Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Heaven and hell

How can anyone not ride bicycle in weather like this? During the morning commute today, greater Louisville had temperatures in the upper 60s and we expect a fifth day in a row (National Weather Service) with sunny skies and temperatures reaching no higher than the mid 80s. When I left work yesterday afternoon, the temperature was 81 degrees with a light breeze, sunny sky, and low humidity. It feels like paradise. This idyllic weather makes it easy to ignore hazards and challenges that otherwise might dim a cyclist's mood.

Alas, I'm glad that I didn't ignore too much on the ride to work this morning, because I almost got hit by a car. Riding down the hill on Payne Street westbound toward the corner of Payne and Charlton Streets (Google map), I narrowly avoided getting hit by a driver pulling out from the stop sign from Charlton onto eastbound Payne Street. I was heading downhill at about 24 mph (in a 25 mph zone) with another car following me at a respectful distance. I was bearing left to follow Payne Street as it bends at Charlton. The driver coming from Charlton was bearing left to get onto Payne Street eastbound. Vehicles on Charlton face a stop sign; vehicles on Payne Street do not. Traffic on Charlton Street should yield to traffic on Payne Street.

When the driver at the stop sign on Charlton failed to yield to me, we were on a head-on collision course. I yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. Having already started to bear left, I was leaning the wrong way to make an emergency turn to the right (otherwise the ideal evasive maneuver). Instead, I turned harder to the left to clear her car more quickly. Had she not hit the brakes, she would have hit me broadside. She stopped in the middle of the intersection. I yelled some choice words into her open passenger-side window and continued riding. The driver following me pulled alongside me when the lane widened and asked, "Are you all right?" I said, "I'm fine." At the stop light a few feet later, I asked her, "Did that look as crazy to you as it did to me?" She nodded and said, "My heart was pounding!"

My coworker, another devoted bicycle commuter, observed that the strange geometry of the Payne/Charlton intersection frequently causes problems for both motorists and cyclists. For many years, Payne Street has been signed as a Bike Route, based on the low speed and volume of motor vehicle traffic compared to Frankfort Avenue and Lexington Road. When Louisville Metro designates a street as a Bike Route, shouldn't the Department of Public Works and Assets evaluate the street and its intersections for any necessary safety improvements? Budget constraints might not allow costly changes immediately, but the Bike Route designation should be accompanied by a plan, including time line, for any appropriate improvements. In the case of Payne Street, four such improvements stand out:
  1. Replace the stop sign intersection at Charlton Street and Payne Street with a modern one-lane  roundabout. This is much different than a traffic circle and has no stop signs. It would help to keep traffic on Payne Street to the 25 mph speed limit, reduce crashes at the intersection, and reduce confusion and inconvenience for drivers approaching from Charlton Street.
  2. Repave Payne Street from Baxter Avenue to Lexington Road, where pavement cracks parallel to the travel direction threaten bicyclists with disastrous crashes. This section of Payne Street has had unacceptable pavement cracks for over 4 years, as detailed in a letter to Metro government in May 2004. (To their credit, Metro has fixed many of the maintenance issues raised in that letter.)
  3. Make safety improvements at the traffic signal at Payne Street and Lexington Road. Consider replacing this signal with a modern roundabout, which would reduce traffic delays for motorists and end dangerous confusion about which lane to use. Each leg of the intersection has two lanes to serve three destinations, with each lane open to straight traffic and turning traffic. If a roundabout is deemed too expensive or otherwise inappropriate, use pavement markings to designate turn lanes.
  4. Per #3, consider replacing the traffic signal at Payne Street and Spring Street with a 1-lane roundabout. The consideration of traffic signal versus roundabout will be quite different for these two intersections because of the difference in traffic volumes, numbers of lanes, and frequency of turning movements. If a roundabout is deemed inappropriate, mark turning lanes and install bicycle-sensitive traffic detectors to trigger the lights on both Spring Street and Payne Street. The existing detectors on eastbound Spring Street will not trip for bicycles.
If the vast majority of drivers (including bicyclists) paid close attention, showed patience and caution, and followed the traffic laws, we could get by with the streets and intersections that we already have. Good design of roads and intersections takes into account the common mistakes that drivers make and makes those mistakes less likely, less dangerous, or both. It will cost money to retrofit existing roads and intersections to improve safety for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In the meantime, we need to push private developers and government officials to use the best available cost-effective designs each time a new road or subdivision street network is designed and built. "The way we've always done it" doesn't cut it anymore. 

1 comment:

dave said...

Sorry to hear about your near-miss. I'm glad it didn't turn out worse.

The weather has been great. I enjoyed the cooler weather yesterday while exploring a few roads for a safer commute home.

Too bad I wasn't motivated enough to get on the bike today...