Tag Archives: transit

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter – 2

One great resource for bicycle reading is Urban Velo magazine out of Pittsburgh. In the great tradition of mags like Tape-Op and Beer Advocate, it is a sharp focus mag with a strong identity and strong opinions. In this case Urban Velo has a fixed-gear focus with a strong undercurrent of Bike Friendly and Bike Awesome development. Check them out, and if you like them get a subscription and support them.

Been There, Haven’t Done That

As much as I like what I see in places where bikes have a place in every day life, it is not lost on me that for every Portland, OR story or Manhattan High Line, there is China. China was bike-dominated until as recently as 15 years ago, and has since given over to the automobile in a huge way. I believe that is an indicator that much of this urge to return to bike-friendly fantasy land could be seen as a First World thing, a luxury item where it is easy to want it when you don’t feel you need it. But the difference, as I see it is about where on the development continuum you are. China is a rapidly growing economy with a huge demand for western conveniences. In time they will want to be less dependent on fossil fuels and want a return to bicycle-scale transport. What “First Worlders” have in spades is the opportunity to become more flexible and less dependent. Bike lanes in places like the US could be like Social Yoga, bringing flexability back to a too-rigid frame.

Aggro Culture

In my small part of the world the bike world is dominated by “racer types”. They are nice folks and all. You know, some of my best friends wear spandex bibs! There is a kind of split in the bicycle world between “racer types” and pretty much everyone else. Everyone else rides for fitness or for enjoyment. Racer types ride in more of a competition mindset, and they typically ride faster (less differential between their speed and the speed of a car). Far from being the spandex mafia (though they are) the racer type is a good fit when you lack bike infrastructure. That physical and mental profile can get you comfortable with sharing roads that lack even the most basic bike facilities, like a shoulder with painted line. In areas with real bicycle infrastructure the rider is able to ride in a more relaxed fashion, in normal clothes, at a more moderate pace. The bicyclists we see in Amsterdam, or Copenhagen, or Montreal for that matter, don’t have to duke it out with inattentive drivers on their commute. The “barrier to entry” is much lower, and in the best cases the barrier is actually higher for automobiles. As opposed to some cases where there is a “chicken or egg” paradox, in transit there is no paradox. The transit follows the path of least resistance. The best infrastructure provides the least resistance. If we had throngs of square-peg dorks on Dutch Bikes clogging up secondary roads it would be obvious, but in the case of suburban New England, the bikes are the effect, not the cause.

Back to the Future

To tie back in with the previous post: In central Connecticut, I think that the pessimism over Fastrak is based on lack of experience with successful transit projects. We have a popular rail-to-trail system that recreational bicyclists love, but it does not act as a commuter route for most users. That is recreation infrastructure (linear park) but it is a bad example for a commuter solution. The target for Fastrak is getting people into Hartford for work or entertainment, and then home safely. As the Capitol of Connecticut, and one of the most commuter-intensive cities I have ever been around, there is hope that demand for a better/cheaper solution to local transportation should be a winner. The on-the-books population of Hartford is roughly 125,000, but the “daytime” work week population gain is anywhere from 70,000 and up depending on your data source. A city that bloats from 125,000 to 200,000 in the morning and then deflates by 6pm. That is a commuter rich environment, and an option poor environment.

One of the weirdest arguments is that nobody will use infrastructure. Every example seems to point in the opposite direction. We have Metro North rail system linking the shoreline from New Haven to NYC and beyond. It is positively clogged with riders, and any increase in capacity is filled in short order. We have rail-to-trail and greenway projects that are again, filled to the brim with walkers, bikers, strollers, birders, and if you want to observe the Yeti-like rollerblade, that’s where you go. The same for State Park infrastructure, rivers with fishing and swimming, and boating opportunities, and infrastructure of their own. So we can assume that if you build it, people use it. Just as in those scenarios we can facilitate that use, just as we have done by connecting hundreds of thousands of rural residents to highways and malls with vast networks of solid two-lane. Nobody is asking for infrastructure at that level, but the scale shows how resources are allocated to support a single mode of transportation.

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Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter

The winter of 2012 was a wonderful aberration. In most of New England it was the “winter without a winter”. While some people remember the lack of skiing, skating, ice fishing, or snow plowing, my memories involve bicycles. Not the lack of bicycles, but the amazing gift of a winter bicycling season. Unseasonably warm temps meant that I was taking rides around town in January, and not covering every inch of exposed skin against frostbite-inducing winds.

This winter, not so much. It has been business as usual with heavy snows, cold arctic-born winds, and our favorite form of frosty excitement: Wintry Mix! If it is, say, 37F and raining, and maybe some ice, sleet, snow, or other unknown matter is along for the ride, you’ve got Wintry Mix. Actually it is formal slang for “crappiest of winter weather” and can mean anything from a foot of ice nuggets to rain showers onto frozen ground at 19F… black ice machine weather. As a result there has been less time for riding and more time for thinking about riding.

