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Posts by Jay Corbalis

Jay Corbalis lives and bikes in DC, where he is the Manager of Planning and Communications for the Capitol Riverfront BID. Before joining the BID Jay worked to promote smart growth at LOCUS and NJ Future. He has a bachelor's degree in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell University and is pursuing a Masters in Real Estate Development at Georgetown. 


GGW on the road: Citibike struggles with software glitches

When it opened on Memorial Day, New York's Citibike instantly became the nation's largest bikeshare system. But after an alternatingly fun and frustrating Saturday touring New York City on 2 wheels, I found that the system continues to struggle with crippling software glitches.

Photo by Omar Rawlings on Flickr.

"Excuse me, do you know how this thing works?" I turned to see two middle-aged women fiddling with the bike beside me at the Citibike station in Midtown Manhattan. "Well, this is my first time using Citibike," I replied, "but I use the system in DC regularly, so hopefully this is similar." I must have looked competent, because this was already the third such inquiry I had received that morning.

It's important to note that Citibike is less than 2 months old and is already wildly successful. But the problems that plagued the system early on are still widespread and need to be resolved before it can be a legitimate transportation option for New Yorkers.

One of the system's biggest drawbacks is its unreliable software. Reports say it's the result of a corporate dispute between operator Alta and its partner that led to a switch in software.

Of the roughly 2 dozen interactions I had with docking stations over the course of a 24-hour membership, I experienced more software problems than I have in 2 years with Capital Bikeshare. The first 3 times I attempted to purchase a one-day pass, I made it to the last step of the cumbersome touchscreen process, only to receive an error message, forcing me to cancel the transaction and start over.

After the third time, the line of would-be cyclists behind me had grown so long that I decided to step aside. I walked a couple of blocks to the next station, where I repeated the process, finally succeeding on my second try. My friend, who encountered the same problem, succeeded on her third try, repeating the same steps on each attempt.

Photo by Robyn Lee on Flickr.

With memberships secured, the next hurdle was obtaining a bike. As with Capital Bikeshare, day and weekly pass users must insert their credit card at the kiosk each time they want a bike. There, they'll receive a new, 5-digit access code which they can enter at individual docks to unlock a bike.

However, on several occasions, I had to enter the same code at multiple docks before the dock let me remove a bike. After a night out with friends, I entered my code at each of 5 full docks nearby, only to be rejected each time. I waited a few minutes, got a new code, and tried again with no luck.

Determined, I walked the few blocks to a nearby station, where I repeated the same process several times, again with no success. After a circuitous conversation with a pleasant, but ultimately futile customer service rep, I threw in the towel and hailed a cab back to my hotel, deprived of a leisurely bike ride on a nice night.

There are even more issues, however. Even when it works, the registration process is slow and confusing, taking several minutes per person to complete and resulting in long lines. In tourist areas around Times Square and Central Park, these queues have become prime targets for bike rental hawkers, who pose as Good Samaritans to mislead prospective bikers about the fees associated with Citibike.

Citibike's mobile app was great for finding open docks and available bikes throughout the city, but its information on bike lanes was poor. Hoping to avoid the pedestrian chaos of Times Square as I headed south on Broadway, I followed a bike lane shown on the app. I made a left on 48th Street, then a right on 7th Avenue, and found myself in the middle of 5 lanes of fast-moving downtown traffic with no bike lane in sight.

As a regular bike commuter, I shrugged off the honks and yells from motorists that ensued, but I can imagine the tourists I met earlier being put off by the same experience.

Overall, the system functioned more often than it didn't, and allowed my friends and I the freedom to explore the city at our own pace, while enjoying the beautiful weather and getting some exercise along the way.

And while the glitches were frustrating, the quality and quantity of bicycle infrastructure, everything from protected on-street lanes to recreational paths and bike-specific traffic signals, was impressive, a part of the larger transformation of the city's streets led by Mayor Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

And the Citibike system continues to expand; despite the problems, underserved neighborhoods are already clamoring for stations of their own. As it grows, it can become what Capital Bikeshare is for DC: an integral part of the city's larger transportation network. But for that to happen, the system's operators need to iron out the software problems and provide users more reliable information.


Who's blocking L Street today, and what can we do?

Who's blocking the L Street bike lane today? A delivery driver, most likely. That's the conclusion I've reached after 4 months of chronicling obstructions in the city's newest bike lane.

