Friday, September 25, 2015

Pick Up Sticks

The conundrums of Victoria's cycling network.

Spent a couple of hours earlier this week kicking around ideas at the city's Technical Advisory Committee for another iteration of the bicycle network plan.

Some didn't quite get the concept of an advisory committee - council makes decisions and committees provide advice to help shape the projects that will fulfill the direction set by those elected to do so.  It's not the place of committees to revisit those decisions, but to add value to help ensure that projects fulfill the vision.

Facebook, however, is a place for some discussion.

While I agree with the "all ages and abilities" concept, there is not a lot of understanding of how that works in practice on the ground.  Some are content to repeat the rhetoric when confronted with issues of engineering and design that they have no grasp of.

Victoria does not have a grid pattern transportation network where we can displace traffic to parallel streets that serve common destinations.  We have pick up sticks.

There was some resistance to the focus on expensive cycle track projects at the expense of neighbourhood fixes that are essential to network connectivity and completeness.  Both, however, will be useful evolutionary steps to increase the attraction of cycling as a transportation solution.  Care, however, must be taken to building solutions, not symbols.

The two way track on Pandora is a case in point.  While it mimics projects found in other cities, it will not function as its most ardent supporters believe.  With multiple intersections, all of which will likely need to increase signal phasing by 50% of existing cycles, stop and go traffic along a short section of a single route, and trip generators and destinations that are narrowly focused, it is unlikely to draw the orders of magnitude growth some are forecasting.  It most certainly will not be an extension of the Goose, where bicycle traffic is mostly free flowing and faces few delays.  The Goose is a river, downtown is a delta.

Paired facilities along Pandora and Johnson would make more sense, reflecting existing patterns of demand more so than the assumption that some advocates make that people will choose dysfunctional routes if you just give them more protection.  Cyclists, the old nugget goes, are not blocking traffic - they are traffic.  They will continue to seek out the routes that connect them to their destinations, not to a merry go round of facilities designed by those who know what’s best for them.

There are numbers of examples of problems created by the assumption that car trips will simply disappear if we add more and better bike routes.  Some will, but many will still drive more many of their trip purposes.  Traffic is like a balloon - squeeze it here and it pops out over there.  Victoria's road network is not designed to absorb displaced capacity and some routes will be badly compromised by the leakage to other roads.

In my own neighbourhood of Fairfield, bicycles account for about 20% of commute trips, though not much has been done to the road network to improve conditions for cycling.  A few signs don't add much to the main attraction - quieter streets, lower traffic volumes, and the proximity of destinations that support shorter trips.

One notion that is being played out suggest that Cook St. is an easy target for a road diet, though traffic volumes will suggest otherwise.  Transit and emergency service providers will not be impressed.  Anyone living on, or using, Vancouver St. will be apoplectic at the traffic they will have to absorb.  Between Fairfield and Fort St., Cook has no on street parking (except for a few spots north of Rockland), lanes are narrow, and traffic drains from Fairfield street networks to feed downtown and other destinations.    Volumes are more concentrated in this section than they are along other stretches and the city may not be well served by the imagined quick fix.

Vancouver St. can be more easily adapted as a bicycle priority street, with a couple more diversions and traffic calming elements.  Numbers of displaced movements will not be so high as those that would be impacted on Cook.  Incremental change, less costly and less intrusive, is likely to be more effective than a “statement” that will be expensive and have impacts well beyond the isolated streetscape the more myopic tend to recognize.

That myopia was likewise present when we were working through options on the bridge.  Those with a more simplistic view of traffic complexity were convinced that adding capacity to the Bay St. Bridge would solve downtown traffic problems while preserving the wreck of the Blue Bridge.  Bridges connect to something; they do not operate in isolation.

Some of the same soapboxers who continue to fire broadsides at the new bridge have now realized that the extension of the Goose to a downtown terminus will demand changes to core routes.   It’s a good thing though, that Wharf and Belleville are targeted for some next level of fixes.  The wheel was not invented after the occasion of the last election, and we were, going back to the bridge debate, planning the extension of waterfront routes then.  Some historians, apparently, are more selective with their remembrance of things past.

Douglas or Government?  That’s another point of discussion at the table.  It might be emerging from the solution to some of the friction on city streets will be solved if we get some of the bikes out of the way of the cars.  Again, we are not blocking traffic, we are traffic.  Plans for Douglas exceed the age of some of those elected.  Rapid transit has been talked about since the ‘70s and more recent iterations included, no doubt to the surprise of some, a two-way cycle track I promoted as part of the design features of a more sustainable mainstreet.  Planning Douglas in isolation of transit solutions is not a good approach.  Better to look at fixes along Government that stand on their own.  Destinations along Douglas will not be served well enough by facilities along Government.

