Steering with stanchions: keeping the corners safe in the Christmas City.

For those of us who care about this sort of thing (the precious few), it’s become increasingly obvious that bollards have become a significant element of the average streetscape. We owe some of this, no doubt, to the unfortunate reality of an escalating collective fear of terrorist attacks in the form of vehicle ramming, either into areas frequented by pedestrians or directly into buildings themselves. But sometimes the bollards are a bit more innocuous, like these at intersection in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:stanchions at a corner in Bethlehem PAAnd it’s at this early point in the article that I need to offer a clarification—more like a correction. They aren’t really bollards, since bollards are generally ponderous, immobile things, whose size intends to impede vehicles entering forbidden territory. These skimpy little white poles are stanchions, appropriating the extremely versatile word for just about any post used as a support and typically oriented upright. And these poles, while visible and at least mildly inhibitory, will hardly stop an aggressive or careless driver. They just might cause a scratch to the body of the car, and, at best, they could damage a side mirror. But they’re not going to protect a hapless pedestrian from a vehicle that edges onto a corner sidewalk. So why are they there?

It appears that the City of Bethlehem’s public works department has attempted to achieve something akin to a similar initiative I recorded a few years back in Hoboken, New Jersey (also available on Huffington Post): it’s a simplified effort to improve the safety for pedestrians by giving them more space to maneuver at a crossing. The broadly used term is a “bulb-out”, where the act of shrinking the street width at an intersection creates a smaller crosswalk for pedestrians, thereby reducing the potential for vehicle/pedestrian conflicts. (It has the added benefit of restricting on-street parking on the stretch of curb closest to the absolute corner, which can impede visibility for pedestrians and right-turning vehicles.) A literal bulb-out would involve heavy surgery on the street, expanding the the curb, thereby seriously reducing these conflicts because most vehicles are unlikely to jump a curb; the grade change unambiguously distinguishes the street from the sidewalk. Such an intervention more overtly resembles a bigger bulb shape to the sidewalk—hence the name. The alternative with stripes and stanchions, used in Hoboken and here in Bethlehem, achieves largely the same results, with one drawback (it’s not as preventative as a transposition of the curb) and two advantages (the stanchions have reflective tape on the upper tips, and the end result is much, much cheaper than laying a new sidewalk).

In most respects, this Bethlehem example replicates the Hoboken approach, which affords it little real interest. But there’s one distinction: Hoboken used far more powerful striping and even a different paving material (asphalt for the road and a concrete sheath for the newly protected bulb-out portion, but with no real change in the actual curb). Bethlehem goes even simpler. It’s just a stripe and a few of those flimsy stanchions. Nothing elaborate, but it still gets the point across. And, compared to repaving, it costs next to nothing.

I’m sure this bulb-out is still somewhat effective at creating a larger pedestrian refuge at the crosswalk, but I’m not sure it’s exactly what the Bethlehem example is all about. Take a look at this photo from a different angle and it’s clearer.IMG_9949The white stripe and the stanchions carve out a buffer or an offset of the curb (the “bulb”), increasing the circumference of the arc at that intersection and significantly expanding the turning radius. As a result, motorists must slow down much more profoundly when turning at this intersection than they did under the smaller radius. Reduced speed at right turns helps mitigate vehicle/pedestrian collisions—a condition inevitably widely valued, as South Bethlehem seeks more pedestrian activity in its central business core. But the choice of investment here—an abundance of stanchions—indicates that Bethlehem’s safety measures are a more powerful cue to motorists, whereas the pavement-oriented approach in Hoboken yields a stronger visual impact to pedestrians. This should come as no surprise, since Hoboken is, by almost all metrics, a more pedestrian friendly environment (with no disrespect intended toward Bethlehem’s walkability.) Bethlehem’s stripe-and-stanchion combo may not be enough to prevent a motorist with malicious intent, but it’s a cheaper means of forcing the merely careless driver on the straight and narrow…exactly how they should be moving through a growing urban center.

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18 thoughts on “Steering with stanchions: keeping the corners safe in the Christmas City.

