Monday, October 24, 2011

New Bike Facilities Sprouting In Downtown Santa Monica, The Good, The Not So Good, & The Ugly

New Bike Facilities Broadway Ave.
(Finally sharrows clarifying that bicyclists can use the bus lane on Broadway Ave.)
This Saturday I was tipped off that new bicycling developments have sprung up around Downtown Santa Monica, first noted on twitter. by bicycling transportation consultant Niall Huffman who was was riding through town.  I had to go check out what was going for myself, so I hopped on over and started snapping some pictures.

There is some great new stuff, including sharrows in the bus lane on Broadway Ave., finally clarifying that the bus lane can be used by bicyclists as well (although I noted the bus lane on Santa Monica Blvd. does not yet have this). The bus lane sharrows are a long time request by Santa Monica Spoke, a concern raised at one of the group's earliest meetings with the city. 4th St, Colorado and 2nd. St. all got some sharrows in a few places as well, and 2nd. St. and Colorado have some stretches with a bike lane now.

New Bike Facilities Broadway Ave.

However like many efforts at traffic engineering to accommodate bicycling in America, with these new developments there is a mixed bag of some stuff that works well, and some things that are disappointing and should probably go back to the drawing board. On the whole I think the latest round of paint to hit the streets is a welcome improvement if for no other reason than highlighting bikes belong downtown, but there are also a few places that are so problematic that the design really needs to be reconsidered. The city appears to have taken a shotgun approach to introducing bike facilities into downtown quickly, but we really need finer instruments.

New Bike Facilities Broadway Ave.One of the positive things to take note of with these recent developments is that Santa Monica is showing a willingness to think beyond the rather limiting CA MTUCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) recommendations. For example in California sharrows are recommended as tools to direct cyclists out of the door zone when adjacent to parked cars. Santa Monica is now introducing sharrows on some blocks without on-street parking, and are also placing sharrows in multiple lanes, such as instances where there are left turn lanes that a cyclist making a vehicular left may be riding in. This should help clarify and reinforce the rights of bicyclists to change lanes if they wish for making turns at intersections.

However as we'll see later in this post, experimenting with bike treatments can be a bad thing as well when the designs are not well thought out...

As of my riding about on Saturday Oct 22., the new facilities include sharrows east and westbound between 5th and Ocean Ave. This includes westbound sharrows in the bus lane, clarifying that bicyclists can in fact use the bus lane for through way travel. 2nd St. between Colorado and Broadway has bike lanes southbound and most of the block northbound, except for sharrows at the very beginning of the block northbound. Colorado now includes sharrows from 4th to Main. St., with a new strip of bike lane and dashed striping up the Main St. bridge clarifying the transition there from turning off of Colorado. From Main St. to Ocean Ave., Colorado now also includes bike lanes in both directions.

New Bike Facilities Broadway Ave.

Another improvement found along all of these stretches of new bike facility development is the introduction of many more bike detection markings. I have not had a chance to test their effectiveness at each location yet, but I am hoping this is being done in conjunction with new calibrated camera based systems for traffic control. I'm also glad to see that in all but one location, the bike detection symbols are in each lane that a bicyclist may be in given the turns at an intersection.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.
(Colorado Ave. At Ocean, Westbound, Bike Detection In Right Turn, Through Way & Left Turn)
The one place I saw where this is not the case is 2nd St. going northbound at Broadway Ave. There is a bike detection marking in the dashed bike lane to the right, one in the left turn lane, but not one in the through lane. Which brings me to..

Northbound Troubles On 2nd St:

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street
(At this intersection, if I was going through to the next block, I would position at center of center lane, not marking to the right, to ensure I was already merged into traffic flow on block ahead with parked cars and no bike lane.)
Given the layout of the intersection, and the parked cars ahead on the next block, in order to be clear of right turning cars, and be well positioned continuing northbound, a bicyclist going through should not be in the position indicated by paint unless they were making a right turn, and instead should be in a central position of the next multi-use vehicle lane. I would consider an intersection like this a great candidate for a bike box so that cars are held back a little, and if any cyclists comes up at the right, they can filter up into the bike box and position for traveling through if they are not turning.

When bicyclists travel through from a bike lane to a block without one continuing at the beginning of the next block, the cyclist is placed in a vulnerable position of having to merge into faster traffic. Since our legal system places the greater responsibility on the vehicle merging, a crash in such a situation, will usually find the cyclist at fault.

