Monthly Archives: March 2016

Babcock Street: a fake bicycle track

Staff of the Transportation Division in Public Works have come up with plans for a so-called “bicycle track” on Babcock Street. A classic bicycle track is a fully separated path, similar to much of the 40-year-old Paul Dudley White path around the lower Charles River. Shabby Brookline plans were shown at a public meeting in Town Hall on Wednesday, March 9.

Babcock Street is much too narrow to insert a bicycle track without some other change. The two plan variants show most of Babcock Street becoming one-way for motor vehicles, from the north boundary of Fire Station 5 toward the south side of Commonwealth Avenue. The proposed bicycle track would use street width now occupied by southbound traffic on Babcock Street.

One variant leaves short, two-way segments between Freeman Street and Manchester Road and between Commonwealth Avenue and Winslow Road–producing four changes between one-way and two-way in less than half a mile. Both variants require bicyclists to cross an open, unprotected segment of Babcock Street near the fire station.

Who ordered that? Actually, no one did. The plans developed during a review of street patterns triggered by a project to rebuild Babcock Street, replacing crumbling concrete pavement. There was no coherent strategy and hardly any structural thinking when choosing Babcock Street for Brookline’s first major, urban bicycle track. It was not an obvious town priority.

At Bicycle Advisory Committee last summer, Babcock Street proved merely a convenient target of opportunity, located in a neighborhood where members of the committee did not live. Over the years, that committee has lapsed into a claque of mostly single-interest “groupies” who collaborate to select a replacement for a member who leaves. The practice has left no diversity of outlook and little broad-based community engagement.

Neither plan variant provides a fully separated path. Instead, both merely show soft pavement raised a few inches above street level, leaving bicyclists exposed to trucks and cars. No guard rails or other physical barriers have been planned. Trucks and cars could easily climb the beveled edges of the track. Northbound bicycle riders would have northbound truck and car traffic approaching from behind, out of direct sight.

At the Wednesday meeting, bicycle promoters claimed the proposed track would improve the neighborhood. It would appeal, they said, to youngsters riding tricycles and scooters, to people using wheelchairs and to older bicycle riders. However, coming mostly from people living outside the neighborhood, those sentiments lacked appeal. No one could imagine a responsible parent allowing a child onto the proposed track.

Instead, the proposed track–burdened with gross, obvious hazards–looked likely to discourage anyone but the “road warriors” who are willing to use the current, dangerous painted bicycle lanes in the open streets. For them, it would likely become no more than a luxury hood ornament, subsidizing private vanity at public expense. Rather than a real bicycle track, it’s a TINO: a Track In Name Only.

Comparisons: Fortunately, there are nearby comparisons, showing how some hazards of the proposed bicycle track have been reduced elsewhere. The divided bicycle track segment on Vassar Street in Cambridge, between Memorial Drive and Massachusetts Avenue, opened several years ago. The street schematic has the following elements, from north to south:

• north-side walkway
• one-way bicycle track, heading west
• tree berm
• high curb, north side
• parking lane, heading west
• vehicle lane, heading west
• vehicle lane, heading east
• high curb, south side
• tree berm
• one-way bicycle track, heading east
• south-side walkway

Vassar Street bicycle lanes have dark paving and gray edge blocks, totaling about 6 ft wide starting about 4 ft from curbs. Walkways, also about 6 ft wide, have light paving blocks and are farthest from the roadway. Bicycle lanes have painted, federal-standard bicycle markings and painted arrows. Spans between bicycle lanes and curbs include trees in some portions. However, there are no traffic signals.

Separation from motor vehicle lanes, tree berms, parking lanes and high curbs all contribute to safety. None of those major safety features have been planned for Babcock Street, even though they need not subtract from street width. The features are not some kind of “Cambridge pattern.” Across Massachusetts Avenue, running toward Main Street, Cambridge narrowed the spacings and removed most tree berms and parking lanes. That part of the Vassar Street track has seen several serious bicycle crashes, including at least one fatality.

A newer Cambridge bicycle track, opened around a year ago, extends along the north side of Western Avenue from Central Square to Memorial Drive. Like the Babcock Street proposal, it has a two-way track on one side of the street, with the following schematic elements, from north to south:

• north-side walkway
• two-way bicycle track
• tree berm
• high curb, north side
• parking lane, heading west
• vehicle lane, heading west
• vehicle lane, heading west
• high curb, south side
• tree berm
• south-side walkway

Like the main portion of the Vassar Street bicycle track, the Western Avenue track uses contrasting pavements and positions high curbs, tree berms and parking lanes to protect bicyclists. Traffic signals include elements for bicycles, pedestrians and motor vehicles. None of those major safety features have been planned for Babcock Street. While it will take several years to measure effects on safety, the care and thoughtfulness put into the Western Avenue design are obvious. They show the current Babcock Street plan as a TINO: a Track In Name Only.

A way forward: Current plans for a fake bicycle track on Babcock Street should be shelved. They violate responsibilities for public safety. Clearly Brookline lacks the technical skills and the seasoned, mature leadership that would be needed for such a project. Rather than waste more resources on project plans, the town should start recruitment efforts.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, March 12, 2016


Craig Bolon, Brookline bicycle crashes: patterns and factors, Brookline Beacon, August 16, 2014

Molly Laas, Cambridge bike lane death trap, Boston Phoenix, July 11, 2002