Friday, January 9, 2015

Hamilton Avenue Bike Lane Proposal: Frequently Asked Questions

Proposal for bidirectional bike lanes on part of Hamilton Avenue.

Princeton Council will vote this coming Monday on whether to advance a proposal to add bike lanes to part of Hamilton Avenue between North Harrison Street and Snowden Lane. There's been some great questions asked about the project, and I wanted to take the time to answer them…

1. What exactly is being proposed? Why this part of Hamilton Avenue, and why now?

The proposal is for 5-ft on-street bike lanes in each direction (see image above). Princeton's municipal engineering team periodically resurfaces streets around town. This section of Hamilton Avenue is due for resurfacing, which offers an opportunity to upgrade on-street cycling facilities. You can see full plans and design considerations at the Princeton municipal engineering department website at this link. Residents in the project zone were invited to a public consultation on June 24, 2014, at which they were able to give feedback on the plan. If the proposal moves forward at the Council meeting on Monday, all residents in the project zone will receive a written letter from the municipality advising them again about what is happening. There would then be a 'public hearing' at a future Council meeting, at which the plan would be discussed again.

2. Surely bike lanes would be more helpful and appropriate on Nassau Street, or Witherspoon Street?

Adding bike lanes requires a significant evaluation of a street by municipal engineers. The engineers work on one project zone at a time, and right now, the focus is on Hamilton Ave. When other streets are due for engineering review, PBAC will help evaluate them to see if they are a good fit for bike lanes, and if bike lanes fit with the broader bike circulation plan. Some streets, such as Nassau Street, are controlled by the New Jersey Department of Transporation (NJDOT). In these cases, local officials have less say about how the street is designed.

3. Why are we even talking about bike lanes? Everybody in Princeton drives everywhere.

Almost one in ten Princeton residents who works in town commutes by bike. This is less than in other college towns, but is still a significant fraction. Many other people cycle for recreational purposes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more people would cycle if roads were safer for cyclists. Princeton has a Masterplan commitment to encourage non-car transportation, including cycling. In other communities, bike lanes have been shown to increase the share of cycling.

4. Surely there isn't space for bike lanes in central Princeton? The streets are too narrow.

Some streets in Princeton are too narrow for bike lanes, but in many cases there are no physical reasons why they cannot be added. As shown in the diagram above from Princeton Engineering Department, there is 60-feet of available public right-of-way at this part of Hamilton Avenue. Space is absolutely not the limiting factor. The question is "how do we want to use the available space?". 

5. Does adding bike lanes mean less parking will be available?

The current proposal envisages a new parking restriction. Parking is currently allowed on the south side of Hamilton Avenue in the project area. To add bike lanes without widening the road, this on-street parking would have to be eliminated. The committee believes that the loss of parking can be mitigated by available parking at other sites, and that the repurposing of space is appropriate to add a safe accommodation for cyclists.

6. Where will people park on Hamilton Ave if we replace on-street parking with a bike lane?

Ample on-street parking is available on any of the five cross-streets that intersect with Hamilton Avenue in this area, and many homes also have off-street parking. On-street parking is currently lightly used on these blocks of Hamilton, although some people would probably have a slightly longer walk from their car to their destination if bike lanes were installed. The committee feels that that this downside is not so serious as to justify incurring the expense of widening the road to accomodate both on-street parking and bike lanes. Temporary stopping to allow for deliveries or access by elderly or disabled car passengers would still be permitted. 

7. If we restrict parking to put in bike lanes on Hamilton Ave, does that mean that parking will be restricted at lots of other places in future?

We aim to build a network of safe bicycle facilities around town, but several different kinds of improvements are possible. Where there is high demand for on-street parking, the conditions are unlikely to be appropriate for bike lanes. Out of four project sites evaluated for Complete Streets improvements by PBAC in 2014, bidirectional bike lanes were only recommended for one- at Hamilton Ave. On-street parking is a major consideration for PBAC when developing a recommendation for Complete Streets solutions.

8. What's the point of just having bike lanes on one short section of Hamilton Avenue? If it doesn't fit into a wider bike lane network, isn't it a waste of time?

We are building a wider network section by section. It's true that Princeton has not invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure to date, but eventually, the Hamilton Avenue lanes will be part of a connected, high-quality network. It would be nice to put in 60 miles of bike lanes in one year, like what is happening in Jersey City, but that is not how we do things in Princeton. Our engineers and PBAC rigorously examine each street to ensure that the correct Complete Streets improvements are selected.

