Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Weston-Wayland Aqueduct Trail

It's must be roasting 90+ American degrees outside now and unfortunately, it seems that we will have to somehow survive this weather for the next 2 weeks. I'm glad I have showers available at my workplace, otherwise, I can't picture cycling to work and not getting sweaty. Even early in the morning it's already 75F (24C). They only time I can go for a ride and make it somehow enjoyable is either at night or during the first 3 hours after dawn. This limits my day trips to short, 40-55km (25-35mi) routes.

The last weekend I started early at 5:30am and drove to Wayland to explore the new Weston Aqueduct Trail. The section between Elm St and Water St has been opened just last year and apparently, it's the only part of the trail officially open to public - something I found out after the fact. I entered the trail somewhat illegally at Pine Brook Rd where the access is "blocked" by a simple chain. If you decide to redo my route you will see multiple of such chains and even more regular gates restricting access to the Aqueduct. This certainly makes the ride less pleasant but not impossible as there are gaps in fencing where you can get through.
Speaking about the ride, the trail is officially open to bicyclists but I think this refers again to the short section beginning at Elm Street. The part I rode was not very bike-friendly. It was basically a stretch of hard-packed soil with short grass growing all over it and occasional roots running full width across. There is no clear path that your bike will want to follow. The roots make it difficult to enjoy the ride at full speed, unless you come prepared on a suspended mountain bike.
Apparently CK really loved this place. I didn't.

There are multiple towers along the trail. I imagine those must be either some kind of service or pumping stations for the old aqueduct. Then there are places I simply can't imagine riding a bike in. Certainly not for an average Joe. One of them is right after you cross Old Connecticut Path. The trail continues on the other side of this road but when I saw it I only thought "You've got the be FFF*** kidding me!". The next water tower sits on top of a steep hill. The picture below doesn't really show the true scale of this climb but let's just say I can't picture anyone sane to attempt riding a bike there. I had to dismount and push my bike uphill.

Fortunately, the trail gets a bit flatter next and more manageable. At some point you will be crossing Sudbury River over a narrow bridge. As you can see in the picture, someone definitely doesn't want people to ride bikes across the bridge as its access is guarded by steel poles.
The rest of the trail is the same story - grass, roots, bumps and just boring surroundings in general. I have a feeling this place is more for dog walkers and short hikes with family. It's too boring for weekend bicyclists and too bumpy for regular commuters. Not too mention, bloody steep in places.
Being a bit disappointed, I continued through Sudbury to Wayside Inn Estate with the historic Grist Mill I visited already once before. From there, it's definitely worth riding through the conservation area along Lincoln Rd, Sherman's Bridge Rd and Water Row Rd. I hardly see any car traffic there and this place is rich in wildlife, especially if you can be there very early in the morning.
I've been to Sudbury area a few times already and I have my favorite places there. Unfortunately, Weston Aqueduct Trail is not going to be one of them.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Revisting Harvard Fruitlands

As I mentioned in my last post, the weather pretty much sucks this week, unless you love to get properly barbecued from all sides. I don't. When mercury rises to over 90F I start to melt. Nevertheless, the last two days were actually a bit cooler and bearable, especially in the evenings.

Yesterday, I decided to take a ride back to Fruitlands - the museum in Harvard, MA that I visited last year. Well, I actually tried to visit it but it was closed. To be honest, I didn't expect it to be open yesterday either, because I would be there too late. But it's not the museum that matters but the view (you will see in pictures below). Plus, it's a nice ride anyway.

