10 blocks into town and 1,000 miles in the wrong direction
I was shooting stills of the cycletrack when I heard the sound of an accelerating van and a cyclist’s freewheel behind me. The van had sped up to beat the cyclist to the corner. The light was green for both the road and the cycletrack.
Last week, John Allen and I shot video on the Pinellas Trail extension into downtown St. Petersburg. We made several trips in both directions. We experienced numerous right hook conflicts while traveling inbound with the flow of traffic. We also used the adjacent road and the paired one-way street in the opposite direction to compare time and ease of travel. I will do a follow-up post with a link to John’s blog when he posts his analysis and edited video of this facility. Below are my observations of the facility and the larger cultural problem that created it, and that it in turn reinforces.
The mythology of separation
There is no such thing as a barrier-separated facility. The proponents of these things conveniently forget about intersections. Even a trail on its own right-of-way must cross streets. An urban cycletrack (the new, flashy term for sidepath—a long-ago discredited facility type) must cross streets and driveways every few feet. The conflicts created by this type of facility place a burden on all road users.
Despite the numerous crossing conflicts on this course, the prospect of stopping at nearly every block for a red light tempted us to make a run for stale green lights. This increased our risk of getting hit as we focused on the light and not the traffic preparing to turn. In one case, we were charging for the intersection when a pick-up truck turned into our path, then stopped short. The driver, realizing his error, waved us through. After those seconds of hesitation, John was able to make the yellow light but I was farther back and had to stop at the red.
Take note that accelerating for a green light is not hazardous when you are claiming a traffic lane because turning traffic is kept behind you.
The compromise of efficiency
A tight grid and short blocks makes for an abundance of traffic lights. As previously noted, it is especially frustrating to get a red light at every intersection. Of all the trips on the cycletrack, I think we got two green lights, at most. Using the road, we got 2 red lights, at most. After about 3 trips on the path, I started getting pretty grumpy, though I continued in the interest of helping John get video. Riding on the road was so much faster and less stressful.
Red lights didn’t seem to matter to the other cyclists. By and large, they simply treated red lights as yield signs.
In addition to the crossing conflicts, the cycletrack is rife with mid-block crash hazards. The placement of flex sticks in the middle of the path at every driveway creates numerous opportunities for a solo crash. Flex sticks bend when a vehicle hits them, but they are sturdy enough to whip a bike’s handlebars sideways when caught, sending the cyclist to the pavement and possibly onto the curb, where broken hips and ribs are a serious possibility. The curbs themselves are crash hazards. The track is only 10 feet wide and has chicanes at every intersection.
I saw far more pedestrians than cyclists in my travels and many crossed the path without looking. I watched one walk right in front of a cyclist, causing him to swerve to avoid her. The city buses deposit passengers onto an island, where they have to cross the cycletrack to get to the sidewalk.
This facility offers nothing in the way of increased access for cyclists. St Petersburg has a tight grid alternating wide streets with lots of lanes and 2-lane streets with 15mph speed limits. A cyclist traveling westbound can use a street one block over from 1st Ave. A cyclist traveling eastbound will face far fewer hazards and conflicts and have the ability to travel faster using the road itself. The cycletrack is nothing more than an attractive nuisance facility.
Reinforcing superstition and bad practices
What the cycletrack does best is reinforce the belief that cyclists don’t belong on the road. Sidewalk riding in St. Pete is epidemic to the point of being really annoying. The city has a lot of nice restaurants with pleasant sidewalk seating. People ride bikes right through the tables, despite the adjacent streets having 15mph speed limits!
Cyclists aren’t the only ones that get the negative message. When we did comparative video using the street adjacent to the cycletrack, we received an angry honk from a motorist who had 2 other empty lanes to use. We also heard commentary from pedestrians about “the bike lane over there…” (Two of those pedestrians were jaywalking despite the short blocks and crossing signals provided for them)
Giving credit where it is due
The City of St Pete has done wonderful things in recent years to make its downtown more livable. They are deserving of much praise for their efforts to increase walkability and pedestrian safety. Through a combination of infrastructure, public awareness and enforcement, this city managed to increase motorist compliance at crosswalks from a dismal 2% to an impressive 85%. The sidewalks and parks were teeming with pedestrians in the evenings and on the weekend. I found it to be a very appealing, human environment.
