Category Archives: The Shoal Creek Debacle

Shoal Creek Summed Up

Michael Bluejay made an outstanding presentation (Quicktime slides with audio) which everybody needs to read. (He presented this before the City Council right before they approved the cyclist-endangering Option III).

Again, I can’t recommend this video enough. It’s the best quick summary of this issue, with pictures, that I’ve ever seen. Watch it now.

Shoal Creek Attractive Nuisance Boulevard

(just posted to the austin transportational cycling list)
As I’ve tried to point out before but obviously not succeeded, the danger for SCB is that it becomes an ‘attractive nuisance’ – i.e., if you stripe a ‘bike lane’ or a ‘shoulder’ or even a ‘shared use area’, you are making an implied recommendation that this is where cyclists should be riding. (Well-established in both legal and traffic engineering circles).
Thus, the facility to which you’re ‘attracting’ the cyclists to had better meet some basic, bare minimum, safety guidelines such as AASHTO. As many have pointed out, AASHTO standards for bike lanes next to parking are still not great – a good chunk of the bike lane would be in the door space, but the Gandy design would have had all of the bike lane within the door zone, and the ‘space’ shrinking to perhaps a foot when being passed by a motorist while you yourself were passing a parked truck – i.e., you would get brushed even if the parked vehicle never opened its door. The 10-foot shared space has this same exact problem; the absence of the stripe separating ‘bike lane’ from ‘parking lane’ makes no difference.

I get the sense that many people still haven’t looked at these pictures, which tell the story far better than my words possibly could.
Take a look. That’s not “normal bike lane bad” where the door would extend part of the way into the bike lane when it’s open. That’s “guaranteed collision bad” where the cyclist fundamentally doesn’t have enough space to travel even when the truck’s door is closed.
Some people (who must not have looked at that picture) drastically underestimate how bad a facility this is – thinking that they (good rider) would just get into the travel lane to pass the parked car. This forgets that:
1. Most inexperienced riders don’t know to do this, and will thus ‘swerve’ at the last moment, or maybe not even go out into the lane at all, and
2. Experienced riders will take the lane well in advance of the parked car, and will (in my, and Lane’s experience at least) get honked at, or possibly someday worse.
A facility which encourages inexperienced cyclists to perform unsafe manuevers and which causes conflict with other road users when experienced cyclists do what they’re supposed to do has no place on our roadways. It doesn’t matter how the other roads in the city are designed – if this one fails some basic minimum safety standards, it’s a horrible, horrible design and needs to be rethought. If this means removing SCB from the city’s bicycle route system, so be it.
That’s the bottom line here – the city is basically signing up for a huge potential liability lawsuit, and if it ever happens, I’ll be glad to testify that they were warned early and often.

Fifty-Fifty Journalistic Balance Sucks

Whether it’s in science (usually global warming or evolution) or local politics, journalists addicted to “he-said she-said” should turn in their press pass. If that’s all we needed, simple links to a couple of ideological websites would suffice.
With global warming, you effectively have an overwhelming scientific consensus and a couple of skeptics – bought and paid for by oil companies (and, of course, a college dropout Bush appointee trying to censor one of this country’s most experienced climatologists). The media usually covers this as “he-said, she-said”, which is OK when there truly IS no consensus, but we passed that point ten years ago.
In the Shoal Creek debacle instance, the Chronicle didn’t bother to tell you that the TTI, hired by the City Council in an obvious attempt to provide at least some political cover for choosing “Option 3″, reported back to them that the peer cities fairly unanimously recommended “Option 2″, and that all of them recommended very strongly against “Option 3″. Paraphrased, the response was, essentially, “why don’t you idiots just restrict parking on one side of the street?”.
Did the Chronicle mention this, either at the time or now that the council subcommittee ignored everybody who knows diddly-squat about traffic safety and ordered Option 3? Of course not. It’s “car-free bike lane guys say X. On the other hand, neighborhood people say Y”. No mention of which position might be more credible. No mention of the fact that the experts the city hired to consult were firmly on one of the two sides.
Fifty-fifty balance sucks. A chimp could collate two press releases together and turn them into an article. Chronicle, have another banana.

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie’s site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!
Kyle,
I’ve spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing’s for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does – or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like “all of Seattle” only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).
There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists – in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal ‘justifies bike lanes’ levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn’t read his closely enough:

Kyle,
Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn’t there in your comment. I’m way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it’s obvious upon further reading that you weren’t saying Austin’s level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren’t needed is too small. Couldn’t agree more.
Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

More on Yesterday’s Whiff

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, by claiming that there was “no data about any of the options”. This is true, if you restrict the question to “what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments”. However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities – that being, do option 2 and do it now.
The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I’m remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) – there’s really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds – it’s a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn’t provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I’m unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only – the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven’t been studied isn’t particularly accurate – they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It’s true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities – frankly because nobody cared – the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn’t particularly important – whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn’t very relevant.

