Monday, April 23, 2012

Existing Bicycle Lane Conditions on Massachusetts Avenue Boston, MA

By John Kurpeski

Recently, Boston began transforming their street designs to better accommodate bicyclists.  Critics against this movement argue that the percentage of bicyclists is insignificant compared to vehicles and pedestrians.  In one sense, they are correct Boston bicyclists only account for about 2.11% of the entire commuter population.  However, cyclists are the most negatively impacted transportation population when it comes to poor street designs.  Motorists generally do not want cyclists on "their" roads while pedestrians do not want cyclists on "their" sidewalks.  When a street is not designed to accommodate cyclists, they often become too nervous to travel on that street.  If this pattern exists on multiple streets, cyclists will not have a safe route for their travels.  This is one reason why the cycling percentage is so low.  Other reasons include large travel distances, poor weather conditions, and the lack of comfort normally provided with owning a vehicle.  Nevertheless, better street designs have the ability to raise the percentage of bicycle users.

Benefits of Bicycling
Bicycling is a type of transportation that holds a variety of benefits, both for the user and for the environment.  First off, cycling is a form of exercise.  Those who commute on bikes will burn calories during their morning and evenings trips.  This promotes a healthy heart, mental health, and muscle growth.  In addition, owning a bicycle costs significantly less than owning a vehicle.  Cyclists save on insurance, inspections, registration, gas, parking, and maintenance.   As for the environment, bicycles take up much less room than vehicles and require a less pavement.  This promotes green-space, which is often lost in cities like Boston due to vehicle pavement requirements.  They do not require natural resources for operation, nor do they dispel harmful fumes into the air.  Though bicycling is often undermined by the overwhelming percentage of vehicle drivers, why not make the switch given all of these benefits?

Redesign of Massachusetts Avenue
At the end of 2011, Boston changed the design of Mass Ave.  Additional bike lanes were installed, connecting the existing bike lanes in Cambridge.  The biggest change occurred between Huntington Avenue and the Harvard Bridge.

Stretch of Mass Ave from Huntington Avenue to the Harvard Bridge
Googlemaps Link

A total of 71 parking spaces were removed along the Christian Science Museum side of Mass Ave (most of them metered).   In turn, painted travel lanes were shifted over and two bicycle lanes were installed.  In some areas, the bike lane ends and shared road arrows (sharrows) are painted in the middle of the lane to make motorists and cyclists aware of the merge. 

As for the stretch of Mass Ave between Huntington Avenue and Melnea Cass, both bike lanes and sharrows have also been installed. 

Stretch of Mass Ave from Huntington Avenue to Melnea Cass
Googlemaps Link

Since parking has remained in place, bike lanes are very inconsistent throughout this entire stretch.   Still, Mass Ave was once a huge gap in Boston's bicycle network but now better serves the bicycling population.

Design Intended Use vs. Actual Use
As mentioned, Mass Ave is a major arterial for travelers.  It provides a route to the very popular Newbury Street where people shop, as well as the Mass Pike I-90 Highway.  It also provides access to I-93 and the South Bay shopping mall.  Having bike lanes is a great step towards filling Boston’s bicycle network, but how well was it designed?

Starting with the section of Mass Ave between Huntington Avenue and the Harvard Bridge, standard bicycle road designs have been implemented.  The intended use is for cyclists to have a safe area for traveling on this stretch of road.  When heading toward the Harvard Bridge, a four foot wide bike lane stretches across most of this span.  On the left side of this lane is vehicle traffic and on the right, a sidewalk curb.  Since parking has been removed, there is no danger of dooring.  When the bike lane crosses an intersection, dashed lines are used to both make motorists aware of the cyclists and to provide cyclists with a defined travel path.  In areas where the bike lane is blocked, either due to construction or to restricted space, sharrows are used to make motorists and cyclists aware of the merge.

Four foot wide bike lane along stretch next to Christian Science Museum
(my apologies for the blurriness)
Marked bike lane crossing at Clearway Street
Bike lane to sharrow merge due to construction at Belvidere Street
Another marked bike lane crossing at Commonwealth Avenue
(my non-traffic engineering driver passed the test by looking for cyclists!)

