Many in the active transportation advocacy world have waited with anticipation for the release of the 2015 MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Planning & Design Guide.
It was published last week and I think is much of what people hoped it would be.
Inside there is a lot of good design and perhaps best of all not a lot of objectionable design. So, no having to explain to an engineer who never rides a bike why door zone bike lanes aren’t usually such a good idea, especially in places with winter. And speaking of winter, the Winter Cycling Congress 2016 is in Minneapolis in 2016.
Alex Cecchini made a great point that like us Boston gets a fair bit of snow that they must deal with and design for. He also mentioned how fortunate we are that MassDOT are leading the way on bringing some of these designs, that have been common in Europe for decades, to the U.S. Indeed!
Recently talking about the Minnesota Statewide Bicycle Plan I wrote about how critical the 2016 update to the MnDOT Bicycle Design Guide (PDF) will be. This document from MassDOT will provide a good foundation and hopefully next year we can look with pride on what MnDOT are doing in advancing bicycling in Minnesota and the U.S.
Two Key Omissions
Before getting to the good stuff I’m going to touch on two important omissions that I noted in my first cursory read through.
Bollards. The first is that in the buffer zone between bicycles and motor traffic the guide largely gives bollards and solid barriers equal footing. There is no mention that bollards do not prevent road debris, salt, sand, and snow/slush/rain wakes from passing cars from entering the bikeway nor that while a solid barrier will usually prevent a car that is sliding on ice or snow from sliding in to a bikeway users, most bollards will not. Bollards are better than paint alone but something a bit more solid is much better.
Design Speed. The second omission is the most critical. There is nothing regarding design speed . Bikeways should be designed to allow safe and efficient speeds for all bicycle riders of all abilities and should provide all of these people access to all destinations. In higher traffic built-up areas this should be 13-15 mph and otherwise 20 mph or more. This is as important for bikeways as for roadways. This is important for slower riders as well as faster since designing for 15 mph creates a much better environment for someone riding 9 mph.
Not designing properly for speed results in two separate systems for bicycle riders with some people using poorly designed low speed bikeways and others riding in the road blocking vehicle traffic. This is dangerous and leads to confusion for motorists. I am strongly opposed to laws requiring bicycle riders to use bikeways. We should though design our bikeways good enough that people choose to use them without regulatory requirements.
Bikeways in The Netherlands function well and safely for all users from the slowest to the fastest. Ours should too.
Neither of these invalidate this guide, however engineers should be aware of these and design accordingly.
The Good Stuff
Now, some quick highlights (in no particular order) of the good stuff that even on a cursory read is a long list.
Continuity Across Drives. The guide discusses the importance of making the presence of bikeways obvious and making them smoother and safer to ride on by continuing the bikeway material, color, and grade across residential and commercial driveways and minor streets.
Example Photos. This seems minor but is quite important as photos can establish the frame of mind for the design engineers. This guide has done a better job than most U.S. guides with example photos that mostly show well designed facilities with normal people wearing normal clothes using them.
Protected Junctions. Junctions are critical to actual safety and to how safe we feel and how desirable it is to ride a bicycle. I’ll leave more detailed discussion of this for later but the good news is that they’ve included what appears to be a relatively well designed junction.
Mixing Zones. I really dislike mixing zones. They are probably the number one thing I dislike about riding in Copenhagen and possibly the key reason that Copenhagen is such a distant second to The Netherlands for bicycling modal share. Besides being actually dangerous they feel dangerous and make bicycling uncomfortable and unpleasant. In this guide Toole have provided what is about as good a design as I can imagine with features such as clear right-of-way (sharks teeth). I would like to have seen a much stronger warning that these are a design of last resort.
Mountable Truck Aprons. These provide a good solution to our need for tighter radiuses to slow vehicle traffic while still allowing large semi trucks. I would much prefer that we do a better job of limiting where large trucks can go but that’s a much tougher nut.
Floating Bus Stops. In my experience in both bicycling and using buses in places like with high rates of bicycling this is the best design for all users.
Sharks Teeth / Yield. These are critical in reducing ambiguity about who has right-of-way at non signalized junctions and make these junctions much safer and efficient (though MassDOT did seem to have left them out of some important places in junction designs and elsewhere).
Details are critical. Very small design and maintenance elements can make the difference in a street being safe and appealing for bicycling or not. Details can make the difference in one person choosing to ride or 100 choosing to do so. Even in The Netherlands it can be a very thin line which is why they pay so much attention to the details and to what makes bicycling appealing.
This new guide from MassDOT is a welcomed addition to the U.S. engineering realm. It is important though to keep in mind that it is a small subset of what is covered in the CROW Design Manual For Bicycle Traffic that has proven itself the gold standard in both safety and modal share attainment. Traffic engineers in The Netherlands are quick to point out that good design extends well beyond what is covered even in CROW and that ‘meets minimum standards’ is rarely good enough.
This guide from MassDOT is far from perfect but is a great step forward and portends good things for our future. Congratulations to MassDOT and Toole Design Group.