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Kill The Boulevard-less Bike Boulevard

Just fired this off to the UTC. All I can do given my commitments. Minor edits for grammar only.

Commissioners,

My name's Mike Dahmus, and I served on your commission from 2000-2005 (my only contemporary still with you would be Mr. Lockler). I'm writing today to urge you to reject the city staff proposal for the project formerly known as the Nueces Bike Boulevard.

While on the commission, I often served the role of an intermediary between bicyclists and motorists (and urban and suburban); since I was a frequent bicycle commuter but not car-free like some of my colleagues (I'd drive to work about half the time). Since then, a chronic illness has forced me to drive exclusively, but I still maintain an interest in bicycle facilities for the good of the city.

Along those lines, I hate to say it, but the city staff proposal for this 'downtown bike boulevard' is a complete waste of time. Worse, it will actively degrade conditions for cyclists on both these streets.

In a common error, the city has failed to consider the effect of their actions on the individuals using this corridor, and more importantly, on changes to their incentives and disincentives. Today, it's relatively painful for drivers to use Nueces (in particular) as a 'cut-through' or relief valve from congestion downtown, because of 4-way (and even some 2-way) stops. I know this because I drive through this part of downtown most days on my trip home from work.

While there's some wavering on this, it's pretty obvious that many stop signs will be removed (converted into traffic circles or traffic lights) in the city plan, as was the case in the LOBV plan - in order to attract bicyclists. So far, so good. But what happens to the incentives of motorists, if this change is made and nothing else is done?

Well, you replace those 4-way stops with lights and circles, and I (and thousands of others) will be thrilled to be able to drive on that street - to avoid backups on Lavaca from MLK and 15th, for instance. Without the originally proposed (at least by the LOBV) diverters and other disincentives, you're going to see an increase in motor vehicle use of these streets for cut-through (through, not local) traffic. Exactly the opposite of what you want in a 'bicycle boulevard'.

Please vote this thing dead. It's not only not ideal; it's worse than nothing - it promises to make things actually worse, not better, for cyclists in this corridor. (And on the subject of "any movement is progress", a recent post by yours truly: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000642.html )

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycle Commuting , Bicycling in Austin , Lousy Bike Facilities , PS: I am not a crackpot

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Comments

Mike, have you read the traffic impact analysis. If not, it's at:

http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/downloads/phase_2_downtown_bicycle_boulevard_recommendation_final_report.pdf

In the report, they measured the impact on motor vehicle travel times. Their numbers show that the "no build" option results in the lowest travel time for motor vehicles.

I scanned it quickly. There's no evidence that they considered the probability that removing stop signs would attract MORE motor vehicles TO the 'bike boulevard'(s); they were more worried about what changes would do to the motor vehicles currently using those roads.

This is very common with a TIA; it's not really the job of that kind of report to think about road shifts or mode shifts.

I was a bit confused about the significant increase in travel times with "just traffic circles," since to me it would result in less impediment than a stop sign. Tom noted that they were looking at switching two-stops to all yield...but I'd have to dig deeper to see if that's true. I would think they would be measuring 4-way to all yield.

They're probably assuming slower speeds in between the stop signs, and on the stretches where there aren't stops for a couple blocks. Just a guess though.

Me, I'd rather go a steady 20 than have to stop 10 times but go 30 in between the stops.

There are two separate but related issues here:

1. The amount of time it takes for a motor vehicle to travel through the corridors.
2. The end result on the amount of motor vehicle through-traffic.

The first issue impacts the second issue. As Mike pointed out, however, it's not the only factor that impacts motor vehicle through-traffic.

It's not really fair to claim that the TIA didn't consider the probability that removing stop signs would attract more motor vehicles to the corridor.

The TIA explicitly acknowledged that the different options *could* have an impact on the overall volume of motor vehicle through-traffic, and it clearly concluded that the "no build" option would affect one of the factors (motor vehicle travel times).

I'm to go all hippie here and say that TIAs aint everything...even when they support my position. WE need to plan as people looking for how to establish the vision that we want--hopefully collectively. Screw all this esoterica around counts and such. There is such a thing as people power, and there is such a thing as bike power. Put the bike boulevard where it belongs and make it magic...as magic as Barry Manilow might be dressed in a white jump suit on a starry night.

I agree TIAs aren't everything. I'm also disappointed that bicycle mobility isn't getting as much of a boost as it would under a true bike boulevard plan. However, I question Mike's apparent conclusion that the compromise plan would be worse than doing nothing at all.

Mike stated in his most recent comment:

"Me, I'd rather go a steady 20 than have to stop 10 times but go 30 in between the stops."

