Road changes that work and changes that make things worse

Last October, I made a pact with myself to stay out of bicycle-car conversations on Facebook. I promised myself to abstain from October until Thanksgiving. I lasted until the next June. That’s a win for my mental health. But I fell off the wagon.

What knocked me off the wagon was reading yet another “I love the new roadway” post. It starts out mentioning the change: creation of a one-way from a two-way and adding two protected bike lanes. That’s all well and good, on the face of it. Except that there is now no street parking for blocks along that route. Then, the author goes into either hyperbole or fiction; this is a direct quote:

“It was SO NICE not to be watching out for too-fast cars maybe coming up on the sidewalk or hitting each other while we walked.”

I don’t believe that. So, a little data check shows that there have been zero reported accidents on that street since 2018. So, chances are, this is fiction. There’s chance that she experienced something that didn’t result in a true accident. But, pleeeease.

What is the point of these road changes?

Reduced car dependence will reduce pollution. If we had fewer cars, we’d have less pollution. Make the roads narrower and more difficult to navigate, and drivers will be forced to slow down or choose not to drive at all. That’s the reasoning, anyway.

The theory behind this urban plan is called the “induced demand problem.” It is proven that when a highway is widened, more cars use it. There is no evidence that the same thing happens on local surface roads. But, it’s the principle informing the policies that are making roads less navigable while, at the same time, creating routes for bicycles.

As they are currently being enacted, there are several parts of town where the increase in bumper-to-bumper traffic is doing more harm to the air quality than a normal volume of cars. Creating road conditions that contribute to ongoing traffic jams is wasting driver’s time, wasting petrochemicals, and increasing pollution — not reducing it.

“An idling vehicle emits 20 times more pollution than one traveling 32 miles per hour. By turning off your engine, you can help stop global warming, acid rain, and smog.” [source] However, drivers in bumper-to-bumper are stuck idling.

Pedestrian safety. Changing roadways to increase safety for walkers is also a worthy project. There are many ways to slow drivers down without creating a confusing and distracting roadway, however.

Example: Around Silver Spring, Maryland there are roads that are easy to drive on: fairly straight, good sight lines, two lanes, turning lanes, lights, no speed bumps. These roads are similar to Soldier’s Field Road in Brighton. While visiting there, I noticed that all the drivers were traveling around 30 MPH, whereas people speed all the time on Soldier’s Field Road. IT WAS SO PLEASANT TO DRIVE THESE MARYLAND ROADS.

Then I saw why. I was cruising along when I saw a camera array giving tickets to anyone speeding. Guess what: that works. It probably is a net financial plus to the city, too.

Changes like this would increase safety for everyone.

Bicycle use is up. Bicyclist deserve safe travel routes. Many of the changes needed involve protected bike lanes. Bicyclists are in harm’s way when they travel along the edge of parallel parked cars. Parked drivers cannot easily see the cyclists, and a suddenly opened car door can do grievous bodily harm to the cyclist. People get badly hurt. It needs to change.

Every time a road pattern changes, there is a period a change when drivers get confused because what they are used to is gone. It causes abrupt stops, abrupt turns, and distractions. This adjustment period might be worth it. After some getting used to it, drivers seem to be driving normally through streets with protected lanes. There are lots of good ones, and some that are good enough, once drivers get used to them. However, Somerville is a city with a lot of short-term residents; they all face this learning curve.

Changes that depend on awkward road configurations that require drivers to make sudden adjustments are a problem. This distraction feels punitive to me, as a driver, when linked with rhetoric that says that reducing driving is the goal.

The push to encourage people to give up their cars may have good intentions, but it entirely ignores the needs of anyone who cannot walk a mile or cannot ride a bicycle. It appears environmentally friendly, but is not looking at the increased carbon footprint of traffic jams, pollution from delivery vehicles for the so-called car-free, and the municipal cost of making the roads less driveable.

Change that is counter-productive. My hate-list:

Some of the road changes are meant to slow traffic down, permanently. They involve:

The creation of a sudden curve on a straight road surface. (Summer Street at St. Catherine’s)

The replacement of a bus stop area with a concrete slab which makes the bus stop in the only travel lane at a major intersection. This is creating a bottleneck in two directions several times a day. (Cameron Avenue at Holland Street)

Designing a two-lane road to have sudden lane shifts and merges that create a bottleneck on those streets several times a day. (Massachusetts Avenue from the Arlington line to Dudley Street, and other roads in Somerville).

Reducing parking for significant stretches of road in residential areas (too many to name them all). This makes parking hard for delivery vehicles or residents with packages. It disenfranchises disabled or elderly people. It encourages delivery trucks to stop in the travel lane while making stops.

Thank you for sticking with me. I am back on the no-car-vs-bicycle post reading regimen until Labor Day.

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