Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Broad Street Cycle Track

This was originally posted on the Facebook page of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia on June 4, 2014:

Just to be truly radical for a moment, what about a cycle track on Broad Street in the median? We could also add parking lanes next to the cycle track, so that vehicular traffic would be reduced to one lane north, one lane south. These parking lanes would become turn lanes at intersections. The parking lanes lanes next to the sidewalk could then be more heavily dedicated to delivery and drop-off.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Put Traffic Lights on the Schuylkill Expressway



Waiting patiently for a green light on the South Street bridge. 

This idea came to me on July 6 of this year. It had taken me a while to get there. Last year I wrote a story called Morning on Lombard Street, which described the hellacious mess that Lombard Street can become during the morning commute.

On a bad morning, traffic can back up Lombard to 22nd. It turns out that this congestion has essentially nothing to do with the bike lane, although people continue to mention that possibility to me. The congestion is caused by the Schuylkill Expressway. When it backs up heading north, the northbound access ramp from the South Street bridge backs up and then the bridge backs up. If it's bad enough the backup goes across the bridge and then snakes back up Lombard.

If you'd like more of the nitty-gritty on this, read Morning on Lombard Street.

I'd never actually taken pictures of these backups, so last Friday, August 4, I went out in the morning to snap a few shots. It being a Friday morning in August, traffic was very light, and I found myself more interested in another phenomenon that many people seem blissfully unaware of. Cars do not own the South Street bridge. There are scads of bikes and pedestrians and dogs. I'm actually thinking of setting up a coffee stand on the bridge, just next to the northbound ramp to the Schuylkill. And I'll definitely include a free doggie water bowl.

On July 17 there was a community meeting about upgrades to the Lombard and South Street bike lanes. I'd been aware that there was a lot of bike traffic on the South Street bridge - Lombard feeds the westbound bikes onto the bridge, and South takes the eastbound bikes off the bridge - but I was actually surprised to learn that 15 percent of the vehicular traffic on Lombard is bicycles. Then you need to add in the pedestrians, and of course the dogs.

The South Street bridge is not an urban wasteland of concrete and cars.

Six people and a dog in search of a green light.

Even though the car volumes weren't there on Friday, it's interesting that the northbound access ramp still accounted for the lion's share of the cars, as it does on heavier days. The picture below gives you the idea. Westbound and southbound are running clear. The northbound ramp traffic is backed up almost to the CHOP building.

Do not take pictures while walking in a crosswalk.

Here's another shot, showing the Achilles heel of the whole thing. If the cars back up any further than this, you're into the area where there's only one lane. And that means that all the westbound and southbound traffic gets snarled up with the northbound traffic. And some days the snarl goes back up Lombard to 22nd.

The Achilles heel.

Last year, in Morning on Lombard Street, I recommended closing the northbound ramp. Among other things, it's a very dangerous place. You need to enter the Expressway in the fast lane, and the sightlines are not good. People with long experience in this matter told me that my proposal was not new and would never happen.

So here I am with another idea. I recently read that Market Street and JFK Boulevard were designed as "urban highways." They have traffic lights. Instead of treating the stretch of the Schuylkill around the South Street bridge as an interstate, let's call it an urban highway. It doesn't have cross streets, but it has scads of exit and entrance ramps, and the access ramps are pretty much all problematic. Let's put lights across the main roadway and also at the front of each access ramp. Then let people take turns. I'm thinking things will go  better.

When traffic is heavy, something close to this already happens on an informal basis. The cars in the main roadway slow down, and every once in a while they actually let someone in from one of the access ramps. I'm just suggesting that we use familiar, approved traffic control devices to formalize this dance, reducing the danger and frustration that are endemic to the current arrangement.

Waiting at the light by the Schuylkill access ramps.

Let me close with one last picture - I am a bicycle guy after all, and I believe there are more bicycles than cars in this picture. I've been waiting three years to see that. The future is here. It's on the South Street bridge. We just need our village elders to snap out of their Rip Van Winkle act and help us build upon what we can already see with our eyes.

See also Intermittently Terrifying.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Balkanized Politics

The Dependent Probability Trap

Esplanade by Fairmount Water Works
I suspect that the balkanized politics of Philadelphia has its basis in neighborhood resistance to urban renewal. What better way to stop unwanted change than to devolve power from City Hall to a series of small community organizations, any one of which can stop any change.

I'm afraid I don't know enough Philadelphia history to be able to prove this case; perhaps someone else can do that. What I do know is that Philadelphia politics is currently well designed to stop just about anything from happening.

And I'm going to show you how it works. Say you have a bike lane that is essentially the backbone of a citywide network of bike lanes. Say it runs through the bailiwicks of three registered community organizations. Say you want to make some improvements to the bike lane.

And here's what happens. The local city council members put their heads together and decide that they're okay with the plans, but that all three RCOs need to hold community meetings and get neighborhood approval. Everybody has to agree.

Let's say that your chances of RCO approval are actually pretty good - say 0.8 on a scale of zero to one.  But your job is to get all three RCOs to agree. And here we run into what I call the dependent probability trap. The probability of getting all three RCOs to agree is not 0.8. It is 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8. Which is 0.51, or fifty-fifty. Add one more RCO and it is 0.40.

The only way out of this trap is for our elected officials to engage in something called leadership. They need to stop giving their constituents a veto. They need to listen carefully, take counsel, and then make decisions.

It's a much harder job than just ducking for cover anytime a decision looms on the horizon. But it is the job we pay them to do.