Bike lanes, ‘sharrows’ coming to Centre/South

May 14, 2010
By

John Ruch

Bicycle lanes and shared-lane markings are coming to all of Centre and South streets through Jamaica Plain by next spring, the city announced at an April 29 Centre/South Action Plan meeting.

JP’s huge bicycling community had been debating whether bike lanes or shared-lane markings, known as “sharrows,” are safer for Centre/South. It turns out that everyone was right.

The city’s plan now involves both devices, including long stretches with a bike lane on one side of the road and a sharrow on the other. Dozens of bike advocates responded positively to the plan at the meeting at the Agassiz Elementary School.

“There are a lot of would-be cyclists, and this will bring them out,” said Bob Dizon, coordinator of JP Bikes, in a Gazette interview after the meeting.

“This is a landmark moment for JP as a neighborhood,” said Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), to the Gazette.

The JP “bike accommodations” work was planned by Toole Design Group, a well-regarded Maryland engineering firm that is formulating a citywide bike plan for Boston. Bill Schultheiss, a Toole transportation engineer, presented the Centre/South plan.

The work will consist only of painting lines on the road, and shifting the center line in some spots. No roadway changes or removal of parking spaces are immediately planned.

The bicycle accommodation markings will be done either this fall or in spring of 2011, Gupta said.

A bike lane is a separate, narrower lane for bikes running along the right-hand side of the road. A sharrow is an image of a bicycle and an arrow painted on the street as an encouragement for bicyclists and as a bike-rights reminder to motorists.

The plan calls for:

• Bike lanes on both sides of the street on: Centre between Green Street and Lakeville Road; and Centre and South between Sedgwick and Burroughs streets.

• A bike lane going uphill and a sharrow going downhill on steeper sections of the corridor: Centre between Hyde and Jackson Squares; and South between McBride and Sedgwick streets.

• Sharrows on both sides of the street on: South between New Washington and McBride streets; Centre between Burroughs and Green; and Centre between Lakeville and Hyde Square.

The idea behind the different uphill/downhill markings is that bicyclists tend to go more slowly and need more space when they climb hills, so a bike lane is a better option. Downhill, bicyclists can go faster and straighter, so that a sharrow will be enough.

The city is also considering adding short painted lines running perpendicular to the edge of the bike lanes to alert bicyclists to the “door zone.” That is the area where an opening door of a parked car can hit a bicyclist in a type of accident called “dooring.”

Signage and an education and police enforcement campaign are planned. Many motorists and bicyclists don’t know, for example, that using a bike lane is optional. Last month, the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association decided not to take a stand on lanes or sharrows, in part because of confusion about the traffic laws regarding them.

While the plan was generally well-received, three bicycle advocates expressed concerns that the variety of markings in central JP will be less safe than one consistent device.

“I don’t think this is quite safe enough for kids,” said Christine Poff, who heads the Franklin Park Coalition, of the sudden switch from bike lanes to sharrows and back in that area.

Gupta said the city will talk with merchants in the area between Burroughs and Green streets about possibly removing some parking. That would allow for bike lanes to be installed there as well, creating a bike lane-only section between Sedgwick Street and Lakeville Road.

On a larger scale, the city also is looking at ways to mark bicycling routes on side streets to connect Centre/South to the Southwest Corridor and Emerald Necklace bike paths.

The bike accommodations on Centre/South are intended as a short-term improvement and something of an experiment.

The Centre/South Action Plan is looking at long-term street improvements of all kinds, including possibly more built-in bike accommodations. For example, the plan’s designers, McMahon Associates, has one design alternative for Hyde/Jackson Squares that shows some parking removed to add bike lanes on Centre Street. Those sorts of changes, even if approved by the community, would be years away.

Schultheiss later told the Gazette that another possible long-term improvement to consider is bike parking spaces. Spaces that hold one or two cars could hold 20 to 30 bicycles, he said, describing how such set-ups have been successful in business districts in other cities.
Lanes and sharrows: Friends, not enemies

Gupta originally announced a bike-lane-only plan for Centre Street between Canary and Monument Squares at a January meeting of the Centre/South Action Plan working group. That plan drew positive responses from several bicycle advocates in the room, but also criticism from two other prominent bicycle experts, questioning the safety of bike lanes and whether the street is wide enough for them anyway.

