Sunday, March 13, 2016

Road Project Stories Show Contrast Still: Friendly Leisure or Serious Work

It was nice to see a bike lane splashed across the front page the other day! The piece also seemed like a good and balanced overview.

One little bit of irony, likely unintended however, crept in.

The inset photo of the person biking shows him biking against traffic! This is at Winter and Chemeketa, looking at the State Library building. The person on bike is going east on Chemeketa in the west-bound lane, using the angled curb parking zone on the north edge of the street.

You could, I suppose, just simply choose to read that as exemplifying the "lawless cyclist" trope.

Instead, I think we should read it as evidence that downtown remains far from "bike-friendly." Chemeketa has sharrows and yet we all see plenty of people for whom going down the center of the lane at the apex of the chevrons remains a very uncomfortable experience. Striping two new bike lanes will by themselves not make High and Church Streets "bike-friendly," attracting new people to bike downtown. Instead the lanes will represent an incremental improvement that mostly serves people who already bike downtown. To say the new lanes will "give more confidence to novice cyclists" is something of an overstatement. Novices are still most likely to avoid downtown. (This is also to make cycling into a complicated skill or hobby. We don't very often say that a new lane treatment will give more confidence to novice drivers - even though it is driving, not bicycling, that usually employs lethal mass and speed!)

Earlier in the week there was something of a companion story about "congestion" and the summer's crop of widening projects. If the bike lane story used a tight close-up for imagery, the congestion story used a zoomed-out long shot.

The opening to each story also strikes different tone.

On bike lanes:
Commuters, tourists, exercisers and other cyclists will soon be able to travel along two more downtown Salem streets in separate, marked bike lanes.

The city is working to transform High and Church streets NE by this summer from three-lane roadways to bicycle-friendly streets, each complete with parking, buffer zones and bike lanes.
On congestion relief:
For commuters and residents looking for traffic relief in South Salem, things will get worse before they get better, as several construction projects to widen roads and speed up intersections begin in April.

City officials are hoping intersection improvements at Commercial Street SE and Kuebler Boulevard SE, widening on eastbound Kuebler Boulevard SE and upgrades near Salem Airport will reduce terrible congestion and address safety issues for the regions growing population and businesses. The three major projects carry a total budget of $19.5 million and span from April to December.
Though it's hardly a contrast in black and white terms, and I don't want to oversell the difference, still there's a differing emphasis in tone between making something "friendly" and doing the more serious work of "clearing congestion." It used to be that advocates would complain that bikes were considered a toy, and we are clearly not dealing with that problem here. But there's still a sense in which the accommodations for people biking are an amenity, an extra, and accommodations for those in cars the critical, core service. The lack of accommodation and safety for non-auto users downtown isn't quite yet a problem on par with the problem of "terrible congestion." Much of the tone originates, I am sure, with the press releases from the City that are driving the coverage. But of course it still echoes popular sentiment.

This points to the underlying disconnect in the way we talk about mobility. It also shows the way our rhetoric is still too often symbolic and unmoored from facts or reality.

As N3B pointed out the other day, according to ODOT surveys, at least relative to the rest of the state, Salemites don't actually think we have "terrible congestion."

via ODOT Research
In the annual "Transportation Needs and Issues Survey," the highway department itself, ODOT Research, says only a quarter of Salemites say congestion is "very serious" or "somewhat serious" in Salem. Fully three-quarters of Salemites say is it a "minor problem" or "no problem at all."

Portlanders lead the way with 63% saying they have a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem.
  1. Portland - 63%
  2. Eugene - 41%
  3. Bend - 34%
  4. Medford/Ashland - 33%
  5. Salem - 27%
  6. Rural - 22%
  7. Other urban - 22%
That's right, Salem's perceived level of congestion is hardly beyond the margin of error on the perceived level of rural congestion!

Salem does not have "terrible congestion" and we are wasting millions of dollars on solutions in search of a real problem.

So if "terrible congestion" isn't perceived as a real problem, what about that purported solution? The greater problem is that the dredging operation we call "widening" is ineffective.

Even California recognizes this. "Increasing highway capacity unlikely to relieve traffic congestion." When you build more road, people just drive more. We can't build our way out of congestion.

Adding lanes doesn't work (CalDOT)
But sometimes we can paint our way. To circle back to the bicycling story, adding bike lanes is a much cheaper way to improve total road capacity.

via New York DOT
In a 2014 brief, New York reported that reallocating road space for protected bike lanes often improved auto travel time and reduced congestion.

