Walkable West Palm Beach

Fern Street bike facilities lack the basics


[At Walkable West Palm Beach, we welcome new voices into the conversation about sustainable transportation options. Joe Roskowski is an electrical engineer and a resident of Grandview Heights. He’s a frequent bike commuter to/from downtown and an active citizen working to make West Palm Beach a better place. Here, he shares his thoughts on the proposed Fern Street bike facilities from his perspective as frequent bike commuter into downtown.]

Have you seen the new bike lane designs for Fern Street? Sadly, I have.

It’s great that the Mayor, City Commission, and citizens wish to build safe bike and pedestrian infrastructure – but more important than the wish is the design. Design matters. This is a bad design. A bad design is a dangerous design.

But there’s still time to fix it if the city acts now.

I spoke about many of these concerns in front of the City Commission and Mayor back in April 2015, when the Fern Street design presented at a “Face of the City vote”  was still a work-in-progress. A follow up email was sent in May to city staff and relevant contractors detailing many of these concerns. The majority of this post is based on that email since, unfortunately, the concerns raised 8 months ago were never addressed. The plans have been approved, but it would be normal procedure for the city to submit a set of revised plans.

Note: Excerpts from the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide – the bible of bike lane design – are used below to highlight how the plan ignores modern, safe, accepted practices.

Wide Lanes:

First, the city insists that Fern Street have 11-foot lanes.  Any regular reader of this blog will recognize the problem. 10-foot lanes have been shown to have definitive safety benefits, while providing additional street area for other uses. West Palm Beach was featured in a nationally-read expose in The Atlantic on why cities should use 10-foot (and sometimes less) lanes. In West Palm Beach, 9- foot lanes are even used on Forest Hill Boulevard – a 5 lane undivided arterial with a high traffic volume.   And yet, the city insists on 11-foot lanes, preventing safer buffers on bike lanes and forcing bike lanes to end abruptly and dangerously.

It’s important to emphasize that Jeff Speck’s article in the Atlantic specifically makes the case for 10-foot lanes in the context of higher volume urban arterials and collectors. Neighborhood streets can and should be even skinnier. From the Atlantic article:

…we are talking only about high-volume streets here. Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.

Notable is that the plan section from Olive Avenue to Flagler Drive utilizes 10 foot lanes in the Fern Street plans. This is the exception that proves 10 foot lanes already work on Fern. This is the configuration Fern has had on this block for a long time. Why can’t 10 foot lanes be installed on the remainder of the section, then?

If nine foot lanes work on a formerly state designated road with 5 lanes and significant traffic volume (Forest Hill Blvd), surely we can do ten foot lanes on Fern Street, a much lower speed, lower volume urban street through downtown.  Low speeds are absolutely critical to safety as well as vibrancy of the public street life. Skinnier lanes mean safer speeds.

Terminated Bike Lanes:

In the current plans, the bike lanes are terminated at the end of each block.  This is a big problem. While there is minimal funding to move curbs with this project, there are intersection treatments that could help with safely merging.  Other cities have solved these problems, we can too.
From the NACTO Guide:

Bike-specific traffic signals:

Since the project is not planning to move curbs, bike specific traffic signals could work well for many of the resulting strange intersection configurations. Unfortunately, these are expensive – possibly more so than just moving the curbs.  Lights with an exclusive bicycle signal phase help ensure safe order of movement through the intersection, and could be especially important on the Tamarind and Quadrille intersections.  But if the city finds that too difficult…

Bike boxes and surface treatments:

As I mentioned, many of the intersections have sidewalk and planter “bulb-outs”. These bulb-outs narrow the road and prevent a bike lane from continuing though uninterrupted at all intersections. If we won’t spend the money to move curbs, these intersections should receive bike boxes (see image below).
The current design have many segments of bike lane forcing people biking to merge into car traffic. Motorists will find this surprising, and will not be looking for people on bikes.  While important at all intersections, bike boxes are an especially important feature at intersections with traffic lights (in particular Tamarind, Quadrille, but Dixie & Olive if we ever plan to 2-way them). Bike boxes allow people biking to successfully merge to go straight, turn left. If paired with no-turn-on-red, they can also reduce “right-hook” incidents when bikes approach the intersection when a light is red. Bike boxes are standard bicycling facilities, accepted by engineers throughout the world, but proper implementation is important (for example, safety data shows they should not be used on steep downhill road segments).
A standard bike box:
At some intersections though, the curb bulb-outs are too long to allow the bike box to comfortably extend back to the wide portion of the roadway.  NACTO suggests a length of 5 meters – these would likely need to be about 6m+ if the bike lane were to not terminate (image below right). Where the distance is too far, the city could use accepted modern designs such as a full lane mixing zones, or “Dashed green bicycle lanes” (see example in San Francisco, page 7  http://bicycling.511.org/pdf/bike_guide_en.pdf). When applied to Fern Street, this might translate into the the 1st image below, and could theoretically be implemented either with or without the bike box:

