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Cyclists Push for Bike Lanes behind Barriers

City mulling alternatives for Comm Ave reconstruction plan

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Anastasia Karabina (MED’15) flew off her bicycle when a driver struck her at the Commonwealth Avenue/St. Paul Street intersection in April 2013. “My bike was totaled,” she recalled. “I like front-flipped off my bike and landed on the back of my head in front of his car. Luckily, he stopped and didn’t run me over.”

Sore but not seriously hurt, she was fortunate. A similar crash in the same spot just four months earlier had killed cyclist Chris Weigl (COM’13). Today, Karabina supports putting barriers along the bike lane on Comm Ave to separate cyclists from cars. While a barrier would not extend across intersections, she believes that seeing the barrier edge up to the crosswalk as drivers turn would make them more likely to notice cyclists in the intersection.

She mentioned her accident as she and other speakers endorsed such protected cycle lanes on the avenue at a public hearing Tuesday attended by Boston’s interim transportation commissioner, James Gillooly. Held at the College of General Studies and hosted by the student cycling group BU Bikes, the forum sought opinions as the city weighs redesign options for upcoming improvements to Comm Ave.

Gillooly told the 150-plus attendees that the city is considering the so-called cycle tracks as well as other options. Officials will announce by February which safety improvements will be included in the planned reconstruction of the section stretching between the BU Bridge and Packard’s Corner, which is slated to begin in two years, Gillooly said in an interview prior to the hearing. Another hearing in January will precede the city’s final design decision.

While many cycling groups favor cycle tracks, a study independently undertaken by a transportation planner urges a different approach: widening the existing bike lanes on the thoroughfare with a three-foot, barrier-less buffer, to make the lanes a total of eight feet wide. A widened lane, with the buffer separating cyclists from parked cars, would do more than physical barriers separating bike lanes from moving cars to address the most common safety problems plaguing cyclists, says the study by Paul Schimek, a former manager of the city’s bicycle program.

But at Tuesday’s hearing, with bike helmets speckling the crowd despite a nor’easter that made cycling to the event a soggy challenge, the speakers lining the length of the auditorium wall for a turn at the microphone mostly endorsed a physical barrier between cyclists and motorists. Some suggested that by making the avenue more bike-friendly, cycle tracks would attract more cycling customers to Comm Ave businesses.

Advocates displayed maps showing that bike barriers are taking off in popularity around the country. (Boston has dipped a toe into barrier-ed biking. On Western Avenue, parked cars serve as the barrier; a cycle track runs between them and the sidewalk.)

Several speakers also called for pedestrian improvements such as raisted crosswalks, and better train service on the MBTA’s Green Line.

Despite time pressure to secure federal funding for most of the project’s currently projected $16 million cost, Gillooly said in the interview that the city has “broadened our review” of the design after cycling advocates complained this summer that the proposed reconstruction gave short shrift to bike safety.

“We want to make sure we get it right,” Gillooly said. A widened bike lane is “still considered a reasonable approach, but…we’re giving a serious look at [cycle] track possibilities” as well.

Motorists outnumber cyclists and pedestrians on Comm Ave, but their numbers are dropping, information at a public hearing Tuesday suggested. Photo by Cydney Scott

Motorists outnumber cyclists and pedestrians on Comm Ave, but their numbers are dropping, information at a public hearing Tuesday suggested. Photo by Cydney Scott

Slicing through the Charles River Campus, Comm Ave, one of the first streets in Boston outfitted with bike lanes, sees 5,000 bikes and up to 36,000 motor vehicles and 22,000 pedestrians daily. The street saw a reported 68 bike crashes between the BU Bridge and Packard’s Corner from 2010 to 2012, including the one that killed Weigl.

Robert Donahue, the University’s vice president for government and community relations, says BU will rely on the city’s judgment about the best safety plan.

“The University is involved in the planning efforts because safety is our major concern,” he says. “The bottom line is that it’s the city’s street, and we trust Commissioner Gillooly to evaluate all alternatives and to design a safer and better boulevard. As the city evaluates the roadway, the Schimek report should be a weighted factor in their decision. As a study, it is based on actual occurrences and measures outcomes. Its conclusion that there should be a widened bike lane has merit and is clearly being evaluated by the city as they go through what is a very tough balancing act. If they ultimately decide to include cycle tracks then, of course, we would support the decision.”