 New Bike Facilities 2nd Street

As I watched this particular intersection, many through way bicyclists did position at the dashed bike lane to the right, creating conflicts with the right turning drivers that are all violating  California Vehicle Code 21717, which requires drivers to safely merge into bike lanes before turning, rather than turning across the bike lane, which is illegal. Incidentally the first and only time I was struck by a car, the driver was violating CVC 21717 as they right hooked me in a bike lane on 17th St,  as they were entering a driveway. I would guess 98.9% drivers (perhaps I am being too generous) have no clue such a law exists. So unless this will actually be educated to drivers, designers of bike lanes should not assume drivers will be in compliance, and be mindful of mitigating this common user error with design if possible.

Unfortunately the problems with this new 2nd St. bike lane are not limited to the intersection at Broadway. As I expected, the great mouth of parking capacity at the mall parking garage has created conflicts in trying to bring a bike route safely through the start of this block. This first effort at a solution has some serious flaws. The block begins at Colorado northbound with a sharrow, with a bike lane picking up at and beyond the parking garage entrance.

The problem is that at busy times, cars are backed up all the way to the beginning of the block, completely obstructing the lane with sharrows. Since cyclists are able to slip through traffic without being stuck, they typically will, rather than wait for all the cars to slowly process their way into the garage. I generally approach this area by taking the far outside lane and moving back over beyond the line of idling cars. Some folks however take the inside, which is discouraged by the new diagonal lines at the block start, but this is somewhat muddled by having the mid block bike lane start aligned to that area. As you can see below, this presents serious right hook potential for cyclists trying to get through on the inside.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street

Taking the far outside is not without it's own risks as vehicles exiting may not expect a cyclist that will be trying to merge back over from the outside lane, and the vision of both driver and cyclist will be obscured by the line of cars in the middle waiting to enter the garage. As you can see below, the woman on the bike and the driver in the red car exiting the garage have reduced visibility of each other because of the Mercedes in the middle. Since the bike lane begins here to the right, an odd and somewhat inhospitable place for it to begin, the driver may not expect a cyclist to be coming from the far outside lane. But that is the best place to ride at busy times if you want to sail past all this parking mess.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street
(A woman taking the outside far left lane to get around the parking mess back up)
2nd St. Northbound At Santa Monica Place Parking Garage
(Here's a diagram I put together illustrating the problems of existing design and one solution of how I might approach it differently, using Portland style high visibility green zone marking for where cars may merge across bike lane)
I think one potentially better solution would have been to create a right turn only pocket into the garage in anticipation of the fact that so much of the traffic coming onto that block northbound are drivers trying to enter the garage, and it takes time to filter into it, causing frequent back ups. A bike lane could have been placed to the left of a right turn pocket, creating a clear place for cyclists to ride while bypassing the parking garage, and exiting drivers would have a better idea of where to expect passing bike traffic.

This would narrow the street to only one through lane for cars for the first part of the block, but since many drivers are going to the parking garage, I think having a right turn pocket for that entrance would clarify and improve traffic flow for everyone including through way drivers bypassing the garage. The intensity and type of use for a street is warped severely by high capacity parking garage entrances, and bringing a bike route through such an environment successfully requires special attention in getting around queuing cars, something this new treatment appears to be lacking.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street
(Lexus making unprotected left into garage across oncoming traffic, is forced to stop for crossing peds and blocks all northbound lanes.)
This parking garage entrance also becomes especially ridiculous when drivers coming southbound on 2nd St. attempt to make a left into the garage without a protected left lane, often rushing to zoom in across 2 lanes of oncoming northbound traffic. Of course such drivers, like the dark Lexus with license plate 6GXM295 pictured above, typically fail to acknowledge crossing pedestrians, are then forced to stop suddenly. Leaving their car stuck perpendicular and blocking all northbound travel lanes.

Keep in mind this discussion about 2nd St. is thus far all on one direction of one block, but there is still more wrong with it. Once you get past the parking garage mess, just north of it you are greeted with the parking valet mess. There is a mid block pull out pocket for mall valet parking, and the bike lane is striped right next to it. If you watch this scene for any length of time, it's apparent what a bad idea this is.

No one pulls all the way up to curb, and unlike a street parking space, where drivers often only partially open a door, for valet, doors are opened all the way and attendants stand even further left of the door. So while this turn out pocket is wider than many street parking spaces, the door zone problems are even worse than most conventional parking adjacent bike lanes. The animated graphic below illustrates this problem, and I've also captured a number of images of this problem in the attached thumbnails. This valet issue appears to be a constant problem since new people are coming and going out all the time, making an already sub-par bike lane even more compromised.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street New Bike Facilities 2nd Street New Bike Facilities 2nd Street New Bike Facilities 2nd Street New Bike Facilities 2nd Street

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street Southbound
2nd St. Southbound From Broadway Ave.
Unfortunately I was so wrapped in capturing the cluster f*ck going northbound, I didn't get many good shots of southbound, but on the whole it appeared to work a lot better and be more straight forward. I'm sure this is in no small part due to the absence of a massive parking structure operating as a vehicle vacuum sucking turning traffic into itself. However I heard discussion within the Santa Monica Spoke mailing list that pointed out idling buses sometimes sit partly into the bike lane in this direction. In the distance in one of the photos I did get (at left) you can see a Big Blue Bus parked intruding into the bike lane a little. It's easier to see in the larger version of the image.

