Tag Archives: bike infrastructure

One-Way Pair for Clarington and Hughes

After a string of theoretical posts on housing at the regional level, it was nice to bring things back into the civil engineering wheelhouse with a look at some local streets in Palms!

Clarington and Hughes should be a one-way pair from Palms to Venice, or maybe Washington.

Now hold up. Before you start telling me about the virtues of two-way streets, hear me out. Clarington and Hughes are in a weird place where they serve both neighborhood and through traffic functions. They’re narrow (two lanes of traffic and one or two parking lanes in about 32’-34’), and people go too fast, making them a little uncomfortable on a bike.

So put this in your gears and grind them: each street should have one 10’ travel lane (southbound on Clarington and northbound on Hughes), 7’ parking lanes (two on Clarington and one on Hughes), and buffered bike lanes.

Boom! Through traffic and local traffic functionality preserved, plus dangerous lefts from Clarington to Palms eliminated. And if you’re riding between Venice and any possible bike lanes on Palms, now you have a dedicated lane east of Motor, and a solid connection to the Expo Line bikeway, and from the Palms Expo Station to downtown Culver City.

CHmap

Using the excellent Streetmix, here’s a sketch of what each street would look like. Note that the location of the bike lanes minimizes the risks of getting doored.

Hughes Clarington

If Culver City wants in, between Washington and Culver, there’s enough pavement on Clarington (or Madison as it’s known in Culver City) for bike lanes, and south of Culver, it’s a quiet street that doesn’t need any special bike accommodation. Meanwhile, Hughes (or Duquesne in Culver City) south of Washington is at least 44′ wide, and could accommodate bike lanes while maintaining the same number of travel and parking lanes (two 10′ travel lanes, two 7′ parking lanes, two 5′ bike lanes). That would get you a connection to the Jefferson bike lanes.

Now, in the scheme of things, there’s nothing really that wrong with Clarington and Hughes. But this would just be a few stripes. If it didn’t work, things could easily be changed back. Assuming four 4” solid stripes would be needed on each street, the cost would be less than $20,000. You’d also need some new signs and maybe some signal retimings at Venice and Washington, but still, this would be a cheap project. You could also use the opportunity to get rid of a bunch of the extra pavement at Hughes and Expo, but that part could wait. The LA Great Streets project is focusing on arterials, but a small project like this might be able to get off the ground quickly, and show people that the world doesn’t end when you make room for bikes.

Bikes and Transit: Frenemies

Programming note: apologies for the sparse posting over the last few weeks. Things should be back to normal soon.

I’m always a little hesitant to wade into debates on cities that I don’t know very well. That’s why this blog borrows heavily from my time in Boston – it’s the only city that I know well enough to analyze without being there. I recently commented on this Systemic Failure piece about Caltrain bumps on Twitter, and unfortunately the conversation ended up basically being “Quiet, you LA blogger, you don’t know anything about Caltrain”.

I won’t lie to you: that’s true. I don’t know anything about Caltrain in particular. I was trying to make two general points, one about bikes and transit in general, and one about the SF Bike Coalition (SFBC) analysis that was linked in the Systemic Failure piece. Neither of these points require knowing anything about Caltrain: (1) paying customers without bikes should not get bumped while bikes are being hauled for free, and (2) the assumption that Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate as bike riding in San Francisco is questionable.

Bikes Fill Seats, Bikes Take Up Space

When ridership is low, providing accommodation for bikes helps fill seats. Outside of San Francisco itself, the patterns of urbanization in California are very different from east coast cities, in a way that often exacerbates the “last mile problem”. By allowing riders to carry bikes, agencies can attract riders who might need to travel a mile or two at each end of their transit trip. This helps fill seats and raises farebox revenue.

However, as ridership rises, you start to get a couple problems with accommodating bikes. One is that dwell times go up due to the time needed to get the bike on or off the transit vehicle. This isn’t a problem if you’re running hour-long headways and you have plenty of recovery time. But it is if you’re running short headways, because dwell time variability will wreck your headway spacing and service reliability. The other is that the vehicle gets too crowded and passengers get left behind, which is especially unfair if paying customers are left behind while bikes are being carried for free.

These problems are more obvious with smaller transit vehicles. A transit bus bike rack can only hold two bikes, and there’s not enough room to bring a bike on the bus because of the seats. Should some seats be eliminated so that an extra couple bikes can go on the bus during off-peak periods? Bikes can also become a space problem on light-rail vehicles; take a ride on the Blue Line during rush hour for example. (When Regional Connector and Gold Line Foothill Phase 2A are complete, the Blue Line from Long Beach to Azusa will be about the same length as Caltrain.)

