Monday, January 27, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Tartu

The last decade has seen a number of dedicated bike lanes built in and around Tartu.  Unfortunately, their functionality is rather limited. Below I explain why.

There are different cyclists.  In the one end we have slow local riders like children but also adults pedaling only a few blocks.  At the opposite end are regular fast commuters who move distances around 10km.  (I ignore bicycle racing and related issues here.)  Below, I explain what are the main problems with the existing lanes, in particular for the commuter group.

Junction of large roads as it ought to be: Nordre Ringgade crossing Nørrebrogade in Aarhus, DK.  The bike lane is just at left of the photographer, the markings are visible on street.  Note the lane is straight, and there are no curbstones.
First, the bicycle lanes should be straight.  The lane should be free of pylons, traffic lights but also pedestrians, and avoid unnecessary sharp turns.  In my opinion, this is the most problematic side of the current lanes.  All too often they are bent away from the street at junctions, and the bend typically includes a combination of a sharp turn, high curbstones and a
guardrail.  Hence one cannot cycle at typical speed for faster riders, 20-30 km/h, even along the major thoroughfares (like Võru street or Räpina road).
This is how it works in Tartu.  The guardrail works as a barrier and does not allow unhindered cycling.  But note the ongoing construction further down—the bend on the car lane is being smoothed out.  Junction of Tartu-Ülenurme road and Kuslapuu street (right).
Note that one almost never encounters such obstacles on car lanes.  It is also a safety issue, making cyclists less visible and rendering the right-of-way unclear.  Similarly, the existing cycle lanes almost never allow full-speed entry and exit.  Fast riders, notably out-of-town, cannot take sharp turns.  Hence the short dedicated tracks are seldom usable—the tiny gain in safety does not justify a large loss in speed.
Junction of large roads done wrong.  This is right-turn-lane of Aardla street joining one of the main thoroughfares, Võru street just ahead of us.  Note that just on this picture, cyclists are supposed to cross two curbstones and take a 90-degree turn on a rather narrow lane.  The only way to cross this junction at typical bike speed is to stay away from the bike lane.
Unfortunately, I have not experienced any improvement here over the years.  Even the newest tracks, like the one along the Räpina road, expect too much maneuvering and yielding from the cyclist.  Note that straightness is less of an issue for slow-speed local riders.  Hence the current quality of the track network may well cater for that group.

Second, the lanes should be direct and broadly follow the shortest path between the main destinations.  This is often a thorny issue as the shortest paths are typically occupied by large streets. For instance, neither Riia, Narva nor Võru streets have any dedicated cycle lanes despite offering direct access between large stretches of the city, and being often considered too dangerous for biking.  The suggested alternatives, Kesk street next to Võru and the way over Näituse street to reach Maarjamõisa hospitals, are substantially longer.  Directness matters for everyone, despite their distance and speed.

Third big issue is evenness.  Even street surface is a must.  The most problematic point here are the curbstones, but also the overall profile of the lanes.  A high-quality bike lane should not have any curbstones in the first place.  Second, the surface profile should be smooth enough.  If certain sections must be lower (for instance, to facilitate driving across the sidewalk), one should smoothly lower the lane level along a longer stretch.
Junction of a major thoroughfare, Võru street with a sidestreet.  Note three problems here: the surface is not smooth enough even given sunken curbstones; the curbstones on the street side cannot be crossed at all, essentially cutting the width by a third; and finally the profile is too steep even behind the curbstone.
Finally, particularly on the older roads, the quality of pavement is also an issue.  Fortunately, here a clear improvement is visible over years.  Evenness matters more for fast riders, but the curbstones also hurt the slow ones with small wheels, like children.

The final issue is the lane width.  In general, the lane should permit for two cyclists to ride next to each other.  This is especially important with children (the parents want to "cover" the street side), or for overtaking slower cyclists.  True, such 1.5-2m wide lanes are not feasible everywhere.  But one should avoid unnecessary bottlenecks.  Far too often the guardrails, traffic lights, and improperly installed curbstones narrow down otherwise adequate lane.
Bus stop done well.  Nordre Ringgade, Aarhus, DK.
Bus stop not done well.  It expects too much maneuvering in a narrow section of the bike lane.  One of the main thoroughfares in Tartu, Võru street.
A specific problem is posed by bus stops.  These are frequently located at a particularly narrow section of combined sidewalk/cycle lane where the shed and waiting people also take up space.  Bus stops require extra wide, not extra narrow lanes.  Inadequate width hurts more the fast riders.
Nordre Ringgade crossing Aldersrovej near Trøjborgcenteret.  All done well: no curbstones, the cycle lane retains it's width, and the profile is smooth.


