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A wrap-up

In responding to Mr. Curry's  letter, I'll first express my regret that people knowledgeable of and concerned about good bicycle facilities engineering did not become aware of this project earlier, before it gained as much momentum. I realize now that the eastern part of the project, at least, was nearly a fait accompli by the time opponents were first aware of it and first saw the design drawings (December, 2001). But on the other hand, MIT ought to have known better in the first place, and the delays in MIT's response to criticism amounted to stonewalling.

Mr. Curry has made assertions about the success of sidepath projects and about the professionalism of the designers. I have stated my case against the design already, and I am not won over by his claims. I will not waste time repeating previous criticisms, other than to refer to them and to the list of research literature I provided. Let me only say that the design itself clearly identifies the level of traffic engineering competence and/or concern of its designers and, now that the sidepaths have been constructed, they speak for themselves and for the reliability of promises made by the project planners. I must now, however, address a claim made at the July 2 meeting by Mr. Paul Smith, AICP, of Rizzo Associates, and which Mr. Curry has repeated.

Mr. Smith asserted that the project meets AASHTO specifications, and Mr. Curry repeats that assertion. Apparently, the main thrust of this assertion is that AASHTO permits sidepaths, and so sidepaths are all right on Vassar Street. Well, here is what the AASHTO Guide says:

"In a few limited situations, such as on long and narrow bridges and where bicyclists are incidental or infrequent users, the sidewalk can serve as an alternate facility, provided any significant difference in height from the roadway is protected by a suitable barrier between the sidewalk and roadway." (AASHTO Guide, 1999 edition, page 20). The Guide goes on to say: "It is important to recognize that the development of extremely wide sidewalks does not necessarily add to the safety of sidewalk bicycle travel, since wide sidewalks encourage higher speed bicycle use and increase potential for conflicts with motor vehicles at intersections, as well as with pedestrians and fixed objects."

Also see the long list of warnings on page 58 of the AASHTO guide.

The exceptions AASHTO specifies do not apply to Vassar Street. The facility AASHTO recommends against is exactly the one to be built here, except for the transition to an on-street facility at intersections with streets (though not at driveways). I also concur with John Forester that AASHTO standards are in some ways deficient -- but following them would have avoided the worst errors.

Mr. Curry states, entirely correctly, that no facility can entirely eliminate risks. But on the other hand, some types of facilities have been shown through careful research to have far greater risks -- and poorer performance -- than others, and it is good engineering practice to choose the facility with lower risks and higher performance.

Mr. Curry gives a list of safety improvements to the project. This is the standard litany provided by proponents of sidewalk facilities. But MIT and the City are in effect amputating a good leg and then expressing satisfaction with the excellent prosthesis provided as a substitute. Regardless of all the improvements, the maximum safe bicycle travel speed at times of heavy use, and at driveways, will be about 5 miles per hour. Bicyclists will not travel that slowly, and so the crash rate will be higher than for an on-street facility taking advantage of the pre-existing, ample roadway width. Some bicyclists will ride on the narrowed roadway rather than to tolerate riding through crowds of pedestrians at low speeds. The impossibility of maintaining the surface free of ice and snow in the winter will also compel bicyclists to ride in the roadway.

Now that I have made a final statement about my concerns, I would like to discuss possibilities for the future.

On July 2, as mentioned on an earlier page, opponents of the project met with Paul Curley, Talitha Fabricius and Paul Smith. We  restated our concerns about the project, which we had already stated at an earlier meeting. We were told the following:

  1. The eastern part of the project was to go out to bid the next day, July 3.

  2. However, plans for the part of the project west of Massachusetts Avenue are still in an early enough stage that they might be reconsidered.

  3. Opponents of the project are to have the opportunity to meet with President Vest or his successor to discuss the project further.

  4. MIT will conduct an educational effort targeted at bicyclists

  5. MIT will track crash rates, types and causes of its personnel through the medical department.

I am pleased to see that Mr. Curry has reiterated these statements in his letter. But let me stress that the points 2, 4 and 5 require extensive implementation.

To be effective in reducing crash rates, an educational effort targeted at bicyclists must address not only how to use this facility (slowly, and very carefully -- in my opinion an unrealistic expectation); education  must more generally address the importance of operating according to the traffic law; bicycle operating skills; the importance of safety equipment including lights and helmets; and proper bicycle maintenance. Such a program should be accompanied by a program of enforcement by campus police. There is also the opportunity for discount programs with local bicycle shops to supply needed equipment and repairs at special prices.

A research program ought to track crashes not only on Vassar Street, but all bicycle crashes which lead to treatment in the MIT medical department. It might also track other injury-causing events not involving bicycles. Such a program not only has the opportunity to provide valuable information to the Institute for the purpose of identifying causes and locations of injury-causing events, and developing countermeasures; it also could constitute a very interesting and relevant ongoing research project for institute faculty and students.

I hope that MIT will alter the design of the western part of the project to reflect state-of-the-art design and the results of safety research. This possibility was specifically suggested by Mr. Paul Curley of the MIT Facilities Department at the meeting on July 2.

I also note that it is still be possible to restore the affected block of Vassar Street to an appropriate width for bicycle/motor vehicle lane sharing by removing parking spaces and berms along one side of the street.

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