Montgomery Co. DOT Endorses NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide

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Montgomery County’s first protected bike lane on Woodglen Drive in White Flint. Photo Credit: Dan Reed

Good news! The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) has endorsed the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. This guide, produced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), gives transportation planners and engineers access to state-of-the-practice bikeway designs. It provides innovative tools for growing bicycling such as protected and buffered bike lanes, bike boxes, contraflow bike lanes and other types of infrastructure.

Last fall, MCDOT installed the first protected bike lane in the County on Woodglen Drive in White Flint. The 0.3 mile long protected bike lane extends the Bethesda Trolley Trail from Edson Lane to Nicholson Lane. MCDOT is currently planning protected bike lanes on Woodmont Ave in Bethesda and Nebel Street in White Flint. We anticipate more protected bike lanes coming to the County following the department’s endorsement of the NACTO guide.

From the MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh’s letter:

MCDOT is committed to providing a multi-modal transportation network that incorporates state-of-the-practice bicycle facilities, and endorses the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide as one of several documents to utilize in the design and implementation of new bicycle facilities County-wide. Thank you for your support and we look forward to partnering with you in our efforts to create a more bicycle-friendly Montgomery County.

WABA sent a letter in August requesting MDCOT’s adoption or endorsement of the bikeway guide. MCDOT is now in good company as the transportation department in the District of Columbia, Arlington and Alexandria also endorse the NACTO Guide. You can download the MCDOT letter endorsing the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Thank you to Acting Director Al Roshdieh for responding to our request.

WABA Seeks Board Member Nominations

WABA is always looking for people with a passion to help make the Washington area a safer and more welcoming environment for people using bikes.  To this end, WABA’s Board Nominating Committee is now searching for director candidates with strong leadership skills and experience in helping non-profit organizations execute strategy and development plans.

WABA enjoys a solid foundation of loyal members and a dedicated funding base.  However, we have a particular interest in candidates who can help us further expand our partnerships with a broader pool of private organizations and individuals who share and will support WABA’s goal of making the Washington area the most bicycle friendly in the world. Direct experience with membership development, institutional giving, and major gifts a plus.

WABA board members are volunteers who serve two year terms and are expected to participate in regularly scheduled board meetings, provide counsel to WABA staff in their areas of expertise, and make WABA a significant part of their individual philanthropy.

Candidates who are interested in exploring whether their skills and interests align with WABA’s are invited to make an initial expression of interest by filling out the form here.  If you have previously filled out an expression of interest, and remain interested, please email me at mark@waba.org.  While the search for director candidates is an ongoing one, the board expects to present a slate of candidates at the February 20 annual meeting.

A Path Forward for the WB&A Trail

The Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Trail (WB&A) in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties promises to be everything that a first class rail trail can be. Following the path of an abandoned commuter rail line of the same name, the WB&A cuts a remarkably linear route through woods and suburban neighborhoods from Glenn Dale to Odenton, MD. And while officials have been struggling for more than 15 years over the best place to cross the Patuxent River (another story), the bridge and tunnel bypasses already built make the trail a delightful reprieve from riding in traffic. Looking to the future, the WB&A could become the eastern spoke of the Washington area’s robust trail network. Just over 10 discontinuous miles of trails are already built; the hard work remains to connect it to other trails and the District of Columbia.

Give it a destination.  Extend the WB&A

Starting at the eastern trail terminus in Prince George’s County, today, the trail covers 5.6 miles to… well not much.  At Annapolis Road (MD 450), the trail ends, falling short of the District of Columbia line by nearly seven miles. At this intersection, a paved side path on Annapolis Road links to the Folly Branch trail to the north and a shopping center and Bowie Town Center to the east.  These connections are useful, but they serve better as feeders to the main trunk line rather than extensions.  To fully realize this trail’s potential as a recreation and commuter route, it needs a direct connection to the regional trail network. It must be extended west, and the first big hurdles are crossing US 50 and the Capital Beltway.

