Bicycle lanes: a Harvard Street minefield

Starting in the late 1990s, Brookline engineers added a few bicycle markings on streets. Most were small and inconspicuous, and they tended to ignore emerging standards being developed elsewhere. After federal standards were published in 2009 and for the past four years, more streets have been marked for bicycle traffic, helping alert motorists to substantial numbers of bicyclists on local streets, especially during warmer months.

Federal marking standards are not complicated. Lanes reserved for bicycles are marked with a standard bicycle symbol and an arrow for travel direction. Lanes shared with motor vehicles are marked with a bicycle symbol and a double chevron. There should be at least a symbol after each street intersection. Stripes for the edges of bicycle lanes are solid where motor vehicles should not usually cross and dashed where they may. They should become dashed at least 50 feet before potential crossings and should be omitted across street intersections.

The effectiveness of bicycle markings varies. Narrow and busy streets are problematic. The town’s adherence to federal marking standards has been erratic. The two-thirds of a mile of Harvard St. between Coolidge Corner and Allston is a messy example. Brookline changed parts of the traffic configuration there at least ten times over the past twenty years, At best, current bicycle markings look and feel like afterthoughts.

Survey: A survey of Harvard St. between Coolidge Corner and Allston, during late August and early September of 2014, found 70 departures from federal bicycle marking standards–more than one for every hundred feet of bicycle lane. A bicycle rider depending on consistent markings for safety will be misled more than once in almost every block.

Where on-street parking is allowed, national organizations recommend minimum bicycle lane widths of 5 feet, offset at least 8 feet from curbs. Measured lane widths were 4.4 to 6.5 feet, and measured offsets were 7.0 to 9.3 feet. In several places, lane markings tended to herd bicyclists toward parked cars.

Between Coolidge Corner and Allston, Harvard St. is mismarked for bicycle traffic at or near almost every intersection, driveway and bus stop. Lane stripes fail to warn that motor vehicles may be moving across a bicycle lane, a common source of fatal collisions. Symbols and arrows are missing. There are abrupt shifts between reserved bicycle lanes and shared lanes: six on the northbound side and three on the southbound side.

Hazards: Potentially lethal elements for Harvard St. bicyclists come from pacing bus and truck traffic at high speeds, from crowding bicycles close to parked cars and from shifting vehicle lanes left and right. An MBTA no. 66 bus comes rushing by about every ten minutes, often intruding into a third of a bicycle lane or more. Oversize trucks are less frequent but can be even more hazardous, since their drivers are less likely to be familiar with the street. Harvard St. has the town’s highest density of bicycle crashes.

Some of the most awkward and potentially hazardous markings are at the intersection with Stedman St., from the east beside Devotion School, and Williams St., from the west beside Kehillath Israel. Those cross streets are offset about 60 feet. Some years ago, the intersection was changed, adding a left-turn lane onto Williams St. for northbound motorists. A yellow, bulb-shaped traffic guide was painted to the north of the intersection.

When installing bicycle markings about a year ago, Brookline paid less attention to safety than it should have and did not adjust the lane patterns. Instead, it painted symbols for a shared northbound lane. Now, northbound motorists who dodge right and skirt the yellow bulb near Irving’s Toy and Card Shop will crowd bicyclists toward parked cars. The weaving intersection confuses both motorists and bicyclists. Motorists often ignore the street markings and barrel across the left-turn lane and the yellow bulb.

One way to make this intersection safer would be to make Williams St. No-Left-Turn for drivers heading north on Harvard St. Then the awkward left-turn lane and yellow bulb could be removed, and ordinary bicycle lanes could be provided on both sides. So far, the Bicycle Advisory Committee has been beating drums for more bicycle lanes but has sounded less concerned about their erratic markings and their everyday hazards–including ones just described.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 13, 2014

Harvard Street bicycle lane marking problems, September, 2014

Pavement markings for bicycle lanes on a two-way street, Figure 9C-6, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2009

Guide for the development of bicycle facilities, Fourth Edition, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 2012

Brookline Green Routes Bicycle Network, map, Bicycle Advisory Committee, 2014

2 thoughts on “Bicycle lanes: a Harvard Street minefield

  1. Tommy Vitolo

    Have a peek at the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Brookline follows NACTO standards for bicycle markings, not (necessarily) MUTCD. This is for a variety of reasons, including the observation that NACTO reviews, updates, and publishes standards at a much faster pace than MUTCD. Because bicycle marking standards have evolved relatively quickly, and because NACTO is more comprehensive regarding bicycle control, NACTO is used.

    I think that you’ll find that when reviewing NACTO standards, Harvard Street is both (a) more compliant than under MUTCD, but also (b) not wholly in compliant.

    Regarding parking lanes, 7′ is acceptable. It can make things tight in winter, but Brookline’s overnight parking ban actually alleviates some of this trouble, because plows do a better (though imperfect) job of plowing all the way to the curb, preserving the whole width of the parking space.

    Details aside, there’s no doubt that Harvard Street (esp. north of Beacon) is due for a comprehensive review of the markings, for bicycles, motorists, and the bus.

      Editor’s note: Signs and markings are shared communication. If they don’t communicate, they are not useful, or maybe even harmful. Once there is federal standard, we need to follow it–not blow it off or make excuses.
  2. Tommy Vitolo


    The Federal Highway Administration endorsed NACTO bicycle markings over a year ago. “FHWA supports the use of [NACTO] to further develop nonmotorized transportation networks, particularly in urban areas.” (source, August 20, 2013) NACTO is both encouraged by the feds and endorsed by Mass DOT (source).

    Nobody has “blow[n] off” or is “mak[ing] excuses.” The very last statement of my comment states exactly the opposite.

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