Changes and improvements to Mason Street through downtown Fort Collins have been, and probably will continue to be, incremental. Additional bike lanes, added just last weekend, are the latest step in the process. What I’d love to see as an end goal is a 16th Street Mall style design that includes bikes, pedestrians, and the MAX bus, but that only allows limited passage for cars. I envision a long plaza with outdoor seating, buskers, artwork, and cafes that spill out into the mall. But in the meantime, there are some improvements I’d like to see in the short term given our present configuration. And I also have a few tips for folks that will be pedaling down the street after the most recent iteration of changes.
Tips first, then improvements for those that are interested in that sort of thing.
When traveling the new and improved Mason street, you’ll note sharrows in the right hand turn lanes. That means that bicyclists heading straight are being encouraged to use the right hand turn lane to position themselves at the light. This is entirely legal. According to the Colorado traffic code, bicyclists may use the left hand side of a right hand turn lane in order to travel through the lane.
If there were room for a bike lane between the cars thru lane and right hand turn lane, then you could allow cars to turn right while you sit at the red light. But along Mason there isn’t enough room. So don’t hug the sides of the turn lane. Doing so may confuse an inexperience motorist into thinking they have enough room to get around you and make a right hand turn on red. In order to encourage safe driving on the part of the motorists around you, aim for your bicycle to be about where those sharrows are. As you can see in the above photo, it’s pretty clear that a motorist should wait behind this bicyclist at the light.
Note that buses going straight will also be using the right hand turn lane to queue up. If the bus gets to the intersection before you, you’ll probably want to join the cars in the thru lane so that you don’t get caught behind the bus when it makes its stop.
You don’t HAVE to use the right hand turn lane to line up to go straight. But if you’re not where the sharrows are, then you should be in a single file line with the cars and travel when they do. If you choose instead to ride the white line between the thru lane and the turn lane, motorists will be tempted (and some might even be forced, depending on the situation) to come closer to you than they’re allowed to by law. (There’s a requirement for at least 3 feet between the farthest rightmost part of the car and the farthest leftmost part of the bike.) So don’t crowd the cars. It’s not fair to them (putting them in an illegal situation) and it’s no safe for you.
Other things to keep in mind: Watch for potholes just after bus stops. (There’s more on that below.) Know that all of the lights on Mason street are set to “see” bicyclists, so you don’t have to pull over to push the pedestrian signal. And use extra caution when wrong-way-riding on the sidewalks. It’s legal. And given that Mason street is blocked because of the train track curbs, it’s sometimes necessary to get to the closest intersection in the direction you’re headed. But people coming out of driveways won’t be looking for you. So ride defensively and get over to the right side of the street as soon as possible.
The left hand turn situation along Mason causes problems for bicyclists. For those traveling north off of the Mason Trail, there’s no legal left hand turn at Laurel, and none at Myrtle, which means that the first legal left doesn’t come until Mulberry, which is a bike-unfriendly street. Bicyclists could choose to make two-step left turns, which means crossing to the northeast corner of the intersection, turning the bicycle, and then proceeding across Mason and the tracks. In cases where there is a light, this makes some sense. But when there’s no light, not even a stop sign, making a two point turn is silly. There’s no reason for it… other than the presence of a no left turn sign. It would be helpful to add “Except bicycles” or some such under the left hand turn signs, giving bicyclists the opportunity to turn at safer streets than Mulberry.
I also wonder to what extend the lack of left hand turns is leading to motorists expecting to travel faster than the bike and bus traffic allows. Because the left hand turns are limited, motorists are more likely to be using Mason as a means to get through, rather than to, downtown. This could lead to added frustration when “stuck” behind a bike or bus. The resulting honking in turn makes Mason a less comfortable road to travel. Hopefully the addition of bike lanes will alleviate this problem, but there are still three blocks that not only continue to be problematic, but that might even be more so now that motorists are able to travel faster along the other parts of the street.
Many bicyclists using Mason street between Laurel and Mountain have tended to hug the curb or the parked cars rather than travel in the middle of the lane where the sharrows indicated bicyclists should travel. The addition of bike lanes in all but three blocks of this area now provide dedicated space for bicyclists and encourage bicyclists to travel in a straight line rather than weaving in and out around parked cars. But that means directing bicyclists through bus stops (which many cyclists were already doing). One potential problem that the City needs to watch out for is potholes forming at the end of the cement bus stop pad and the beginning of the asphalt road. In at least one instance (on the south end of the cement pad in front of Max Flats) the pothole is large enough to toss a bicyclist if hit just right. These areas where materials change should be monitored to watch for dangerous situations for bicyclists.
As mentioned above, new bike lanes have been added in all but three blocks of Mason street. This creates pinch points where bicyclists are coming from separated bike spaces and having to merge with motor traffic. I saw several bicyclists struggle just north of Mulberry. Because motorists and bicyclists are stopped together at the light, everyone is moving forward at the same time once the light changes. Bicyclists have been given sharrows through the right hand turn lane south of Mulberry and through the bus stop just north of Mulberry. But then parking is allowed and bicyclists must merge with traffic. A long line of traffic means that the bicyclist is essentially trapped behind the parked cars until the way is clear.
I saw no signs indicating that bicyclists should merge with traffic at this point other than the sharrows ahead and to the left of the parked cars. And there was no warning to motorists that bicyclists would be merging with them. When two lanes of car traffic are going to have to merge into one, there are signs making sure that everyone realizes what’s coming and makes allowances for it. But in this case there are two lanes of traffic merging with no warning to users that that is the case.
One way to avoid this pinch point is to take the sidewalk instead, which I saw several bicyclists do. Unfortunately one nearly got T-boned by a motorist exiting the Wells Fargo parking lot. The fence behind the former sporting goods store blocks motorists view of oncoming bicycle traffic on the sidewalk. Ideally we’ll eventually get rid of parking along this block. That’s really the only way to make this section of the street safe for bicyclists.
I’m not sure about a solution for this last problem that I bring up, but that’s in large part because I’m not entirely sure of the cause. I noticed several people exiting the bike lane in order to roll up onto the sidewalk by First Presbyterian Church, on the southeast corner of Mulberry and Mason. Whether it was because they weren’t sure if the light would see them and they felt that they needed to push the button, or because they felt vulnerable in the right hand turn lane at such a busy intersection, or because they were setting themselves up to avoid the upcoming pinch point is unclear. No matter what the reason, the number of cars turning right at this intersection could very well lead to a car on bike crash if motorists are not looking for bicyclists to roll out in front of them as they turn. Some sort of protected intersection here might be worth considering if we’re going to continue to let cars travel on Mason. That would provide space for bicyclists to get out of the way of cars, adding a level of comfort for the bicyclists. And it would also put those bicyclists out in front of the motorists so that they’re easier to see.
As I said in my previous post, the changes that have recently made are a good step in the right direction. But we’re clearly not there yet. Let’s keep watching the behavior of motorists, bicyclists, and bus drivers along this route and tweaking what we can to provide the safest and most comfortable ride possible for all users.