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).

Bicycling Is Very Safe

While doing a bit of preemptive research for the comments for the last entry, I stumbled across this article which does, by far, the best job of laying out comparative risk for cycling and other activities (like driving) that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

Helmet science (for real)

Here’s an interesting paper on bike helmet design. Should be mandatory reading no matter which side of the debate you fall on, especially if you like to repeat stories about how a helmet ‘saved [some person’s] life’.

(Note for the record that I’m a skeptic; I wear one when mountain biking but never else, and won’t go on rides that require them, because I believe (and am backed up by real-world data) that biking isn’t that dangerous; that helmets haven’t had much impact on head injuries; and that wearing helmets helps perpetuate the myth that biking is too dangerous to do regularly.)

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.

The Shoal Creek Debacle Keeps Rolling On

There was a public meeting on Wednesday night about the Shoal Creek Debacle in which many previously uninformed local residents complained about curb extensions and cyclists riding too close to the line (forced to do so, by the way, by the fact that there are CARS PARKED IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A BIKE LANE).

I just posted the following to the allandale yahoo group, and thought it might have some general interest:

— In allandale@yahoogroups.com, Barbara Frock wrote:
>I, like Rhonda, wonder about those who
> don’t live here who have come out swinging. Is it the cyclists who really
> wanted a “veloway” through our neighborhood from 38th to Foster?
That’s one way to put it.
Another way to put it is that Shoal Creek Boulevard is the most important route for bicycle commuting in the city. It forms the spine of the main route from points northwest (disproportionately recent residential growth) to the center-city and vice-versa; and serves as the bicyclist equivalent to at least Burnet Road, if not Mopac.

Yes, a bunch of people also ride this road for fun. And I’m as frustrated as you are (probably more) when the brightly-plumaged folks out for a training ride treat stop signs as matador capes.

But every day during rush hour you’ll also see dozens of cyclists clearly heading to or from work. This isn’t because they want to turn your neighborhood into a “veloway”; it’s because SCB is the recommended route for people who, in their cars, would be using Burnet or Mopac. And this is the way it’s SUPPOSED to work – you’re not supposed to turn your major arterials into cycling routes, you’re supposed to find a lower-traffic parallel road which can feasibly serve the same purpose.

Without SCB functioning as a major “cyclist artery”, you’d be complaining about these same cyclists slowing you down on Burnet Road.

The city’s legitimate interest in promoting bicycling as transportation requires that some routes like SCB be “major bicycling routes”, which implies that the interests of cyclists should AT A BARE MINIUM be considered above both-sides on-street parking. The city council failed miserably in this case in understanding that those two interests could not be served by a compromise solution; and the neighborhood has failed miserably in understanding that the parking-on-one-side solution already represented a signficant compromise for the bicycling interests, since it still required riding slightly in the “door zone” on the parking-allowed side of the street.

And, by the way, “through our neighborhood” smacks of an ‘ownership’ of SCB which isn’t supported by the facts. Even when misclassified as a residential collector, it’s still “owned” by the city, and the street MUST serve the interests of people who don’t live on that street (or even in that neighborhood). Even if SCB was misclassified all the way down to “residential street”, no automatic right to park in front of your house is conveyed – I have to pay for a permit to park on my street; and some residential streets in my area have large sections where parking is only allowed on one side.
– MD

Shoal Creek Updates

I will hopefully move some of this content to my old moldy Shoal Creek Debacle Page when I get time.

Brief introduction: Prior to around 2000, Shoal Creek Boulevard was a minor arterial roadway with extensive bicycle traffic in fairly wide bike lanes which allowed parking (which presented a problem, since modern engineering practice does not allow parking in bike lanes). Shoal Creek’s turn came in the “put up no-parking signs in bike lanes” carousel, and the city came up with a plan to preserve on-street parking on one side of the street. The neighbors freaked; a consultant came up with a ridiculous cyclist-killer proposal; the city rejected it; and then a small group of neighborhood people came up with the idea to just stripe a wide “shared lane” for parked cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. With curb extensions to theoretically slow traffic, although since the extensions don’t go out to the travel lane (so cyclists can pass), their effect is likely to be minimal.

Here’s some stuff that’s been happening recently:

  1. The neighborhoods’ email groups (allandale and rosedale) have been full of complaints about the curb extensions, as well as observations about bad driver behavior, including running over and up onto curb extensions. Additionally, neighbors have complained that the bike lane stripe (separating the bike lane from the parking lane) never got put in, which shows that some people didn’t realize that the awful Gandy plan was shelved when no engineers would sign on to it. Finally, motorists have (as I predicted) been using the shoulder as a driving or passing lane.
    Gandy’s plan, endorsed by the neighborhood:

    The current striping is basically the image above, with no stripe separating the bike lane and parking lane.