I could've just ridden my bike there from my office in Bedford and than back home to Arlington, but this would be likely a 60mi (100km) ride and I wouldn't get home well after dusk, around midnight. I didn't want to ride at night so I decided to put the bike in the car, drive to Acton and start my ride from there.
I'm not going to bore you with details of every turn of my route but if you decide to follow my footprints (or tire tracks, actually) you can expect to find some interesting places on the way. To begin, you will see multiple fruit orchards along the Nagog Hill Rd, then the historic Harvard Shaker Village District - the second oldest settlement of Shakers in the United States. Then get ready for some off-road fun, once you find the entrance to the narrow trail off the Lancaster County Rd. The trail is super fun to ride, especially in this direction - it's all on a slight down slope so you will keep flying on gravel between the trees. Just make sure you bring a bit wider tires with you.
Finally, you will reach the Fruitlands. The last time I was there was in the middle of a summer day and I wasn't impressed. But in the evening, when the sun is about to set, things look much, much better. It would be a perfect place to watch the sunset but I couldn't stay there that long. I had to get back to Acton before it got completely dark.
Mt. Wachusett as seen from the Fruitlands.

I only stayed there for a few minutes and I continued downhill to Harvard downtown. At this point it was almost 7pm so the General Store was closed, but if you get here in daytime, make sure you stop there and have a delicious lunch, as I did last year.
Anyway, the route continues through the forested area south of Harvard and then downhill on Westcott Rd. Eventually, you will reach the Delaney Flood Control Site, which sounds very unappealing but is actually a very pretty pond, full of wildlife and occasional kayakers.
At this point it was getting dark already and I had to ride back to Acton. I didn't have a chance to try food at Nancy's Airfield Cafe at the local Minuteman Airfield but reviews are good and apparently they serve organic ice cream, if that's your kind of thing.

The rest of the ride is going to be uneventful and after about 50km (30mi) you will be back in Acton. Certainly the Fruitlands area is worth a visit. Not at noon, but summer evenings or later in fall, it could be nice.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wind of change?

The summer weather is giving us a short break for two days. It's cooler (if you can call 82F or 28C cool) and less humid. But don't worry. We will be back to "normal" 95F (35C) this Friday. Yuck.

Anyway, this kind of weather means that riding a bike to work is actually pleasant again. For me, because 80% of my route is on the Minuteman Bikeway, away from any car traffic, it's also the safest way of getting there. You would think that sitting inside a steel box of a car should make me feel safer, but after reading that in 2015 over 38,000 people were killed on U.S. roads, I don't feel safe anymore. This also means that 5500 more people died this way than in 2014 - a tendency that should be reversed. Seems like when gas prices hit rock bottom, we love to drive more and kill each other in the process. Fortunately, I don't really have to drive much. I can ride my bike instead through a forested area, away from metal cans on wheels.

But not everyone is this lucky. I already wrote about multiple cyclists' deaths on Greater Boston's roads earlier. Those who ride their bikes in the congested urban areas are in a far higher risk of getting into collisions with cars. In short,
"In the first four months of 2016, 8 people were killed and 307 injured from crashes on Boston streets, up 20 percent compared to the same period in 2015".
And these numbers will be on rise because "Boston's streets are designed for conflict", says Michelle Wu, who wrote The Road to Fear-Free Biking in Boston, in Boston Globe. It's a real pleasure to see this kind of level of attention to this serious issue in mainstream media. Michelle notices that the only way to increase safety for everyone, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers is to build protected bike lanes essentially everywhere. No other solution will work well because, as she put it,
"Painted bike lanes function as space for double-parked delivery trucks, pushing cyclists into traffic. Posted signs and “sharrows” unrealistically ask drivers and cyclists to get along."
This transformation will not be easy:
"On many streets, adding a cycle track means narrowing or removing car lanes, or eliminating on-street parking — scenarios that bring panic to car and business owners."
She's right. Once people hear about taking "their" on-street parking spots away, they freak out, like the end of the world was near. A fresh example - the owner of the small convenience store at Marlborough Street, who claimed that because there is only one parking spot in front of the store, her business is slow. Something tells me that if you own a store in a congested urban area and there is no large parking anywhere close, most of your customers are not drivers anyway. Those who come, come by foot, public transport or bikes. You chose to run a business in the downtown, so don't treat the street in front of it like your private driveway in suburbs. Sorry, but there is no free parking here.

