Friday, August 16, 2013

Mass State Police need to learn about bicyclists

Dateline: July 30, 2012. Cambridge.

I bicycle across the Harvard (Mass Ave) Bridge towards MIT (westbound). I signal in to the traffic lane to overtake a slower cyclist and to avoid a particularly rough stretch of pavement. Upon stopping for a light at Memorial Drive, the State Trooper tasked with directing traffic walked over.

"You're not supposed to do that," he said.

"Do what?"

"You can't leave the bike lane to pass other vehicles."

"Officer, I am allowed to leave the bike lane if conditions warrant, and this includes when pavement conditions are dangerous, or to overtake another vehicle."

"No, you must stay in the bike lane. You can only leave the bike lane where it is dashed, at intersections like this," he said, pointing to where the bike lane crosses Memorial Drive."

At this point, he asked me if I would like to discuss this further. I was glad to. So he proceeded to write me a citation.

Here is what I was cited for:
85.11B: Pass No Pass Zone
85.11B: Fail to Stay Within Marked Lanes
I asked the officer to explain the citations. He refused. (This may be a violation of MGL 90C.2 which states that "[a] Said police officer shall inform the violator of the violation and shall give a copy of the citation to the violator.") I asked him to please give me his name. He refused, and pulled his reflective vest over his name badge. He then took out his handcuffs and called for backup, asking me if I was being disorderly. Not wanting to further escalate the situation (and, sadly, not having a witness there to video the situation) I asked if I was under arrest and, upon being told that I was not, left.

And filed a complaint with the State Police.

I don't want to dwell on the intimidation by the State Police; that will be dealt with internally. However, I would like to deal with the fact that the Mass State Police apparently do not understand bicycle law. (According to the ticket code and internet, the officer works at SC5, which is the Sturbridge Barracks. So, a) he's probably not going to show up in court in Middlesex and b) he probably doesn't cite a lot of cyclists.) First of all, bicyclists do not have to stay within bike lanes.

First, passing in a no passing zone. This would appear to fall under MGL 89.2. Here is the pertinent text from the law:
If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake.
It is, therefore, legal to change lanes to pass in the same direction. Additionally, the Massachusetts driver manual states that it is legal to cross solid white lines in a vehicle (see this PDF, page 10). In other words, a white line does not constitute a no passing zone. And none of this is mentioned in the cited section, 85.11B

Second, failure to stay within marked lanes. This falls under MGL 89.4A and 89.4B. It states, amongst other things, that:
Upon all ways the driver of a vehicle shall drive in the lane nearest the right side of the way when such lane is available for travel, except when overtaking another vehicle or when preparing for a left turn.
Since I was overtaking another vehicle, I was subject to this exception (there is a separate exception in 85.11B for dangerous situations, and the poor pavement in the bike lane on the Harvard Bridge would obviously fit within this exception). Additionally, while I did signal my turn, I am not required to do so if I need to keep both hands on the handlebars. The officer said that my left hand was extended to "wave off traffic" which is an interesting interpretation of the law from someone whose job is to enforce it.

Had the officer wanted to charge me with these offenses, he probably should have referenced them based on the actual statute. 85.11B simply refers to these statutes.

But, of course, I wasn't in violation of either.

I expect this case to be dismissed without a hearing; it is likely that whatever magistrate vets the citation will not deem it worth the court's time. If, however, a hearing date is set, I will make sure that it is well publicized. You're all invited.

Update 10/21: I asked a State Trooper today on detail at the Head of the Charles if it was legal to leave a bike lane to pass another cyclist. He said it was perfectly legal.

Update 11/19: A court date has yet to be filed. Apparently it should be within 30 days. If it's much longer, I could probably move to dismiss based on the delay.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monorail vs Hyperloop

There's a lot of hubbub going on about Elon Musk's, uh, fanciful "hyperloop" idea coming out of California. There's a lot of fawning in the press. There are people who know things writing long missives taking down most every bit of the lack of details in the report.

In any case, I think there's another angle here. Basically, the fact that the Simpsons predicted this 20 years ago. And not only did they predict it, but there are some uncanny parallels. Of course, I refer to the Marge vs. the Monorail which first aired in 1993. Not only is it surprisingly prescient, but hilarious, too, making several best-of lists of Simpsons episodes, and being called "the best sitcom episode ever." (And it was written by the inimitable Conan O'Brien, who would go on to some other fame. You can watch via a sketchy link here.)

Basically, the premise is that serial villain and nuclear power plant owner C. Montgomery Burns is caught illegally disposing of nuclear waste, and pays the town $3 million in fines. The town then has a meeting to decide what to do with it. From here on in, I'll parallel it with the LA-San Francisco transportation corridor:

Simpsons: after several proposals and ideas, Marge leads the outcry to repair the town's main street.
California: after several fits and starts, the state passes bonding for high speed rail.

Simpsons: Huckster Lyle Lanley, after the town has approved the street idea, shows up with a plan for a monorail, leads the town in song, and the Main Street (proven transportation improvements) is replaced with a mock-up model of the monorail.
California: After the state has all but started construction on high speed rail, Elon Musk shows up with a sketch of an idea for a hyperloop, which will be faster, cheaper and better than the high speed rail.

Simpsons: The townsfolk ask Lanley questions with the following exchanges:

I hear those things are awfully loud—It glides as softly as a cloud.
Is there a chance the track could bend?—Not on your life, my Hindu friend.
What about us braindead slobs?—You'll be given cushy jobs!

California: Questions about where the system runs, its technical merits and such are not addressed.

Simpsons: Monorail runs on solar power.
California: Hyperloop runs on … solar power.

