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Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Bicycling


There's bikeshare in College Park now, but it isn't Capital Bikeshare. Here's why.

College Park just debuted its own bike share system, called mBike instead of Capital Bikeshare (CaBi). Some say not going with CaBi was a mistake, but it looks like College Park made a rational decision.


One of College Park's new mBike stations. Image from the University of Maryland.

The mBike system has 14 stations and 125 bikes, including a few two-seater tricycles. The docking stations require a smartphone app to unlock a bike, and the bikes come with their own locks so you can stop and lock up somewhere other than a dock.

Separate systems can make it harder to travel between neighboring places

mBike's provider company is called Zagster, which is different from Motivate, the company that runs CaBi. Some have said that this will be a problem because the mBike network is simply much smaller than the CaBi one, which has over 300 stations.

Another concern is that separate systems in places so close to one another will make each system less useful to potential riders. If someone routinely goes from one town to another and would consider using bikeshare to do it, they don't have that opportunity.

To illustrate this point, imagine if Fairfax or Arlington decided to introduce its own fare card for its bus systems and stopped accepting Metro SmarTrip cards. Many people who primarily use Metrobus or rail would likely hold on to their cards, and the hassle of getting a new card for a specific location might discourage them from using the bus to go there, or from going there in the first place.

Separate systems can lead to artificial barriers between neighboring places. For example, in New Jersey, the cities of Jersey City and Hoboken are currently in a bitter conflict stemming from a decision to not go in together on a bike share system. Jersey City decided to join Citibike, which is the system that New York City uses, while Hoboken went with Hudson Bike Share.

It's gotten ugly, as both cities have taken steps to try and prevent users of one system from riding in the "territory" of the other—there are even laws that say Hudson Bike Share bikes can't be parked near PATH Railway stations in Jersey City.

Locally, Car2Go seems to have recently recognized the pitfalls of walling systems off from one another. It used to be that users couldn't drive the vehicles from Arlington into DC and vice-versa because of various parking rules and the fact that each government had to negotiate separately with the company. Car2Go lifted that rule last week.

College Park had logical reasons to go with its own system

There are, however, reasons to think mBike was the right move. For starters, the system's biggest purpose is to serve people needing to get around the University of Maryland—there likely wouldn't have been a lot of people riding bikeshare between College Park and stations inside DC or other areas.

It's also possible that College Park really didn't even have a choice. When the city began planning for a bikeshare system in 2013, it set out to use Alta (now Motivate), the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. But when one of Alta's main bike suppliers went into bankruptcy, production halted on all of the company's systems, including CaBi. That left College Park in a lurch.

After Alta reorganized and emerged from the supplier squeeze as Motivate, the price for new bikes and docking stations jumped. College Park put its plans to use CaBi on hold, and eventually canceled them. Instead, the city asked other bikeshare companies to enter bids, which eventually led to Zagster.

In the end, Zagster's bid turned out to be cheaper on a bike by bike basis, which allowed College Park to purchase more bikes and docking stations than it had been planning to do with CaBi. Even though mBike is a small system, there are more bikes available in the immediate College Park area than there would have been with CaBi.

Switching between mbike and CaBi could one day be pretty easy

For now, mBike has the summer to get itself established before the next school year. If the system is successful, College Park may choose to expand it around town on the Maryland campus.

Meanwhile, the rest of Prince George's County and its cities are still studying their own bikeshare options. The results of that study may still lead to the county going with CaBi in places like National Harbor or other communities along the Green Line. In places like Hyattsville, which is in between College Park and areas in DC that have CaBi, the dynamics will be a bit more complicated.

Hopefully, the outcome will be that the two systems can co-exist. Options for that might include passes that are interchangeable, docks right next to one another, or something else.

In the interim, both College Park and the governments that work with CaBi should work together to make things easier for members so no one feels like they have to choose one membership over the other. Reciprocity could be granted for members or a discount on certain types of membership. This has also been an idea floated for current CaBi members who may travel to other cities with bikeshare systems operated by Motivate.

