Urban transportation

I admit to always being interest in the design and implementation of transportation networks within urban environments. My focus was on the moving of people instead of goods, and at least early on, I largely ignored the reality of needing to move material and products.

I never really dove into the topic, but I did choose to use a bus system as a project for a systems engineering class. That experience was completely disappointing in all aspects, but I mention it only because of all the things I could have chosen, I did choose a people transport system.

It is somewhat contradictory that I would be so interested in the moving of people. I generally prefer to live a solitary life, and even when traveling, I prefer the paths less traveled. When there is congestion, I must prefer seeing it ahead of me than behind me. In other words, if I encounter congestion, I would prefer to be at the end with the opportunity to escape or at least pull aside and wait it out.

That said, when I first moved to this town, I made good use of the subway system. This was at a time when it was used heavily and in a town that had very well defined office hours. The platforms would get crowded where the best way out was to get on an already packed train.

I fully admit that I was uncomfortable being in such crowded space. Particularly unnerving for me was when the train stopped mid-tunnel and that would always be in one of the longer stretches between stops. Despite all that, I looked forward to using the train. I made it a goal that I would prefer jobs that were near a subway station. I managed to do that just for 3 of my 8 different employers. The third one was my last employer and I don’t really want to count that one because it required riding out to the very end of the line, where the latter path was in the reverse commuting direction, so the train was nearly empty.

In the two that were on the metro, the jobs were four stops from my home and this meant that a bus or even walking was a viable alternative. Train would be faster most of the time, but other times the bus would be faster, and even other times walking would beat the motorized options. It was a decent walk, but choosing to walk was an admission that I didn’t have anything to rush back to.

It is curious that I am fascinated about the real problems of transportation within a city and yet personally I do not live a life that particularly demands anything from that same system. I am personally disinterested in the transportation system, for the most part. I have my requirements for the transportation system, but my requirements are very low compared to most people. I do not have any place I need to get to at a particular time, or multiple things to go to in the same day. Other people do, and I am interested in better ways to do that. Again, I have not applied any real effort to get involved in the process, but I think my personally disinterested interest could have been productive. It is better to design something for other people, than to design something for my personal preferences and make that the option for everyone.

I adapt to whatever transportation system is offered. Recently, the county sent me a survey to get my opinions about existing transportation options and where I would like to see improvements. Once I started that survey, I regretted starting it. I don’t really want a transportation system that suits me because I know it won’t suit others. Yet, the point of the survey, was to find out how many people may be like me. Even after filling out the survey I regret submitting it. I don’t want my preferences to influence the transportation design. I am pretty confident my input is an outlier. I rarely see any pedestrians carry grocery bags in both hands for over a mile and into a neighborhood of single family houses.

My interest is in better sidewalks to keep them from becoming scooter lanes. I admire the scooters as a transportation option even though I will never use them. People use scooters for shorter distances that I normally walk. Scooters are becoming socially preferred alternative to walking. I am resigned to granting scooters priority use of the sidewalks. I’ll just step aside, even if that means stepping into the street, to let them pass and I’ll continue on my walk.

While I was interested in the mass transportation problems in the city, I was drawn to this location primarily for its rich network of bike paths and trails. The area’s topology has a lot of stream valleys that have been set aside for parks and the narrow levelness near the stream makes an ideal location for a bike path. These stream-following paths happen to connect to major urban developments within town. It is possible to get from one part of town to another where most of the path is in a park, and far from any street. In fact, for one of my jobs, I was able to commute by walking where most of the route was following one of these paths, although it was significantly longer than just walking along the street.

These are multi-use trails but the blacktop pavement exposes the preference given to bicycles. It is only in the spring when the trails get very crowded and thus difficult to use. The recent explosion of electric bicycles, scooters, and other innovations have changed the experience a lot. These vehicles go faster, and they are less tolerant to slowing down. This network of trails is becoming the new highways of electric vehicles.

Yesterday, I was exploring the trail to see how I could use it to reach a part of town I normally reach by car. I followed the trail I used many times in the past but only for exercise. I realized it should connect to where I wanted to go, but this was the first time I tried it. I wanted to discover the path on my own even though I could have found it on the Internet very quickly.

