ROAD HAZARDS FOR BICYCLISTS AND PEDESTRIANS
by A. Richard Miller
32114 visits since 051013; last updated 110514.

Sections:
"Go By Bike" Brochure
Confusing road signs

Dangerous Crosswalks
Sharp-Edged Curbing
Guard Rails, Sharp-Edged and Worse
Road Shoulders
Drainage Grates
Zero Bike-Ped Accommodations (And A Flood!)

Some of these hazards affect only bicyclists, or only pedestrians. Most affect both. So I have combined two overlapping web pages to create this bike-ped one. My information comes from study and experience - mine and, as always, that of many others. I particularly thank my friend and safety expert, John Allen, for many insights, and recommend John's more-detailed web pages.

"Go By Bike" Brochure

My comments on bicycling hazards assume that you already know bicycling basics. MassDOT's "Go By Bike" brochure is a great start for that overview, and for printing and sharing!

Confusing Road Signs

Road signs and other road markings have to be read quickly, without diverting much attention from the road. They should be consistent, and their messages should be clear to all.

For bicyclists, signs should not be placed high, because the bicylist is concentrating on potholes, slippery spots, car doors about to swing open, and the like. The sign for a bicyclist should be a tad larger - but in Natick, Massachusetts we have the smallest "Share The Road" signs I've seen anywhere. And many of them are placed high.

Here is another problem with "Share The Road" signs. Kids may understand what they mean, but many drivers do not. I've seen a truck driver shaking his fist and yelling, "Share the road!" at a bicyclist who had to take the traffic lane to bike safely.

Remember that bicycles are legal vehicles. Except on rare and specially-posted roads, you and your bike have an equal right to use the travel lanes. Often your comfort and safety will depend upon exercising that right in a predictable manner.

(Bicyclist) "May Take Full Lane" sign on BU BridgeHere's a far less ambiguous sign for that task: "(Bicyclist) May Use Full Lane". It's already in use on the BU (Boston University) Bridge over the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. But when the NBPAC proposed that wording for the Route 135 Reconstruction project, the Natick DPW opposed it. The argument was that the State Regulations didn't include it. Quite true; except, they aren't regulations. They are guidelines only, and explicitly say that they are subject to expert and local interpretation. A state official even visited and explained that. But in the end, it didn't matter.

"Share The Road" - with pedestrians?Do you think Natick is a believer in signage "orthodoxy"? If so, you'd be wrong. Natick isn't consistent in that, either. In fact, it qualifies for lists of inconsistent road signage. At times, it becomes astoundingly experimental. The unusual example on the right, also from Natick, suggests that pedestrians should "Share the Road"! But when its bike-ped advisory committee recommended "May Take Full Lane" signs, Natick opted for orthodoxy and rejected them.

Some day, "Bikes May Take Full Lane" may be in the guidelines. Meanwhile, other towns do take the safe way for bicyclists. Natick took a less-safe alternative that was "in the Manual", imagining that it was safer for the Town.

2010 Update
: This BMUFL sign was added to our national Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (Fig. 9B-2, sign R4-11) on Dec. 16th, 2009. I took the BU Bridge photo ten days earlier. Obviously, MassDOT ordered and installed
these good signs well before the design was approved for inclusion in the MUTCD.

Sharrow road surface markingIf you want to show bicyclists where to go safely, say through a potentially dangerous intersection, mark the lane itself with a surface marking. The "sharrow" (Share Arrow) is widely used for this purpose.

But, even when the state would have footed the bill, Natick similarly refused to incorporate sharrows in its recent Route 135 Reconstruction project. What a shame!

Let's hope for better thinking in the years to come.

Dangerous Crosswalks

Incredible as it may seem, studies indicate that marked crosswalks are more dangerous than unmarked ones! This probably is because they inspire pedestrians with unwarranted confidence that drivers will see and react well. Good crosswalk design demands extra attention.

