Monday, January 30, 2017

A Bike Lane in the Sky

Pulaski Bridge. Photo: Ben West.

A two-way cycle track, actually. My son, Ben, and I were driving around Queens last Saturday, and we decided to have a look at the bike lane the City installed on the Pulaski Bridge, which he tells me is the main bicycle route between Brooklyn and Queens.

The lane went in early last year, and shortly after it opened a car was filmed driving in the bike lane. If you pave it, they will drive a car on it. This issue has been solved by putting a flex post in the middle of the cycle track (between the two bicycle lanes) at the beginning of the bridge.

We got incredibly lucky, and as we were driving across the bridge, which is a drawbridge, it decided to open to let a tug-and-barge pass through. Ben grabbed the shot above with his phone.

Building this cycle track was obviously a bit more complicated than, say, striping a bike lane on 22nd Street in Fairmount, in Philadelphia. Shows you what can happen when a city government actually gets behind the idea that its streets should be safe and convenient for all users, not just cars.

See also Parking Protected Bike Lanes in Baltimore, The Bottleneck on MLK Is Still There.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Reopening

The Schuylkill Trail at Race Street.
The stretch of the Schuylkill trail by the skateboard park reopened around lunchtime today, January 20, which is the scheduled completion date the City announced last month. In other words, on time!

Here is the repair that was done to the riverbank.

I spoke with the guys who were actually doing the work, and one of them cautioned me to expect occasional, brief closures over the next few days as final touches are applied. There's still quite a bit of fencing that needs to come down.

Here's what things looked like when I passed by in the late morning.

They promised to open about 1, so I ran an errand at the library, and when I came back the trail was open.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Parking on a Rainy Day

Yet another kerfuffle over bike lanes. A recent story focused on the 800 block of Pine - specifically the south side of the street. The north side is occupied by Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, and the nation's first hospital. My daughter, Alicia, was born there. As far as I know, it is not a participant in this controversy.

In the story, a resident of the south side expresses concerns about the protected bike lanes proposed for Pine and Spruce. My initial reaction was a trifle acerbic, undermining a promise I've made to Alicia to try to stay positive. So I decided to do something useful yesterday morning. I walked down to 8th and Pine and took pictures.

The proposed upgrade to the existing bike lanes on Pine and Spruce has already provoked a good bit of argument, including discussions at two meetings of the Washington Square West Civic Association. And it seems there will be yet more meetings.

Opponents complain of the hardship of not being able to park at the curb directly in front of their houses. If you listen to this argument in isolation, you may find yourself feeling some sympathy. After all, people need access to their houses. But when you look at the context, I submit that the picture changes.

One of the big things that people tend to overlook is rear access. I've already discussed access issues on Pine and Spruce west of Broad (see Flex Posts on Pine and Spruce and More on the Pine and Spruce Bike Lanes).  Let's have a look at rear access on the 800 block of Pine.

This is a view into the interior of the block from 8th Street. You can see that the buildings facing Pine (on the right) and Addison (on the left) are well provided with off-street parking. The access to this rather rather handsome lot is by a large curb cut on Pine, shown below. Vive la France.

While we're on Pine, here is a look at the existing bike lane.

A basic purpose of protected bike lanes is to keep trucks and cars from parking in the bike lane and blocking it, which of course renders it useless to bicyclists. Some would argue worse than useless, because the bicyclist then needs to leave the bike lane and merge with the moving cars and trucks in the motor-vehicle lane.

Okay, let's go to Addison and look at the kind of rear access available up near 9th Street.

The buildings at this end of the block are bigger, and some of the parking lots aren't as pretty. But some are quite lovely.

Here's another one that's not terrible.

Finally, in the mid-block, actual garages predominate.

There's basically enough off-street parking on this block to sink a battleship. I fail to see the hardship of asking residents to park in their off-street spots, instead of parking at the curb on Pine, where their presence does create a substantial hardship for bicyclists.

Well, you say, the people don't want to park at the curb very long, maybe 15 minutes. Surely not that many bicyclists would be inconvenienced.

The bike traffic numbers indicate otherwise. Even in the middle of the day, there are a lot of bikes whizzing around the streets of Center City. Last June 20, between 2:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon, I counted bikes at 16th and Spruce. On average there was one every 30 seconds. (See Intraday Biking.)

So if you parked in the bike lane there for 15 minutes, you'd have 30 bicyclists scrambling around you. An inconvenience ratio of 30 to 1. And in rush hour the number of bicyclists would be much higher.

To come back to the 800 block of Pine, here's what I think. If we can't put a protected bike lane on this block, we're not going to be able to put one anywhere in Center City. And I greatly fear that is going to be the outcome of the process we are currently enduring.

Mayor Kenney may indeed deliver his promised 30 miles of protected bike lanes. But will they be where the bicyclists need them, and where current and potential bike traffic demand them?

See also Vision Zero in Philadelphia.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Walk in the Park

Thursday dawned gloomy but very warm, and the rain had stopped, so I decided to go for a walk down by the Schuylkill. I took my camera.

First stop was the boardwalk. CHOP closes it occasionally. Apparently something to do with construction of the new building in the background of the picture above. I know. The building is so far away it's hard to see.

Second stop was Race Street on the Schuylkill Banks.

I'd  been wanting to get a better feel for this little project, so I nosed around a bit. My understanding was that it involved repairing a bit of the riverbank that fell into the river. (See story in PlanPhilly. See also the Bicycle Coalition's blog.) There is a nice little stretch of new riprap at the bottom of the hill that leads up to the skateboard park and MLK Drive. It's hard to get a good shot from downstream, but the skateboard park is open, and I was able to get a shot of construction equipment, looking back downhill.

I had originally thought the construction was further upstream, because of the equipment and piles of material next to the skateboard park. It appears that this is simply a staging area.