And even CaBi members and fans may want to pay close attention to Zagster. The bikes themselves are a little different and maybe future CaBi models could incorporate some design features like a bigger basket. Accessibilty advocates and people interested in different models of cycling may also want to pay attention to how the tricycles are used. If those models prove popular it may behoove CaBi to improve its own accessibility and even possibly introduce its own different types of bikes.

Right now only time will tell if College Park ultimately made the right decision. But what we do know suggests that the city wasn't totally crazy to not wait around for CaBi.

Transit


How can we help people get around during SafeTrack?

Metro's SafeTrack plan (plus any FTA-mandated changes) will mean weeks with no service, or month-long single-tracking, on big sections of the rail system. Our region will need to help people get around in other ways that avoid crippling traffic. How do we do that?


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Most of our major roads are already full during peak periods. Some Metro "surges" will disrupt travel for tens of thousands of people. If even a small proportion of these Metro riders drive alone, we could see major regional gridlock.

While the "surges" won't close the whole system at once, their effects will reverberate throughout the region. Lines with single tracking will see fewer trains overall, and the closures and decreased service will likely push people who connect from other lines to commute some other way. All of this means significant traffic impacts far from any given work zone.

What should the region do?

We talked with a number of transportation professionals for their thoughts. But we'd also like to hear yours. We'll compile a list of promising measures, and we're working with the Coalition for Smarter Growth on a tool for you to reach out to your local DOT and elected leaders to ask them to make it happen. Sign up here and you'll be the first to know when it's ready to go.

Get SafeTrack updates!

Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are working together on ways for you to reach out to your local DOT and elected leaders to ask for the measures we need to see the region through SafeTrack. Sign up here and you'll be the first to know when it's ready to go.

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Here are the ideas we heard:

Teleworking is the biggest no-brainer. Many people can telework. But many more cannot. If people who can, do, that would alleviate some of the crunch. But not all.

Bus lanes. A lot of people will switch to the bus. But if they are stuck in traffic, they're not able to get to the ends of their routes and start the next run, effectively cutting down on bus capacity. The bus would also then be an unpleasant way to travel, pushing more people into cars instead, making driving and riding the bus worse, and so on.

The Washington region actually had a network of bus lanes before Metrorail opened. Without the trains, those lanes helped get people in and out of job centers. We need them again.


Bus lane network, pre-1976. Image from WMATA.

Walking and bicycling are an appealing alternative people who live close to work. Capital Bikeshare capacity and bike parking are likely to be some of the biggest crunches for bicycling. In Metro-accessible job centers like downtown DC, Silver Spring, Rosslyn, and others, bike corrals could help keep Capital Bikeshare balanced, and help people riding their own bikes find a place to park.

Carpooling can fit more people into fewer vehicles, making more efficient use of the road space we have. Some people may carpool without any prodding. But even more people will carpool if there are incentives to do it, like:

  • HOV lanes. On key arterials, one lane could be made HOV for a year. Both buses and carpoolers could use these to get a faster ride, making it more worthwhile to carpool or ride the bus.
  • Slugging. About 10,000 Virginians ride with strangers every day. Drivers pick up these strangers to get to use the I-395 carpool lanes, a practice called slugging. There are designated areas for people to park and then find rides.

    If DC added HOV lanes on key arterials from Maryland to downtown, Maryland counties could help find places, like shopping center parking lots that go mostly empty on weekdays, to serve as slug pickup areas. The same goes for Virginia routes into DC besides 395.


A "slug line." Image from Wikimedia.