Bike Curious

On top of that I have been following the progress of CT Fastrak, the project previously known as the New Britain Busway. It has many of the markings of a successful transit diversification project. As a pure transit service concept, this particular project is a loser. It provides one mode, rubber-tire buses on a closed roadway, in an effort to provide a service that nobody asked for. At least not that we know of. I have been around Connecticut long enough, and New Britain specifically, to know that it is possible that *many* people in New Britain are big fans but don’t have a voice or don’t feel comfortable in the current discussion.

There is a silver lining for some of us, tarnished as it may be: the southern half of the Fastrak project includes a 5 mile bike/pedestrian path. That solves a problem for me by eliminating one of the worst sections of my bike-to-work route. As usual, it creates another problem by dumping me in a residential area with zero bike infrastructure. That is where I would have been anyhow, but the idea is that the bike route ends near absolutely nothing. If there is nothing but the chance to ride on the shoulder of the road and battle it out with the texting and driving crowd, it can very easily turn into a kevorkian-esque piece of social machinery.

One thing I would like to find is a commitment to development that leverages the Fastrak project. If you are a struggling city you could do worse than have your own transit corridor to jobs and commerce. Location of residential or commercial development with good access to the Fastrak system would seem to be a given. To me, that is the identifying trait of successful transit development. The city needs to buy in for it to be a success. This could mean residential development in the South End or on the East Side, with solid tie-in to Fastrak.

I need to see more about mayor Tim O’Brien’s planning vision before resolving that question. I think he is doing a solid job as mayor, so maybe I need to look harder. In fact, I will. To hear the anti-busway voices, providing transit from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. And of course, if that drives the dialogue, they could be right.

Bike Friendly

I recently had the very good fortune to attend a few events where the new direction of the Connecticut DOT has been touted, and even illustrated. The Bike Walk Connecticut membership dinner was a last minute thing, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Bike geek stuff is usually a hit with me. On top of that I was able to see Dan Esty, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP, where I am employed), speak on the topic of transit infrastructure and how great bicycles are! I have seen the same thing as part of my job, but seeing it “in the wild” was good for some perspective. Dan Esty was an infotational and positive as always. That is a compliment.

As well, there is a 600lb gorilla in most of the high-level communication about bike transit. I appreciate the enthusiasm, no doubt, but most of these presentations miss the fact that those bicycles are ridden on roads with zero bike-safety structure. You might get some painted lines, maybe even a “sharrow” or two. Might. probably not.

Bike Agnostic

Being bike-friendly at the destination is about showers and bike storage. We have had that at DEEP headquarters for a while now thanks to a few people who saw opportunity and bingo! Bike Racks! I had the good fortune to attend an awards event where a Deputy Connecticut DOT Commissioner awarded a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Business award to DEEP because of the agency’s bike-friendly policies and basic infrastructure (Bike Racks!). The DOT showed up with a great slide show on the bicycle infrastructure improvements in Connecticut. I am looking for a link to that content. It is a good example of how priorities at the top effect the actions of the agency.

One of the projects he brought up was Fastrak. I took the opportunity to ask, after the meeting broke up, “why didn’t we get the last 5 miles of bike trail on Fastrak?” Apparently the right of way was too narrow to accommodate more bike lane. I nodded and all, but I have a hard time believing it. I believe the answer, but I wonder what the prospect for the entire project is with the half measures and lack of continuity. As another attendee said “If they needed the space for cars, they would get it”.

I am happy to have a 5 mile section of bike path, so it is a net positive for me [less likely to be run down by a driver hitting 65mph on Cedar Street]. But, it would be many times more useful if Fastrak extended into Hartford. The right of way issues should be a spur in the replacement infrastructure department, but it seems to be off the radar. The challenge now will be to upgrade the roadways that extend from the ends of the bike path, giving them wider shoulders and better sightlines, and allowing more of the surrounding population to reach the trail by bike, and end up in bikeable distance to their destination. That is how you link a community to a job source, and consumers to stores, without tying them to the car as a solution..

New Britain-Hartford Busway pt2

 

[this was composed in October 2011, and I pulled it out of the “draft” folder to kick off what I hope will be a short run of similar posts]

A 300-foot wide mountain range in Connecticut

There is a huge physical and social divide that runs through Hartford’s southwest and continues through to New Haven.  It may as well be a mountain range, or a continental-scale river.  It is a railway thoughfare.  Parts of it are home to an infrequent Amtrak run, and parts of it are completely unused. One thing that becomes obvious upon even a casual browse of the area with a tool like Google Earth is that there are very few road crossings.  Maybe that is normal… bridging a railbed costs money.  But take to the streets, preferably on foot or by bicycle, and you find another layer to the problem.  Most of the cross streets are designed to move only cars.  Cedar Street, between New Britain and  Newington, is a deathwish trip for the cyclist or pedestrian.  large stretches of it have no sidewalks, and the shoulder lines are painted right against the curbing.  What should be a conduit for all types of transit was built to serve only one: the automobile.  New Britain Ave (174), same deal…  South Street in Berlin, same deal…