Haultain is a good target for fixes.  We’ve been talking this one up for years.   Most of it is supported by signs alone and key crossings need better treatments.  At the east end, diversions have worked very well but at the west, Cook St. is a chasm that needs serious work, and links through to Quadra-Hillside destinations are lacking.

That brings us to the issue of dollars.  While some insist that they are going to save the world for $7 million that’s a little ambitious.  I’ve been involved in designing lots of projects and secured funding for many of them.  To be sure it’s a generous program, a boost from the $4 plus million earmarked by the previous council.  But it will not complete a network, especially given the high ticket symbols proposed for immediate implementation.  Might be wise to tone down the utopian prose and look to take measured steps. 

Piggybacks and partnerships will be key too.  The new Capital City project behind the legislature will draw more bike traffic south, running counter to the illusion of those who insist Pandora will draw everything from the Goose.  Connections and road design along adjacent routes need to provide robust bike facilities.  Ran into one of the architects for the new seniors housing project on Hillside at Blanshard Court.  Asked him to draw in some bike lanes along Hillside.  Hey, it’s only a block, but a network will be a sum of its parts, not imposed from above or drawn in one go.

I’ll lose some of the battles for more practical facilities, help where I can to make sense of ambitions to sketch out workable solutions.  Been doing it for years.  

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gone troppo.

The city will likely move forward on a two-way protected bike lane along Pandora St. following recommendations from staff now before council.

A few quick thoughts, again, on the failures of logic embedded in the plan.

Emphasis on the preferred option focuses on costs – it’s cheaper to build to two-way facility along Pandora than it would be to pair it with Johnson, and it costs fewer parking spots.   That’s the starting point for a project where something other than good transportation design is directing choices.

When the Galloping Goose hits downtown, all similarities to a continuous, stand-alone trail end.  The Goose is a river of traffic, downtown is a delta.  People traveling on bikes will remain drawn by purpose and destination, more so than a few blocks of separation.  Continuous travel will be impossible on the cycle track – signalized intersections, multiplied by six, and destinations that are not served by Pandora will mean that cyclists will continue to seek other routes.  The Goose works in part because flow is uninterrupted, something the city cannot offer on Pandora.

Trip generators are mostly south of the bridge, and those newly bike friendly on council who have built their success opposing that project need still to understand that the key fix for the trailhead will be the harbour pathway, which can serve large numbers of cycling tourists and help some of those commuting by bike reach jobs and services that are not concentrated along Pandora.  The need to provide connectivity to other routes will be essential, and the notion that those traveling by bike will gleefully endure several blocks of stop and go designs, each with extended delay patterns, just to join the parade, is na├»ve.

Dislocation of traffic from Pandora will affect other streets, notwithstanding that theoretically they are manageable.  Yates is full and Fisgard cannot absorb rat running around Pandora.  Victoria’s Chinatown will suffer and the intersection at Store Street is a poor location for new treatments that will be needed to deal with the fallout.  There is little excess capacity on alternate routes.

Designs will compromise what we can deliver for cyclists and erode space for pedestrians.  A two-way track will likely offer narrower space for each direction than paired one-way facilities would provide, and numbers of existing or planned mid-block crossings will be lost.  If you walk, your need for space and interest is being sacrificed and fresh opportunities will be extinguished.  Ironically, the neighbourhoods connected by Pandora count more foot traffic than most anywhere else in the region as a primary choice for journey to work trips.

Johnson Street, which at this point, carries about the same volume of cyclists as does Pandora, will be cheated of the higher levels of service needed to support emerging travel choices.  The failure of many advocates supporting the two-way project is in following the logic of their own rhetoric.  We want to reshape our transportation network to allow more people to choose cycling for everyday travel.  This demands that we fix the routes people travel on.  Steering them towards routes we want to choose for them rests on the idea that cyclists should go to where we are prepared to build facilities for them, not where their trip purposes direct them.  Those advocates want you to join a political parade.  The notion that “bikes aren’t blocking traffic, they are traffic”, is lost in the rush to build a symbol rather than a solution.

Despite my misgivings, the two-way cycle track will work, though incidental to the choices made rather than the overt epiphany some are expecting to be a result of the investment.  All of the facilities we have built over the last two decades of work on our cycling network, despite the protests of those who believe history begins now, have played a role in helping more people to choose cycling, more often.  Every new piece of the puzzle solved adds more bicycle trips to our traffic mix, even those that, much to the consternation of more ideological advocates, are little more than paint and route signs.

