turns out, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide was just the beginning. NACTO later released the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, a broader effort to push back against America’s car-first road designs and define streets that support urban life, with narrow lanes that encourage reasonable driving speeds and traffic signals that give people plenty of time to cross the street. More recently, the organization has published guides on designing streets to speed up public transit, and incorporate storm-water infrastructure.

It sounds like the manual was the culmination of collective efforts in multiple cities as well as the form that would be recognized in that particular field (urban planning). But, it hints at larger issues involving social change: it can happen through a variety of materials and people. If I were to teach about social change in an Introduction to Sociology class, we might talk about (1) large-scale social movements or (2) significant shifts in large institutions (like the economy or politics). We acknowledge material changes here and there: think the revolution of the printing press, the arrival of social media or smartphones, the invention of air conditioning, etc. Yet, bureaucratic changes (except national laws) receive little attention even though such shifts can influence many people without even knowing. Take the bike lanes example from above: the average city resident may notice the shift but would probably attribute the change to either local officials or local interest groups (and both would be partly true). But, the manual behind the changes will only be known to experts in that field.

Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).

The difficulties of thief-proofing a bicycle

A recent summary of bike lock techniques in Citylab were ultimately depressing: determined thieves can get to your bicycle in many different ways.

So what can be done? A few ideas:

  1. Why aren’t there more companies trying to provide solutions? Several innovative ones are presented in the article:

There’s also a prototype called the Skunklock that, when tampered with, sprays chemicals “so disgusting they induce vomit in the majority of cases,” according to its makers. For the well-being of the community, Grajales doesn’t recommend using this one…

When out and about, Oakland bike advocate Francisco Grajales always tries to use BikeLink, a national service that operates stainless-steel lockers around transit hubs and other cyclist-friendly locations. The amenity is extremely cheap, renting lockers for 5 cents an hour, and offers nice protection in the form of cages resembling those that wall off divers from sharks. “I’m willing to walk a half-mile or something to my destination from the BikeLink just for that added security,” says Grajales.

It seems like there is some money to be made here.

2. A somewhat obvious answer is to have more eyes on bike racks and other locations where bicycles are frequently stored. Paid attendants? Security cameras? Bike check-in centers? It seems like some organizations might want to have attendants if they are truly serious about promoting bicycle use.

3. Perhaps municipal bike-sharing systems – like Divvy in Chicago – can be more widespread. It is not as convenient as having your own bicycle from door to door but the costs of protecting and maintaining the bikes is done by the city or company.

Dutch cycling culture aided by 1970s protests against kids killed in car accidents

The Dutch are known for their bicycling. How exactly this happened includes some interesting tidbits, such as the 1970s protests against cars (as told by Wikipedia):

The trend away from the bicycle and towards motorised transport only began to be slowed in the 1970s when Dutch people took to the streets to protest against the high number of child deaths on the roads: in some cases over 500 children were killed in car accidents in the Netherlands in a single year.[10] This protest movement came to be known as the Stop de Kindermoord (literally “Stop the Child Murder” in Dutch).[10] The success of this movement — along with other factors, such as the oil shortages of 1973–74[11] — turned Dutch government policy around and the country began to restrict motor vehicles in its towns and cities and direct its focus on growth towards other forms of transport, with the bicycle being seen as critical in making Dutch streets safer and towns and cities more people-friendly and liveable.

In the United States, over 32,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2015. The number was over 40,000 less than ten years ago and deaths in accidents peaked at over 50,000 a year in the early 1970s and late 1970s. (See the data going back all the way to 1899 here.) So where are the protests in the United States? A few reasons why the experience of the Dutch may not be replicated here:

  1. Americans love to drive. They have since the car was introduced. We have designed our lives around cars (think single-family homes with garages, highways, fast food, the vast system of gas stations, etc.). Could people protest about something they like?
  2. Mass movements in the United States where people turn out to protest in large numbers are relatively rare.
  3. Americans are willing to take risks in areas that other people in the world are not. Maybe it is due to a love of driving, perhaps it has to do with emphasizing individual freedoms.