Schimek’s report plugs both the bike lane buffer and another measure: adding 50-foot right-turn-only lanes for motorists at intersections. These two measures, he argues, would have prevented more than half of the reported bike crashes on Comm Ave between 2009 and 2012, which his analysis shows were either “doorings”—motorists opening their doors in the path of cyclists streaming by—or motorists turning right across bike lanes and striking bikers.

With a right-turn-only lane, he said in an interview, a motorist “will understand he must first merge to the lane with the right arrow on it, not the one with the straight arrow. Because he is changing lanes, he is legally required to make sure that it is safe to merge before doing so. The bicyclist going straight, approaching a motorist who is already in proper position to turn right, will not come in conflict.” While drivers merging right still must contend with bikers approaching in the bike lane, he said, the wider lane ensures that motorists “will be more aware that there is space and therefore bicycle traffic to their right.”

By contrast, his report says, a cycle track “could have eliminated only a handful of crashes involving motorists parking, overtaking, backing, or swerving into the bike lane.” A cycle track with a buffer zone would reduce doorings, Schimek writes, “but it is the buffer from parked cars that reduces the crashes, not the physical barrier from moving cars.”

He also writes that a cycle track would be hazardous on the downhill stretch of Comm Ave, “where bicyclists regularly exceed 20 mph.” Erecting barriers would prevent cyclists from merging into the car travel lane to avoid any obstacles in the bike lane, making it likely that a cycle track would “increase bicyclist injuries not involving motor vehicles, which are three times as common as those involving motor vehicles.”

Some cycling advocates disputed Schimek’s study in interviews before Tuesday’s hearing. David Watson, executive director of MassBike, who has taught about bicycle planning at Metropolitan College, commended the city for attempting safety improvements but added, “The use of basic bike lanes does not provide the needed physical separation from motor vehicle traffic on this road.…Ultimately, all of Comm Ave should have protected bike lanes. Advocates have been asking for a better design for years.”

Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, said more than 200 cycle tracks exist in the United States, including 44 miles’ worth in New York City, where “every time they install them, they see … a 20 percent crash reduction.” That record, he said, contrasts with what he called Schimek’s “conjecture.” Stidman also fears a wider bike lane may tempt more motorists to park in the bike lane, which he said is already a big problem with the existing lanes.

Scheduled for 2016–2017, the Comm Ave reconstruction will include widening the Green Line train medians per federal requirements, repaving the road, installing curb extensions to shorten pedestrians’ crossing time and facilitate crossing for people with disabilities, and improving sidewalks. Sidewalks will lose between three and five feet of width, depending on location, in order to accommodate the expanded Green Line track space, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Gillooly said.

In designing the reconstruction, he said, planners are inhibited by the need to bring the train space into ADA compliance, which puts “extra stress on how much we could do for all the [other] users” of the street. “We’re dealing with limited dimensions here.”

Time also hems in the planners. “The project needs to be fully designated and out to bid by October 2016, or there is a good chance we could lose federal funding,” says Donahue. Gillooly said that the city would work with state and federal officials to “very efficiently” shepherd the process. And while the final design remains to be seen, he added, “The one decision you can take to the bank is…there will be significant improvement, if not dramatic improvement,” from the original reconstruction plans that drew cyclists’ criticism earlier this summer.

21 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

21 Comments on Cyclists Push for Bike Lanes behind Barriers

  • Concerned on 12.11.2014 at 7:34 am

    We need the BU Police to help enforce the No Stopping/No Parking/Tow Zone areas of the Commonwealth Avenue campus, including where they should bring in Boston Police. It’s an ongoing safety problem that delivery trucks are allowed to stop and stay in front of stores such as City Convenient 700 Commonwealth Ave, blocking the bike lane there. The Boston Globe delivery truck is a regular offender. Cyclists are forced to swing way out into traffic, amidst other vehicles which have to somehow maneuver around the illegally parked trucks. I have never once seen a BU Police car attending to such public safety problems.

    • nathan on 12.11.2014 at 9:29 am

      Sometimes a cyclist needs to STOP behind a parked vehicle or loading bus and WAIT for a safe gap in traffic.

      Cars do this. Cyclists can learn to do this.