The city has invested a lot in its commons — created dog parks, skate parks and other pleasant public spaces. There are lots of bike racks around town, certainly more than I’ve seen in Orlando.
They want to promote cycling
St. Pete has done a fair amount of bike lane striping in the interest of promoting cycling. Some of it is relatively harmless, other isn’t very well thought out. For example, the bike lane on 1st Ave N runs past the bus depot, so it has a high turnover of buses passing though it and partially blocking it. Since that is a one-way street, the lane could have been put on the left side to avoid that.
Better yet, just teach people how easy it is to ride on an urban street and avoid all the potential conflicts. The beauty of a wide urban one-way street is that cyclists can choose to ride on the right or the left, depending on their destination. Placing a bike lane on one side creates the impression that cyclists must only ride there, causing them to have to merge across 3 lanes of traffic to make a turn on the other side of the street.
Uninformed cyclists have no idea how to outsmart the paint where it puts them in the wrong place. Informed cyclists don’t need or want bike lanes on roads like that. So the best solution is to focus on educating cyclists and providing low-volume alternatives. With the excellent grid street system St. Pete has, it could easily create bike routes on minor roads (like Dallas has done) and leave the thoroughfares alone.
Shoving a square peg in a round hole
The bike lane issue is relatively minor compared to the cycletrack boondoggle. The trail extension cost $6 million—for 10 blocks on one road. It is a glaring example of wrong-headed policy-making—the stubborn insistence that the rail trail (which works extremely well in the suburbs) must be continued into the urban core as a separated facility. The myopic focus on achieving the impractical, blinded its proponents to good integrated solutions and resulted in a tedious, conflict-ridden obstacle course. It’s a tragic terminus to an otherwise-outstanding trail.
Maximize your assets
St Petersburg’s street system lends itself to excellent low-tech, low cost solutions for bringing bicyclists into the urban center. From what I’ve seen, bike boulevards would work well here. The urban center itself has a number of 15mph streets on which the average cyclist can ride the speed of cars. The larger, 30mph, one-way streets are comfortable and easy to ride at slow speed as well.
If they spent that kind of money on public awareness, education, bike boulevards, sharrows, cyclist-friendly signal-timing and a wayfinding system, they could create a world-class cycling city. They’d make life better for cyclists citywide AND counter the mode-share-killing superstition that cyclists need to be separated from motor traffic.
Cycling in a downtown is amazingly EASY. It’s easier than driving a car! If you want to promote cycling, teach people how safe and easy it is. Creating limiting, conflict-ridden facilities that coddle and reinforce their belief that it’s difficult and dangerous just makes no sense! Why is this concept so hard for some bike advocates to understand?
It’s time for cyclists and cycling advocates to open their eyes and see that the pomp has no substance. See it and say it. Insist on real solutions that expand access to the whole transportation grid and make cyclists welcome on every street. It’s time to stop rewarding symbolic bike facilities and counting miles of paint stripes. The less flashy solutions are almost always better for cyclists than the ones applauded by “bike advocates.” We can do 1000 good things for cyclists for the cost of a few miles of showpiece infrastructure. There are good solutions which welcome cyclists on all roads and move us in the right direction—toward a culture where bicycling is a normal, accepted and respected part of the traffic mix.
I’ll leave you with the wisdom of Hans Christian Anderson:
The emperor marched in the procession under the beautiful canopy, and all who saw him in the street and out of the windows exclaimed: “Indeed, the emperor’s new suit is incomparable! What a long train he has! How well it fits him!” Nobody wished to let others know he saw nothing, for then he would have been unfit for his office or too stupid. Never emperor’s clothes were more admired.
“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last. “Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,” said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. “But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.” And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.