Yet the staff recommended plan includes not only traffic circles, but speed bumps, making the prospect of a "steady 20" a fairly unpleasant and unlikely event.

Roger, the steady 20 is referring to the fact that you have to slow TO 20 to go over the speed humps.

What in this plan makes you think motorists WON'T be attracted to these corridors as stop signs are removed? I speak from direct experience as a downtown northbound driver most afternoons. What's your qualification here?

Let me get this straight, Mike. You're contending that a typical driver could comfortably and safely drive a steady 20 mph without ever slowing down for the planned speed bumps and traffic circles?

Roger, the speed humps are designed to slow traffic down to 20 from a presumably higher speed; not slow down traffic FROM 20 to something slower. I have all these devices just north of me in Hyde Park. On Duval, I just maintain a steady 20 (granted, no circles but lots of humps). On Speedway, one can usually navigate the traffic circle at about 20, maybe slightly less but not much.

The irritating part of the trip up Speedway to 45th, as a driver, isn't the hump at 44th; it isn't the circle at 42nd; it's the 4-way stops at 40th and 43rd.

Mike, the studies I'm seeing show your behavior is atypical. For a 13" speed hump (Mak, 1986):

Average approach speed in mph (50 feet from speed hump): 20.9
Crossing speed in mph: 15.9
Average exit speed in mph (speed hump to 50 feet after hump): 18.6

As you can see, the speed humps in this study caused the average driver to slow down by a full 5 mph (and decisively below 20 mph) to pass them.

(It appears most of Austin's speed humps are the 12" variety, which is more severe and tends to cause even more slowing.)

Looking at the actual plan, I realize that my attempt to correct some half truths and misconceptions may have bred more confusion.

We are talking about modifying two corridors.

The plan for the Nueces corridor contains no traffic circles and no speed "cushions". However, it still contains eight intersections with N/S stop signs and four intersections with traffic lights. It removes some street parking and creates dedicated bicycle lanes along much of the corridor.

The plan for Rio Grande calls for N/S stop signs at two intersections, traffic lights at five intersections, four traffic circles, and four speed cushions.

Actually I've been using speed 'hump' when I should have been using 'cushions'; cushions are what's on Duval and Speedway; they're clearly using cushions on Rio Grande/Nueces; and you thus may want to adjust your rebuttal accordingly.

The yellow caution signs approaching the cushions (as well as many humps) in town advise slowing to 20.

"half-truths and misconceptions". Yeah, that's productive.

This TIA is *not* "the plan", by the way. "the plan" is http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/downloads/exhibit_a_staff_recommendation_layout.pdf

and here: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/downloads/2010_4_8_bblvd_staffrec_memo.pdf

and you can read it yourself and judge.

The paragraph which most directly contradicts the actual facility recommendations:

"A Bicycle Boulevard is a street optimized for bicycles, accessible to motor vehicles, and attractive to bicyclists
and pedestrians of all abilities. Unlike traditional bicycle lanes, traffic calming devices and place-making
techniques are used to create a distinctive look and/or ambiance such that bicyclists become aware of the
existence of the bike boulevard and motorists are alerted that the roadway is a bicycle route. The result is a more
pedestrian and bicycle-friendly street where motor vehicles have access, share the road with bicyclists, travel at
slower speeds, and may choose to use other near-by streets if through travel, rather than local access, is the goal.
A Bicycle Boulevard does not change the capacity of the roadway, but rather the operating characteristics which
favor local motor vehicle access, lower motor vehicle speeds, bicycle mobility, and pedestrian use."

Yes, half-truths and misconceptions. Such as believing or implying that I equated the TIA with the plan. In the comment to which you just responded, I was referring to the plan at precisely the link you gave.

Well, it's the only link you gave. You certainly had the ability to stick the link in your "looking at the actual plan" comment. If one were to be as uncharitable as you've been towards me, one might wonder whether that was a purposeful omission.

It would be really odd for me to post all of the details of the plan and try to pretend that the information came from the TIA. The details of the plan were simply not in the TIA. Anyone could easily determine that fact by reading it.

At any rate, you and interested readers may want to check out this study on the effects of various traffic calming devices:

http://www.ite.org/traffic/documents/AB04H1502.pdf

On page 8, we find the crossing speeds (in a 25 mph zone) for speed cushions as:

Average Speed (mph): 10.1
85th Percentile Speed (mpg): 12.8

I'm actually surprised at how low these speeds are (the average speed is nearly half of what you claim is typical for you), so please let me know if your examination of the study reveals any incomplete or mistaken interpretations on my part.