  1. Chris B

    Good analysis. But damn, those plastic stanchions are spindly and ugly. I guess it could be worse…they could be orange-barrel orange or school-bus yellow.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Agreed. They’ve become very, VERY popular in DC, and, as the years pass, they seem to place them at even smaller intervals. The Hoboken example is a few years old; it wouldn’t surprise me if it were more jammed with them now. In DC, at a similar crossing, they’d get installed about every 3-5 feet. It’s almost like they don’t cost anything…

      Reply
    2. Alex Pline

      In Annapolis (MD) people lost their minds when a demonstration bike lane was installed on Main St using stanchions. Even though they were temporary for 45 days, the historic preservation people (and about half the population in general as well as the business community) thought the world was coming to an end. So much they pressured the mayor to remove them after 14 days.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt

        Yeah, they ain’t pretty. But their ugliness makes them a visual outlier; unlike most bollards (which often blend with the environment to the point that they’re hard to see at night) stanchions will always make themselves easily visible. To some extent, I can see why preservationists would throw a conniption fit–but it makes it that much more surprising that they’re all over DC, including large historic districts like Capitol Hill.

        Reply
  2. Ian

    I’ve been noticing the corner stanchions for the first time in the last few weeks in DC (I’ve been noticing them, but who knows if they’ve been there for a long time; I’m not observant). As a bicycler (I’m not ready to refer to myself as a “cyclist”) I find the stanchions give me an easy turning lane make taking/rounding corners easier. I have no idea if that is part of the idea or just a happy accident for me.

    Reply
  3. Brian M

    As a cyclist, stanchions can be a menace-they may not stop a car, but they can cause a painful crash for a careless cyclist.

    One problem is if a city abandons a stanchion program but forgets to remove a forlorn single pole. Napa, California has left ONE stanchion on a major traffic and cycling road (Redwood Road) and it is in shady area with narrow lanes and is somewhat of a menace. Especially when they leave the footings in place without the poles!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the info, Brian. I always wondered what they used to secure them into the pavement; it’s a footing, you say? These spindly ones in Bethlehem seem ubiquitous out here on the East Coast, though the Hoboken example used sturdier versions with a different type of mounting. But there weren’t quite as many; just a few strategically placed. They seem to be a fad.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Sorry I’m slow to catch up on this…I’ve been out of town lately. Was this a genuine controversy in Annapolis? It appears like a fairly conventional solution–certainly not like the bike boulevards I’m seeing in DT Portland, or even some of the solutions implemented on the narrow streets of Philly.

      Reply
      1. Kristy F

        The stanchions along the bike lanes on the nearest major road to my house got knocked over so much that the city ended up taking them out. They also narrowed the new bike lanes and put back a lane of traffic less than a year after removing it. Traffic backed up far more than anticipated with the missing lane.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Interesting, Kristy. Sometimes these “complete streets” initiatives let pollyannaish bike advocacy create a stalemate (at best). If the end result is worse conditions for 98% of users to the benefit of 2%, this isn’t a Pareto efficient outcome…

          I’d wager that many roads are designed widely enough that a 3-4″ lane can get added without creating undue burden on drivers; it will simply giving them tighter lanes to maneuver, forcing them to drive more slowly–which they probably should be doing anyway in an urban setting. But removing a vehicle lane altogether in a city setting is almost definitely going to cause a deterioration of Level of Service (LOS) for drivers, and it could sour the attitudes of the moderates, who don’t bike regularly but support the biking community in general. It is not good to alienate the moderates!

          I’d guess that some cyclists complained with these modifications that happened over by you–they always do–but the final result was more of a compromise that still gave cyclists a better solution than nothing. As for the stanchions, if they’re cheap they will definitely get knocked down. My home city installed some pretty tough ones embedded in concrete to protect a cycle track, and while a few have gotten thwacked, they’re more likely to do damage to cars. It costs more, but if they’re built to last, they’re going to yield a much better ROI, aren’t they?

          Reply
          1. Kristy F

            Motorists complained more than the cyclists did. Every busy body on Nextdoor weighed in. The city was, in part, trying to establish a safe bike corridor up to ASU and the nearest light rail station. He eventual compromise of adding back only a southbound lane fixed the most dangerous traffic problem, which was southbound traffic backing up beyond the freeway, causing backups in the exit lane there as well. Northbound backs up at busy times but does not impact the freeway.

            Reply
      2. Alex Pline

        OMG, the city went nuts. Protests, counter protests, law suit threats, thousands of facebook comments etc. All inside baseball fairly unique to Annapolis, but the response was way out of proportion.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Wow–sorry to hear. In Indianapolis, the cycle track and stanchions were part of a broader, unifying cycling initiative (the Cultural Trail) and I don’t believe it was hugely controversial. It was slow to catch on–very little support among elected officials–but I don’t think most people are bitter about it, now that its success is almost indisputable.

          Reply
        2. Alex Pline

          this was not well planned and executed, essentially a solution that cost some money (context we just had a 15% property tax increase so people are sensitive) in search of a problem. That said the response was way over the top.

          Reply

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