9. A bike lane marked with white paint provides little protection for cyclists if cars swerve into the lane. Would it not be better to install a bike lane with a physical barrier for separation?

'Protected bike lanes' are state-of-the-art for busy roads, and are being installed in many towns across the country. To comply with standards, however, the road would need to be widened to accommodate a protected bike lane, and the committee felt that this was not warranted based on the current level of traffic. Protected bike lanes are an option that we will consider at other sites in future projects.

10. Who is likely to use these bike lanes? Are children not better off riding on a sidewalk instead of in a bike lane in the street?

On-street bike lanes are not intended for young children. Cyclists in Princeton can be considered to form one of several groups. There are children, who should normally ride on the sidewalk (this is permitted by law except on certain busy streets in the downtown). Then there are strong, experienced cyclists, who will ride anywhere regardless of available infrastructure. Bike lanes are intended for the next group- people who would like to ride more, but are intimidated by riding in mixed traffic. Many, if not most cyclists in Princeton are in this group. Existing 'sharrow' markings do little to make this group feel safe on local roads. Dedicated bike lane space, separated from the regular traffic lane, helps make cycling seem less threatening, consistent with Princeton's Masterplan commitment to 'entice people out of their cars'.

11. Would it not be appropriate to wait until a full Bike Plan for the town is designed before adding bike lanes?

The Princeton Regional Planning Board already sponsored a community bike plan in 2002, which spefically recommended that parking should be restricted on Hamilton Ave to make it safer for cyclists (see page 33). PBAC developed its own, updated bike circulation plan in 2012, which also envisages Hamilton Avenue as a key east-west corridor with improved cycle facilites. Any planning exercise is likely to recommend upgrading cycle facilities on Hamilton, because it is the only east-west connector in central Princeton north of Nassau Street. Bike lanes are therefore consistent with past planning exercises, and the community's stated dedication to Complete Streets. If we do not add bike lanes now, local cyclists will have to continue to put up with sub-standard facilities for years to come while we conduct another planning exercise. 

12. Why not use 'sharrows' instead of bike lanes here?

'Shared lane markings' or 'sharrows' were painted on many Princeton roads in 2011. Sharrow lanes involve cyclists riding in mixed traffic with cars and other vehicular traffic. In 2012, the municipality moved to a 'Complete Streets' policy. 'Complete Streets' does not specify use of any particular type of bicycle facility, but states that design should follow 'the best currently available standards'. PBAC considered five potential Complete Streets implementation possibilities, with the goal of delivering a recommendation based on the best available standards.

Chapter 2 of the NJDOT 'Bike Compatible Roadways & Bikeways Planning & Design Guidelines', which is available at this link, specifies that for a road with daily vehicle movements in excess of 2,000, 14 feet of pavement should be provided (exclusive of parking) for mixed-traffic cycling. Hamilton Ave in the project zone sees more than 5,000 daily vehicle movements, according to data from DVRPCAt sites "where it is not feasible to fully implement guidelines pertaining to the provision of adequate pavement space for shared use due to environmental constraints or unavoidable obstacles", NJDOT recommends to consider eliminating on-street parking. PBAC therefore cannot recommend installing sharrows next to on-street parking on Hamilton Ave, because it would not conform to the best currently available standards. To install sharrows in accordance with best practice, we would still need a new parking restriction.

It is the view of PBAC that if parking is going to be restricted, it would be more appropriate to add bike lanes, which provide dedicated safe space for cyclists, instead of sharrows. Many cyclists find cycling in high volumes of mixed traffic to be uncomfortable. Car drivers are also frustrated when they are not able to pass slower-moving cyclists in mixed traffic. Bike lanes are also more likely to draw cyclists off the sidewalk and protect pedestrians. A recommendation for bike lanes at this site does not represent a rejection of sharrows, which are still very useful in appropriate locations. Bike lanes are merely the accommodation that is most consistent with 'the best currently available standards' at this site.

If you have more questions about bike lanes on Hamilton, or any other aspect of Princeton bike planning, please get in touch with the PBAC committee members at Princeton Council will vote on whether to advance the bike lane proposal at their meeting on Monday, January 12, starting at 7 p.m.. You are welcome to join us at the meeting to support the proposal, or at any of our PBAC meetings, which take place on the fourth Thursday of each month.

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