Should We Put Bikes in the “Slow Lane”?

And Lyft offers free rides to organizations serving resource-deprived Black communities and more in this week's The Mobile City.

(Photo by Mr.PMCP / CC BY 2.0)

Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

In addition to encouraging more people to ride, bicycle advocates of all stripes seek to get motorists to accept bikes and their riders as legitimate users of road space. But they split into two camps over the best way to do this. The dominant camp since the 1980s promotes what’s been dubbed the “Amsterdam” or “Scandinavian” model, which promotes protected bike lanes separate from motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic as the best way to make cycling safer for more people. A dedicated minority, most prominently the late cyclist-engineer John Forester, advocate instead for “vehicular cycling” — having bikes operate in the general traffic stream, with bicyclists behaving like drivers of non-motorized cars.

Forester, who successfully overturned a law in Palo Alto, Calif., that would have relegated bicyclists to the sidewalk, was an implacable foe of separate bike lanes right up until his death this past April at age 89. His opponents, while acknowledging the need for vehicular cycling where dedicated facilities don’t exist, nonetheless pointed to higher bike ridership and fewer crashes wherever such facilities had been built.

One might have thought this should settle the debate. But the city of Madrid, which took a different course, has reopened it. Lacking the money to build a bike-lane network, the city instead marked regular travel lanes in city streets as restricted to vehicles operating at 30 km/h (18.6 mph), and it says that these “slow lanes” actually lead to even fewer crashes while boosting bike use. Somewhere up there, Forester is no doubt smiling while taking the lane in order to make a left turn.

Meanwhile, back down here, transportation, like everything else, is a social- and racial-justice issue, and the battle for transportation equity has moved into the ride-hailing realm. This week, Lyft joined the battle by setting up a grant program that allows organizations to offer free rides to residents of resource-deprived communities.

On the construction front, there’s another familiar story: Cost overruns have led to disputes between the two private companies building the Purple Line light metro in the Washington suburbs. The feuding has gotten to the point where the state of Maryland is threatening to take the project over itself.

And finally this week, an easy-to-follow series of animated illustrations in a New York Times article show why subway cars have not become rolling COVID-19 clusters.

Madrid Says It’s Found A Way to Promote Safer Bicycling on the Cheap

Protected bike lanes remain the gold standard for promoting greater bicycle use for basic transportation. A large body of research now exists that shows such lanes reduce the incidence of injuries and fatalities among bike riders and lead more people to take basic trips by bike.

But building such bike lanes costs money, and when the city of Madrid faced potential fines from the European Union for failing to reduce transportation emissions in 2013, money was something it lacked. So the city simply stocked up on white paint and opted for a different approach. Now the city is touting its approach as just as effective as protected bike lanes, leading even Streetsblog USA to ask “Is It Time for the U.S. to Try the ‘Madrid Model’ of Vehicular Cycling Infrastructure?”

Those familiar with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines (“Every headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word ‘No.’”) might be surprised to find out that the answer Streetsblog gave is “Maybe.” The article lays out the case for the Spanish approach thusly: After marking lanes on city streets with a restricted speed of 30 km/h (18.6 mph), the share of trips taken by bike gradually rose, peaking at 6 percent in July 2018. (Even with an expanding network of both protected and unprotected dedicated bike lanes on U.S. city streets, bikes account for only 1 percent of all trips taken.)

Madrid’s “slow lanes” follow the traditional rules of the road in that they are located as far to the right as possible on a multi-lane thoroughfare. Their use is restricted to low-speed vehicles, which are required to take the lane by law, and cars can use them only if they observe the low speed limit. Those that do not face stiff fines. And at the same time that the city started marking slow lanes, it launched an e-bike-share program to encourage more Madrileños to bike their way around the hilly city.

The approach appears to work. By 2018, the article states, Madrid had the third-lowest rate of bicycle crashes per million trips in Europe, behind only Amsterdam and Copenhagen — both poster children for the opposite approach. And its fatality rate tied with Oslo, another protected-bike-lane city, for the lowest.

This, the article suggests, should be good news for American bicycle advocates who want to see more two-wheeled, human-powered vehicles on the road. John Allen of Cycling Savvy pointed out the advantages of the Madrid approach in a blog post quoted in the article: “[Most people] don’t understand the consequences of riding on the edge [of the street]: The close passing, insufficient buffer space, inconsistent available width, debris hazards, and lack of vantage around corners,” he wrote. Dedicating an entire vehicular traffic lane away from the curb and parked cars to slow-moving vehicles eliminates these problems.

But the Streetsblog article also goes on to wonder whether the approach actually expands the population of bike riders. John Forester had advocated vehicular cycling because it enabled more athletic bicycle riders like himself to operate at their top speed; increasing the pool of bike riders was a secondary concern for him if it was one at all. Noting that “the success it has had is something of a happy accident,” the Streetsblog article goes on to note that data on both bike use and cycling fatalities in Madrid are spotty at best. “Nor does the scarce data address the crucial question of who is using the new lanes, aside from able-bodied, fearless, disproportionately male and white cyclists who are more often willing to bike while surrounded by traffic,” it continues.

But, it concludes, even if the data that exist show that the Scandinavian model is actually safer, the Madrid model has its advantages. One is that it reminds motorists that cyclists have an absolute right to use the road. Another is that it’s much cheaper to implement, which will make it a contender for adoption by cities long on ambition but short on money, a condition that will be more widespread thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The advocacy group Madrid Cyclista throws down the gauntlet in a brief for the Madrid model posted to its blog (the following translated from Spanish): “The advantage of the late incorporation of the bicycle in Madrid is that it allows us to learn from the mistakes of those who started earlier and adapt their successes to the sustainability of a large city of the 21st century. The models, basically central and northern Europe, made sense in the era of automobile expansion, when it implied progress. Now society has realized the unsustainability of this conception of mobility and therefore this scheme has become obsolete. Cities like Amsterdam are in this sense slaves of their past and cannot renounce the model that defines them, that is why they will be the last to join the trend that Madrid is setting and which will be the majority in Europe in a few years.”