The trick was understanding how to get across the Interstate. I long knew of an underpass connector but it was heading to a trail that followed that road. I never thought of it as being the key to getting to where I wanted to go. When I started my search, I was first trying to get to that point. I hadn’t walked that path in a couple years and I assumed a foot bridge over the stream would still be available. That bridge was off the main trail and required walking across a large field that informally was a playing field. I discovered on this day this is was yet another bridge that was washed away by the storm that came through a year or two ago. I think it was a year ago, so it probably was three years ago.

I had to turn around and walk back to the street to connect to the other side of the stream where there was more of a pedestrian path that eventually connects with a busier bike path on that side. I reached the point of the underpass and noticed that its junction was a traffic circle complete with arrows. This was on a bike trail. This is another indication of the trend toward making these trails into more efficient transport corridors. Also, this was clearly built to appease the biking community. They preferred not to have to come to a full stop when there is congestion, especially of the mix of bikes, pedestrians, stroller-pushers, and dog-walkers. It was still shocking to see a traffic circle on a bike trail.

I like watching the YouTube channel called “not just bikes”. They provide a professional perspective of urban planning with an emphasis on transportation and in particular the accommodation for alternative transport options by better controlling the motor vehicle traffic. They have a preference for the road planning in countries like the Netherlands. Everything they like I like.

A recent video described the distinction between roads and streets frequently being combined into something he called stroads. The stroad is both a street and a road, and it does a poor job at both. The problems that stroads dominate many cities, particularly in the United States. My town is a mesh of stroads in having to perform the dual duty of accommodating commuter traffic and of residential or shopping areas. There are some spots where it is as bad a described in the video, but those are more abundant in the more suburban counties.

There are many problems with stroads but safety is a top concern. Stroads encourage high speed travel along a route with many entrances and intersections that require stop lights. Due to the adjacent businesses, there can be pedestrians and bicyclists needing to use the same roads.

He described the better alternative of keeping the two types separate. Roads are for through traffic, and streets are for local traffic. Ideally it should not be possible for a car to use a street as a path to get to a different part of town. To the extent the streets have car traffic, the roads would be designed to slow the cars and to give priority to pedestrians and bicycles with designs such as the continuous sidewalks where the cars need to climb the curb to the sidewalk level instead of pedestrians having to step down to the car level.

While his examples are in the European countries, I do see similar attempts in this town. We even have some continuous sidewalks but not to the extent described in the video. I am convinced that the county’s planners are thinking along the same lines. The problem is that things like continuous sidewalks or traffic circles are implemented in more secluded residential locations. In those locations, they may provide some benefit in calming traffic, but so far they have not been bold enough to implement these in the busier areas of town.

I am describing my county that is considered a suburb of DC. The district does have more of these features and it also has a higher density that gets closer to the European examples in the videos. I am just describing the local setting of a county that is neither or both an urban center and a suburb.

My point about the stroads is that their counterparts are starting to appear on our bike trails. In our parks there are analogs to highways, roads, and streets. The bike highways follow old rail line and has the feel of walking along a railroad track. You are aware there can be a fast approaching vehicle at any time and that vehicle is not wanting to stop or slow down if at all possible.

Off of these highways are roads where there will be more comfortable for slower traffic but are still well maintained for a smooth bike ride at some speed.

The streets are on trails that are not as well maintained asphalt, or have rock paths. They are used as hiking trails are access paths to ball fields or picnic areas.

This entire network exists with the complete absence of cars. Yet, similar problems are occurring, especially with the growing popularity of electric bicycles. These are motor vehicles and they want to behave like motor vehicles. Meanwhile the trails remain mixed use. The result is the bike trail equivalent of a stroad. There are serious bikers using the trail to travel long distances. There are people using the local trails to access points like playgrounds and ball fields. And there are people who are using the trails just to enjoy the park’s various points of interest.

Our park system is like a city but where the local shops are just the natural appearance of the park. It has roads running though it.

As I write this, I am reminded of the small town I grew up in, and many towns like it. They typically have a main road through the center of the town. The road is a long distance route for vehicles and the town is like a speed bump for that road. Cars have to slow down, but they have the option to stop and use the towns services. It occurs to me that these more rural town arrangements where the stroad concept does appear to work. It works because the traffic is lighter and the local economy is not as vibrant as in the bigger cities. Still, they should be considered as a model for some types of urban planning.

