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.