MD-704 is no place for trail traffic, but it could be

Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. (MD-704), which follows the same old rail right of way, is the best, direct link to the District of Columbia / Maryland border, but in its current configuration it is anything but ideal for trail users. With as many as eight traffic lanes, MD 704 is a divided highway with narrow to non-existent shoulders, high speed ramps to and from US-50 and the Capital Beltway, and traffic speeds that are typically 40 – 60 mph. While “Bikes May Use Full Lane” signs warn drivers to expect bicyclists on the roadway, the road itself is inhospitable, dangerous, and sadly fatal for even the most confident bicyclists. Without sidewalks or convenient alternatives, the message is clear “Bike Somewhere Else.” Riding on the road should always be an option, but separated facilities are needed to accommodate and encourage trail traffic.

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Would you ride on this road? MD-704 at I-495 from Google Street View

This proposed 2.4 mile side path would provide both a place to walk and a far more welcoming alternative to riding with car traffic between the current end of the WB&A at Annapolis Road and Ardwick Ardmore Road. Once past US-50 and I-495, future trail extensions become possible.  Ultimately, it could connect to the New Carrollton Metro, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail through Cheverly, and extended to the District along MD-704 to the Marvin Gaye Trail.

Since 2008, WABA has urged the County to extend the WB&A Trail west along MD-704. Since 2011, building a trail along MD-704 has been at the top of the County’s bike and pedestrians transportation funding priorities for Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). Now, it seems that Maryland SHA is on board, and even offering funds for planning and construction. It is time to replace this dangerous bike route with a trail.

Remind elected officials that this is important

Priority lists are one thing, action is another. For three years, we have seen progress delayed because details need to be worked out between the County, SHA, and other local agencies. Now, with SHA committed and money on the table, it is time for elected officials to step up and do their part.  Now is not the time for the back burner.

Last week, WABA sent a letter to County Executive Baker urging him to make this project a true priority, and today we ask that you do the same.  Click the link below to tell Executive Baker and Councilmember Andrewa Harrison to make improving bicycle access on MD-704 a reality.

Ask County officials to make the WB&A Trail a priority 

State Gets Priorities Wrong In College Park Street Redesign

The current SHA plan for Route 1 would place narrow bike lanes next to high speed traffic. Locals want protected bike lanes. Credit: Jeff Lemieux

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) announced December 12 that it will allow bicycle boxes and “cycletracks” (i.e. protected bike lanes) on state roads, at the bi-monthly meeting of the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC). But the good news was overshadowed by concern over SHA’s proposal for rebuilding US Route 1 (US 1) through College Park, which provides minimal bike lanes. The current plans for US 1 call for narrow 4-foot bike lanes adjacent to generous 11-foot travel lanes for drivers.

Typically, if a highway has 11-foot travel lanes on a straight, level grade, then the road is designed for 40 miles per hour.

A possible showdown over the bike lanes in College Park has been brewing for several years. Local residents and officials want a safer road. And statewide advocates have been increasingly frustrated as SHA rejected advice to adopt a complete streets design guidance. SHA prefers to design highways for motorists and then provide minimum bike accommodation with whatever space remains.

The Localities want Protected Bikeways

In 2011, the City of College Park and then-Councilman Eric Olson told SHA and County planners that when US-1 is rebuilt, it should have protected bike lanes rather than the narrow bike lanes that SHA generally prefers. The premise for a protected bikeway was that the main street of a college town needs to be safe for all types of cyclists. If drivers invariably speed through town, a protected bikeway is needed to keep cyclists safe.

The planners revised the sector plan to include protected bike lanes, and SHA’s independent design consultant recommended a behind-the-curb cycletrack. But SHA proposed 11-foot travel lanes and 4-foot bike lanes. SHA senior officials, many of whom are cyclists, worried that behind-the-curb cycletracks would increase the risk collisions when confused drivers make right or left turns across the bikeway. In response to the widespread objections, SHA is now looking at a buffered bike lane, according to a December 16 letter from SHA Administrator Melinda Peters, a competitive cyclist.