In the case of Caltrain, the issue was pitched as providing seats vs. providing space for bikes. But really, if trains are getting crowded, you could remove seats to provide standing room for paying customers too. The MBTA did this with several Red Line trains dubbed “Big Red” and still doesn’t allow bikes on the train during peak periods. The question of providing seats vs. standing room is something every agency must address. Longer trips lend themselves towards more seating, but I would note that even in transit systems with high crowding and relatively short trips, agencies still provide some seats.

I’m not singling out bicycles here. For example, transit vehicles can only accommodate so many wheelchairs, and loading/unloading wheelchairs is detrimental to service reliability. Agencies do not eliminate seats in order to accommodate an unlimited number of wheelchairs. If a passenger in a chair is waiting for the bus and the wheelchair spot on the bus is already occupied, that passenger will be bumped (a “pass-up”). The ability to accommodate things like bikes and wheelchairs is partly a value judgment, but it is also partly a matter of geometry. You don’t have to take my word for it – ask Jarrett Walker.

Fundamentally, allowing bikes on transit is easy if your system is running below capacity. The busy transit systems of the east coast do not allow bikes on at all during peak periods and allow a restricted number at other times. Caltrain has already done much more than most agencies; given current ridership patterns, Caltrain’s current bike accommodations seem to make sense. Metrolink would probably do well to modify some of their vehicles to increase bike capacity (there are currently only some trains with bike cars, and the bike cars have a capacity of 18 bikes). Bumps are a major detriment to ridership, and passengers must be able to expect that they will be able to take any train.

For what it’s worth, if you have high transit ridership and high bike usage, you simply need a different solution: bike storage at stations so that riders can have a bike stored at each end. That’s how these guys do it, and I hear they’re pretty good with bikes.

Bike Boarding Potential

My other complaint about the Systemic Failure piece is that the SFBC analysis of bumps assumes that bike boardings could increase at the same rate as biking in SF, bike to work counts in SF, and SFBC  membership, which range from about 55%-85% increases over the analysis period. It’s not clear to me why Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate. Caltrain trips are different kinds of trips – longer, and with less varied purpose. Now, not knowing Caltrain that well, I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means Caltrain bike boardings should have increased even faster!

There is one reason to think that the potential to increase bike boardings might eventually be lower: system capacity. SF is a pretty committed to bike infrastructure, but the percentage of street capacity that has been dedicated to moving bikes is still very low. There are many streets with no bike lanes, limited bike parking, etc. On the other hand, Caltrain has already committed a significant portion of its capacity to moving bikes:

CaltrainCoaches

So Caltrain has dedicated about 10% of its theoretical seating capacity to bikes. There is only so much room on the coaches, and it has to be split among seated passengers, standing passengers, and bikes. Again, maybe Caltrain does not have the right configuration, and maybe they should be providing more space for bikes. But objectively, Caltrain faces greater constraints in accommodating bikes than those faced by city streets.

Brief Notes on Bumps

I would be remiss if I did not point out that as of 2013, Caltrain bike boardings exceed the level predicted by the SFBC analysis, which was completed in 2011. That indicates that there was indeed significant latent demand at the time of the analysis. Contrary to the gist of the Systemic Failure piece, Caltrain has paid attention to bike boardings and increased bike capacity in the interim.

Caltrain’s 2013 counts, conducted over five days in February, found that there were 59 bumps, 25 of which were due to a single incident. Interestingly, all of the bumps occurred during peak periods on reverse direction trains (though directional bias in Caltrain demand is low). Peak loading on those trains ranged from 69%-98% of seated capacity.

CaltrainBikeBumps

The SFBC analysis showed a photo comparison of bike storage areas and seating on southbound trains at 22nd St. Since San Francisco station itself accounts for almost 25% of all bike boardings (and everyone there is obviously going south), 22nd St southbound is by far the most likely place to be bumped. The author was bumped from Train 324, and the photos seem to suggest that there are far too many seats. However, Train 324 has peak load of 91% leaving Hillsdale.

Considering that overall Caltrain ridership is up about 10% per year for the last three years, these points suggest that removing more seats to accommodate additional bikes will result in forcing some passengers to stand. And remember, this is partly a value judgment! Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Or maybe Caltrain should be given the funding needed to run additional trains. I can’t tell Bay Area stakeholders what the right answer is for them. But it seems to me that the discussion needs to start from an understanding that, like a city street, this a case where not everyone is going to get everything they want. There doesn’t seem to be unused capacity available for the taking.

Check-List Planning

If you’re looking for some unintentional comedy, check out this video of one of the last High Desert Corridor (HDC) meetings in Palmdale. Highway engineers trying to explain how excited they are to look at putting solar panels and windmills along a new freeway – you can’t make this stuff up.