It seems the materials are dropped here and then transported down the trail when they're needed at the bottom of the hill.

It occurred to me that it might have been much simpler to mimic the construction approach used for the boardwalk, and bring your stuff in by barge and tie it up next to the worksite.

This then led me to the thought that closing the trail was completely unnecessary. If they needed to back a piece of equipment up onto the trail occasionally, they could have used a couple of flagmen. I'm sure we all would have been very good and waited patiently.

I've been working very hard lately not to sound too negative, so let me end on a positive note. There's yet more construction down between the Fairmount Water Works and Lloyd Hall.

They have a much prettier sign announcing the closure of the path, and there's even a sign that sort of explains what's going on.

This particular stretch has long had issues, and I'm glad to see they're being attended to. I just hope when they repave the path they use permeable materials.

Oh, and the path closure is not a problem for pedestrians or bicyclists. You can run over to the Azalea Garden or the path that runs along Kelly Drive.

One piece of unfinished business up by the Art Museum.

It put me in mind of Marcel Duchamp's readymades.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Bottleneck on MLK Is Still There

The sidewalk, MLK Bridge. Indego bike # 02662.
On May 21, 2009, there was a crash at the point where the Schuylkill Banks connects with the beginning of the Martin Luther King Drive. A motorist swerved around a stopped car and smacked into a father and a child who were crossing MLK Drive in the crosswalk. Father and child were seriously injured. A news report said that the motorist was very upset.

A Geography Lesson
Time for a brief geography lesson. My daughter hasn't lived in Philly for a while, and she was completely lost when I started to explain the MLK saga to her. So here you go.

The area we're talking about runs along the Schuylkill River by the Art Museum. The Schuylkill Banks is a riverside park and trail that now starts down by the South Street Bridge. It is essentially a firehose that collects torrents of walkers, runners, bicyclists, skateboarders - you name it - from Center City and University City and then vomits them into Fairmount Park, upstream from the Art Museum.

When you get to the top of the hill at the northern end of the Schuylkill Banks, near the Thomas Paine skateboard park, you have a choice. You can go up the east bank of the Schuylkill, on the trail by Kelly Drive, past Boathouse Row. Or you can go up the west side of the river on the trail by Martin Luther King Drive.

People mostly go up the trail by Kelly Drive. That's because the trail connection is easy and direct. To go up the trail by Martin Luther King Drive involves crossing MLK Drive on the infamous crosswalk and then crossing the Schuylkill River on something many people call the MLK Bridge.

MLK Bridge is a bottleneck for pedestrians and bicyclists. It is Valhalla for motorists. There is one lane for motorists headed upstream, and there are two lanes headed downstream. Why the imbalance? Nobody seems to know. But powerful forces are clearly committed to keeping both of those downstream lanes.

Meanwhile, pedestrians and cyclists share one sidewalk on the bridge. It is 58 inches wide, and the traffic is two-way. Cyclists in particular tend to spill over into the narrow shoulder of the cartway, which is dominated by storm drains with deteriorated grates placed well below the level of the pavement.

If you're in a car, crossing the bridge is a dream, and many motorists do it at truly dreamy speeds, thereby adding to the terror of the people who are out there for a little recreation - or, increasingly, trying to use this route to commute to work by bicycle.

It's not surprising that most non-motorists choose the Kelly Drive side, which as a result is frequently overcrowded.

The pity is what just about everybody is missing. I think that MLK Drive is possibly the most magical place in all of Philadelphia. But the bikers and walkers and runners are pretty much not there. And the motorists are going too fast to notice anything.

The crosswalk.
Back to the Crosswalk
The mayhem on the crosswalk, just before the MLK Bridge, did have one positive outcome. The City installed traffic lights. You can push a button, and the cars actually stop. (I still wait until they have stopped completely before I enter the crosswalk.)

Otherwise, nothing much has changed in the intervening eight years. It's not for lack of trying, though.

In 2012, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission issued a report entitled Improving Safety for All Users of Martin Luther King Drive. Among its recommendations: Eliminate one of the two inbound motor-vehicle lanes on the MLK Bridge, and use the space to build a two-way, shared-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists (pp. 1, 7-10, 34-35).

Nothing much happened.

In 2014, Fairmount Park got a new master plan, courtesy of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the William Penn Foundation, and several other organizations. The plan recommended a two-way cycle track across the MLK Bridge.

PDF spread 19, under River trail: "Fully rebuild the MLK Drive trail with an alignment closer to the river and a two-way cycle track along the bridge from Schuylkill Banks."

PDF spread 26: "Encourage the Streets Department to paint a demonstration bike lane along the MLK Bridge, before the deck is rebuilt, to ensure safe bicycle access."

So there you have actually two proposals: a new, permanent cycle track when the deck of the bridge is rebuilt, and also a temporary, quick-build path to improve conditions while we wait for the major construction.

And nothing much happened.

Matryoshka Dolls
Recently I was chatting with a young man who had just started an exciting job as a transportation planner in New Jersey. I asked him how things were going; he said he was beginning to figure things out. And then I found myself flashing back to my days as a junior city planner in 2 Lafayette Street, working for the New York City Planning Commission while the City was basically going bankrupt. I told him I didn't think he'd ever really know what was going on. He seemed a bit shocked, so I talked about the Russian Matryoshka dolls - every time you open one up, there's another one inside. I told him it was okay - just open enough dolls so you feel comfortable, and then use common sense. He seemed to like that story.

Will we ever see a quick-build cycle track on the MLK Bridge? I doubt it. Will the bridge be redecked? Yes, sometime. Will the new bridge have a cycle track? I don't know.

It's Chinatown, Jake.

Storm drain, MLK Bridge. All photos 1/6/17.
See also Uncorking the Bottleneck.