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 we’re 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, hich 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
(old email address removed)

Update from 2017: Yes, some people are actually pushing for 2-way one-side bike lanes on this roadway now, incredibly, the “bike lanes as stupid glorified sidewalks that are actually more dangerous even if they don’t feel more dangerous” fad is back!.

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



Commuting To Riata

I had a nice conversation with Jonathan from Another Pointless Dotcom while doing some work last night, and it came to light that he works in the same complex I did for about a year and a half. This reminded me to share with him my old slideshow of that commute, which I’ve probably never mentioned on the blog. I also then chatted about it this morning with my current cow orker who has a lot of experience in the area. Since this might be of general interest to people who work in the area, I’ll initiate this new Bicycle Commuting category with this oldie-but-goodie.

Riata is a cautionary tale of any number of my hot buttons, including the problems that frontage roads cause transit and pedestrians, neighborhoods being irresponsible, developers getting to claim credit for being ‘near’ transit when it’s not feasible to actually use, high tech offices and apartment complexes metastasizing along sprawl corridors rather than being downtown where they ought to be, etc. There’s at least a few thousand employees of various companies in there now – probably still down from the pre-bust peak.

The key things to remember about commuting to Riata, which is halfway between Duval and Oak Knoll on the north/east side of US 183 are:

  1. Use Jollyville. Now with bike lanes!
  2. When transitioning to Riata Trace Parkway, your choices are to go all the way up to Oak Knoll and come in the back way, or go over on Duval to the 183 frontage, and go in that way. In the morning, the northbound 183 frontage is very civilized and not a problem.
  3. When going home in the afternoon, you’ll want to use the TI/Oak Knoll back way. Don’t mess with 183 then.
  4. Think about using the bus for a boost uphill in some mornings, if you’re like the (old) me and commuting from central Austin.
  5. Decide whether you want to cross Mopac on Spicewood or Steck. My current cow orker prefers Steck all the time; I prefer Steck uphill and Spicewood downhill. Depends on your tolerance for the stress of the crossing at Mopac/Spicewood versus the speed you’ll give up at the 4-way stop on Steck.

(Technical details: I wrote the crappy slideshow script which reads pseudo-XML a long time ago and have never touched it since; it BARELY works; don’t look at it cross-eyed or you might break the internet).