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.

Site/app idea: Citizen Summons

I just almost got killed by taxicab. Again.

This is an exaggeration (I was able to brake in plenty of time after the cab cut in front of me, and then called me and the female coworker I was biking with faggots, because yeah that makes sense), but not much of one. I’ve found that taxicabs in Boston are frequently the ones hurling invective at cyclists, blocking bike lanes, dooring cyclists (oh, no, wait, the City found that), failing to yield to pedestrians, driving with their lights off at night, and generally driving in ways that endanger the public, and especially vulnerable road users.

And while every car has a license plate, cabs are particularly well-adorned with identifying markings: they have the medallion number on the front and rear, and frequently on top of the cab, and their license plate also frequently matches the medallion. In addition, taxicabs have (or at least should have) more scrutiny regarding their driving habits, as they are on the road constantly, and have more of an opportunity to be the cause of accidents (or conversely, by driving well, part of the solution). Driving a taxicab is certainly a difficult and low-paying job, but that is no reason that taxicab drivers should not be safe and courteous. With thousands of taxicabs hurtling around the area, there are certainly dozens of near-misses a day, where dangerous, reckless and even malicious behavior by a taxicab driver results in a situation where a vulnerable user is put at risk. Yet there seems to be no easy way to report these behaviors, and therefore there is little accountability.

In other words, there is certainly not an app for that.


So here’s the idea: a website and app that would allow for the collection of data by bicyclists, pedestrians and other standers-by about the driving behavior of taxicabs. This would include a variety of features and the data could be used in several ways:

  • The data from this could be used to match poor behavior to certain cabs or operating companies, as well as to find particularly problematic locations. 
  • The program could easily send reports to the various taxi licensing agencies in local cities and towns, and to the appropriate police contacts. 
  • It would allow citizens—the ones who are almost bumped when cabs pull in to crosswalks at red lights, or the ones who see cabs lined up neatly in bike lanes awaiting fares or nearly mow down pedestrians because they can’t be bothered to turn their lights on at night—to easily send a report to the right authorities. 
  • It would allow anyone interested to view reports and find dangerous areas or medallions with particularly abhorrent safety records. 
  • It could be scaled in to a full-scale reporting system based on license plates, and focused on dangerous urban driving habits. It’s one thing to yell at the guy who honks at you and then cuts you off. It’s another to publicly shame him.

Cabs in particular seem to operate with some amount of impunity from police enforcement, but that’s no reason we shouldn’t try to gather data and hold them accountable. Plus, such a site could also allow bicyclists, pedestrians and even cab passengers to laud good driving in cabs which were courteous to bicyclists and yielded right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks. If nothing else, we—people who walk and bike—account for much of their customer base. We should demand accountability.

If anyone is interested in helping set this up, let me know. I’ve created some simple user-generated content sites (this and this), but this might be a bit beyond my technical expertise.

“No Headphones While Driving” goes for bikes, but moreso

Driving around Massachusetts today, I noticed some of the variable message boards—you know, the ones which usually flash YOU BOOZE, YOU CRUISE, YOU LOSE and infrequently tell you about traffic conditions were proffering a message near and dear to my heart.


This is important. Just because we’ve said that hands-free driving is okay (Is it as safe as undistracted driving? probably not, but a conversation can be a good way to stay awake and alert, I’ve found.) doesn’t mean that you can rock out to your tunes on your headphones. That’s a primary offense and can get you a citation. And, jesus, people, haven’t you ever heard of a stereo? Or are your earbuds that good?

But here’s my message to whoever will listen (we’ll file these under Ari’s Friendly-if-Somewhat-Passive-Aggressive Helpful Hints to Cyclists, along with “For fuck’s sake, wear a helmet!” and “You’re riding the wrong way down JFK Street in Harvard Square in rush hour? Seriously?”): Wearing headphones on a bike is ridiculously dumb, and it’s against the law, too. When you’re in a car, what you’re listening for are sirens, car horns and, well that’s about it, everything else gets drowned out by car noise.

When you’re on a bike, you have a lot more potential to use audio cues. I’ve found that I actually can get more information as to the presence of vehicles by listening than a quick glance over my shoulder. I’ve heard other cyclists overtaking me (this happens more often on Hubway bikes than it does on real wheels), I’ve heard cars starting, I’ve heard any number of cues which affected how I cycled. And if I’d had earphones in, I would have heard none of it.

Yet so often I see people riding with earphones in. I sort-of-kind-of understand this in two situations. First, if you are a professional cyclists and your coach is telling you things in a race. Still, you don’t have two. Second, and this is the sort-of-kind-of, if you’re on a segregated bicycle facility (bike path) and there aren’t many other users and you’re going faster than them. But if that’s the case, just deal with listening to nature for a few minutes.

And a quick note: if you’re riding a fixed gear bike with no brakes, at night, not wearing a helmet, wearing earbuds without anything reflective and with no lights, only about half the things (brakes, lights, reflective) are illegal. But THEY’RE ALL STUPID. Colin Reuter made some similar points a few years back, so go read that.