Longfellow Bike Count

One of the issues I’ve touched on in the Longfellow Bridge series is the fact that there as no bicycle count done at peak use times—inbound in the morning. The state’s report from 2011 (PDF) counted bicyclists in the evening, and shows only about 100 cyclists crossing the bridge in two hours. Anecdotally, I know it’s way more than that. At peak times, when 10 to 20 cyclists jam up the bike lane at each light cycle, it means that 250 to 500 or more cyclists are crossing the bridge each hour. So these numbers, and bridge plans based on them, make me angry.

But instead of getting mad, I got even. I did my own guerrilla traffic count. On Wednesday morning, when it was about 60 degrees and sunny, I went out with a computer, six hours of battery life and an Excel spreadsheet and started entering data. For every vehicle or person—bike, train, pedestrian and car—I typed a key, created a timestamp, and got 2250 data points from 7:20 to 9:20 a.m. Why 7:20 to 9:20? Because I got there at 7:20 and wanted two hours of data. Pay me to do this and you’ll get less arbitrary times.

But I think it’s good data! First of all, the bikes. In two hours of counting, I counted 463 bicyclists crossing the Longfellow Bridge. That’s right, counting just inbound bicyclists, I saw more cyclists cross the Longfellow in one direction than any MassDOT survey saw in both directions. The peak single hour for cyclists was from 8:12 to 9:12, during which time 267 cyclists crossed the bridge—an average of one every 13.4 seconds. So, yes, cyclists have been undercounted in official counts.

Are we Market Street in San Francisco? Not yet. Of course, Market Street—also with transit in the center—is closed to cars. [Edit: Market Street is partially closed to private vehicles, with plans being discussed for further closures.] And at the bottom of a hill, it’s a catchment zone for pretty much everyone coming out of the heights. They measured 1000 bikes in an hour (with a digital sensor, wow!), but that was on Bike to Work Day; recent data show somewhat fewer cyclists (but still a lot).

I also counted vehicles (1555 over two hours; 700 to 800 per hour, including three State Troopers and one VW with ribbons attached that passed by twice), inbound pedestrians (about 100, evenly split between joggers and walkers, although there were more joggers early on; I guess people had to get home, shower and go to work) and even inbound Red Line trains (30, with an average headway of 4:10 and a standard deviation of 1:50). I didn’t count outbound pedestrians, or the exact number of people I saw stopping to take pictures (at least three on my little nook of the bridge).

But did you come here for boring paragraphs? No, you came for charts! Yay charts! (Also, yay blogging at 11:20 p.m. when I should be fast asleep. Click to enlarge.)

First, bikes. Cyclists crossing the bridge started out somewhat slow—the moving average for the first 20 minutes was only one or two per minute. But the number of cyclists peaks around 8:40—people going in to the city for a 9:00 start—before tapering off after 9. I’ve written before about seeing up to 18 people in line at Charles Circle which is backed up by these data; the highest single minute saw 11 cyclists, and there were four consecutive minutes during which 36 bikes passed. At nearly 6 bikes per minute for the highest half hour, it equates to nearly 360 bikes per hour—or 10 per 100 second light cycle. Too bad we’re all squeezed in to that one little lane. (Oh, here’s a proposal to fix that.) If anything, these numbers might be low—the roads were still damp from the overnight rain early this morning.

What was interesting is how few Hubway bikes made it across the bridge—only 25, or about 6% of the total. With stations in Cambridge and Somerville, it seems like there is a large untapped market for Hubway commuters to come across the bridge. There are certainly enough bikes in Kendall for a small army to take in to town.

Next, cars. The official Longfellow traffic counts show about 700 cars per hour, which is right about what my data show. What’s interesting is that there are two peaks. One is right around 8:00, and a second is between 8:30 and 9:00. I wonder if this would smooth out over time, or if there is a pronounced difference in the vehicular use of the bridge during these times. In any case, 700 vehicles per minute is not enough that it would fill two lanes even to the top of the bridge, so the second lane—at this time of day, anyway—is not necessary on the Cambridge side.

I also tracked foot traffic. I did my best to discern joggers and runners from commuters. Joggers started out strong early, but dwindled in number, while commuters—in ties and with backpacks and briefcases—came by about once every minute. I was only counting inbound pedestrians, and there were assuredly more going out to Kendall. Additionally, I was on the subpar, very-narrow sidewalked side; the downstream sidewalk is twice the width (although both will be widened as part of the bridge reconstruction).