The basic problem here is that politicians in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley would like to build a new freeway from Palmdale to Victorville. But new freeways have a bad name with lots of people in other parts of the state, so the plans have been gussied up to try to incorporate the most popular urban planning and environmental ideas of the day. This is nothing new – about ten years ago, bus terminals morphed into “multi-modal centers”, and all you had to do was throw in a bike rack or two. Hey, now people can walk, bike, and ride the bus!

However, I think the HDC sets a new record for number of constituencies that a project has tried to please. It’s not just a freeway. . . it’s HOT lanes! It’s high-speed rail! It’s a bikeway! It will have windmills and solar panels along the ROW! This is kind of like bundling cable television: even though you don’t care for or actively dislike many channels, you still pay for them to get the one channel you want.

Reality check: the corridor in question makes sense as maybe a freeway and maybe a high-speed rail corridor. That’s about it. A brand new freeway in this area is not going to have the volume for HOT lanes to make sense, especially if it is wider than two lanes each way, which Metro and Caltrans seem to be suggesting. If anything more than a pittance is charged, people will use free alternatives like the 18 and the 138. There is obviously tremendous solar and wind energy potential in the Mojave Desert, but there is no logical reason for the development of those resources to be tied to the construction of a freeway, let alone confined to the freeway ROW. Solar farms in the Mojave Desert could probably go anywhere. Wind farms should be located where winds are most reliable (that’s why they’re in San Gorgonio Pass and Tehachapi Pass, after all). All of these things need to be unbundled from the freeway.

The response of the various constituencies is curious. For example, this Streetsblog article takes a pretty neutral tone. C’mon, Damien! You know you don’t like this project! If we’re going to build 50 miles of Class I bike facilities in the High Desert, this isn’t the corridor you want it on. For the money it will cost to build that component of the HDC, how much quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructure could we build within High Desert cities?

This is what happens when planning is done by checklist instead of putting real thought into the unique characteristics and needs of the area. It’s how suburban office parks get LEED certified and call themselves green. It’s how you end up with the Las Vegas Downtown Project, which the Urbanophile describes as “exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.”

Bundling all of these other improvements onto the HDC doesn’t make the freeway any greener. Each component should stand or fall on its own merits.

The Problem With Palms Blvd

Just around the corner from my apartment in Palms is the neighborhood’s namesake boulevard. Running west from National at a half-diamond interchange with the 10, Palms is a heavily traveled arterial. For most of the way between National and Sawtelle, it is five lanes – two each way with a two-way center left turn lane – plus parking on each side. Between Mentone and Kelton, it’s the same width but with no center lane. Beyond Sawtelle, in Mar Vista, it fades away, losing a lane here and there until becoming a quiet neighborhood street in Venice.

But in my neighborhood, Palms has been set up to move cars, and it does a damn good job of it. Westside motorists have figured out a sneaky advantage of Palms is that it doesn’t have an interchange with the 405, which means it’s free of the spillover congestion that can plague National and Venice. If you’re coming from or going to the east via the 10, Palms is very convenient. Traffic regularly exceeds the 35 mph speed limit. (I was once a passenger in a shuttle that hit 55 mph on a three-block stretch.)

The result is that Palms is dangerous and it feels dangerous. Trying to cross the street at an unsignalized intersection during peak hours is a harrowing experience in a car, let alone as a pedestrian or cyclist. During the day, I generally don’t cross anywhere other than Overland, Motor, or National. I occasionally see cyclists brave the rush of traffic, but it is not something many people would feel comfortable doing. When I’m riding west, I go out of my way to take Tabor or National – I never ride on Palms. It is also dangerous for drivers, because the narrow lanes make it almost impossible to see oncoming traffic without pulling out into it.

PalmsCrash

The present situation is bad, but it is going to get worse when Expo Line Phase 2 opens. Palms is going to be one of the main pedestrian and bike routes to the station, providing a link to bicycle lanes on Motor and Overland, a function it cannot serve well in its current configuration. Unfortunately, the city’s 2010 Bicycle Plan calls for Palms to be Class III bicycle route, which it describes as appropriate for streets with low traffic volumes or wide outside lanes.

Neither of those conditions describes Palms. Traffic volumes are about 25,000-27,000 ADT, which is almost twice that (14,000-15,000 ADT) of the section of Motor that was recently converted from four lanes to three lanes with bike lanes. Palms is also narrow – five lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking in 64’ of roadway width (if you’re being generous) – so narrow, in fact, that I had a hard time believing Google Earth and went out to measure it for myself, an invigorating exercise even at 11 at night. The parking lanes are about 7’ wide, making each travel lane about 10’.

In short, Palms is classic example of an urban street where there is not enough room to make everybody happy. If we want to improve the facility for one set of uses, we are going to have to take space away from other uses. Parking, through traffic, walking, and bicycling – how do we split up the space? At present, the order of priorities seems to be as they are listed. Despite substandard travel lanes, parking has been maintained on both sides. Sidewalks are not generous, but they exist and are buffered by the parking lanes. Cyclists basically get shafted.