At least the intersection has a clear separation of turning lanes from the bike lane to reduce intersection conflict.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street

Approaching The Pier On Colorado:

Directing cyclists to 2nd St. and to the iconic pier bridge, is some new paint on Colorado Ave. This includes sharrows from 4th St. to Main St., including sharrows both for the right lane and far left lane that turns up onto Main. From Main St. onward westbound there are new bike lanes up to Ocean Ave. and eastbound to Main, where a sharrow goes up the turn ramp and a bike lane goes straight across, followed by sharrows after crossing Main.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

This intersection at Colorado and 2nd is handled pretty nicely, but I would have preferred the right lane pushed right and the bike lane widened slightly to give some breathing room in a space where cars may be on both sides. Although I know this whole corridor is getting pedestrian improvements coming with the expo line, so I wonder if they are making space for future sidewalk expansion.

Going further though, things start to get a little convoluted...

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.  

Once you cross 2nd on the approach to Ocean Ave., you are directed onto a gutter pan bike lane. Gutter pan bike lanes are problematic especially in places where asphault seperation is pronounced, because it makes it unsafe to track the wheel at the center lane position because of balancing issues on road tires. Such bike lanes are discouraged in the pending Santa Monica bike plan. But the real problem here is cyclists are mandated by the presence of the bike lane to ride within it due to California law, except under certain conditions such as turning.

In this instance the amount of space given between the bike lane and the opening for turn lanes, is much too short, and creates a hazardous last minute swerve for through way or left turning cyclists. Riding here, I would ignore the bike lane at the beginning of the block so I could position myself to the bike lane at the end of the block well ahead of time, knowing that the driveway and the intersection are the hot spots for conflict. Even if I was making a right turn, I would not ride that far right, I would position myself be merged with right turning cars to ensure I wasn't cut off.

Sure enough, no sooner then I got over here to look at this, the problems are presented in action..

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

You can tell by change in angle and stance of the rider, the cyclist is now evading to avoid the car barreling at him as he tries to make his way to the broken continuation of the bike lane about 6 or 7 ft. to the left.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

Right after this moment, another cyclist rolls up, and rides the gutter all the way to the end, which has it's own risks as one approaches the alley way and intersection.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

At least once you get to the intersection, it's laid out with different turning options presented for cycling, and each lane except for the far left only lane has markings for bike detection for the traffic signal.

New Bike Facilities Colorado Ave.

The post office christens the new bike lane eastbound by ensuring it remains blocked with a parked vehicle (#2211096 at the Holiday Inn, 5:02 pm 10-22-11) for extended periods of time while making deliveries.

Final points of interest and concluding thoughts:

New Bike Facilities 4th St.
4th St. northbound from Broadway Ave.
 New Bike Facilities 4th St.

4th St. gets some sharrows between Santa Monica Blvd. and Colorado. I noticed in the approach to Colorado, diagonal hash marks are used to narrow the lane, which should discourage excessive speeding. When drivers are presented with narrower lanes, it tends to reduce traveling speed as compared to wider lanes. I'm sure there will still be speeding here, but hopefully toned down a notch.

New Bike Facilities 4th St.

Also accompanying all these new sharrow treatments are new share the road signs. The language of these signs are the subject of much debate in the cycling community because of their ambiguity and the tendency for drivers to interpret sharing as meaning cyclists should get out of the way of drivers. For this reason most cyclists and bike advocates I talk to much prefer the bikes may use full lane signage found in Hermosa Beach to accompany sharrows. However as far share the road signs go, you can't get much more visually dramatic than the one pictured above, near the award winning public art installation suspended off the side of parking garage #7.

Cyclists in the community are always clamoring for paint to start hitting the street, and seeing so much go down so quickly should be cause for excitement. But seeing this mixed bag of results, I worry that the city is responding to pressure to act, and not necessarily to think things through. The fact that at least one sharrow was put down incorrectly and marked hastily with black spray paint to be removed further suggests this was a rush job.