Photos by the author.

I started the blog, "Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?" on a whim after the lane (technically a cycle track) opened. Since then, readers have submitted a steady stream of pictures showing vehicles blocking the lane, on top of the pictures I've taken myself.

While I do use the lane frequently (and thus have a personal stake in it being unobstructed), I don't view this as an exercise in vigilantism. My goal is to highlight larger trends, not to shame or mock individual drivers.

While swerving around a parked car into moving traffic on a bike can be dangerous, I realize there are many greater evils in the world and on the road, and am weary of perpetuating the perception of, broadly, the hysterically entitled cyclist by fixating on what is a ultimately a minor inconvenience in most instances. That said, the L Street bike lane is supposed to facilitate bicycling, not parking, and blocking the lane is, at least nominally, illegal. When the lane is blocked, it doesn't serve its purpose.

Who IS blocking the L Street bike lane today?

Overall, very few people actually "park" in the L St. bike lane. The majority of vehicles blocking the lane are delivery trucks supplying the many offices and stores that line the stretch. Looking just at the 156 photos on the site to date, 60% have been of delivery vehicles, while 30% are personal vehicles, and 10% belong to police.

Based on my observations, the median length of time for vehicles blocking the lane is 1-3 minutes. That's long enough to run in to a building, drop something off, and return. However, it's not uncommon for a delivery driver to treat the lane as a loading dock for loading and unloading large shipments, a process which generally takes 10-20 minutes.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive sample. Because I took many of the pictures, they tend to over-represent weekday, daytime activity, and concentrate on the 1700 block of L. Still, they should provide some insight into the patterns of usage that have developed so far along the lane, as well as a starting point for potential solutions.

What can we do?

Deliveries, and delivery vehicles, are an increasing necessity in today's economy, and accommodating their activity will be an ongoing challenge as cities continue to densify and pursue more multi-modal streetscapes. This is especially true in central business districts like the Golden Triangle, where businesses and office workers (myself included) rely on quick and affordable deliveries engendered by the online economy.

While it may be tempting to vilify the individual delivery drivers, many of whom work long hours under tight deadlines, as you veer around them on your bike, doing so ignores the larger enforcement, policy and design pressures that shape the situation on L Street.

Enforcement: Willfully running a solid red light is universally taboo in America, and a pressure that is strong enough to dissuade drivers from doing it. Today the societal taboo is clearly not as strong against blocking bike lanes, but targeted enforcement can help change perceptions.

In all of my observation I have only seen one ticket issued to someone blocking a bike lane. Indeed, police cars are often guilty of the offense themselves, and not while on official business. Most of the photos I've taken myself of police cars blocking the bike lanes have occurred while the driver was visiting Robeks, a fruit smoothie store on the block.

Just as the MPD has engaged in enforcement campaigns targeted at drivers who fail to yield and pedestrian inattention, we need an enforcement campaign aimed at bike lane blocking on L Street.

Even though the actual penalties may not serve as a deterrent (many delivery companies simply write them off as a cost of doing business), an enforcement campaign can start to change attitudes about the practice and encourage delivery drivers to use dedicated loading zones or the service alleys that connect many larger buildings on L Street.

Design: The blocking problem is not nearly so great on the 15th Street cycle track. This may partly result from there being fewer blocks where the lane runs past commercial streets. Also on 15th, parking serves as a buffer between the 15th Street lane and the active roadway. Not only does that offer an alternative for delivery drivers and others, it creates a physical barrier of parked vehicles, impeding easy access in a way that the plastic pylons cannot.

Before the L Street Lane was installed, Mike Goodno, Bicycle Program Specialist at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) said that a similar arrangement would not be possible on L, as it would limit the street to one through lane outside rush hour.

One option could be to relocate the current parking from the south side to the north side, between the bike lane and the active roadway. Currently, parking and loading is permitted in the southernmost lane outside of rush hour; during rush our, the lane becomes a third through lane, though obstructions in this lane often remain throughout rush hour, leaving two effective through lanes in most cases.

Goodno says that is a possibility, and in fact DDOT is planning to have (full-time) parking next to the forthcoming lane on many blocks of M Street. However, Goodno noted, there could not be parking next to the left turn lanes, or for some distance before the start of the "mixing zones," where drivers merge into the bike lane to turn left. That would substantially reduce the amount of parking on L Street.