Well-situated and very visible crosswalks increase pedestrian safety. So do advance-warning signs to alert vehicles, and police enforcement. Does your police department keep drivers (including bicyclists) from stopping in crosswalks?

The ssecond photo on this web page also shows bare-minimum crosswalk markings. That's just a Federal design guidelines' minimum of two white lines to define a crosswalk.

Making crosswalks more visible is the next step. That wasn't yet done when that photo was taken in Fall 2005, during the reconstruction of Route 135 in Natick, Massachusetts.

Framingham's Standard Crosswalk (bright yellow "cross-ties")The Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee has requested the same crosswalk design that's used in adjacent Framingham, a "railroad track" pattern that includes the two minimum white "rails" but adds visible "cross-ties". Natick has agreed, with one change. Natick will use all-white coloring, where the Framingham "cross-ties" are yellow.

Framingham's recipe for an 8-foot-wide crosswalk is simple:
12" white thermoplastic tape for the "rails", which are placed with the outsides 8' apart.
12" yellow thermoplastic tapes for the perpendicular "cross-ties",
each 6' long. Although it previously called for 3' gaps, a 1' gap (equal to the tape width) is now generally used for increased visibility. (The photo at the right is an example of a good design.)


An earlier plan view - still specifying the less-visible 3' gaps - is online here, courtesy of the DPW of Framingham, Mass.

Whether in thermoplastic tape or in paint, the surface should be specified as skid-resistant.

Coloring the cross-ties bright yellow increases their visibility in various lighting conditions - and especially in distracting situations, through fog and during the early and critical, surprise-skidding stage of a snowfall, when white lines lose their visibility sooner. The NBPAC recommended following the Framingham precedent in that, too, but it didn't happen. Natick DPW objected, explaining that the need for two colors would double both the installation time and its traffic tie-ups. Natick's crosswalk design will be all-white.

Update: Late in 2009, Natick decided to use Framingham's good "yellow cross-tie" design, after all. Good! No, not so good; instead, Natick actually followed the older Framingham specification with the too-wide "yellow ladder" design. We move slowly toward the goal.

Motor vehicle regulations say that drivers must not stop in a crosswalk, and must stop when a pedestrian occupies a crosswalk in that lane. But locally, even in the best of weather, not all drivers do stop for pedestrians. Very visible crosswalks placed where pedestrians use them, signs posted in advance of crosswalks, and police enforcement all add to pedestrian safety.

Sharp-Edged Curbing

Sharp CurbPeople do slip and fall. Street facilities, even granite curbing, should be designed to lessen the harm caused by such accidents.

That would be good, but it doesn't always happen. Consider this photo of chamfered old curbing meeting sharp-edged new, 2005 curbing along Route 135 in Natick.

Cutting-edge technology may be good, but cutting-edge curbing?


Sharp CurbFurther east along Route 135 in Natick, where Marion Street splits off in Lincoln Square, this pedestrian crosswalk has an even worse idea.
Sharp Curb Its new, 2005 curbing doesn't just come to a sharp edge. It comes to a point! And not once, but four times! Four unnecessarily dangerous places, which will greatly increase the injury to any walker or bicyclist who happens to fall in this wrong place. This wrong place happens to be across from the town's Senior Center. In icy weather, it will become even more hazardous.

Break those edges! Even a little round-off is far better than none at all. 

Guard Rails, Sharp-Edged and Worse

Sharp "Safety RailingPeople slip and fall on sidewalks, too. Presumably, that's why Natick and Mass. Highway installed these "safety" guard rails in 2008, as part of the Route 135 reconstruction project. But what a mess!

We're looking east on Route 135 (West Central Street), toward the Speen Street intersection. Cars are waiting for the traffic lights to change, and so is a bicyclist - on the sidewalk. It's no surprise that he's there. Only the bravest cyclists would use the street, with heavy traffic and no bike shoulder.