Other unused railways in the region, not the least of which is the Farmington Canal Line, have been retooled as greenways, providing a route for non-motorized transit.  The railway right-of-way that is in play for the New Britain – Hartford busway could easily be a candidate for the same treatment.  It could actually be argued that suburban greenways are redundant, and urban and fringe-urban areas benefit more from these transit projects.  But that is moot since the current plan is to put a rubber tire busway on the railbed and prevent non-motorized transit from accessing it.

My perspective on this situation was heightened when I sketched out a bike-to-work route through New Britain, through Newington, and into Hartford.  The streets are very familiar to me, but not linked into a contiguous bike route.  The ride into New Britain was a doddle… pretty much a short leg of my usual recreational bike loop.  Crossing east through New Britain on Monroe and Ellis Streets was equally a piece of cake.  Watch out for sleepy car commuters backing out of driveways, no problemo.  Now bang a left onto East Street… as a former resident of the Arch/Monroe area this was not foreign territory, but it was not exactly bike-friendly.  Basically a “take the lane and be seen” stretch of road.  Not dicey, but not relaxing by any means.  Crossing in back of my old alma-mater CCSU is equally not anything new, but there is less shoulder and more traffic with each passing mile.  Cedar Street is where the fun starts… Now, I could have crossed into Newington on South Street or Newington/New Britain Ave (174), which aren’t any easier.  They also put me in the feeder streets for the Berlin Turnpike, so more traffic and still no bike lanes.

What I found was a host of bad choices, each of which led to a different kind of not-so-great scenario.  I took the direttissima and dealt with running the gauntlet on Cedar Street.  At 6:30am in the summer it is not so bad… good weather, high viz clothing and a blinky light help with being seen.  But still, Cedar street exists to allow the maximum number of automobiles to cross the railway at very high average speeds.  Eastbound is relatively easy compared with the nonstop retail/convenience traffic on the westbound side.

Speaking of Google Earth, you can draw some very interesting casual conclusions about the railway from some high-res sat images.  You see a mix of residential and light industrial development.  The railway forms a “backyard” for both types of development.  In this case NIMBY really means MBY…

New Britain-Hartford Busway pt1

Dumb All Over

The Connecticut DOT has been planning a busway from New Britain to Hartford, and is supposedly in the “home stretch”.  In ConnDOT-terms that means that sometime in the next decade you might move from hearings to the bid process.  Glacial Progress is the order of the day. It would seem that taking an underused railway bed and returning it use as an active transportation corridor would be a win-win project.  Look around the region, if not the world, and you see evidence that transit projects create economic hubs, jobs, and opportunities.  The T System in Boston, MA is a major economic corridor.  Home prices near T-Stops are higher than those elsewhere.  Retail and service business can leverage transit traffic for everything from convenience stores, gallery malls, and even the ubiquitous taxi services.

As simple as it would seem to explain the benefits of transit infrastructure investment to the communities that would be hosting that investment, this busway is becoming a layer-cake of what is wrong with transit planning in America:

  • Planning by an agency that is hostile to mass transit
  • Opposition by politicians who are hostile to intelligent discussion
  • Lack of Vision by citizens who can’t leverage an opportunity
  • Resistance by communities who fear change

That’s not a complete list, but you get the picture.  This busway project is not dependent on some kind of Jetsons-like unproven technology.  The technology is off-the-shelf old-school stuff.  The money is available through a routine bonding process.  The roadblocks to this busway will not be technological or financial, they will be social.  The host communities have been built “facing away” from the railway corridor (the busway uses an existing railway… more on that in pt2), in both the physical and societal sense, and those communities are now being asked to accept a new use of that space.  Residential and commercial development has occurred, centered on the automobile and the roads that accommodate the automobile, at the same time that rail use on the railway has declined.  This creates a form of NIMBY in the host communities, instead of a PIMBY (Please, In My Back Yard) reaction that could have resulted from a positive approach to leveraging infrastructure investment.

The DOT has taken their typical “lowest common denominator” knuckledragger approach to solve a problem with the only hammer they have ever known: rubber tires on blacktop.  Conventional buses on a closed roadway is about the least effective form of mass transit possible, and (in my opinion) the least best use for this transit corridor.  The DOT is doing nothing less than replacing one single-mode system (cars on surface streets) with another single-mode system.  The busway plan has no bike lanes, no pedestrian facilities, and no set-aside for future expansion/retooling to light rail.  You could possibly see a move to a “guided busway” in the distant future, which is akin to lipstick on a pig.

Next Up: a 300 foot wide mountain range in Connecticut