Whatever happens along Pandora, it will have similar impacts, though the two-way cycle track remains the wrong solution in the right place.  We do need better facilities across downtown, but we would better served if the choices being made were based on sensible traffic engineering rather than more calculated political choices pursued by those in a rush to get in front of the parade.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Small mercies.

New sections of the E&N trail, a commuter cycling route that runs parallel to our hopeful railway across the Capital Region, are completing final touches to connect the path through View Royal to the Colwood overpass near Thetis Lake at Island Highway.  Here the trail meanders on to the Galloping Goose before reappearing in Langford at Savary School.

One of the final touches here is most certainly unwelcome.

Few will notice it, fewer still will pay it any heed, but signs instructing cyclists to dismount and walk through a pair of crosswalks don’t meet the test of good design.  They need to be removed.

The trail is already a minor street, soon to be a major conduit for bicycle travel.  It has always been intended to serve that function.  Much of the early funding was secured on the premise that it would help convert commute trips from cars to bikes – I helped write the formulas essential to a successful application.  The dismount protocol runs contrary to the trail’s purpose and needs to be dropped.

There is likely nothing in any safety analysis that would likely point trail managers to raise a panic over cyclists crossing an access road (to the Adams Storage property off Island Highway, where trip volumes are low, access to the main route is stop controlled and sight lines are adequate, if not completely ideal).   A few metres further along, where Island Highway and Burnside Road meet below the Colwood Overpass, the crossing has been designed for cyclists to ride through (I did consulting work on the project and we shaped the streetscape to allow a ride through median), movements are controlled by traffic signals, hardly a situation where dismount instructions are needed.

Precedents are everywhere on the Goose and Lochside Trails.  No crossings remain where the “dismount and walk your bike” approach has been sustained.  Those that were in place were dropped years back and local bylaws enacted to endorse the concept of bicycles as traffic, not as rolling pedestrians.

Use of the E&N trail has ramped up significantly with every new emergent segment, impatient cyclists finding their way round barriers and sections under construction.  Even as the new signs have gone up, none have paid any attention whatsoever to the harebrained instruction to dismount along a hurried route.  Whatever for?

If any road users notice the signs, and mercifully they are small, the protocol might seem absurd, though some few may whine a familiar refrain that brands cyclists as scofflaws intent on bending the rules to suit their arrogance.  It breeds disrespect to impose a requirement that no one will observe.  Better to design to reflect patterns of use than post impotent signs that satisfy some hand-wringer concerned about who is using the trail.

While it may seem small, most every detail of design and delivery of the project has caught my eye over the course of the project development.  It’s one I’ve been working on for near two decades.  Design matters, and bad design ideas won’t serve the users our new facilities are intended to attract.

Somebody needs to put their thinking cap on and take out the signs.  And while you are at it, perhaps you could run some wiring under the sidewalk at the overpass so trail users don’t have to contort themselves trying to push a button for their turn at the signal.  And when you don’t know what you are doing, please ask someone who does.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Solutions, not symbols

We should be designing bike facilities to make it safer, more comfortable and more convenient for more people to choose cycling for some of their daily trips.  The obsession with a two way cycle track design for Pandora, unfortunately, is more about making a statement than providing a genuine solution to complex design challenges.

The city of Victoria has set aside funds to extend concepts for a cycle track – a physically separated bike lane – along Pandora between Store and Cook St.  They will host open houses and discussions with the community on what of three design options they will choose to deliver on a promise to implement new designs to raise levels of service for cyclists in the city.

Any one of the three proposals mimics designs already in place and working in other jurisdictions, though at least one option – unfortunately that which meets the notional budget more so than the service delivery objectives, falls short of dealing with one of the critical elements of effective treatments.  It proposes dropping cycle tracks and creating “mixing zones” at intersection approaches, where cyclists and traffic will go through a sorting according to their direction of travel.  While Victoria’s traffic speeds and volumes are much less challenging than they are in many larger cities, the potential conflicts suggest that this design will fail the test of delivering significant improvements to meet the needs of “all ages and abilities”.

Predictable red herrings are raised about travel delay and increased emissions, but changes to street design are never a zero sum game.  To improve conditions for one travel mode (in this case cycling), will almost always have an impact (sometimes real, sometimes perceived), on someone else.  To keep whole the level of service or capacity for drivers simply misses the point.  The objective in any bike facility is to compromise, to some extent, the attractiveness of driving, and to make it more appealing to choose cycling.  The premise that it will increase emissions is not supported by the weight of evidence.  To the contrary, anything that makes it easier or more convenient to drive grows emissions.  The analysis embedded in the report focuses on incidental emissions while ignoring the benefits of trip conversions generated by positive evolution of a more balanced network.