  2. Neighbors still think there’s a “bike lane” here. There isn’t. There’s a shoulder, with insufficient space in which to safely pass parked cars. (the absence of the stripe separating the 10 feet into 4 and 6 a la the Gandy plan doesn’t change the geometry here – bicyclists must still enter the travel lane in order to safely pass a parked vehicle).
    Images copied from Michael Bluejay:


  3. Motorists are still expecting cyclists to stay in the bike lane. I rode home down Shoal Creek on Monday, and had some indications of impatient motorists behind me as I passed parked cars (no honking this time at least). Remember that even when there’s a bit more room than in the pictures above, you still have to worry about the dooring problem. Even the city compromise with parking on one side had this problem (although to a far lesser degree).
  4. Parked car and passing car conflicts continue to be high. Many people who supported this debacle from the beginning are still cowering behind the idea that since parked cars are “scarce” (average of ten on each side for the entire stretch from Foster to 38th), that we don’t need to worry about the passing conflicts. The problem, however, is that due to the higher speeds of automobiles, there is a very high chance of conflict on each one of those passes, meaning that it is very likely that a motorist will slow down and wait behind a passing cyclist on each pass. In fact, on Monday, my experience was that 4 out of the 5 times I performed this passing manuever, there were motorists stuck behind me by the time I went back into the shoulder area; and the fifth time I found myself stuck while a car passed me (I didn’t get out into the lane early enough).
  5. People continue to misrepresent this process as a compromise (implying that cyclists got something, parking motorists got something, drivers got something, neighborhood got something, etc). In fact, any rational observer can compare conditions before this change to conditions now and make the following judgement: Parking won. Period. Cyclists got less than they had before, and far less than they should have had. The neighborhood got curb extensions (even though they won’t work). Cyclists got the middle finger.
  6. The City Council member most responsible for this debacle, Jackie Goodman, is being term-limited out of office. Unfortunately, I hold little hope that a stronger (i.e. decision-maker rather than consensus-hoper) member will emerge from the pack seeking election.
  7. Neighborhood troublemakers are still misrepresenting the history of this debacle; failing to mention that the original proposal from the city for this roadway preserved on-street parking on one side of the road, which is more than almost any minor arterial roadway (SCB’s original classification) has, and about average for collectors (SCB’s new neighborhood-forced underclassification). This city proposal represented a substantial compromise of bicycle interests, but because it didn’t preserve ALL on-street parking, several malcontent nincompoops in the neighborhood fought it bitterly.
  8. The same neighborhood troublemakers continue to misrepresent Shoal Creek’s role in the city’s transportation system. SCB was originally (correctly) classified as a minor arterial, which means that its main purpose is not for property access, but for a combination of traffic collection/distribution and small amounts of through traffic. For cyclists, SCB is a critical transportation link, since it’s so long, and has right-of-way at all intersections (meaning it never has a 2-way stop where through traffic doesn’t stop; everything’s either a 4-way stop or traffic light). SCB was reclassified thanks to neighborhood pressure to a “residential collector” around 2001ish, against my objections (I-TOLD-YOU-SO-MARKER: I told the other members of the UTC at the time that this change would make it easier for them to then prevent no-parking-in-bike-lanes). Also note that this makes SCB, by far, the longest collector roadway in the city. The neighborhood, ever since then, has claimed that SCB is a “residential street”, which means something very different from “residential collector”. A “residential street” is supposed to serve property access first, parking second, and distribution a distant third, with essentially no provision for through traffic. A “residential collector”, on the other hand, is supposed to serve distribution first, property access second, through traffic third, and parking last.
    The original city plan, preserving on-street parking on one side:

  9. (Humor value only): One of the malcontent neighborhood nincompoops has surfaced again on my old fan group (from my undergraduate days; no, I didn’t make it).

Shoal Creek Report #2

Well, I ended up driving down Shoal Creek last night on the way home from work (from 2222 to 41st St.) due to a traffic jam, ironically right after reading a thread on the Allandale neighborhood group in which residents are grumbling about the project now that they’re seeing it ‘in action’.
This trip confirmed some things that I saw before, and conflicted with some things that residents of the street have previously said.