To which Streetsblog adds, “It’s up to Americans to decide whether such a future would be a dream, a nightmare, or, more likely, simply better than what we have now — which is next to nothing.”

Lyft Offers Free Rides to Low-Income Black Communities

Say what you will about ride-hailing, it has revolutionized urban mobility by putting taxi-like rides within reach of many more people. That it has done so by offloading most of the costs of vehicle maintenance onto the driver is a feature, not a bug. But even these cheaper rides remain beyond reach for many residents of low-income neighborhoods who might use them for errands like grocery shopping, job interviews and doctor’s office visits if they could.

Some grocery stores have addressed this issue by pairing with Lyft or Uber to offer free rides to customers who spend above a set amount. Now, BET reports, Lyft plans to tackle it from the service-provider angle.

Building on its LyftUp program, which has offered free bike-share memberships to disadvantaged youth since January, the ride-hailing company announced Aug. 10 that it is forming an organization called the LyftUp Access Alliance. The alliance will make free rides available to people in underserved communities of color.

Lyft has pledged to make 1.5 million rides available through its partner organizations in the alliance, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network, My Brother’s Keeper and the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

“Transportation costs are the second-largest expense for most American households, taking down on average 20 cents of every dollar of income and as much as 55 cents for every dollar earned by the poorest households,” Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer said in the Aug. 10 conference call announcing the alliance. “In large metro areas, Black Americans typically have longer commutes and Black households in America are more than three times as likely to not own a car.”

“Impact-driven” community organizations in cities across the country may apply for Lyft Community Grants that provide up to $20,000 in ride credits for the people they serve. Lyft announced during the conference call that all of these grants will be awarded to organizations serving under-resourced communities of color.

Maryland Prepares to Take Over Purple Line Construction Project

The public-private partnership that’s building the Purple Line light metro in the northern suburbs of Washington is on the verge of collapse over cost overruns, the Washington Post reports. As a result, the state of Maryland sent a letter to the project’s 171 subcontractors Aug. 5 saying it was preparing to take over management of the project if no agreement could be reached on who should cover the overruns by Aug. 22.

The $2 billion construction project is currently $755 million over budget, arising largely from two and a half years of construction delays. Purple Line Transit Partners, the consortium building the line, wants the state to cover the entire overage and has said it will terminate the partnership if it and the state don’t reach a deal by the deadline. The contractor in charge of the work is already preparing work sites for mothballing.

If the state assumes control of the entire project, it will also have to come up with another way to finance $1 billion of the project budget that was to have come from the private-sector partners. That figure does not include the current cost overruns.

According to the article, negotiations over picking up the $755 million are not progresing well, but both sides are continuing to talk. Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson says the state remains “open to a fair and reasonable settlement” and sent the letter mainly to protect its interests in seeing the project through to completion. A spokesperson for Purple Line Transit Partners says its member companies “remain convinced that a settlement is in all parties’ interest because it will deliver the Purple Line sooner and at lower cost than any other alternative.”

A second reason for both sides to reach an agreement: Meridiam, the lead company in the consortium, is also bidding on a $10 billion project to add high-occupancy-toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Maryland, and walking away from this project would damage its chances of winning that bid.

Why You’re More Likely to Catch COVID Dining Out than Riding a Subway Train

A subway car is a very small confined space, with about as much interior square footage as a hole-in-the-wall lunch counter. So it should be only logical that the odds of catching the COVID-19 coronavirus would be as high when one rides a subway train as they would be eating lunch in that tiny restaurant.

But not only is that not the case, the odds are lower than they would be dining out in a normal-sized restaurant. The reason why: Subway cars have better airflow than that restaurant.

An article on Billy Penn Aug. 7 explained that the air inside a Market-Frankford or Broad Street rapid transit car changes every 2 to 3 minutes, and the figures are similar for buses, trolleys and Regional Rail trains. Those frequent air changes greatly reduce the risk of COVID spread among riders.

And Aug. 10, The New York Times published an animated graphic article that shows just how air flows through a New York City subway car.

The article notes that at any given moment, 75 percent of the air a rider breathes inside a subway car is recycled, while the other 25 percent comes in from the outside. That air then flows upward through intake vents in the ceiling of each car, where it passes through filters and cooling units before being returned to the car via ceiling ducts. Fresh air from outside is mixed in with the interior air through filter-equipped intake ducts in the car roof and through car doors when they open; this air then combines with the air already in the car and makes its way to the interior intake ducts and filters. The entire circulation cycle takes 30 seconds to complete.

The air inside the cars changes every three minutes and 20 seconds, on average. That works out to at least 18 times an hour, which is two and a half to three times the recommended exchange rate for offices and up to six times the recommended rate for schools.

That doesn’t mean that the cars are entirely safe: If a rider sneezes inside the car, the fine aerosols could recirculate inside the car up to three times, and the filters don’t trap each and every particle that flows through them. That’s why mask-wearing — and avoiding a full car — remain important tools for keeping the subways safe. MTA New York City Transit, however, is also experimenting with adding ultraviolet lighting to kill any airborne virus inside the car, and with subway ridership down to 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels, full cars should be easy to avoid.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationlight railbikingbike safetyride-hailingmadrid

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