After multiple observations, the actual use of these designs harmonizes with the intended use.  Cyclists travel in the center of their bike lane, only being concerned about passing vehicle traffic.  At intersections, motorists do check for approaching cyclists before turning onto or off of Mass Ave and cyclists stay within the bike lane’s dashed lines.  When the road becomes a shared vehicle and bicyclist lane, cyclists know to check for adjacent motorist traffic before merging.

On the same stretch of the road in the opposite direction, similar designs are used.  Bike lanes are now five feet wide to account for parked car dooring.  Sharrows also exist where space is limited and marked bike lanes are used for most intersections.  In general, there is a lack of harmony between intended and actual use.  Cyclists tend to travel on the left most side of their bike lane for fear of dooring.  Also, there are areas where bicycle travel space is not defined and can become confusing for both motorists and cyclists.  The most evident area is the span between Westland Avenue and Huntington Avenue.  There are no markings on either side of the street and bicyclists have to fend for themselves until their bike lane starts again.

Another marked bike lane crossing at Commonwealth Avenue
(heading back towards Newbury Street)
Continuation of a five foot wide bike lane next to a parking lane
(next to the string of stores opposite to the Christian Science Museum)
Displaying the vehicle lane shifts along this stretch of road
(it is clear that the dividing double yellow lines were shifted to the left)
Lack of bike lane design at Westland Avenue and St. Stevens Street
(marked bike lane crossing should be installed)
Lack of bike lane design next to Symphony Hall
(sharrows should be installed in this right turn only lane)
Lack of bike lane design at the Christian Science Museum vehicle entrance
(marked bike lane crossing should be installed)

For the section of Mass Ave between Huntington Avenue and Melnea Cass, cyclists see many inconsistencies in the street’s bike lane designs in both directions.  There are stretches of road where neither bike lanes nor sharrows exist.  In areas where the bike lanes do exist, there are parking lanes that run the risk of dooring.  These bike lanes are only four feet wide so cyclists tend to travel on the far left edge of the bike lane.  Mass Ave also has many intersections along this stretch of road.  At each one, there are no marked bike lane crossings to make motorists aware of approaching cyclists.  Bicycles, instead of following a straight path, have to swerve to the right and travel along the edge of the pedestrian crosswalk.  This requires cyclists to be extra careful when it comes to right and left turning vehicles.  At any rate, studies show that a narrow bike lane is better than none.  Bike lanes reduce the level of stress for both motorists and cyclists by defining their respective travel lanes.  That being said, the current design does serve its main purpose by providing cyclists with a travel path but comes with many risks.

Typical four foot wide bike lane next parking from Huntington to Melnea
(results in a high risk of dooring)
Double parker blocking the bike lane
(bicyclist will need to merge into adjacent traffic to pass)
Vehicle turning at an intersection without a marked bike lane crossing.
(increases the risk of a right turn collision with an approaching cyclist)

Alternative Designs
Though Boston has implemented new street designs on Mass Ave to accommodate bicycles, there are still some gaps and missing pieces.  For the stretch of road along the Christian Science Museum, the existing bike lane could be converted to a raised cycle track.  By having varying levels between vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, the boundaries for each user would be well-defined.  In areas where bike lanes become shared lanes, awareness signage should be installed well before the merge.  For this stretch of road in the opposite direction, the inner travel lane should be reduced to nine or ten feet to give cyclists a wider bike lane for additional dooring protection.  At the intersection of Mass Ave and Westland Avenue, a marked bike lane crossing should be painted.  Though there is not enough room for a bike lane outside of Symphony Hall, sharrows should be painted in the right turn only lane to reduce cyclist confusion.

For the stretch of road between Huntington Avenue and Melnea Cass, marked bike lane crossings should be painted at all intersections.  Where space is too limited for bike lanes, sharrows should be painted and awareness merge signs should be installed.  As it currently stands, cyclists still have to make too many decisions along this travel path.  Traffic engineers are on the right track but additional work is required.

Website References and Additional Information
     - News article about Mass Ave
     - Boston's Bicycle Network
     - Mass Ave Redesign Proposal Presentation
     - Bicycle Awareness and Safety
     - Bicycle Statistics
     - Urban Bikeway Design Guide

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