  1. I saw more cars parked this time
  2. I saw one vehicle turn into the ‘shared lane’ and drive down it for at least a block before turning right off Shoal Creek
  3. The apparent space between the white line and the parked car looks much smaller when I’m driving than it does when I’m biking, and it didn’t look big on my bike. Hopefully this will result in drivers being more patient when cyclists take the lane.
  4. I only passed one cyclist (going the opposite direction) during my drive. It’s not surprising that most motorists thus think conflicts with cyclists and parked cars are rare — for each motorist trip, there’s a very low chance of conflict; but for each cyclist trip, there’s a very high chance of conflict. (There’s ten or twenty drivers for each cyclist at a bare minimum – even though this road has a lot of cyclists, there’s still far more motorists).
  5. Most motorists I observed drifted over the white lines on turns. I don’t know how to solve this.

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I’m going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the “shared lane” whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists (“conflict” in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass – although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started – post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that’s it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it’s striped now. When you’re turning onto Shoal Creek, it’s not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don’t know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).

The Chronicle gets Shoal Creek badly wrong

This week’s Chronicle badly misremembers the history of the Shoal Creek Blvd. Debacle of ’00; casting city staff as villains and Jackie Goodman and the neighborhood as heroes. Here’s a short (correct) timeline, along with what they got wrong:

  1. Prior to 2000, SCB allows parking in bike lanes. This is something which nobody would do today; these bike lanes predate modern bicycle traffic engineering practice.
  2. SCB’s turn comes in the “let’s ban parking in existing bike lanes” carousel. The past couple of years saw the no-parking signs go up on about a half-dozen streets with old bike lanes such as Mesa Dr.
  3. City staff from bike/ped program decides to be nice and come up with a plan which allows on-street parking on one side of the street (see this picture). Chronicle writer misconstrues this as a bike lane “on one side of the street”.
  4. Neighborhood freaks. Jackie Goodman sides with them, of course.
  5. Staff and neighborhood come up with an “alternating sides” strategy where there’s still only parking on one side, but it winds back and forth every so often.
  6. The “alternating sides” strategy is tested and fails.
  7. Charles Gandy comes in and convinces the neighborhood and a couple of well-meaning but naive cyclists that this plan can work.
  8. City engineers reject that plan for liability reasons (damn straight – look at the pictures again if you have to).
  9. Fallback plan of maintaining slightly modified original layout with some bulb-outs. IE, instead of 12-13 ft travel lanes with 7-8 ft “bike lane with parking”, we get 10-ft travel lanes with 10-ft “bike lane with parking”. Chronicle writer misrepresents city engineers’ opposition as against this fallback plan rather than to Gandy’s 10-4-6 disaster.

And of course the conclusion to the article comes from Paul Nagy. As one person on Michael Bluejay’s page put it:

Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process — however slight — was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his “solution” would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don’t feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others — except Dahmus — were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it’s clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an “expert,” and clearly he is not.
At the point where the original design — which was agreed upon by the original consensus committee as final — was tossed back, Nagy and Gandy jumped on the opportunity to assume the helm without any input from anyone else. There is NO cycling voice in the process AT ALL now.

Pure hatchet-job. Where are you, Lauri Apple and Mike Clark-Madison?

Here’s the letter. Let’s see if it makes it in.

In reference to this week’s column by Daniel Mottola, allow me to suggest that in the future a columnist who picks up a long-running issue for the first time be encouraged to familiarize themselves with the history of the issue before writing a wrap-up. For one thing, the city staff proposal originally presented by a long-serving and dedicated employee of the bike/ped program had bike lanes on both sides of the street, with on-street parking allowed only on one side. No proposal with a bike lane on one side of the street only was ever proposed.

More importantly, both Michael Bluejay (http://bicycleaustin.info/roadways/shoalcreek.html) and myself (http://www.io.com/~mdahmus/trans/shoalcreek.html) have long had summaries of the issue with diagrams. I highly encourage people to look at the picture of Charles Gandy’s original proposal at http://www.dahmus.org/iofiles/trans/consultplan.html (showing a cyclist narrowly avoiding getting disembowled as they attempt to travel between a SUV and a parked truck) before coming to conclusions that Jackie Goodman’s “give the neighborhood whatever they want no matter what” position was the right one.

The city engineers deserve medals, not ridicule, for standing up for the safety of cyclists and against the bogus 4-foot-bike-lane next to substandard-parking-lane design supported by Gandy and the neighborhood. The “shared multipurpose lanes” were a REACTION to their threat not to sign off on Gandy’s plan, another thing your columnist gets wrong.

In short: the Shoal Creek debacle showed that even on the most important route in the city for commuting cyclists, the city doesn’t have the guts to put safe travel for cyclists ahead of on-street parking (even when on-street parking is preserved on one side of the street). The multipurpose lanes are essentially what was on the street to begin with – a solution that no traffic engineer or bicycle coordinator would today approve — bicycle lanes which cars can park in at will.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commissioner
and Only No Vote on Great Shoal Creek Debacle of ’00