Of the two cycle-track options, a vocal few are insistent that only a two-way cycle track is supportable, dismissive of the paired one-way designs that probably make more sense in the Victoria context.  Research is cited to support the obsession, but without understanding the concept or the real findings of the research.  While there is a correlation between some two-way facilities and greater increases in travel along those corridors, I could find little in the report that suggests cause and effect. Some of that shift can likely be associated with context and trip generation patterns that have nothing to do with facility type.

Victoria, unlike many North American cities embracing new designs for cycling, has no effective grid pattern, an important element of facility design.  Where there is something of a grid, downtown, the available space parallel to Pandora, along Johnson, provides an effective paired couplet opportunity that better serves destination travel patterns in the city.  The availability of better facilities do shift some trips, but more so route choices for existing cyclists than they do to generate shifts from other modes.  What is most important is to provide complete and effective connections between origins and destinations or “trip generators” – home, work, shopping, services etc.  Like so many drivers who miss the point of traffic system design, some voices in the cycling community now insist that facility design alone will generate dramatic change, as if trails and cycle tracks, like aimless roads, are simply perpetual motion machines rather than essential connections for people traveling with a purpose and a destination in mind.  The best facility in the world will not provide much appeal if your destination is not found along the “chosen” corridor.

Another emergent theme is that Pandora will be “the extension” of the Galloping Goose on the downtown side of the new Johnson St. Bridge.  One of the premises of the flawed logic is that because movements to other routes are not well served at the bridgehead, Pandora is the logical choice since it will offer the path of least resistance.  For those majority of trips that are destined for places other than those few found along Pandora, or north and away from downtown, what does it matter if the complex movement is executed at the bridge or a few blocks to the east, or wherever that change in direction must take place?  Designs in other cities show well enough that complex intersection treatments can be used to accommodate the types of movements critics insist cyclists will not make at the bridgehead.

While some compromise of vehicle movements will accompany whatever design is chosen, the objective is not to create failure simply for demonstration purposes.  In case anyone forgot, roads remain public rights of way meant to offer options, not lectures, on travel choices.  The variability of cross-sections along Pandora has not been thoroughly analyzed for the purposes of the current proposal menu.  Very little surplus space is available west of Douglas, and any displaced traffic would move at first blush, to Fisgard, which has no capacity to absorb additional volumes.  Many of us may not choose to drive, but many more will, and they are citizens too.  Reducing auto dependence, for better or worse, is a process of erosion, not obliteration.

A host of design challenges associated with a one-way cycle track are likely manageable, though they will have visible and significant impacts, both in compromising vehicle travel and in offering better options for cyclists, and those benefits will be no better served, certainly no worse, than the symbolic flag raising of a two-way separated facility, which poses more difficult compromises for system functionality, not just for cars, but oddly enough for cyclists and pedestrians as well.

The cost of the two-way fix exceeds even the one direction cycle track by enough to fund several projects like Pandora and Johnson, all the spot improvements the city has contemplated, and then some, the city’s share of changes to Esquimalt Road, completed some years ago, three times the budget of all the speed zone signs that people didn’t want to spend on real solutions.

Lately a new theme is also emerging to suggest that it is the value of the two way design will affect only one street.  That’s an appealing fiction, but fails to hold up under scrutiny.  Only Pandora will be affected, apparently, though if your route or destinations draw you towards Johnson, you have now been abandoned by advocates who a different agenda.  Complete streets are out, they want to choose for you, like so many others, what route you should take.  For other users of our transportation networks, the diversion of traffic will affect many other streets, most ill-equipped to handle the extra volumes looking for alternatives.  Signal timing that affects cross-streets, pedestrian movements and create issues for transit, emergency services and other transport needs will be given short shrift.

Don’t rush to “demand” a two-way cycle track as that pre-determined choice that must emerge from the public process (why bother?) now proposed by the city.  It may emerge as the politic solution, less likely the right engineering solution.  At the very least, for those who want to engage in that process with a more open mind, make an effort to understand, rather than cherry pick, from the research, and recognize that the choices made will not emerge in a vacuum.  They will have real world, practical impacts on the ground, here, at home, in Victoria.  Any and every thoughtful student of engineering will understand that everything is context sensitive, and even those designs that we steal or borrow from other locales have to be adapted to our unique situation.  We need solutions, not symbols.