But what if that sidewalk bicyclist were to hit that rail? It's low enough to flip his bike and him into the street!

Also, the rails present a new and unusual hazard themselves; the ends of the warped wooden rails fail to align. Why not? Aside from using cheap, green wood, only the nearest pair of bolts are at a rail end. All the others fail to attach a rail END to a post, to prevent it from warping. The exposed edges are left sharp, and already present some splinters. That's an unnecessary hazard to cyclists AND pedestrians.

Further, the top edge of the wooden rail has no safety margin over the sharp tops of the guard posts; in fact, at many posts it is attached too low to shield one against the sharp corners of those posts. And on the street side, the entire guard rail is significantly lower than the hazardous metal uprights!

Sharp posts lack"safety" railBut wait, there's more! Would you believe that both ends of this "safety" guard rail are missing their wooden rails? No rails at all, leaving the sharp metal uprights directly exposed to anyone who, on bike or afoot, slips into one! This hasn't been ignored for only a few days or a week, but through the summer of 2008, all of 2009, and still counting in April 2010.

Whoever installed this "safety" guard rail was not a bicyclist, nor are its inspectors. I expect that they don't walk much, either. This guard rail only guards cars, not bicyclists nor pedestrians.

Sharp CurbThis older guard rail (in Lowell, MA) was also made of cheap lumber. It's no paragon of design, but the builder knew enough to bolt the ENDS of the rails to the posts, so they stayed in alignment. He failed to extend the top rail higher than the posts, but at least he did provide each post top with a safety chamfer.




CoE Safety RailingHere's an even better example - in a US Corps of Engineers park in Northbridge, MA. Look and learn.

It doesn't take much to do it right - if y
ou know what's right.

2010 Update: Believe it or not, the 1996 Massachusetts guidelines (MHD Construction and Traffic Standard Details; see pages 93-104) specify those too-low Thrie-beam guard rails with projecting post tops! The Massachusetts Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board has advised MassDOT of this problem, and discussions have begun. Meanwhile, highway projects are not correcting this bicyclist safety problem.


Road Shoulders
Remember that bicycles are legal vehicles. Except on rare and specially-posted roads, you and your bike have an equal right to use the travel lanes. Often your comfort and safety will depend upon exercising that right in a predictable manner.

Those without street-bicycling smarts wrongly assume that bicyling is banned on major highways. That's only true on a very few special roads, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike. Route 9 in Natick is more typical: a place to "share the road" with bicyclists. Route 9 serves many businesses. For those near it, Route 9 is the only way past Lake Cochituate without miles of detour. Route 9 has a legal obligation to serve bicyclists as well as motorized vehicles. And in most places, Route 9 has wide shoulders.

Road shoulders are a mixed blessing for bicyclists. You can "take" a good one, to free the driving lanes for faster car traffic and to provide easier biking. But typically, shoulders are the most poorly designed and managed section of the roadway.

Reasons to avoid riding on the shoulder, or to use it with extra caution, include:
 Shoulder has inadequate width or is obstructed; will cause unpredictable zig-zagging into traffic.
 Poor cleaning: debris, loose sand, leaves, snow.
 Poor repair: potholes, cracks, broken pavement.
 Dangerous drainage 

Drainage Grates

Drainage grates admit rainwater and snowmelt to storm drains, which channel them downhill to the local streams and ponds. Grates also keep larger items from falling in. Typically, smaller sinking objects stay in the bottom of an underlying catch basin, where they should be scooped out twice a year before they clog the drain pipe or that stream or pond.

Bicyclists must spot drainage grates in time to gracefully avoid them, or to confirm that they are aligned safely for riding over. Avoid riding on any grate with slots that are not perpendicular to your direction of travel.