I'm likely biased because I do too live in suburbs of Boston and I rarely have to visit the city. But when I do, I park in the Common Garage, which costs me plenty $$$. This is the price I'm willing to pay being a visitor in the city. Still, I can't picture driving my car through Boston expecting a prime parking spot right in front of every business I want to visit. I choose to walk there instead.

But going back to Michelle's article. It's important not only because of what she wrote and where she wrote it. It's also important because Michelle Wu is president of the Boston City Council. This is the first time I see anyone from the city government touching this topic. And doing it in style. Don't believe it? Michelle has just bought her first city bike:
A wind of change? Quite possible.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Around Hudson - Independence Day Ride

It's the American Brexit Day today and the weather seems to be unbearably hot for my standards, although it's nothing new this time of the year. I managed to sneak out for a bike ride at 5AM this morning - the only part of the day when you can stay outside without risking a skin cancer within 15 minutes.
Just like I mentioned recently, I know my nearest neighborhood pretty well already, so I decided to put my bike in the car and drive to Hudson - just a bit west of Arlington, to ride there. Maybe, since this is the Independence Day, the more appropriate location would be the Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, or Charlestown's Bunker Hill, or the Boston's Tea Party place. But I either know those places too well or they are all too urban.
Starting that early has some definite advantages. Not only everyone is sleeping and roads are empty, but also all mosquitoes are asleep as well. Since I started my ride in the swampy Assabet River National Refuge I could expect swarms of those little buggers but they were surprisingly tame this time. That said, I ended up with just a few bites.
Nevertheless, if you can somehow survive multiple mosquito attacks, Assabet River Refuge is a fun place to ride. Some rough fire roads, some gravel paths, multiple ponds and lots of wildlife. During my 30-minute ride through the refuge I saw a deer, rabbits, herons, geese, ducks, swans and a crane. If you are into bird watching, bring your binoculars and you won't be disappointed.
My next stop was at the top of the hill at the Nashoba Valley Winery. I made it there by some small local roads, through the forested area just north of Hudson, meeting with a heavy forestry equipment in the process. This chained monster in the photo below is a feller buncher, used for cutting down trees. My bike looked like a midget next to those wheels.
Anyway, I got to the winery but it was way too early for harvest. The views from the hill are nice though. I'm not entirely sure but I think I could see Wachusett Mountain in the distance from there.
I headed back to Hudson and then, following Assabet River Rail Trail I reached the refuge where I left my car. It was only a quick 50km (30mi) loop that I finished by 9AM - right before it started getting too hot. I guess this is the only way to have a bike ride (apart from night riding) on a hot summer day.
Let the fireworks begin!

Friday, July 1, 2016

On protected bike lanes and incomplete streets

Not too long ago I wrote about death of Allison Warmuth, killed on the streets of Boston by a Duck Tour vehicle. Last summer, it was Anita Kurmann, killed by a driver of a large semi truck. Last week - Amanda Phillips, killed by another inattentive driver (Interestingly, all women - are they more vulnerable?). 

Whenever a bicyclist gets killed, there's an outcry from bicycling advocacy community to install more protected bike lanes in the city. This demand is certainly well-intended. The number of bicycles on streets has been growing quickly in the recent years but the necessary infrastructure is still lacking. Even when the city finally builds new bike lanes, what we usually get is this:
A DZBL in Boston (From bostonbiker.org)

The picture shows a very typical DZBL - a Door Zone Bike Lane. Just two stripes of paint and a few bicycle symbols are supposed to protect you from 3000lbs vehicles moving at over 40mph. Either someone in the city of Boston has absolutely no imagination or simply doesn't care. If you still don't see where the problem is, try riding your bike there. You will face cars passing you at a very intimate distance on your left and car doors randomly swung open in front of you on your right. In other words, the city could save money by not painting those two stripes at all and the effect would likely be the same.