Dixie and Fern, Eastbound



Dixie and Fern, Westbound


At Quadrille, the intersection conflict areas should receive at a minimum bike symbols and striping (See MUTCD Section 3B.08 for dotted line extensions through intersections), which do not appear in this design. Due to the high speed of traffic on Quadrille though, this particular location would preferably receive green-colored pavement.
East bound on Fern Street at Quadrille is a great place for a bike box, perhaps in front of the tracks to allow bicyclist to safely queue. A shared bike lane/right turn lane (see image below) may be an appropriate way for bicyclists to reach the bike box, but I understand that this area is being redesigned in conjunction with the All Aboard Florida access road. This would allow the curb to be relocated, and a proper bike lane to be built.

Quadrille Ave and Fern St


Shared bike lane/turn lane

At Tamarind Ave, a standard bike bike would make sense given the proposed bike lanes on Tamarind (Speck recommend a cycletrack or bike lanes). The particular example leaves the right turn lane in place, which could encourage unsafe right-on-reds by motorists, and may need to be updated based on traffic conditions.

Tamarind Ave and Fern St

Buffer Striping:

Additionally, the design fails to stripe out the buffer between the parked cars and the bike lane, encouraging cars to park further from the curb and therefore closer to the bike lane. This makes being “doored” (when a car opens their door into a person riding a bike), far more likely. “Doorings” are a common  way for people on bikes to be injured or killed. While there is a buffer (2.9 foot adjacent to an 8 foot wide parking spot), a striped buffer separating the bike lane from the parked cars has been shown to encourage safer bicyclist location in relation to car doors.
A NACTO example of a striped buffer between a bike lane and parked cars:

Termination of a bike lane on an uphill segment:

On the segment between Tamarind and Sapodilla, the Eastbound bike lane terminates on what is one of the biggest hills in South Florida. This is a very long block, which means that while people on bikes will be going slowly as they climb the hill, people in cars will be driving quickly.  A condo-building driveway also exists right near the merge – as people on bikes trying to merge look over their left should to see if cars are coming, they may not see cars exiting the condo into their path. This sets up another dangerous situation.

Sapodilla intersection, proposed

What’s not obvious here is that the curb-to-curb width for this “skinny” section is still 40 feet wide! If best-practices were used on car lane width, there would be sufficient room to continue the bike lane. Some minor parking modifications (careful tweaking of some of striped areas lost to disconcertingly large turn-radius requirements) might be required to the plan if the goal was to ensure no loss of parking.


One potential configuration for the 40ft wide section

What to do:

These are just a handful of unaddressed safety suggestions. The planned bike facilities are poorly thought out and potentially dangerous to people who will bike on Fern Street. Many of the possible fixes are inexpensive – just changing where and how much paint!

Despite the amazing recent efforts by the Mayor, Commission, and city staff to make our streets safer and more walkable, our engineering implementation is not matching the stated safety goals. It is commendable that city staff has secured a grant for Fern Street bioswales and bike facilities and we applaud the work that has been done thus far. But we can do better. Other cities are succeeding at building safe designs – so can we.

Write to your mayor, city commissioners, and planning staff to ask for safe, well-designed bike lanes on Fern Street.

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2 thoughts on “Fern Street bike facilities lack the basics

  1. This is the same project on which the City of West Palm Beach disqualified me from the design proposal because they refused to prequalify me for civil engineering work. They also refused to say why they wouldn’t prequalify me, and have no indications of certain amount of experience required or anything of the sort. Seems like they prefer their projects go to design firms in town who they’ve used before.


    • The City genuflects to traffic engineers in my experience. Lots of talk about walkability and biking, but when it comes to the getting things done, the almighty Traffic Engineers at the city trump all reason. It is really depressing because we’re on the cusp of doing great things, if not for this one huge obstacle.

      Sorry to hear about your experience.


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