New Bike Facilities 4th St.
Apart from the one error I caught, the sharrows appeared to be well placed and installed to reinforce the existing rights of cyclists, and add visibility and recognition to bicycling downtown. One of the great things about sharrows is that when done right, they are only a net benefit. They add visibility and reinforce the rights of bike riders, and encourage safe defensive lane positioning. But do not reconfigure space, so they are low political risk since there is nothing to be upset about unless you hate pictures of bicycles. This is also their weakness however, because they do not really upset the status quo, they are unlikely to attract very many more riders than those already confident mixing it up with car traffic, which excludes many kinds of potential riders. From my observation sharrows seem to work best at attracting a wider range of riders where traffic speed is slow, or traffic volume is low, but ideally both.

New Bike Facilities 2nd Street

Bike lanes on the other hand reconfigure and transform space just for bicycle travel. They also carry with them certain legal obligations outlined in CVC 21208. When done well, bike lanes can become inviting spaces that can attract high ridership even on streets busy with car traffic, and can do so relatively safely. When done poorly though, bike lanes can sometimes be worse than doing nothing, if they set up conflicts zones and compel bike riders to make poor positioning choices.

I would not want to discourage the city from adopting more mileage of bike lanes, they are absolutely critical tools toward normalizing urban bicycling and building vibrant ridership and a healthier community. However with the decision to lay down bike lanes comes greater responsibility than stenciling sharrows. When bike lanes are striped they change the set of rules operating on the road, and carry the weight of the law in telling cyclists where to ride or not ride, and the reverse for drivers. Where bike lanes interact with parking and intersections, drivers may still pass through them as well, and managing these points of potential conflict is critical to both the comfort and safety of those on bike.

The effectiveness of bike lanes as relatively seamless routes of comfortable travel for bike riders is also severely compromised when they are obstructed, forcing cyclists to leave the bike lane. Which is very frequently the case with many bike lanes throughout the city, but the new bike lane on 2nd St. appears to take bike lane obstruction to new heights.

Santa Monica has now demonstrated it gets how to do sharrows, and is willing to use them in a variety of different types of street configurations. I'm happy to see progress made on that front, and appreciate the acknowledgment of multiple lane positions at intersections with turning only lanes. With bike lanes on the other hand, it appears Santa Monica still has a lot to learn in doing them successfully. Only a little over 2 blocks of bike lane were just added from what I saw, and almost all of it is pretty terrible. The bike lane going northbound on 2nd St. is almost a cruel joke.

I hope city planning and engineering staff come out to ride the new bike lanes themselves at different times of the day, including peak hours. With a notebook in hand, because they really need to come back to the table with ideas that are more than half baked. Bicyclists are vulnerable out there, and they deserve careful attention for their planned facilities. That includes bike lanes that hold up in the real world, instead of just being lines that seemed like a good idea on drafting paper.


Joe B said...

"The language of these signs are the subject of much debate in the cycling community"

I disagree. In order for there to be debate, there have to be two opposing viewpoints. I know of nobody in the cycling community who prefers the often-misinterpreted "Share the Road" to the crystal clear "Bicycles May Use Full Lane".

I don't understand why the city can't share its plans with us on paper before actually building infrastructure. The flaws you describe are stunningly obvious to cyclists, but seem to be invisible to the city planners.

Great article, Gary. Thanks.

Alice Strong said...

Kudos to you, Gary to take the time to document your analysis. I can envision a bike box at 2nd, also...:)

All points out to me how this is a sometimes plodding process for everyone involved from planners to advocates to city leaders to everyday riders...I'm happy to see the paint get down on the street!

Molli M said...

Maybe the city should hire Gary as a part time consultant to review plans before the paint hits the ground.

You clearly have a much better idea of what's going on Gary

Gary said...

I was really hoping Santa Monica was close to getting it, but there is more work yet. It baffles me how some of these choices get made, clearly those designing and laying down these facilities are not riding these streets on a daily basis or they would have clearly seen the flaws ahead of time.

Evan said...

Yikes, the bike lane approaching Ocean on Colorado is pretty poorly done.

There still isn't a very good option from getting from Broadway to Main Street. Broadway - 2nd - Colorado - Main seems the best to me. I wouldn't ride with my daughter in the bike trailer down 4th (if traffic was moving for that to be an option) and on to Colorado.

Anonymous said...

Very thorough, Gary. Thanks. I hope the city has a chance to read this.

jamesinclair said...

A couple of thoughts:

The sharrow stencil that SM is using is...odd. It looks broken, with too many gaps. It looks like its already been rubbed away, even though its brand new. Doesnt seem like itll last more than a year.

The "stop here for signal" markings dont actually appear to be placed over the induction sensors! The sensors are clearly visible (the circles) and should be a square pattern for bikes...but there is none installed.

Unknown said...

I asked about James' concerns re the induction sensors last night at Planning Commission and was told the intersections are instead monitored by video cameras which reveal the presence of a cyclist. And staff promised ride alongs with SM Spoke to get feedback on new paint and other cycling infrastructure improvements.