Council Whiffs Again On Shoal Creek

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a “let’s get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests” mode which, in case anybody’s forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.
This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:
1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).
2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as “Option 2″).
But instead, it sure as heck looks like they’re ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this – they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.
The worst part is Brewster’s gang of “stakeholders” which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn’t represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.
This is so depressing…

SCB: Speed Is Not The Problem

A lot of folks (especially Stuart Werbner and Preston Tyree, who normally do a lot of good work for the cycling community) fell hard for the position that “the problem on Shoal Creek Boulevard isn’t the bike lanes, it’s the traffic speed”. Since this position continues to rear its ugly head in discussions before and after yesterday’s meeting, I thought I’d address it here.
The key is that all other things being equal, higher car speeds do indeed result in less safety for nearby cyclists and pedestrians. This is unquestionably true.
The problem is that all things aren’t equal. This picture shows a cyclist trying to pass a parked vehicle at the same time he is being passed by a moving vehicle. It doesn’t matter if the passing vehicle is going 45 or 25; if the cyclist veers out unexpectedly into the through lane and is hit, they’re in bad, bad, BAD shape. (Note: you have to imagine that the stripe between the 4-foot ‘bike lane’ and 6-foot ‘parking lane’ isn’t there to match the current conditions on SCB).
Likewise, this infamous accident happened despite the fact that the conflicting vehicle’s speed was 0 MPH and the vehicle which ended up killing her wasn’t going very fast either.
On the other hand, hundreds of cyclists use Loop 360 every day with no conflicts with motorists. Automobile speed in the through lanes of that roadway is typically around 60 MPH.
What can we conclude? Traffic engineering seeks to avoid presenting users with unexpected conflicts; and having a cyclist veer out into the travel lane when the motorist in that lane thinks they’re not going to have to is the very definition of unexpected. A safe pass by a car going 40 is far preferrable to a collision with a car going 30.
How does this apply to Shoal Creek Boulevard? It’s clear to me at least that the original city plan probably wouldn’t have reduced automobile speeds much, but definitely would have resulted in fewer conflicts with cyclists who need to leave the bike lane to get around obstructions. As on Loop 360, if you rarely need to leave the bicycle facility, you don’t need to worry as much about the speed of the cars in the lane next to you.
Another thing Preston in particular got wrong was the theory that riding on Shoal Creek is ‘easy’ once you ‘learn’ how to pass. Even for an experienced cyclist like myself, the conflict with motorists during a pass is irritating (the motorists don’t understand why I go into the travel lane and are sometimes aggressive in expressing their displeasure). For a novice cyclist, it’s likely to be so intimidating that they will (unwisely) stay in the far-too-narrow space between the white stripe and the parked car, and someday soon somebody’s going to get killed that way.
Finally, of critical importance to the City of Austin is the following paragraph, excerpted from a detailed analysis of the Laird case in Boston:

The City might be held negligent for creating what is called in legal language an “attractive nuisance” — that is, a baited trap. Ample evidence exists that the City of Cambridge had been notified of the hazards of bike lanes in the “door zone” before the Massachusetts Avenue lane was striped, yet the City continued to stripe them.

This is basically why Shoal Creek Boulevard doesn’t have bike lanes today, it has a “multipurpose shoulder”. Unknown whether this will do enough to shield Austin from liability in the event of an accident, but cyclists ought to think about this when you decide to ride on this facility.

Shoal Creek Meeting Is Done

Largely as expected – council members want to remove the islands, and then were going to talk some more about what to do. Some indications that they’re either not willing to admit or not capable of understanding that a compromise solution is impossible for this roadway. Neighborhood people largely against the curb extensions but still adamant that parking on both sides must be preserved — which means that we’re back to bike lanes with parking in them, which pretty much the entire rest of the world views as an oxymoron.
Here’s the letter I just sent to the three council members on the subcommittee:

Councilmembers:
I watched most of the meeting today while working at my desk, and had a couple of comments:
1. 2-way on-street bike lanes are not accepted in traffic engineering circles and have not for quite some time. They will not be an option for Shoal Creek Boulevard unless you want to override your staff.
2. Bike lanes down the median – same story.
3. A reminder: We already know there is no way to reconcile “parking on both sides” with “car-free bike lanes” on this street. There is insufficient width. Either one or more bike lanes must be abandoned, or one or more sides of parking must be abandoned.
Comments that you made in regards to #3 were especially disappointing – the failure of the previous council was in attempting to avoid this painful choice, which MUST be made. EITHER car-free bike lanes OR parking on both sides – you cannot have both. I would argue that the correct choice is to preserve on-street parking on ONE side of Shoal Creek Boulevard – this is not an unreasonable imposition on residents (my own neighborhood has highly restricted on-street parking; many streets allow it on one side and a few not at all).
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.


Dear Mayor and councilmembers:
My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work — i.e., I’m not a pure cyclist, and I’m not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.
I understand you’re going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.
For those of you who don’t bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin – alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.
Years back, Shoal Creek’s turn came up in the “let’s do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes” process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.
Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a ‘residential street’ and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.
At this point, as I’m sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman’s approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the ‘bike lane’ and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it’s not marked as a ‘bike lane’ is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.
The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy “10-4-6″ plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the “bike lane” designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).
This isn’t about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there’s zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you’re passing it.
But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury – a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.
This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with — and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.
I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters – please don’t take this precedent anywhere else.
Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus



Shoal Creek Update – May 17, 2005

I biked home from work on Tuesday (Too bad it’s Bike To Work Week, Not Bike From Work Week!) and went down Shoal Creek from Anderson to 41st. Report at the end.
The Chronicle has covered the recent brou-ha-ha, and kudos on the title. I have submitted a crackpot letter (check in a couple of days) which attempts to correct the misinterpretation of Lane’s excellent soundbite (the obstructions he refers to are the parked cars, not the curb extensions).
The ride home was pretty good, actually. About five passing manuevers were necessary, and on two of them I had a motorist stuck behind me; and neither one showed evidence that they were perturbed. Definitely above par for the new striping. I wish I could believe that the motorists are getting the message about the necessity to take the lane to get around parked cars, but the comments from the neighbors at that meeting lead me to believe that I was just lucky to get a couple of reasonable motorists this time.