    • km on 12.11.2014 at 9:50 am

      Would be great if the trucks stop in the traffic lane with blinkers on to make deliveries, and leave the bike lane clear. Will protect bike lane and slow traffic.

  • A Pedestrian on 12.11.2014 at 8:51 am

    It would also be helpful if cyclists would use their lanes and obey traffic laws. They often bike on the sidewalk and don’t stop at lights on the street. I was almost run down by a bike stepping off a curb at a crosswalk on a walk signal last night. That happens frequently. You can’t hear or see the bikes like you can the cars and they should stop at red lights.

  • Michael Zank on 12.11.2014 at 9:00 am

    Whatever else happens, vehicle traffic, including buses, needs to slow down considerably. When school is in session, Com Ave basically functions as a pedestrian zone. We need to make that official, or else drivers will continue to feel entitled to be enraged at bikers and pedestrians who simply have no safe choices right now.

    • Silvia Glick on 12.11.2014 at 9:52 am

      Pedestrians have safe choices. There are plenty of places to cross legally and safely on Comm. Ave. If pedestrians didn’t make a habit of ignoring the traffic signals and of walking against the light, they would be a lot safer.

      • Jake on 12.11.2014 at 10:28 am

        Sometimes pedestrians have to ignore the traffic signals because everyone else is inconsiderate. There are plenty of times I would be stranded trying to cross the street (especially BU Bridge area) because cars were turning aggressively while I had the walk light. Despite “yield to pedestrians on turn” signs, entire walk light cycles will go by without opportunities to cross. Same problem in intersections when cars decide to block the box and cause gridlock, preventing safe crossing for pedestrians.

  • nathan on 12.11.2014 at 9:27 am

    Pedestrians need to be protected from bicycles. If cyclists refuse to obey traffic laws (especially stopping at stop lights) and continue to be in conflict with bus drivers, they should be removed from Comm ave.

    Boston has let their automobile drivers be out of control for decades. They need to crack down on bicyclists soon or begin banning them from high traffic areas.

    • PatrickGSR94 on 12.11.2014 at 11:44 am

      Because banning bicycles is surely the answer to out of control motorists. Right.

    • Matt on 12.13.2014 at 10:43 am

      The best way to improve cyclist behavior is by providing complete, well designed, safe infrastructure for them. This has been well proven in study after study.

      Think of it this way: in places where there are no sidewalks, people still walk… they just do it in the road.

      So, want better cyclist behavior? Support better cycling infrastructure.

  • Gina Crandell on 12.11.2014 at 9:45 am

    One of the most important questions is who should go around buses and double-parked cars and the answers is cars because they are most protected. Therefore the cycle lanes should be added to the sidewalk further improving the pedestrianization of the area.

    • PatrickGSR94 on 12.11.2014 at 11:45 am

      Bicyclists are not pedestrians.

  • kurisu on 12.11.2014 at 9:46 am

    I hope that transportation commissioner James Gillooly will get on a bike and ride down Comm Ave. and then go ride in the protected bike lane on Western Ave. so that he can understand what we are saying. Bike lanes protected by parked cars are the best; they can be cleared of snow and debris, they separate bikers and pedestrians, and motorists cannot double park or block them by taking a long diagonal to get to the right turn lane. I disagree with the special right turn lane concept, which BTW is in place in front of 808 Comm Ave and intermingles cars and vehicles very dangerously. The Western Ave. protected bike lane is much better than the multi-use trails. I disagree with Schimek’s position. Zank is right, however, all traffic, including bikes should slow down on Comm Ave. Bikers should not be going 20 mph. I have also seen many pedestrians wait for vehicles to pass at intersections and then step out in front on on-coming bicycles who still have a green light. Everyone needs to think more defensively!

  • km on 12.11.2014 at 9:57 am

    I am a daily cycle commuter from Fenway to West Campus – we need wider and/or protected tracks. With thousands of students and pretty flat land, cycling is ideal, but it is horrifying in fast traffic, and the BU bridge is absolutely life threatening. Most cyclists ride safely, but the narrow track is dangerous and many cars don’t park close to the curb, extending into the bike lane.