Sharrows just aren’t going to cut it here. The real test of a city’s commitment to safe streets for all is what it does in cases like this, where someone is going to get less than what they want. Thanks to Streetmix, playing around with street cross section is a breeze. Here’s the existing Palms Blvd.

palms-blvd

Now the laziest way to add bike lanes would be to just take the 10’ two-way center left turn lane and chop it up into two 5’ bike lanes. The obvious drawbacks are huge door zone problems (since a 7’ parking lane means the door is already on the stripe), being hard up against trucks in a narrow 10’ travel lane, and the increased danger for drivers turning left. Here’s Option 1:

palms-blvd-option-1

Eliminating a lane of parking would give everyone a little more breathing room. The 7’ bike lanes would probably need striping similar to the buffered bike lane on Montana in Santa Monica, especially where there is no parking, to emphasize that drivers shouldn’t park there. The eliminated lane of parking could alternate sides to always be on the side with more driveways, which would reduce the number of spaces lost. For example, between National and Jasmine, the south side parking would go; from Jasmine to Motor, the north side. As an added complication, there’s the question of how to treat bus stops where the bus would stop in the bike lane. Here’s Option 2:

palms-blvd-option-2

Another option would be retaining the parking and eliminating another travel lane, for a three-lane section. This is probably going to tax the capacity of the remaining travel lane. If we conservatively assume 50% of travel is in the peak 6 hours and a 65-35 directional split, the peak directional volume would be about 1,400 veh/hr – pretty close to the 1,600 veh/hr capacity of a regular traffic lane, and for certain beyond the capacity of the traffic signals. You might note that Palms westbound is currently operating with only one lane underneath the 10 due to Expo Line construction; you might also note that this isn’t working very well, because traffic backs up on National, Manning, and the ramp from the 10 westbound. Here’s Option 3:

palms-blvd-option-3

You could also envision that option with 5’ cycle tracks and 2’ buffers instead of 7’ bike lanes, but I’m not sure Palms (short blocks, many driveways and cross streets, narrow sidewalks which would encourage pedestrians to walk in the track) is the best place for that. One intriguing possibility for a cycle track option would be the ability to use peak-period parking lane conversions to address the traffic capacity issues. During peak periods, parking would be prohibited to provide the same capacity as today. Off-peak, the outside lane would be for parking, which would help discourage speeding when traffic volumes are low. Streetmix doesn’t seem to have the ability to do cycle tracks yet, so you’ll just have to use your noodle. Here’s Option 4:

palms-blvd-option-4

As a final option, you could maintain all the through traffic lanes and convert the parking lanes on both sides to bike lanes. The two-way center left turn lane could be selectively eliminated at bus stops to prevent buses from having to stop in the bike lanes. Here’s Option 5:

palms-blvd-option-5

Note here that in all these options, there is tension between competing uses. The option that saves all the parking and is best for bikes takes away the most traffic capacity. The option that is best for through traffic and bikes takes away parking. And the option that is best for through traffic and parking (i.e. existing configuration) is worst for bikes. The competition for space in cities is natural, and we’re not going to be able to give everybody what they want.

Here’s a summary of the parking lost to Option 2 or Option 5.

PalmsParkingTable

The lost parking could be mitigated by trying to get agreements with local commercial and public properties to allow resident parking at night. Example locations would include the Vons Plaza, Palms Elementary School, the retail parking in the new building at Palms & Motor, Palms Middle School, and the plazas at Palms & Sepulveda. If 89 parking spaces lost is too much for you to accept, you could go with a hybrid of Option 1 between Mentone and Kelton (where there’s no two-way center left turn lane today) and Option 2 elsewhere, which would reduce the parking impact to 46 spaces lost.

My personal order of preference for solutions would be Option 3 or Option 4 (depending on traffic analysis and someone who knows more than me about cycle track design looking at the suitability of Palms for cycle tracks), and then Option 2 or Option 5 (depending on the relative trade-offs of keeping some parking versus keeping the two-way center left turn lane). But even the Option 1/Option 2 hybrid or Option 1 would be an improvement over the way things are today.

Of course, there probably plenty of other alternatives I’m not thinking of, so get over to Streetmix and work up your own option!

Note: I’m showing 6’ as the sidewalk width, even though it’s wider towards the outside in some places, and west of Kelton there are grass strips between the curb and sidewalk. The ROW west of Overland is definitely wider, which would give more flexibility there. I realize that none of these options improve sidewalk width; I’m just looking at what we could do with paint here. Moving the curb requires adjusting drainage inlets and possibly regrading the road, which turns this from essentially a maintenance project into a capital project.