Therefore, we complain. And sometimes, we get more. More paint, that is. Just take a look at this magnificent "protected" bike lane in Allston:
 A paint-"protected" lane in Allston (By Steve Annear from bostonmagazine.com)

Is a little bit more paint going to keep you safe? We know it won't and this is why bicycle advocacy groups call for true protected bike lanes. In a simplest form, these could be painted on the street, but right between the parked cars and the sidewalk. Next, we just need a simple barrier, such as a concrete, non-continuous curb (a "curbed dashed line") from the street side. Otherwise, you can be sure drivers will park their cars in the bike lane. Ideally, we should simply follow the excellent street design guide by Copenhagenize.com:
As you can see, the guide suggests that on streets with a maximum vehicle speed of 30km/h (20mph) no separate bicycle infrastructure is needed. Once the speed goes up to 40km/h (25mph) you should provide simple painted lanes (Note - between the parked cars and the sidewalk!). On streets where vehicles move at up to 60km/h (40mph) curb-separated lanes for bicycles should be included. Then finally, when cars move faster than 70km/h (45mph), fully separated (protected) bike lanes should be present. Now, considering that on most city streets in Boston Metro Area drivers easily reach 30-40mph, we should see protected bike lanes pretty much everywhere. This should make bike activists very happy, cyclists safe and drivers out of the way. Right?


Here is the problem. We hear lots of advocacy about adding protected bike lanes everywhere. But every straight section of the street has to end at an intersection and that's why a street with a protected bike lane but an unprotected intersection is only a half-baked solution.

In fact, such a street could be potentially much more dangerous for bicyclists that a street without any bike lanes. How come? Picture a scenario where a cyclist rides in a protected bike lane, away from cars. Most drivers wouldn't even register his/her presence, especially if he/she is hidden behind a line of parked cars. Now this cyclist approaches an intersection that has no protection, only a few stripes of paint to bridge bike lanes on both sides. Motorists will likely be unaware of any bicyclists entering such intersection. Collisions will be imminent.

On the other hand, if that street had no bike lanes at all, cyclists would have to share the road with cars - certainly a very unpleasant and stressful scenario for most of us. Yet at the same time, the situation will remain the same at intersections, where drivers will have to pay as much attention to cyclists as they do at those straight sections of the road.

Therefore, no street is complete with a protected bike lane but without protected intersections.

We know how such intersections should look like. Massachusetts has prepared a new street design guide that looks very promising and incorporates the best Dutch design practices. The problem is - we still have to start using it.
A complete intersection (Source: Streetsblog.org)
The main obstacles in implementing such solutions are the cost, available space and public push back. I'm not going to discuss the cost here but space is widely available on most main intersections. It's because our main streets look like an airport runway - they are wide. The key to a protected intersection are the four oval islands that reduce the turning radius for right-turning cars. No more cutting corners. On a protected intersection you would need to take a nearly full 90 degree turn before your path intersects with a bicyclist coming from your right. Had Mass Ave/Beacon St intersection been built this way, Anita Kurmann would be still with us.
Of course, adding such islands means that the space for cars gets reduced and some parking would have to be removed. This shouldn't be a problem as those spots right next to the intersecting roads are illegal anyway (Cars parked that close to the intersection block the view).

When it comes to smaller intersections, such as those with a connecting side street, likely the best practice would be to simply raise the crosswalk and the bikeway to the sidewalk level, thus creating a bump in the street that would force drivers to slow down. Not only this would be safer for pedestrians and cyclists crossing this side street, but also for drivers merging with traffic on the main street - they would need to slow down, stop and look around before entering the intersection.
A speed bump and a crosswalk in one - traffic calming measure and a safe way for pedestrians to cross the street.

There are many good practices we could use to stop people from being killed by cars on our streets. Protected bike lanes are one of them. Just don't forget to protect bicyclists at intersections as well.