24 January 2017

Bike Boulevards of Broken Dreams



Guldbergsgade, Copenhagen, Denmark (MCA)

Bike Boulevards of Broken Dreams
by Holly Hixson

Holly Hixson has a background in Urban Planning and Psychology from the University of Oregon. She has interned in the Copenhagenize office in both Montreal and Copenhagen.

As an intern for the Danish urban design firm Copenhagenize Design Co., I’ve learned a lot about best practices in bike planning, about committing to those best practices rather than taking a half-step and calling it progress and about making bold moves toward a future you want for your city.
I’ve been able to ride on the best bicycle infrastructure in the world that is lively and overflowing with people, sheer proof that if you build it, and you build it correctly, bicycle users will come. Today’s reality on the streets of Copenhagen looks like what we want for the future of mobility in our cities. A future without hoverboards and flying cars but with regular people, using the bicycle as a tool, not because they are extraordinary humans but because they have things to do and want to get there quick. Simple.

My reality for the most part, looks a lot different than this. I’m from Portland, Oregon. I still get stuck places where a painted bike lane abruptly ends, I still feel unsafe, unsupported, even in what’s considered one of the most bike friendly cities in the U.S., growth is measured in half-steps; I know these streets weren't built for me. I’ve often found it most pleasant to resort to neighborhood streets elsewhere. Luckily, I live in a neighborhood that has made deliberate decisions about how these local streets should feel to a people on bikes.

Enter: the bicycle boulevard. Internationally, variations of this concept have existed since around 1980 when Germany began making bike priority streets - the fahrradstraße. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK have similar concepts, the cykelgade, fietsstraat, woonerfen among other bike priority streets incorporate traffic calming techniques have been great for filling in gaps in the bike networks. And let me stress: filling in the network. These quiet streets have been used as a tool to add to networks, not to create the backbone of them. Indeed, Copenhagen experimented with the idea in the early 90s and then promptly ditched them. Instead prioritizing bicycle infrastructure along the natural desire lines in the city - the streets leading to the city centre.


Netherlands (Herman Wouters, New York Times)

Esslingen, Germany (http://dasfahrradblog.blogspot.ca/)

Similar ideas have also been popping up (with varying levels of success) in North American cities such as Austin, Vancouver and Minneapolis. Often they are used as cheap and easy bicycle connections in lieu of real A-to-B infrastructure, but when designed properly, a bicycle boulevard that adds to a greater network can look like this:


Minneapolis, MN (koonceportland.blogspot.ca


Berkeley, CA (Carrie Cizauskas) (planplaceblog.com
James Mayer (OregonLive) Portland, Oregon (above)


They contain elements such as chicanes - raised curbs that narrow streets in a serpentine pattern so that drivers have fewer stretches of wide open space. In some spots, the road is accessible to only bikes and by car only for residents. Scattered throughout are small roundabouts, landscaping and extended curbs at intersections. Clearly marked signs remind cars they are not the top priority on these streets, tell people on bikes what’s nearby and of course there are LOTS of speed bumps. These solutions are all pretty simple: design spaces that calm car traffic and ease bicycle traffic. And do it on purpose.

Vancouver BC Fundamentals of bicycle boulevard planning & design, PSU (above)

On the other hand, when done half-heartedly, a bike boulevard can look like this: Wide open space, no traffic calming devices, no priority, just paint declaring it a bicycle boulevard.


Thatcher Imboden ( Minneapolis, MN

This example, brings me to Montréal. Here I was, interning at Copenhagenize’s North American office and what I’ve gathered is that Montréal, like Portland, is familiar with taking half-steps in the direction of progress. Putting in the largest protected cycle track network in North America, to their credit, makes a statement about the kind of future the city aspires to.

However, a city that anticipates over 200 cm of snowfall annually can’t be taken seriously as a leader in bicycle urbanism internationally if most of those protected cycle tracks and significant bicycle parking are taken out for half of the year. It goes without saying that cars do not face the same forced hibernation in the presence of snow. There is evidence of a change in that attitude, with much improved steps being taken in local maintenance so far this winter.


Bartek Komorowski (Montreal)

To put my experience in context, as someone new to the city, I’ve found it fairly easy to navigate the streets by bike. Neighborhoods like the Plateau are dense with apartments and destinations; restaurants, cafes, bars, shopping, public space. The quiet, narrow streets don’t give me priority but they also don’t make me feel largely unsafe or too small for the space. This is true on neighbourhood streets and seems to be a popular opinion given that the city of Montréal as a whole only has about 3% of people commuting by bicycle, while the Plateau has over 10%. It would not take much to greatly affect how people on bikes feel in this space, to give them priority over cars and to do this by using design. Simply painting shared lane markings on the street and dubbing it bicycle infrastructure though, is not enough. We know now what we have long suspected. Sharrows don't work.

The newest additions to the Montréal bicycle network (currently being pursued as pilot projects) are two bicycle boulevards, or vélorues, on Rue de Mentana and Saint-André. Both are great opportunities to add to the network and indicate priority and commitment to actual change in how people are getting around the city. Mentana and Saint-André are fairly quiet and narrow, one-way streets with parking on either side. As of now, there are the occasional speed bumps, signs saying that trucks aren’t allowed to access these roads and painted sharrows (shared road symbols) on the street. However, the paint used is not long-lasting thermoplast paint, so after just a few weeks of snow and slush, the symbols are already tattered and faded. And now, after a few months of winter - almost non-existent.

 
Holly Hixson (Rue Saint-André) left & Michael Wexler (Rue Mentana) right

Both vélorues cross several perpendicular streets, including Saint-Joseph - a 6 lane residential boulevard and a high volume East-West connector for cars, especially during rush hour. Down the center of Saint-Joseph is a narrow median with room for pedestrians and bikes to wait so as not to cross two-way traffic at once, diverting cars from taking Mentana or Saint-André all the way through. This space existed before the bicycle boulevard project began, already offering traffic calming to the area and continues to be very tight for bicycles and pedestrians to feel fully comfortable.


Holly Hixson (Rue Saint-Joseph)

One significant change here is the addition of four signals installed at the crossing of Saint-Joseph and Rachel streets which give bikes and pedestrians safe passage on a green light. Despite this, there are not yet signs that say bikes have priority. There are no new pieces of infrastructure or signs that limit the speed for cars. There are no other new traffic calming elements present.


(Holly Hixson)

Drawing on past projects that Montréal has done and a desire to continuously make progress for bicycles in the city, a pilot project can be helpful in improving existing assets and gaining public support for new ideas. Sure, these streets are fairly comfortable to ride a bike on, but only as much as they ever have been.

If money is being invested in the creation of vélorues, if the City desires political praise for doing something for bikes, then new infrastructure (especially pilot projects) must really show their commitment to innovation. In order for Montréal’s pilot project to be successful, these aspects of real traffic calming - for example new diverters, planters, chicanes, signage, and solid public outreach - need to be present from the start. There are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from.


via Marc-André Gadoury (Montreal)

Looking forward, let us not conform to a substandard “good enough” attitude, let's look to best practices and replicate those, and redesign space to speak for itself. We must abandon half-step attempts and instead take bold strides in the direction of progress. We commend the City of Montréal on the announcement of new projects like the 3km stretch of Copenhagen-style cycle tracks to be implemented in 2017 (see above), but wish that efforts like the new vélorues aimed for the same level of commitment to innovation.