Street grateThis slotted grate has two problems. Its slots are parallel to the curbing, ready to grab a bicycle's front tire and cause injury (and a following car can make it worse). Also, note that one corner of this grate is bevelled so it can't be turned 90 degrees. That was intended to avoid this very problem during later maintenance; but since its collar was installed wrong, now it can't be rotated to correct that problem!


Street GrateLet's look at that same grate as we'd approach it if we were riding in the shoulder. Better ease around this dangerously-oriented grate, even if that means merging back into traffic. (If you are not taking this exit, you should merge here anyway, as you're about to lose your "lane".) 

In the near distance, where the exit lane causes the shoulder to disappear, see the batch of leaves?  Let's look ahead to there, while we still have some reflex time.


Street GratesHere's that second location, as we close in on it. Good thing, that we looked in advance! There's another one of those wrongly-oriented slotted grates, and this time the right side of its casting has been broken off and a stone has lodged in there. To its right, the curb-side waffle grate is designed for bike safety in any orientation; but we won't cross it anyway, because it is covered with slippery leaves and it's too close to the curb. Note that there's a deep hole in the sidewalk, too, where rain has cut a hole through weak pavement down to the catch basin.

If you want better roads, YOU must report problems and follow up. The NBPAC thought Natick was already free of these particular problems, but someone else's sharp eyes reported them and I acted promptly. The above photos were taken on Route 9 westbound in Natick, on the downhill approaching Route 27. (The first grate was at the exit to the Brigham-Gill car dealership.) Route 9 is maintained by MassHighway, not Natick, so we notified MassHighway District 3 (and copied the Natick DPW) late on Thursday, October 13th, 2005.

The next morning, MassHighway District 3 replied that the task is assigned to Maintenance, the repairs should be completed within several days (and I'll be notified), and that safety cones will be placed until then. Despite heavy rains and winds over the weekend, MassHighway rotated these grates and patched the sidewalk hole on Tuesday, October 18th. Well done!

MassHighway is doing its part. But it's still up to us to spot and report these problems.

Update April 12, 2010: At a MHW Dist. 3 meeting in Framingham, we were informed that MassDOT now installs waffle-design grates rather than the problematic slotted design - and will replace all slotted grates along this summer's Route 9 Resurfacing project in Framingham and Natick. Bravo!

Zero Bike-Ped Accommodations (And A Flood!)

It's unusual to find locations in town, which need bicycle-pedestrian accommodations but have none whatsoever. A popular and busy street, but with no shoulders, no sidewalks. Zero. Meet Speen Street, on the south side of Route 135 in Natick - and in a corner of Cochituate State Park.

Twice in March 2010, major rains flooded eastern Massachusetts. In Natick, the long-neglected Beaver Dam Brook settling ponds had a crumbling culvert finally give way. The stream backed up, and overtopped both Route 135 and Speen Street.

The following cylindrical panorama view is stitched from six separate photos and covers about 200 degrees of arc, from the eastern end of Fisk Pond, past the final settling pond to the prior settling pond (behind the police car). Scrolling right, we swing from east to south, where Speen Street has Jersey barriers keeping cars off the crumbling culvert. The settling pond just to the right is filled higher than the roadway. Beyond, you can see the Roche Brothers supermarket whose parking lot enbraces this settling pond and sends it even more surface run-off. Scrolling all the way right, you can see cars driving carefully through water, sloshing eastbound on Route 135.

Look closely at the near corner, just right of the traffic light, and you will see a guard rail that has inexplicably remained without a pedestrian safety rail at its near end. Instead, sharp metal posts are exposed (the same posts featured in another section, above), although MassDOT was to have completed this work two years before. Pedestrian safety is ignored. That also goes for most bicyclists; they take the sidewalk too, because there's no safe lane on the road.

Scroll image to right.

Emergency funding will be available for the crumbling culvert. But it's in a state park; widening probably will require inter-agency cooperation and a two-thirds vote of the Massachusetts Legislature. Will the work fix the bike-ped problems too, or will they be cast in concrete for another fifty years?
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