More people on bike, of course, use the lanes, and so the total number of people traveling by the roadway increased by a substantial amount.

If we want to relieve congestion and improve the mobility of people, investing in bike lanes and transit will do a whole lot more - and is a lot cheaper - than building new auto travel lanes.

At the moment we still talk about transportation in mode silos. We talk about making downtown streets more bike-friendly as if this is a favor to people who want to bike. But making them better for people on bike will also improve performance for lots of other road users, including the storefronts and business-owners themselves.

Sales tax data from Salt Lake City showed
bike lanes correlated with increased sales
We'll know we have changed the paradigm not when we talk about bike stuff in even more glowing, positive terms, but when we talk about roads as whole systems serving people on foot, on bike, on bus, and in car and we are able to talk about improvements on bike lanes also being improvements for those in cars. Better bike lanes downtown won't just mean more smiles for people on bike, they will mean more total people using - and spending in! - downtown.

Once we start talking about the mobility of people who have a realistic menu of options in their transportation toolbox, then we'll know we've made real progress.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

A couple of edits -

Old: The person on bike is on the north edge of the west-bound lane in the angled curb parking zone going east on Chemeketa.
New: The person on bike is going east on Chemeketa in the west-bound lane, using the angled curb parking zone on the north edge of the street.

And added a parenthesis: (This is also to make cycling into a complicated skill or hobby. We don't very often say that a new lane treatment will give more confidence to novice drivers - even though it is driving, not bicycling, that usually employs lethal mass and speed!)

Stephanie Matlock Allen said...

I always appreciate your insights, which prove useful as we tackle the same issues in my Boise neighborhood too.

Anonymous said...

I now agree with Mikael Colville Anderson from Denmark - sharrows are not a good choice for bike infrastructure. I've been honked at from behind on Chemeketa and in one case a motorist revved his engine up right behind me then past me very quickly as well as closely to get the point across. Most drivers are fine and several are just plain confused with the whole sharrow thing - it's the agressive folks I don't want to deal with and a cute painted symbol on the ground is not protective. It just took a couple of instances of that to say forget it - I'll use various bike lanes to get where I need to go. I am happy to see that we will have bike lanes on High Street and Church. At least that's something. It would be fantastic to see protected bike lanes where at least the bike lane was against the curb with the car parking spaces acting as a buffer from the car traffic but bike lanes as they are is at least something. What would be nice to see are bike lanes then on Union.

Anonymous said...

To the previous poster - There will be bike lanes on Union. The first step is a signal at Commercial @ Union (see below). That will be followed by buffered bike lanes on Union Street

From City of Salem Major Projects page:

The Union Street NE/Commercial Street NE Intersection project will install a traffic signal at the intersection of Union Street NE and Commercial Street NE to allow for better pedestrian and bicycle access connecting Downtown with the West Salem and North Salem areas. The project will add a turn lane on eastbound Union Street west of Commercial with a pedestrian safety island.

The project is currently in the design phase with construction anticipated in 2016. The project is expected to be complete by October 2016.

Project is funded by $1,133,000 Federal Funds and Salem Urban Renewal Agency Funds.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

There is actually some question about this and the City has suggested that sharrows only are going on Union Street for the moment. At DAB a month or so ago, a concept drawing was circulated that didn't show accurately what was going to be constructed and instead showed a future and overoptimistic possibility. The City is has not communicated actual plans very effectively on this project.

Here's the latest from the City:

"the improvements that will be installed at this location in 2017 include the signal; a median island on the west side of the intersection that will include video detection for bicycles and possibly an induction loop; sharrows for the bicycle lane along Union Street (without parking modifications at this time); curb extensions on the east side to improve pedestrian access; and street widening on the west side to allow a right turn lane and bicycle lane at that location on Union Street NE."


"Ultimately there will be buffered bicycle lanes on both streets, but this will occur within the long-term window identified in the Study, that is within 25 years of the adoption of the plan."

But note that the buffered bike lanes are at the moment in some hypothetical, distant future!

So advocates are right not to rest content with the existing plans for Union Street, even to be skeptical, to call for more robust facilities there, and to call for implementation to be sped up.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the sharrows trend continues in Salem. I understand why they were initially put in but not all bike infrastructure that is created ends up being the best option. My issue with it is that it gives city planners a false sense of success without looking closely to see what type of bike user is really willing to use sharrows. It just doesn't serve the population that we need to attract in order to increase bicycle use in Salem.