  • Employer incentives. Employers could help people carpool, such as by offering reserved parking, running programs to match people up, or simply trying to structure the work day to make carpooling more feasible. Carpooling has declined as people's work schedules became more irregular; employers can reverse that trend, at least for the year.
  • Business incentives. Retail businesses can play a role, too. Restaurants and shops could find ways to offer discounts or specials to people who biked or carpooled.
  • Ride-matching services. Existing programs like Commuter Connections run bulletin boards and employer programs to match people to potential carpool or vanpool buddies.
  • Apps like Split, UberPool, and Lyft Line already try to match up people to share rides. Carpool lanes would create an even stronger incentive to use them. Or, governments could work with these companies to find other ways to increase the incentive to try them.
Special parking lots and shuttles. When a Metro line section shuts down, there could be a temporary park-and-ride with shuttle buses. For example, RFK's parking lots are huge and almost always empty. They could serve as a commuter parking lot and special buses could zip people (ideally, on a temporary HOV lane on I-695 and I-395) to the Capitol and downtown job centers. Where else could this work?


Potential park and ride? Image from Bing Maps.

Optimize bus routes. Besides (or ideally in addition to) adding bus lanes, there are ways to boost capacity on major bus lines, especially the ones paralleling Metro lines (like the S and 70s buses from Silver Spring to downtown DC, when the eastern Red Line shuts down). Some approaches:

  • Add express buses. Metro has a dedicated fleet of 42 buses to add to areas with shutdowns. Local transportation officials are already thinking about how to best deploy these. Other than a direct "bus bridge" between closed stations, some could be new express service on likes like the S9 and 79. A few local buses could switch to express during the shutdown as well.
  • Restrict on-street parking. Many DC arterial roads have parking on the non-peak side during rush hour, and on both sides at other times. The road could carry more vehicles without that. But it's best to make the new lane a bus or HOV lane, so that people have an incentive to carpool or take the bus instead of consuming all that capacity with new single-passenger trips.
  • Fix chokepoints. Likewise, Metro already knows where the major bus routes waste the most time. Retiming a signal, temporarily removing some parking, or adding an interim turn lane could clear out those spots. Where do you think are the most important places for this?
  • Reroute buses that end at a Metro station. For example, the 80s buses on Rhode Island Avenue almost all end at Rhode Island Avenue Metro. But when the eastern Red Line shuts down, then what? Those buses could go downtown—but will need places to drop off, and bus or HOV lanes (sense a theme?) could ensure they don't spend more time doing so than necessary.
Drop-off zones. If more people carpool and take buses, more curbside space may need to be devoted to letting people load and unload, either from commuter buses that already come in from farther out areas, for carpoolers, and for riders of app services who share rides instead of riding alone.


Proposed late night bus service & map from Metro's April 2016 Metrobus Late Night Service Study.

Improve late night bus service. Metro plans to shut down at midnight instead of 3 am. While the number of people who ride Metro at night has dropped as many people switch to ride-hailing services, it's still important to offer an affordable way for people to get home.

  • Make a late night map. Metro could publish a special map showing late night bus service, especially the routes that take people between Metro stations. Most people don't even know if there's a bus that can take them from nightlife to their neighborhoods.
  • Add late-night service. If some stations get decent late-night traffic but don't have late-night bus service (like more outlying park-and-ride stations), add buses to those spots until 3 am or later.
These general ideas cover a lot of ground, but it's a daunting task for our local transportation departments to identify all the spots which need attention. Many of these ideas will require local DOTs and WMATA to work together, or inter-jurisdictional cooperation between DOTs. But that doesn't meant they can't happen.

Where would you implement these strategies? What other ideas do you have? Give your thoughts in the comments.

Get SafeTrack updates!

Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are working together on ways for you to reach out to your local DOT and elected leaders to ask for the measures we need to see the region through SafeTrack. Sign up here and you'll be the first to know when it's ready to go.

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Bicycling


How healthy is bike commuting? More than you might think.

An article in today's Post Express says bike commuting is more dangerous than you'd think. That may or may not be true, but even if it is, it ignores years of studies that show the benefits outweigh the risks, and on the whole biking is statistically far more likely to adds years to your life than to harm you.


Photo by Heber Farnsworth on Flickr.

The article starts with an unsettling story about Inez Steigerwald, a teacher who has long commuted by bike (and who wrote about riding on the Metropolitan Branch Trail for Greater Greater Washington this time last year) hitting a patch of ice, falling off her bike, and breaking her arm very badly.