Alternatively, DDOT has floated the idea of installing a curb along the L St. lane to prevent vehicle incursions, though so far there has been no activity. Likewise, Goodno said they are considering adding more posts, which today appear every 20 feet.

Policy: Most blocks of L Street now combine some dedicated loading zones and short-term metered parking along the south side of the street. In my observation, the loading zones are nearly always occupied with delivery vehicles, suggesting that drivers are willing to use them provided they can find a space. Likewise, the metered parking on the street is consistently occupied as well, typically by passenger vehicles.

The difference, of course, is that those drivers have the option of parking off-street in one of the numerous commercial garages in the area, while delivery vehicles cannot. Though it would almost certainly draw criticism from some quarters, the city could convert existing metered parking along L Street to loading-only lanes, giving delivery drivers more legal options to park. If and when performance parking comes to the Golden Triangle, it could also ensure that spaces are more likely open for delivery drivers.

My experience watching the L Street bike lane has not revealed an existential struggle amongst warring factions for turf on one of downtowns busiest arteries. Rather, I've seen drivers, bikers, delivery guys, cops, and pedestrians (who, lest we forget, are often one in the same) working to coexist in a new multi-modal reality that they all generally accept, even if they're all still getting used to it.


DDOT seeks community input on R Street bike improvements

The R Street NW bike lane is an important east-west thoroughfare for cyclists in DC, stretching from Massachusetts Avenue NW to Florida Avenue NW. The only gap remaining is 6 blocks between Florida Avenue and the Metropolitan Branch Trail. DDOT hopes to fill this gap soon.

Photo by nolantreadway on Flickr.

On Saturday morning, local ANC Commissioners hosted representatives from DDOT to meet with residents of Eckington and Bloomingdale to discuss their proposal to complete the direct connection for cyclists between the MBT and Rock Creek Park.

The proposal calls for a combination of sharrows and protected bike lanes between Florida Avenue and the MBT along R Street. According to DDOT representatives, the choice of sharrows, rather than bike lanes, was one of necessity because much of R Street through Bloomingdale and Eckington carries two-way traffic rather than one-way, rendering the street too narrow to incorporate bike lanes.

R Street is one-way eastbound on the block between 2nd Street NE and 3rd Street NE. Westbound cyclists cannot legally remain on R Street, and either have to go out of their way, or bike on the sidewalk here. The proposal calls for a separated contraflow bike lane on this block. This design is similar to that of 15th Street NW, where a lane of parking provides a buffer between cyclists and traffic.

Segment of project from Eckington Place to 3rd Street, NE.

One goal of this project is to increase safety for both cyclists and drivers, especially for drivers on southbound 2nd Street NE, where the column of parked cars would obscure their ability to see oncoming cyclists.

Among residents in attendance, the proposal for sharrows along R Street was uncontroversial. Residents noted the unobtrusive nature of the markings, a sample of which was displayed by DDOT representatives, and that the sharrows will provide another welcome impetus for motorists in the area to slow down and be mindful of bicyclists and pedestrians (speed humps are already installed on this stretch of R Street).

Photo by nolantreadway on Flickr.

Of more concern to the gathered residents was the overall traffic volume in the neighborhood, particularly the truck traffic emanating from industrial areas along the MBT and railroad tracks, as well as from the FedEx facility at Florida and New York Avenues NE.

The ANC Commissioners present spoke of past agreements with these companies to limit the use of local streets for through-traffic, and how those agreements have been forgotten or ignored over the years. They also noted the difficultly of imposing weight-restrictions on R Street because of its status as a major east-west route and collector street.

Ultimately, attendees and DDOT representatives recognized the value of sharrows is more symbolic than physical. Unlike separated bike lanes, sharrows don't provide any physical protection to cyclists, who are still vulnerable to dooring or being squeezed by traffic.

Still, the sharrows provide an important psychological benefit, letting drivers know bicyclists are present and have a right to the road, and letting cyclists know they are welcome on the street.

As the next step in their process for community input and approval, DDOT will present at an upcoming ANC meeting. The ANC may hold a vote on the issue, though such a vote is not required for DDOT to move forward.

If approved, the project itself will be relatively inexpensive. Each sharrow marking runs about $75 and costs another $75 to install. Approximately two markings in each direction will be installed per block. Barring significant opposition within the community, DDOT representatives estimated the project could be completed before Thanksgiving.

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