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Tips for riding in traffic from our bicycling columnist

Posted by Your Town  July 27, 2012 10:13 AM

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I was riding west on Beacon Street, a block before Cleveland Circle. It was late in the day and the sun was low in the sky. The glare on the road was blinding.

That section of Beacon Street is treacherous even when the sun is not shining right into your eyes. Pedestrians jaywalk, the bike lane abruptly ends at the Brookline-Boston border, and the pavement looks like it’s been strip-mined. Not to mention the trolley drivers who run red lights, and the trolley tracks that lie waiting to grab your wheel and take you down.

Most motorists seem to understand that this horizontal Tower of Babel is chaotic and dangerous. They tend not to run red lights, and give me and my two-wheeled friends a wide and safe berth.

The problem arises when motorists try to park in the angled spaces along Beacon St. These spaces are easy to pull into, but hard to exit. The only way to get out of them is to back up, and the blind spot makes it nearly impossible to see the cars, joggers, or cyclists who may be behind you. I like to think of these angled parking spaces as so many Roach Motels: easy to get into, hard to get out of.

So what’s a cyclist to do?

In the short run, PAY ATTENTION. Assume that motorists don’t see you as they’re backing out (they probably don’t), and proceed with caution. I tend to ride in the middle of the lane along that one block section so as to make myself as visible as possible.

Paying attention is good, but I figured there must be a better way.

I called Donald Shoup, a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, who happens to be one of the leading national experts on parking and urban planning. I figured that if there were a better way to design parking spaces, Professor Shoup would know about it.

Professor Shoup did know all about a simple and elegant solution to this problem: angle in parking. Here’s how it works:

Professor Shoup said, “Instead of pulling in, you back in. That way, when you pull out, into the flow of traffic, you can see what’s there. It’s common all through Asia [and in] Portland and Washington, D.C.”

Angle in parking means that motorists’ blind spots (where cyclists and other motorists seem to lurk) disappear. Okay, so Professor Shoup’s solution won’t keep your bicycle wheels from getting locked into a trolley track. It also won’t prevent jaywalkers from jaywalking. Still, it will drastically decrease the likelihood that a motorist will crash into you as he backs out of his parking space

Professor Shoup had some other ideas about how to improve and make parking safer. “The problem with parking spaces is that collectively, motorists drive millions of miles each year looking for them.” When Professor Shoup says millions, he means millions: trust me, he’s done the math.

Hunting for a parking space increases the likelihood of a midblock accident. Plus it creates pollution, wastes time, and is bad for your health (honestly: has your blood pressure ever gone down while looking for that elusive parking space?).

Professor Shoup’s solution to this problem is variable pricing. He suggests that towns “Adjust parking prices up or down depending on the time of day. This decreases hunting around for parking and accidents…and the money raised can be used to upgrade the streets.”

So how variable is variable? Professor Shoup believes: “The right price for curb parking is like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: You’ll know it when you see it. If the spaces are too full, it’s too cheap, and if there are too many spaces, it’s too expensive…You want to see one or two empty spaces per block.”

Professor Shoup calls this “The Goldilocks principle of parking.” I call this a good step forward.

I realize that angled in parking and variable pricing won’t solve climate change, our dependency on oil, and our over-reliance on cars as a primary form of transportation. Professor Shoup’s solution also won’t support every cyclist’s secret wish to ban cars (just kidding, mostly).

What his ideas will do is make our streets safer for everyone, decrease carbon emissions caused by the millions of miles we collectively spend finding a parking spot, and raise revenue to improve our roads.

Sounds like a win-win all around.

Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published later this year.

The Pan-Mass Challenge is next weekend, but it’s not too late to donate to a worthy cause (full disclosure: I am a longstanding donor).

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