From there, author Sadie Dingfelder cites a 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control that concluded that "nationwide, you're more than twice as likely to die while riding a bike than riding in a car, per trip." She adds that cyclists are about five hundred times as likely to die as the average bus passenger, and that a 2015 study concluded that cyclists inhale three times as much air pollution as drivers.

Payton Chung says the problem is that the article buries the lede by focusing on the pitfalls of riding a bike but not the benefits. "Bicycling and walking are healthful, moderate exercise that, on balance, add years to the average person's life," he says.

"Cycling is not inherently more dangerous than other modes of transportation," adds Kelli Raboy. "It's only more dangerous when you factor in the effect of cars. I think the article obfuscates this fact."

Further discussion fleshed out Kelli's point: Since a relatively small proportion of people use bikes for transportation, the number of injuries per trip are high. At the same time, there's evidence to show that as more people ride bikes, the number of crashes goes down. That means that as more people ride bikes, the per trip metric will actually show that doing so is quite safe.

According to David Cranor, who wrote his own full response to Dingfelder's article, stacking data about crashes and injuries for people riding bikes up against data about drivers makes for an apples to oranges comparison.

Comparing the average type of person is flawed, in part, because the population of motorists and cyclists differ so much. Cyclists are overwhelmingly more male and men are fatally injured 122% more often while cycling than motoring. In addition, there are many cyclists under 16 years old, but very few drivers of those ages.

In other words, the data presented here doesn't tell you if YOU personally will be more at risk if you bike than drive. It tells you that the self-selected group of people who choose to bike are more at risk than a self-selected group of motorists.

Regarding the possibility of inhaling more pollution, Steve Seelig pointed toward a recent study that found the benefits of riding a bike (or walking) to drastically outweigh the negative impacts in terms of respiration.

"[Bike commuters inhale more pollution than drivers] on identical routes," stresses Cranor. "If your bike ride takes you on the Capital Crescent or Mount Vernon Trails, that is almost surely untrue."

And Dingfelder actually notes, later in the article, that "while injuries rob casual cyclists, age 18 to 64, of five to nine days of life and air pollution subtracts between one and 40 days, the benefits of cycling adds three to 14 months to your lifespan." She also quotes a health researcher in Boston: "While accidents and air pollution pose serious risks, bike commuting is still the best choice for your overall health."

Pedestrians


Walk signals are bad for walking

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post second in a multi-part opinion series.

Conventional wisdom says that walk signals make crossing the street safer for people. But they actually make walking slower and more dangerous.


Photo by Adrian Black on Flickr.

Many pedestrians think the walk-don't walk light helps by letting them know when it's safe to cross the street. But its actual effect is to curtail the right to make that crossing.

When there's no walk signal, a green-yellow-red traffic signal sends drivers and pedestrians traveling in the same direction into an intersection during the same green light interval. What the walk signal does is to give traffic engineers the means to send them ahead at different times. In practice, those on foot invariably get less time than drivers—often only the recommended minimum of seven seconds.

Walk signals push pedestrians off the street in more subtle ways, too. Federal Highway Administration rules require new walk signals (except on very narrow streets) to have timers that show how many seconds are left before you must be off the roadway.

But the timer is useless for deciding when to cross. Under the rules, the countdown doesn't begin until the don't-walk sign begins to flash—at which point it is illegal to enter the roadway, even if there is enough time to get to the other side. What the timer does is to chase slow walkers back to where they started, supplanting long-established laws that let pedestrians keep going if they're part way across when the light changes.

One thing pedestrians do like about walk signals is their visibility. But they aren't needed for this purpose. Red-green lights on streetcorners would be just as visible.

Walk signals are a safety hazard

Not only do the signals make walking slower and less convenient, they make it less safe.

Since—as discussed in the first post of this seriespedestrians are the best judges of their own safety, restricting the right to cross the street is intrinsically dangerous. On top of that, restricting people's ability to enter the roadway on foot trains drivers not to look out for people walking.