Now, I do not dispute your assertion that the latest plan from city staff falls short of a true "bike boulevard". It may also be true that the plans would make Nueces and/or Rio Grande more motor vehicle friendly and, consequently, on balance, less bicycle friendly.

But there are many reasons to doubt the last conclusion, including:

1. The TIA shows that replacing stop signs with traffic circles would increase through-traffic travel times.
2. Studies show that speed cushions do not allow for a constant speed of 20 mph.
3. Stop signs are arguably even more unpleasant for cyclists than they are for motor vehicle drivers.
4. Dedicated bike lanes would be installed on some portions of Nueces.

This is going to sound like a lot of "but"s. Such is life.

1. The study doesn't go into enough detail to be able to tell why their speeds are as low as they are (note the different heights reported; yet the facilities are lumped together as if the height made no difference (?)).

2. Also, note that their definition of speed cushions doesn't closely match what we see on the ground in Austin today (on roads like Speedway and Duval). They refer to a small hump in the middle and large humps in the lane; ours are similar height all the way across if I remember correctly.

3. As for the speed in their study, it looks to me like they might be seeing very low speeds due to the change in the roadway being 'new'. IE, the installation of a traffic circle or speed cushion on a road that didn't previously have one will result in much lower speeds at first; but the speed will likely rise over time as drivers become familiar.

4. Finally, as for the speed here in Austin: http://tinyurl.com/y4dqt6x

(this is on Duval in the speed cushion section). You don't put up a yellow advisory sign for a speed you expect almost nobody to be able to maintain.

Also:

http://www.trafficlogix.com/

"Cushions slow cars to approximately 15-20 mph. Traffic Logix speed cushions are 3 inches in height and 7 feet long."

and

http://crapwalthamforest.blogspot.com/2008/04/whats-wrong-with-speed-cushions.html

"they are far less effective than road humps at reducing vehicle speeds and can easily be driven over at speeds greater than 20 mph. This is of some considerable significance when you bear in mind that 10 per cent of pedestrians die when hit by a car at 20mph compared with 50 per cent at 30mph. Camden Cycling Campaign noted that on one local road supposedly 'calmed' in this way speed surveys indicate that even in the presence of the speed cushions 15% of drivers are exceeding 27.6 mph on this stretch of road."

Mike, I'll rest my case here that you haven't provided compelling evidence that the city staff plan would result in a worse experience for cyclists than doing nothing. In your letter to the UTC, you neglected to address many factors that render your conclusion unconvincing. Our comment exchange has done little to change the status of your conclusion, in my mind.

That's disappointing - in the face of that 20 mph sign posted here in Austin on a road with speed cushions.

What we have now in this proposal is a 'signature bike facility' on Nueces that is either useless (maintains 4-way stops) or worse (if they get rid of the 4-way stops to make bike travel easier, cars will come); and a bike facility on Rio Grande that will attract more motorists (removing 4-way stops at 8th, 9th, 10th; turning a 2-way into a light at 5th - i.e. cars will come).

The fact that you're arguing against common sense seems to have eluded you. The reason so few cars use these corridors today compared to other downtown streets not named Lavaca and Guadalupe is because of the 4-way stops; obviously removing them would have some impact. And if cars couldn't travel 20 mph safely over speed humps, those yellow advisory signs would read "15 mph" or "10 mph" (don't you think the city would be leery of liability concerns otherwise?)

Your counterarguments betray a naivete borne by a desire to remain friendly with the power-brokers on this one. I'm sorry to see that happen.

Mike, the picture of the 20 mph sign to which you linked was not for a speed cushion, but for a speed hump. Furthermore, the suggested speed may not refer to the crossing speed, but to the approach speed.

And wow, another thoroughly unsupported claim: I'm trying to remain friendly with power-brokers. Ha ha!

Roger, the 20 mph advisory signs are for the entire zone covered by the speed cushions - and yes, they are cushions. Take a look in streetview again. There are many such signs in that stretch of Duval; and there are no other advisory signs.

As for your motivation to be excessively hostile and aggressive recently, I'll admit I'm just guessing.

That is to say that although the sign says "ROAD HUMPS", the facilities in question are clearly speed cushions (the raised area does not encompass all of the travel lanes' width).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_cushion

"Speed cushions are traffic calming devices designed as several small speed humps installed across the width of the road with spaces between them. They are generally installed in a series across a roadway resembling a split speed hump."

This is precisely what is on Duval between 38th and 45th, as well as in one spot on Speedway at about 44th.