  • Paul Schimek on 12.11.2014 at 10:04 am

    Thanks Rich Barlow for writing a well-researched and careful article that covers different points of view (except it would be better to say “travel lane” than “car travel lane”, since bicyclists are equally allowed). In response to David Watson’s comment about “needed physical separation from motor vehicle traffic”: “protected” bike lanes provide only a false protection — a barrier where you don’t need it (between intersections) but increased collision risk where most car-bike collisions occur, at intersections. I also note that the groups who are now calling to put a bike lane on the sidewalk side of Comm Ave to protect bicyclists from opening doors are the same ones who demanded the current design in 2007-2008, even though putting bike lanes in the door zone was already a known hazard (dramatized by the 2002 death of Dana Laird in Cambridge). We know know that more than 1/4 of incidents on Comm Ave are doorings, and a similar number happen when bicyclists overtake stopped or slow traffic in the bike lane, unaware that motorists are likely to make a right turn across the bike lane. There was only 1 sideswipe collision of a bicyclist in day light, and only 1 collision of the dreaded type when a motorist rear-ended a bicyclist — and that involved a driver who told police she was “too drunk to drive.” I have recently completed the full analysis of 1800 collisions citywide, and there were only 26 “motorist overtaking” collisions in daylight where the bicyclist did not swerve prior to the collision (1.4%), even though most roads did not have bike lanes (and 4 of the 26 happened with bike lanes). Most of these were sideswipes where the bicyclist was not seriously injured. Only one was a full rear end collision, and it involved an erratic (drugged or criminal) driver. Bicyclists are right to worry about the risk of injury, but wrong to worry about overtaking motorists. Instead they should worry about riding without lights at night, passing on the right, riding the wrong way, not observing red lights and stop signs, and the occasional motorist left turn, pulling out, or changing lanes without yielding. And above all, they should worry about potholes, ice, sand, trolley tracks, jaywalking pedestrians, and other road hazards that lead to most bicyclist injuries, including most serious ones (not reported to police, but that show up in the hospital data).

  • PatrickGSR94 on 12.11.2014 at 11:47 am

    Why are 2-way separated cycle tracks STILL being planned?? Copenhagen stopped installing these some time ago because the inherent dangers are so high.

    • John J on 12.12.2014 at 11:46 am

      Correct. Nobody is proposing those.

  • Rich Barlow, BU Today on 12.11.2014 at 12:32 pm

    An alert reader noted that an earlier version of this story referred to “elevated” crosswalks, which implied pedestrian overpasses. We have amended the story to “raised” crosswalks, which are built to the level of the sidewalk on each side of an intersection.

  • John J on 12.11.2014 at 9:33 pm

    It’s strange that this write-up gives equal time to both Mr. Schimek’s personal plan (for unprotected bike lanes) and the protected cycle track plan supported by the vast majority of bike advocates. This is like giving equal time to evolution and creationism in a science class. Both are ideas but only one is accurate.

    I predict the City and BU will use the false controversy created by Mr. Schimek’s comments as an excuse to say “bike advocates asked for buffered bike lanes” when the vast majority of cycling advocates agree that physically protected lanes are the only way forward.

    Mr. Schimek’s plan will not attract the segment of riders known as Interested but Concerned (60%). Instead, only the Strong and Fearless (1%) will cycle on Comm Ave. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/158497

    The only way to grow the cycling mode share on Comm Ave is physically bike lanes (cycle tracks.)

    -John, Allston

    • John on 04.30.2015 at 11:28 am

      In reply to John J: It doesn’t matter what is done on Commonwealth Avenue, it is still going to be crowded, congested and inconvenient to cross. That is especially a problem for local travel by bicyclists, with one-way travel on each side, lengthening trip distance and time. Many trips require overshooting the destination and doubling back. Bicycle travel also will be slower on separated bikeways than in bike lanes, due to the inability to pull out and pass, and to complications at intersection. The predictable result is wrong-way travel and travel on sidewalks. A solution which really addresses this problem, and also gets bicyclists and pedestrians past the mess at the the BU Bridge, is to connect parallel, lightly-traveled streets and paths, as I have described here: http://streetsmarts.bostonbiker.org/2015/03/25/commonweatlh-avenue-victory/

      As to your claim of “false controversy,” you make an argument of popularity to counter Paul Schimek’s of safety. Dare I say, apples and oranges? Let’s look outside the box for a solution which will offer both, and convenience too. I think that the best which can be done on Commonwealth Avenue is what Paul Schimek advocates, but that still falls way short of what is possible by looking a bit farther afield.

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