A particular peril is the 7-second crossing interval, which comes just when the drivers' light turns red. The only time pedestrians are allowed to step into the street is when the cars that waited at the red light (to travel in the direction perpendicular to where the pedestrian wants to walk) begin to turn across their path.

Timers, too, create hazards. They change the behavior of drivers as well as those on foot. Whether the drivers speed up to beat the light or simply get distracted is not clear, but the effect is real. A recent study in Toronto found that countdown timers cause more collisions than they prevent.

Top-down control is the wrong approach

Dutch traffic engineers have found in some villages that removing all traffic signs and markings actually brings accident rates down. It is rarely feasible to go that far on busy American streets, but the underlying principle—that negotiating the use of shared space makes roads safer—still applies.

The philosophy of the walk signal is just the opposite. A central controller sends instructions separately to drivers and pedestrians. One road user doesn't know what the other is supposed to do—drivers, in particular, are not responsible for looking at walk signals and often can't see them—so everyone must rely on the controller.

Without shared information, the crosswalk becomes a legal no-man's-land. Motorists preparing to make turns don't know whether a person they see on the sidewalk will have the right of way to cross in front of them. When crashes occur, it's hard to prove the driver is at fault.

If drivers and pedestrians are unable to coordinate, the system operates properly only if each gets correct instructions and follows them reliably. But the reality of the highway is far different. Signals are mistimed, beg buttons (the buttons you sometimes have to push to get a walk signal) don't work, snow blocks sidewalks, and of course both motorists and pedestrians regularly ignore the law.

The basic flaw of the walk signal is its underlying concept of protecting pedestrians by separating them from vehicles. This leads inevitably to ever-greater restrictions on movement by foot. And it fails to make walking safe.

Bicycling


In Playa Del Coco, Costa Rica, riding a bike is a way of life

As a transportation nerd, I spent part of my recent vacation in Playa Del Coco, Costa Rica observing how people move through the main street. What I noticed most was the bike culture, which resembled organic chaos where everything still managed to run smoothly.


A bike rack outside of the main grocery store. Note that none of the bikes have locks! All photos by the author.

In Playa Del Coco, people bike on the main street all day and night long, and there are very few rules of the road; the way people move would give most traditional traffic engineers a mild heart attack. But at the same time, everything seems to work.

Here are some takeaways and photos from what I observed:

1. No one wears a helmet. I did not see a single person wear a helmet while riding a bike. I also did not see any crashes. Perhaps given the volume of people who bike, motorists know to look out for bicyclists. This would support the findings of a study from University of Colorado Denver that concluded the safety of people riding bikes increases with more bikes on the road.

2. Woman Power! Anecdotally, most of the people that I saw riding a bike were women and girls. Many of these women and girls biked around with small children. A few had bike seats for the children, however, the majority of children were sitting on a back rack meant for a pannier or the top tube.


A woman biking with child on rear rack.

3. Tandems not required. It is not uncommon to see two adults on a bicycle built for one person. As a child, I remember riding around with my cousins on handlebars or seats. However, until my experience on Costa Rica, I had never seen two adults on a bike.

4. Feet to the left. Whether it was adults or children, most "passengers" sit on the top tube of the bike with their feet to the left. Perhaps since most people have their children sit that way, it is a habit that carries into adulthood.

5. Take your time. Compared to people who ride bikes in the District, people in Costa Rica who use bikes for transportation bike slowly. Most of the bikes were beach cruisers that do not lend themselves to Tour de France-esque riding. In addition, the culture has a slower pace than urban areas in DC, which likely plays into the slower bike riding culture.

6. Bike lock optional. One thing we can file under, "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it," is the fact that people in Playa del Coco rarely lock their bikes. They leave their bike on the bike rack or leaning against a building or street post. Some people lock their bikes, but it is rare.


A man biking with a woman sitting on the top tube.

Often times planners in the US look to Europe for examples of bike culture as seen in the growing popularity of protected bike lanes. My experience in Costa Rica has shown me planners should consider lessons from other parts of the world including Latin American.

This post originally ran on Nspiregreen's blog.

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