And I counted when the trains came by. In the time that 2500 bikes, pedestrians and cars crossed the bridge, 30 trains also did. Of course, these were each carrying 500 to 1200 people, so they probably accounted for 25,000 people across the bridge, ten times what the rest of the bridge carried. Efficiency! The train times are interesting. The average headway is 4:10, with a standard deviation of 1:58. However, about half of the headways are clustered between 2 and 3 minutes. That’s good! The problem is that the rest are spread out, anywhere from 3:30 to 8:30! Sixteen trains came between 7:20 and 8:20, but only 14 during the busier 8:20 to 9:20 timeframe. I wonder if this is due to crowding, or just due to poor dispatch—or a combination of both.

In any case, what Red Line commuter hasn’t inexplicably sat on a stationary train climbing the Longfellow out of Kendall? Well, after watching for two hours, I have an answer for why this happens!  It is—uh—I was lying. I have no idea. But I say no fewer than a half dozen trains sit at that signal—and not only when there was a train just ahead—for a few seconds or even a couple infuriating minutes. I was glad I wasn’t aboard.

Finally, we can compare the number of bikes as a percentage of the number of cars crossing the bridge each minute. Overall, there were 30% as many bikes as cars. But seven minutes out of the two hours, there were more bikes across the bridge than vehicles. Cars—due to the traffic lights—tend to come in waves, so there’s more volatility. Although bikes travel in packs, too. Anyway, this doesn’t tell us much, it’s just a bunch of lines. But it’s fun.

Midnight Marathon Tips

Recently we’ve been on about the Midnight Marathon, when 700+ cyclists take a train to the Boston Marathon start line and, at midnight, bike back. Well, the race sold out, we posted some suggestions (*) on how to participate if you didn’t snag a ticket (we did). Today the Boston SOS asked for suggestions on their website. As a bike commuter, professional evangelizer and possible blowhard, here are some suggestions to having a safe, fun ride:

  • Choose a comfortable bike right for the conditions. I, for instance, have three bikes to choose from:
    •  I could take my road bike. The pros: it’s fast and rides dreamily. The cons: do I want to have my carbon bike jostled amongst other bikes on the train, if the road is wet it won’t be that great a ride, it doesn’t have a fender, and I’d have to wear by not-walky bike shoes. Also, if I want to carry a bag (with layers and street shoes, perhaps) it’s less conducive to a comfortable riding position.
    • I could ride my mountain/commuter bike. The pros: it’s reasonably road-worthy. There’s less of a chance of flatting out compared with the road bike. I can walk in the cleats, and it’s a little more comfortable from a bag position. Oh, and it has a fender if it’s wet. The cons: it’s certainly not up to roadie speed, but it’s also no slouch. So I might not be taking pulls, but I can probably do some drafting. Plus, I got the brakes repaired last spring. The granny gear is a little sticky to get in and out of, but I doubt I’ll need it on the mostly-downhill route. I’ll probably go this direction, unless I really want to go fast. But in the dark, speed is not necessarily your friend.
    • I could ride a Hubway. The pros: pretty comfy for short rides, and it has a basket. The cons: It’s heavy as sin. And slow—good luck breaking 20 mph except on the longest downhill. It’s a bear to get on to the train. And at the end of the ride, I’d have to bike it back to Central and then walk home at 2:00. Oh, wait, I’d be on a Hubway. 3:00. Plus, if they don’t waive fees (they probably will) it’s a pricey ride.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, bring layers, and if it might rain, bring something rainworthy. Last year, we stood in the rain for an hour while everyone detrained, and then the first uphill to Hopkinton was pretty wet. It wasn’t cold—the next day would be scorching hot, remember—but with wind and rain it was not a good time to be in jeans. This year looks dry and seasonably cool, with temperatures during the ride in the upper 30s and light winds. Certainly bring and wear gloves. And remember that at 20 mph there’s a bit of a wind chill. Brr!
  • Bring some flat-fixin’ stuff. Other people will have it, sure. And bicyclists love each other. (Last week, after I blew out a tire in Arlington, a passerby brought me a new tube and floor pump. Hooray!) But still. Bring a patch kit, and maybe even a spare tube. If you can’t use it, someone else can.
  • Bring lights. You know what, bold isn’t enough here. BRING LIGHTS. And while we are at it, WEAR A HELMET. First, lights. State law stipulates a front headlight and a rear reflector or light. Bring a rear light. Or two. The more light, the merrier. Sure, everyone else will have lights. But there are cars along the route. And you want them to see you. Plus, everyone else has lights which is really cool:

    While we’re at it, helmets. For god’s sake, wear a helmet. I do not need to explain this.
  • Obey the laws. The lights are a law. Staying in the right lane is a law. Not running red lights is a law. While you might skip the letter of the law, at least comply with the idea of the law. Don’t get hurt, and don’t unnecessarily piss off motorists (not that you’ll see many). And don’t bike down 135 at 40 mph in the left lane. The roads are open to traffic. There’s just not much of it.
  • Don’t get your ass kicked by the police. Okay, that was a Chris Rock reference; more to the point: if the cops show up, do what they say. Last year, a couple of Southborough cops showed up at Southborough, and then left when they saw there wasn’t much fuss. But last year pretty much no one knew what was going on except those of us on the train. This year, we’ve been all over the Globe and social media, so there might be cops out patrolling in various towns along the route. They’re there for our safety. Be nice to them.
  • Know the route. The route is well-marked and pretty intuitive. Basically, follow the port-a-johns. A quick primer for the route:
    • Start on Route 135. It’s downhill at the start. A lot.
    • There is a traffic light in Ashland on a downhill. You might be going 40, so you might have to brake. A lot.
    • There are DIAGONAL RAILROAD TRACKS on both sides of Framingham. Last year it was wet and there were lots of crashes and some injuries here. Even if it’s dry, slow down and turn to cross them perpendicular. And let others know about it, too.
    • 135 merges with 16 in Wellesley, but there’s no real turn.
    • You’ll begin to see some more traffic around Route 128.
    • About a mile after 128—half a mile past the Woodland T stop and Newton Wellesley—the course turns up Commonwealth Avenue at mile 17.4. These are the Newton Hills. There’s a firehouse on your right. (I grew up a block from here, too.) Take a right on to Commonwealth. If you get to West Newton and the Mass Pike entrance, you’ve gone (a mile) too far.
    • There are three major hills in Newton. The first climbs about 100 feet over half a mile, and there is then a gradual descent to Walnut Street (City Hall). For there, it’s another 100 feet up Heartbreak Hill, followed by a flat section across Centre Street. Then it’s another 100 feet up to Hammond Street, followed by a screaming descent through BC.
    • Once you cross in to Boston, traffic will pick up. The streetcar tracks are in the median to your left.
    • At about mile 22, you take a right on to Chestnut Hill Avenue and a left on to Beacon Street. A few very important notes:
      • Chestnut Hill Avenue has embedded streetcar tracks. Stay in the right lane to avoid these. There shouldn’t be much traffic, but this is not a place to speed up. I can tell you from experience that if you put your wheel in the track you will go down. The one time I did that I somehow flipped over the bike, unclipped and somehow landed on my feet, but I wouldn’t want to try that again.
      • At the bottom of the hill in Cleveland Circle, you take a left on to Beacon. There’s a pretty elaborate light, and you’ll be taking a left on to the inbound lanes to the right of the streetcar tracks in the median.
      • Speaking of which, holy streetcar tracks, batman. There are lots of tracks in Cleveland Circle. Slow the fuck down and don’t die, okay?
    • Beacon Street is nicely paved and has a bike lane. And some traffic. Watch the downhill in to the light at Washington Square.
    • After Kenmore Square, the marathon route crosses under Mass Ave. At the Bowker Overpass (Charlesgate) get over to the left (there’s a left-hand bike lane) to go through the underpass.
    • The marathon route then takes a right on to Hereford. This street is one way in the opposite direction. It’s only two blocks, and it’s not well-traveled at this time of night. Plus it may already be closed to traffic and certainly won’t have any parked cars. Still, go slowly and watch for oncoming traffic. Or go another block to Gloucester (not quite the official course).
    • Take a left on Boylston. And sprint to the finish!
  • Hang out at the end, especially if you are an early finisher. The marathon folks had no issue with us hanging around in their finish pens last year; how nice of them! Cheer on your compadres as they come down Boylston. Make some friends, and see if there’s anyone going home in your direction (or to an all-night eatery; stupid Boston won’t let us drink after 2 a.m.). Then, once you’re ready, head home. With 1000 cyclists (or so), for the first few miles, you might have some company.
It should be fun!
(*) According to the Midnight Marathon FAQ, bikes won’t be allowed on other trains. However, according to MBTA policies, they are. If you are taking another train (9:20 to Franklin, 8:30 to Framingham) consider printing out or having on your phone the MBTA bike policies, and be firm but polite with both MBCR staff and non-biking customers. Kindness goes a long way. And if they don’t let you on and you’re still keen to ride, you can probably bike to the start by the time the train loads, travels, unloads and then we all make our way to the start.