Simpsons: Lanley has sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook
California: Musk hasn't sold a hyperloop to … anyone.

It turns out that Lanley builds shoddy products, and that in the end the monorail winds up running at warp speed (slowing temporarily during a solar eclipse) before again running out of control, only stopping when Homer uses an M attached to a lasso to hook a giant doughnut (eliciting the line "Doughnuts, is there anything they can't do?").

So basically, in both cases, the citizens have a pressing transportation issue and appropriate money to fix it. In both cases, they make a choice based on proven technology only to have it upended by an unproven idea (perhaps more nefarious in the case of the Simpsons). Both systems run on solar power, but at least with the monorail there were proven (and proven bad) systems Marge could visit to disprove its worth. If the case of the hyperloop, if it somehow upends the high speed rail project and succeeds, I'll be glad, if surprised. But I'd more likely expect a monorail.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The next step on the BU Bridge area for bikes

The City of Boston recently made somewhat dramatic improvements to the bicycle facilities along Commonwealth Avenue. The formerly orphaned bike lane has been restriped through the intersection, and the new paint is all bright green. In addition, there are reflectors in the road to the right of the lane which I can attest are very visible from a vehicle at night. It's a good start.

Meanwhile, Brookline has installed contraflow bike lanes on Essex Street to allow cyclists to go from Essex to Ivy to Carlton and allow a low-traffic alternative to get from the BU Bridge to the Longwood area. (And for those of us headed to Coolidge Corner, another block before we take a right.) Going towards the bridge, the town has striped in a bike lane. And, more importantly, they've cut a "bicycle crosswalk" across the BU Bridge loop (Mountfort Street) to allow cyclists to get from the Brookline streets to the BU Bridge without having to cross medians, loop around through the intersection of death, or ride the sidewalk to the light. It also allows cyclists coming from Brookline to skip Commonwealth altogether, a great boon to cyclists who don't want to ride one of Boston's widest and busiest streets. So, what was once a death trap for cyclists—and is still rather cumbersome—is getting better. (The picture at right shows the bike lane in the foreground and the crossover in the background.) There is some background information in this document.

The next step, I think, is to better allow cyclists coming from the west on Commonwealth and headed towards Cambridge, would be a two-stage bike turn box. This is not a new concept—it even exists in Boston—and goes as follows:

  1. An eastbound cyclist on Commonwealth approaches the BU Bridge.
  2. The cyclists, upon a green light, goes through the light, then pulls in to a separate line to the right of the bike lane and turns their bike towards the bridge.
  3. Once the light changes, the cyclist pedals straight across and in to the bike lane on the bridge.
Here's a picture of the current facility, with an idea of a two-stage bike box sketched in, as well as a bike box for cyclists coming from Mountfort:

I would hope this is on Boston Bikes's radar screen (if it's under their jurisdiction and not the state). It would be a great help to more novice cyclists who may not know it's an option. The rest of us already do it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

One chart shows the change in Longfellow traffic

Boston’s massive reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge began this month. Over the next three years, traffic will be severely restricted, bicyclists mostly accommodated, and rail traffic mostly maintained across a major link in the transportation system which carries 100,000 transit riders as well as several thousand bicyclists and pedestrians across the Charles River (and some vehicular traffic, too).

In late June, I took a baseline, pre-construction count of morning, inbound traffic across the bridge. With the new traffic configuration in place (an inbound bike lane, a travel lane, a pylon-lined buffer and an outbound bike lane, plus the sidewalk) I decided to take a new snapshot of the bridge traffic. Had traffic declined with fewer lanes available? Are cyclists shying away from the new configuration?

Here’s what I found, summed up in one chart:

Bicycle counts stayed about the same (they actually rose, overall, and the peak hour saw 308 cyclists, an increase 14%). Vehicle counts, however, showed a dramatic drop, declining by 50% from 840 to 400 during the peak hour of use! It’s interesting that this is not due, necessarily, to restricted capacity (the one lane of traffic didn’t back up beyond the midpoint of the bridge at any time when I was counting, although the afternoon is a different story) but perhaps the perception of traffic, and the fact that the single lane reduces traffic speed quite a bit.

No lack of praise should be given to MassDOT for this iteration of the Longfellow traffic pattern. The bicycle facilities are, if anything, improved over the bridge before, especially considering the much lower vehicular traffic speeds and volume. And there is no lack of cyclists—even on one of the quietest weeks for traffic midsummer, there were more bikes than a day with similar weather in June.

A few other tidbits:
  • Bicyclists and Pedestrians accounted for 60% of the traffic on the bridge. Cars transported fewer people than human power. (See diagram below.)
  • Between 8:30 and 8:45, there were actually more bicyclists crossing the bridge than vehicles.
  • Pedestrians of all types outnumber cyclists (although this includes both joggers and “commuters”—as defined by me—in both directions).
  • The flow of “commuting” pedestrians is a mirror image of bicyclists. There are four times as many Boston-bound cyclists as Cambridge-bound, but more than twice as many Cambridge-bound Pedestrians as Boston-bound. (There are fewer joggers, but they exhibit a preference towards running eastbound across the bridge, differing from the other foot traffic.) Overall there are more bicyclists going towards Boston and more pedestrians towards Cambridge.
  • While 24 Hubway shared bikes accounted for only 5% of inbound bicycle trips, the 20 outbound Hubways made up 18% of the Cambridge-bound bicyclists.
  • Only four cyclists used the sidewalk, and only one rode the wrong way in the contraflow lane. (I yelled at him.)
And one more diagram showing bridge use (for the record, one chart, one diagram and one infographic, and one annoying and slightly misleading title):