Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Is a part-time bike lane appropriate for the Longfellow?

So far in our irregular series on the Longfellow Bridge we've looked at the difficulty accessing the bridge from the south, the usage of the bridge compared to the real estate for each use and how many bikes are actually using the bridge at morning rush. While my next step is to actually go out and count bikes (maybe this Thursday!), I've been thinking about what sort of better inbound bicycle infrastructure could be implemented for the bridge.

Here's a graphic. I'll make more sense of it below (Click to enlarge):

Here are the issues at hand:
  • Peak bicycling occurs between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m., when bicyclists traveling from Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington and beyond converge on the Longfellow to commute to work in downtown Boston. For nearly any destination in Back Bay and Downtown, it is by far the easiest access.
  • There is much less cycling outbound at rush hour because of mazes of one-way streets combined with heavy vehicular traffic on the other access roads (i.e. Cambridge Street).
  • Thus, the highest bicycle use at any time on the bridge is during the morning rush hour inbound, but while plans indicate a wide, buffered bike lane going outbound, the inbound lane will barely be widened.
  • Since the bridge has a noticeable incline from the Cambridge side, there is a wide spread of cyclist speeds, and it is reasonable to expect cyclists to want to overtake during heavier use times.
  • With improvements to Beacon Street in Somerville as well as the access through Kendall Square, even more cyclists will crowd the bridge in the morning.
  • With the expansion of Kendall Square and its reliance—to a degree—on bus shuttles, it can not be allowed to gridlock over the bridge during peak periods (generally evening rush hour).
In other words, bikes need more room in the morning. And cars need more room in the evening (a single lane on the Longfellow would only accommodate somewhere along the lines of 50 vehicles, and might quickly queue in to Kendall). Luckily, these needs are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and a part-time bike lane would be a possible solution to give bikes the room they need at peak times, while not piling traffic in to Kendall at other times.

In general, part-time bike lanes have been created when parking is allowed at some times and not others (here's an example from the Embarcadero in San Francisco). The Longfellow is unique in that it has dramatically different usage rates between motor vehicles and bicycles (there are probably twice as many bikes in the morning than the evening, and twice as many cars in the evening than the morning). Bridge real estate is obviously limited—in a perfect world there would be two lanes for traffic and a wide, buffered bike lane, and a pedestrian promenade. So it would be a engineering, logistical and educational challenge to implement such a program.

Here's the thing: the bridge will be effectively shut down for three years. Traffic will be shifted around for long enough that drivers won't well remember the previous infrastructure, so it would be a good time (perhaps the only time) to try something drastically new. Here's a sketch of an idea:

Between Kendall Square and Memorial Drive, Main Street will merge from two lanes to one, to the left. The right lane will be for turns on to Memorial Drive only, and will be set off from straight-ahead traffic with bollards or a median.

Past the Memorial drive ramps:
The left inbound lane is kept at 11 feet and all non-Memorial traffic merges in to it before the bridge. The constriction for the Longfellow traffic is throughput at Charles Circle, so this shouldn't dramatically affect traffic, especially since Memorial Drive traffic would exit in a dedicated lane. This will allow traffic to comfortably travel in it at all times. The lane would be signed as Vehicle Traffic, All Times. It would be separated from the right lane by an unusual marking such as a double broken white line. 
The right inbound lane should be narrowed to 9 feet in width. Height restrictions (chains hanging from an overhead support) could be hung at intervals to discourage trucks and buses but signage would likely suffice. It would be signed as Bikes Only Except Weekdays 3 PM to 7 PM. No Trucks or Buses. It would be marked with diamonds or some other similar feature as well as "Sharrows" and separated from the bike lane by two solid white lines with no painted buffer in between, potentially with infrequent breaks.  
The bike lane would be 6 feet wide and the two lines would serve as a 2 foot buffer at evening peak. It would be signed as a regular bike lane.
This will extend to the top of the bridge where the grade evens. Beyond that point, there is less need for a "climbing lane" for cyclists, and the bike lane will taper to one, buffered lane. The left lane stay 11 feet, and the right lane 9, but it will be open to cars at all times, with a continued buffered bike lane. Having the right lane closed to trucks and buses will dramatically increase the comfort level for bicyclists who are often squeezed by large vehicles, who will have no business in the right lane.

At the Cambridge End of the bridge, the merge to one lane before the Memorial Drive will funnel all Cambridge-origin traffic in to the left lane (this is the only origin for trucks and buses which can not fit under the Memorial Drive bridges). During non-peak afternoon hours, the Memorial Drive intersection would then join this traffic in a short merge lane after crossing the bicycle facility. At peak hours, it would continue in the right lane. This means that for a truck or bus to use the right lane, it would have to actively change lanes, meaning that even during rush hour, bicyclists would not be pinched by frequent tall tour buses and delivery vehicles. And at other times, most of the origin traffic from Cambridge would already be in the left lane, and only the Memorial Drive traffic—which already stops at a stop sign—would have to be signed in to the lane based on the time of day. The irregular lane markings will clue most drivers in to the fact that there is something different about the bridge, as will signage placed on the bridge approaches.

At the Boston end of the bridge, just before "salt/pepper shaker" the bridge could be widened (for instance, see this older image) to allow bicyclists to stay in a buffered bike lane and cars to sort in to three full (if narrow) lanes. However, two lanes might be preferable to allow trucks and buses to get from the left lane on to Charles Street (or such vehicles could be forbidden from this maneuver and forced straight on to Cambridge or left on to Embankment Road). In this case, enough room for side-by-side cycling in a bike lane—at least 7 or 8 feet—should be allowed (this is not showin the above schematic).

The potential for a flyover bike ramp to the unused portion of Embankment Road should not be discounted, either, as it would siphon much of the bicycle traffic away from the congested Charles Circle area. I called this the "Gateway Overpass" as a lower, gentler and wider bridge could span from the Embankment Road area across Storrow Drive to the Esplanade and allow easy egress to Charles Street across the Storrow offramp. The current bridge is narrow, steep and congested, and provides far more clearance over Storrow Drive than necessary. A new bridge is proposed (see page 10 of this PDF) but I think a level bicycle facility would be very helpful to help bikes avoid the congestion at Charles Circle.

If this project were found to be either dangerous for cyclists or a major impediment to traffic in Cambridge, it could be changed simply by restriping existing lanes, so there would be no major cost involved. If it constricted traffic enough, the lanes could be restriped with a buffer to allow a wider cycling facility inbound at all times.

I think it's worth study, if not a try.

1 comment:

  1. Joel N. Weber IIJuly 26, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    A more subtle approach would be to paint the lane marking separating the two automobile lanes from each other with a solid stripe immediately next to a dashed stripe to indicate that vehicles in the right lane are welcome to move to the left lane, but vehicles in the left lane should not move to the right lane on the first half of the bridge. If a bicyclist takes the right automobile lane to pass another cyclist, any vehicles from Memorial Drive will likely figure out that they should move to the left lane to pass the cyclist.