The street, road, and highway analogs I described for the bike trails probably more resemble the rural town road systems than the urban systems that the YouTube channel describes.

There appears to be something like a town growing along these bike trails. At parking lots there are appearing food trucks offering hot food. In town, I have seen people with little trailer cart behind their bikes with a little bit of merchandise or a coffee stand. I would not be surprised if they start to appear at the edge of the trails. I can certainly see a potential for a kind of a roadside stop for the passing bicyclists, but served by a business that uses bikes instead of cars to stay in business.

The hint is that traffic circle for the bikes. Even though the intent of the circuit is to promote continuous riding, the spot itself is attractive for setting up some kind of stand offering something to passersby. Most would just speed right through, but some may stop. Someone will come up with something the likes like a cafe with sidewalk seating. It is not hard to imagine that spot becoming a destination.

Before it was a T-intersection that required a hard turn even if the biker didn’t stop. Now that it is a traffic circle, the biker’s satisfaction may be short lived if a business attraction were to appear at precisely that spot. Traffic circles are like an oasis. It is begging something to grow there. As I write this, I am tempted to doing something myself. Even something as simple as a bike with a trailer that has some fresh fruit. Just park at the circle, set out a chair, and wait. Even if no one stops, someone else will mimic me and perhaps fill up his trailer with drinks, and then set up a chair next to mine so we can talk while the traffic rushes by. A third would follow, and then people will start to stop.

There is a bike shop in a bustling area of town. Recently in its windows is message in large letters saying “electric bikes will change your life”. I read the word “your” as applying to me who has no intention of buying one. Electric bicycles are going to change the way urban life is structured. Electric bicycles do have good range for long travel, but they are especially well suited for a very local experience. The future will be people building businesses around the use of electric bicycles. These will be small businesses or even micro-sized ones, but they will have lots of company. I can see something emerging like the rural flee markets, or even the urban farmers’ markets or art markets. A space where lots of small operators set up a small table with not a lot of stuff, but the abundance of peers makes the area a shopping attraction. People will buy things.

If this does emerge based on electric bicycle and similar personal vehicles, there will be a cultural change to be much more focused on the very local neighborhoods. Other businesses will arise to assist the bicycle-based ones. The business owners will pay more attention to what the local people really want instead of following some national advertisement promotion. Because they are small, they can readily accommodate eccentric requests. The attraction of this center would encourage people to adjust their tastes and their habits so that they can use these businesses more.

All of this is wild speculation starting with the observation of how our bicycle paths are starting to resemble road networks with thoroughfares and local streets, and now with traffic circles. It is not the main point I wanted to discuss here.

The YouTube channel had another video that criticizes all stop signs with examples of cities that do not use them at all. They described stop signs as an expression of failure in design. The alternative designs used a simple traffic rule of giving priority to the driver on the right, and to design intersections with fewer blind spots. However, they do point out that cars have their built in blind spots, but instead of requiring a full stop, the answer lies in making the street so that it forces the driver to drive slow.

The video makes a particular point about how yield signs are safer than stop signs particularly when it comes to bicycles. Bicycles coming to a full stop take a longer time to cross a street, making them more vulnerable. Also, the stop sign encourages drivers to go after stopping. The driver is thinking he stopped so now he can go. The yielding rule involves a different mental process of checking if there is anyone else approaching the intersection and if so whose location gives them the priority to proceed. In short, the attention is on stop sign instead of the traffic.

The inappropriateness of stop signs for bicycles is interesting because I am starting to see stop signs on bike trails. In this country, we do not have a culture of yield and priority etiquette. People riding bicycles are actually car drivers using an alternative vehicle. The rules of the bike paths are the same as the rules of the roads. There needs to be a stop sign at busy interactions.

The video described the urban planning process where even when planning new roads, the designers immediately identify where the stop signs will go, and thus what streets are more important than others. His point is that the designers expect that stop signs are necessary. Paraphrasing his quote: the rule is to have a stop sign, rules must be followed, so we will put a stop sign. This happens even on bike path.

The stop signs I am aware of have been around for a long time. The traffic circle is definitely new. Maybe they will start to replace the other stop signs. I hope this happens. The intersection I have in mind is a perfect spot to set up a little shop selling something in a trailer behind an electric bicycle.


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