Heated controversy erupted in the bike community. City officials regrouped and re-thought their plan. Advocates debated each other in letters to the editor in the Gazette. JP Bikes and the Boston Cyclists’ Union gathered more than 1,400 signatures on a petition calling for “the addition of bike lanes to Centre and South streets wherever possible.”

BTD’s final plan was carefully managed in both style and substance. In Toole Design, BTD found a planning company that is almost universally respected in the local bicycling community. Schultheiss noted that his wife once lived locally on Custer Street, “so I’m very familiar with Jamaica Plain.”

BTD previewed the bike accommodation plan in private meetings with bike and merchant groups, according to Gupta, so there were no big surprises at the April 29 public meeting. Spin management continued even after the meeting, as Gupta called Schultheiss away from a Gazette interview, warning him about speaking to the press.

The plan was clearly responsive to all of the public input. It is both different from and bigger than the originally bike lane plan. Both types of devices championed by the debating bike advocates are included, and the plan now covers every inch of the Centre/South corridor. BTD also acknowledged that concerns about the street width were correct, and that bike lanes are not possible on about one-third of the section originally pegged for lanes.

“I’ve read that same story in other cities,” Schultheiss said after the meeting about a previous Gazette article on the debate. Bike lane plans usually trigger an initial controversy, and whatever bike accommodation that goes in usually makes bicyclists and the community happy, he said.

What is “unique” in Boston, Schultheiss said, is the “comprehensive approach” the city is taking to bike accommodations, both locally and citywide.

The bike lane debate in JP was largely around safety. Supporters said that lanes encourage more riders and create a “safety in numbers” effect. Paul Schimek, former head of the city’s bike program, warned that lanes can put bicyclists in danger of dooring.

Schultheiss addressed the debate in the April 29 meeting, generally downplaying the direct safety impacts of lanes and sharrows. Safety data is badly lacking, both because of official ignorance and the relatively recent use of such devices, he said.

“A bike lane doesn’t mean it’s safer. It’s just more comfortable,” Schultheiss said.

He noted that the scant studies on dooring show that it is the cause of a low percentage of urban bike accidents. And he described the “safety in numbers” effect—documented in an influential 2003 journal article of the same name—as ambiguous and unproven.

Peter Jacobsen, the author of the “Safety in Numbers” study, previously told the Gazette that the overall health benefits of bicycling should be the focus of discussion, rather than injury risk.

Schultheiss said that lanes and sharrows accomplish similar goals: encouraging more bicycling; making bicyclists more comfortable; emphasizing that bikes have a legitimate right to the road; and encouraging bike-riders to follow traffic laws.

Lanes have the advantage of being continuous and easy to see. They also provide more organization of the street, which is especially significant in a city that is unusually resistant to painting lane markings of any kind, Schultheiss said.

The main argument against bike lanes is political, Schultheiss said—“that any kind of bicycle lane delegitimizes your right to use the roadway.”

“It is real,” he added of that effect. He described how car drivers often shout at bicyclists who choose not to use a bike lane, mistakenly thinking that bikes have to be in the lane.

Overall, Schultheiss said, any bike accommodation is better than none, and will boost bicycling rates. The even bigger picture, he later told the Gazette, is that street improvements will help everyone—bikes, pedestrians and motorists. He noted that street design today is “multi-modal” rather than car-focused as it has been for decades.

“It all comes back to balance,” he said.

Other business

With bike accommodations dominating the meeting, the Centre/South Action Plan working group had no further discussion of its controversial redesign ideas for Hyde and Monument Squares.

Ralph DeNisco of McMahon Associates briefly presented a study of parking turnover on streets and municipal lots in the corridor. It appears that the study was thorough, but its analysis is still ongoing. Early results suggest that some areas have a significant amount of vehicles parking for hours at a time. DeNisco recommended that the working group discuss adding parking meters to the corridor.

Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) official Mark Melnik presented early results of on-street survey that is investigating how and why people go to Centre/South. The study found that a lot of visitors are JP residents, and the biggest percentage arrived in the corridor on foot. But only 97 people were surveyed, which is not a statistically significant sample, Melnik acknowledged. He described the surveying as preliminary. More surveying will be done in the near future.

Sandra Storey contributed to this article.