Virtually none of the existing cycle lanes around Tartu follow these standards.  The quality has been improving from the perspective of slow riders but for long-distance cyclists the lanes are simply inadequate.  Realistically, I would recommend the planners the following:
  • Rename the current cycle lanes to "cycling-enabled sidewalks". Permit cycling there given one does not endanger pedestrians.  For faster riders, permit cycling on the car lanes as well.
  • Understand the different types of traffic.  Lanes for slow-speed riders need not to follow the same standards as high-speed thoroughfares.  Think what kind of traffic is dominating on certain streets.
  • Most importantly, before designing the next traffic project, learn about the capabilities and requirements of cyclists!  Bike lanes are costly, and if not constructed properly, they may be more of a hindrance than help for cyclists.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Managing Forests for Everyone

The forested private land is largely managed as a profitable asset—the harvesting, planting, and other management is done from the viewpoint of the landowner.  As is often the case, this approach leaves a number of other interested parties with little say about their environment.

Mature forests are an excellent recreational landscape.  They also form a habitat for many species.  Forest near Kaagvere, Estonia, in December 2013.

Forests are a major component of landscape and environment.  This means there are many people (but also other living organisms) with stakes in the forests.  Below, I focus on recreational landscape users, but most of my arguments are valid for the other users as well, including the non-human ones.  The main problem lies here—while landowners profit almost exclusively from logging, the others will mostly enjoy the landscape where the forests are left intact.  (I will ignore such interest groups who profit from logging, such as forest industry.) This is a textbook case of negative externalities.

The most straightforward solution is to let all the recreational landscape users pay the landowners according to their valuation of the intact forests.  Obviously, such an income flow will cease after the forest is cut, and will count as a cost of clearcutting.  Unfortunately, this approach will not work—it offers a perfect opportunity to shirk and hide your private valuation, and it would be extremely costly to locate the landowners and to pay each of them a few euros every time you walk through the forest.  It would also put all the burden of adjustment to the recreational visitors.

A public-sector version of the same idea would look like this: determine the average value of various types of landscape, and pay the landowners accordingly, but only if they maintain it in that particular state.  Such rules can also take the form of individual contracts between the government and landowners with no new legislation introduced.  The payment should be financed through some sort of general taxes, such as payroll tax.  This approach is technically feasible.  Here landowners win, the society bears all the burden.

A third option is to introduce the same reform while shifting the burden to the landholders.  The government taxes the land according to "non-likeability" of the landscape.  If the property is not suitable for recreational use, you pay a lot.  If it is a nice natural area open for everyone, you pay little.  If forest is cut, the land tax increases accordingly.  (In case of well-functioning financial markets, this is equivalent to logging tax.)

This proposal is not free of problems either.  As all the burden is shifted to the landowners, this leads to falling land prices and hence a decreasing property value.  Second, the "non-likeability" is hard to determine.  It is possible to evaluate certain types of landscapes, but not everything. Even more, the policymakers need simple rules to avoid misunderstandings and too much potential for corruption.  Third, it does not take into account the potential value of the landscape.  Some landscape types are inherently more valuable, and even more, we can only enjoy what is at a reasonable distance from us.  The value of places far away is smaller.  The correct approach is not to tax the "non-likeability", but the difference between the potential and the current value.  Can policymakers handle that?

Middle-aged temperate forest in Northern Europe.  The left-hand side of the road is scheduled to be cut soon.  (And sorry for the cellphone photo...)
Pulling the three ideas together, I think a reasonable way forward is to combine the second and the third possibility.  One should differentiate land tax according to a simple scale of landscape value, for instance forest age.  Young forests (0-15 years) will be subject to high taxes, the mature ones (100+) will have low tax.  This data can be collected and handled.  Second, the municipalities should buy recreational land and also make contracts with the landholders to stipulate mutually best management.  This combined approach would shift part of the costs to the landowners, and part to the society. The taxes should be established step-by-step over many years.  However, although feasible, this policy is not free of problems either—the landholders around rich municipalities (big cities) win while those far away loose.