Sorry, Mike, but City of Austin speed cushions look like this:

http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/roadworks/cushions.htm

It's not clear that the ones on Duval would allow emergency vehicles to straddle them, which is the main purpose of speed cushions.

But I'll withdraw my characterization of them as "speed humps", even though they clearly do not meet the City of Austin's specifications for speed cushions (shown on page 5 of the study I cited).

Essentially the same thing, except the ones on Duval and Speedway are more permanent. Similar sized gaps and similarly placed.

I got lost in the "debate" about speed humps, cushions or whatever the frick you call them.

In my experience, those devices by themselves don't seem to calm traffic as much as people would love to believe. Try riding on Parkfield and Bittern Hollow as a test. I've watched a lot of cars and most of them don't slow down, they go around or between or just take them at speed.

Another observation about traffic calming: it tends to be less effective as time goes on with drivers that become familiar and comfortable with them.

I share the concerns that removing stops signs or making them 2-way may attract more cars attempting to bypass other corridors. That and the current school zones and proposed speed limit reductions may add to the pressure on Nueces. I know that I wouldn't use Nueces for N-S commute but then a lot of auto commuters appear irrational to me anyway.

The question I can't answer, and the reason I've been mostly silent in BAC discussions, is do we want to continue fighting for a "true" bike blvd (somebody please show me the standard btw). Entirely possible that would never happen given the power and animosity of opponents -- or take so much time and resource that other efforts would suffer.

Is it Nueces or nothing? Do we really want to draw the line in the sand there?

Well, I finally got in a mini-van and checked out the speed cushions (or at least split speed humps) on Duval between 38th and 45th.

As I mentioned, they are not the same as the city's standard speed cushions, but they do seem to fulfill the same intent.

I drove over the humps at speeds varying from 15 mph to 25 mph. I also observed the relative speeds of cars behind me, and the brake lights of cars in front of me.

Noteworthy observations:

1. Driving over one of the humps at 25 mph was very unpleasant and caused the suspension of the mini-van to bottom, making a loud noise. Admittedly, my vehicle was a mini-van (Plymouth Voyager).

2. For the humps where I was driving 20 mph or greater, the vehicles behind me lost ground. I.e. they were going less than 20 mph over the humps.

3. With the exception of one vehicle that "sidestepped" the humps, the vehicles in front of me that I could see had their brake lights illuminated as they approached or passed over the humps.

Did the experience conclusively decide anything? No. But it makes me more skeptical about the claim that the proposed speed cushions are as insignificant a traffic calming measure as Mike portrays.

Well, I finally drove an automobile and checked out the speed cushions (or at least split speed humps) on Duval between 38th and 45th.

As I mentioned, they are not the same as the city's standard speed cushions, but they do seem to fulfill the same intent.

I drove over the humps at speeds varying from 15 mph to 25 mph. I also observed the relative speeds of cars behind me, and the brake lights of cars in front of me.

Noteworthy observations:

1. Driving over one of the humps at 25 mph was very unpleasant and caused the suspension of the mini-van to bottom, making a loud noise. Admittedly, my vehicle was a mini-van (Plymouth Voyager).

2. For the humps where I was driving 20 mph or greater, the vehicles behind me lost ground. I.e. they were going less than 20 mph over the humps.

3. With the exception of one vehicle that "sidestepped" the humps, the vehicles in front of me that I could see had their brake lights illuminated as they approached or passed over the humps.

Did the experience conclusively decide anything? No. But it makes me more skeptical about the claim that the proposed speed cushions are as insignificant a traffic calming measure as Mike portrays.

Roger, I drive that way at least once a week in a Prius - and at 20, they're easily manageable if you move left or right a bit.

An easy check of your theory that these are signficant disincentives to driving (rather than just to driving very fast) should be whether there's still a lot of traffic on Duval during rush hours. And there is.

Mike, you didn't mention moving left or right a bit before crossing the cushions. Interesting amendment.

The vehicles I saw averaged less than 20 mph over the speed cushions and were certainly not traveling at your preferred "steady 20 mph" speed.

You wrote:

"An easy check of your theory that these are significant disincentives to driving (rather than just to driving very fast) should be whether there's still a lot of traffic on Duval during rush hours. And there is."

This reasoning is fallacious. The check of whether they are a significant disincentive would be whether they resulted in significantly less traffic than there would be if the cushions weren't present.

Roger, that's what nearly everybody does. I didn't mention it because it's something I don't even think about at this point; but your mention of bottoming out at 25 made me think of reasons why that might be happening in your case (in other words, rather than assuming you're lying, I tried to figure out a way in which what you're saying could be true, because I assume you enter this discussion from a place of honest intentions).

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