It is fun to imagine Americans taking to the streets against cars…what exactly would it take? For some reason, I suspect they might protest more because of really high gas prices rather than high number of deaths by car accident.

Better ways to signal pedestrian crosswalks

The death of a cyclist recently in Mount Prospect has led to an examination of how to stop drivers for walkers and bicyclists:

Using data from studies of 16,716 vehicles at crosswalks equipped with amber beacons in seven states, including Illinois, researchers found on average 72 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. Interestingly, only 33 percent out of 1,402 vehicles yielded in Illinois.

Drivers tended to stop more frequently if the amber beacons were located overhead instead of alongside the road, near a school or transit stop, and on roads with fewer lanes, the study stated.

A different Federal Highway Administration report found a huge gap in drivers obeying amber beacons at crosswalks that ranged from 19 percent at one site in Illinois to 98 percent at a Colorado location…

Meanwhile, another type of crosswalk signal with a red light offers a promising track record. Known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the device typically hangs over an intersection and is dark until someone presses a button activating a yellow warning light, then a red beacon for drivers.

Studies of 3,504 drivers in Texas and Arizona showed 96 percent on average stopped.

All the road signs and traffic lights in the world will not lead to 100% compliance from drivers. Of course, some solutions are more effective than others. Later in the article, an expert explains:

“Traffic engineering is harder than drivers may think,” Fitzpatrick said.

Another problem that could be solved with self-driving cars. Until then, cyclists and pedestrians have to be really careful with cars driven by humans who can have all sorts of reactions to people crossing the road.

First segment of “bike autobahn” opens in Germany

Following up on an earlier post, the first part of the “bike autobahn” recently opened in northwest Germany:

Last month, Germany opened its first stretch of “bike autobahn,” a cycle route that will eventually cover 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the northwestern cities of Duisburg and Hamm. The autobahn moniker (the German term is actually radschnellweg) may sound over the top given that so far just five kilometers of the route have been launched. But the plan’s ultimate scale and ambition is not to be denied…

The idea nonetheless has real potential for medium-length journeys, pushing the limits of frequent daily bike use out from the (now well-provided-for) inner city into the suburbs and wider regions. Munich isalready planning a network like this one, which will stretch from the historic center out along 14 protected two-lane paths through the suburbs into the surrounding lake land. Germany’s fourth city, Cologne, has a smaller plan for a similar bike highway out into its western exurbs.

When it comes to extending this idea from metro areas to tracks between cities, the new Hamm-Duisburg route is ideal. It will pass through the most densely populated region of Germany, the Ruhr region, where a network of industrial cities lies scattered at only short distances from each other, interspersed with forest and farmland. When complete, the route will bring a string of cities into 30 minutes cycle distance of each other—almost 2 million people will live within a two-kilometer radius of the completed highway…

The main sticking point is cost. The full cost of the new Ruhr highway will be€180 million, funding that is not yet in place for the whole route but which should ultimately come from a blend of municipal and provincial budgets. Elsewhere, not everyone is convinced the benefits of projects like this outweigh the expense. A Berlin bike autobahn plan, which would link the city center with the southwest area, is facing resistance from opponents who say that, as as a link primarily used in good weather, it would do little to relieve pressure on existing rail links.

The portion that just opened – and the planned sections for Munich – seem to be primarily about commuters. If you have several million people within easy distance of these new routes, the bike autobahn could get significant use. It would be interesting to also know the ongoing maintenance cost of such paths; compared to laying down roads which need regular repair (and complete overhauls with several decades), these paths might be relatively cheap in the long run.

I do wonder how the commuters might mix with more recreational users. Perhaps the times of use might be slightly different but paths like these could attract both people who want to get to work and others out for exercise – all at varying speeds. Perhaps Europeans who are already more interested in bicycling around cities could handle this better than Americans who often use bike paths for recreational purposes.