State Advisory Committee wants a Safe Street.

MBPAC is a committee of 13 private citizens and officials from 9 state agencies appointed by the Governor to advise the state on bicycle and pedestrian matters. This composition makes MBPAC a relatively cautious committee which is usually reluctant to second-guess agency proposals. Nevertheless, MBPAC’s resolution last month was fairly blunt:

Whereas…. SHA proposes to rebuild US 1 with eleven foot wide travel lanes and four foot wide bike lanes, a design which …encourages high motor vehicle speeds,… places high speed motor vehicle traffic uncomfortably close to cyclists properly positioned in the bike lane [and limits] the ability of trucks and buses to provide the legally required three feet of passing clearance…Such an installation…would be more appropriate for a rural, low-traffic situation…Narrowing the motor vehicle traffic lanes would allow … wider bike lanes…and calm the motor vehicle traffic, enhancing safety in accordance with Maryland’s Complete Streets Policy…And the state’s flagship university deserves a design considerably better than the minimum requirements.

MBPAC strongly urges the SHA to rebuild the section of US 1 through College Park to the safest design possible, which would, at a minimum, include narrow traffic lanes and at least six foot wide bike lanes, and if possible include a … cycletrack, buffered bike lane, or trail.

(Disclosure: I wrote the first draft, which was revised by Greg Hinchliffe, interim Executive Director of Bikemore.)

MBPAC and Advocates have struggled to get SHA to update its guidance.

Over the last two years, MBPAC has reviewed SHA’s bicycle design guidelines, and urged SHA to make highways safe for cyclists, rather than merely provide narrow bike lanes. SHA’s guidelines provide for 4-foot bike lanes unless the speed limit is 50 mph (or 8% of the vehicles are trucks). With such narrow bike lanes, motor vehicles pass cyclists in a bike lane with less clearance than when they pass a car.

For example, a 9-foot truck will pass a bicyclist in a 4-foot bike lane with an average clearance of two feet—less if you consider the mirrors and random meandering within the lane. By contrast, if the truck passes an SUV in another 11-foot travel lane, the clearance will be three feet.

Why do SHA design guidelines provide drivers with more clearance than bicyclists? SHA has declined to explain its thinking. When MBPAC pointed out that such narrow widths are unsafe, SHA did not suggest that the bike lanes are safe:

Table 2.1 has been developed to provide simple consistent guidance for engineers to determine the minimum width needed for bicycle lanes. The heading of this table will be revised to state “Minimum shoulder widths” instead of “preferred”. Factors such as density of cross streets and volume of traffic will be considered on a project by project basis to ensure that the most appropriate measures are being implemented.

Let’s give SHA the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps it is not cost-effective to build a wider bike lane along a rural highway with few cyclists, and four feet is a reasonable minimum. MBPAC wanted the design guidance to address the more common situation where the minimum is inappropriate, but SHA simply assured cyclists that it would not be bound by the minimum unless providing a safe facility “increases the cost significantly.”

What about narrowing the travel lanes?

The over-riding concern of both WABA and MBPAC was that the design guidelines start with a given level of service for motor vehicles, and then define how to provide some accommodation to cyclists with the remaining room and funding. MBPAC recommended that the guidance should discuss how SHA defines that level of service —most importantly speeds—given the presence of bikes and pedestrians. SHA responded that it considers the various design documents (designed to promote safe and efficient motor vehicle transportation) and that “It is neither realistic nor appropriate to attempt to include those policies in this document.”

There is no need to explain how the presence of bicyclists affects the overall geometry of the highway, because in general, it doesn’t. In essence, SHA declared that it has no intention of developing guidance for a complete streets policy in which roads are designed to balance the needs of all road users.

Given SHA’s devotion to 11-foot lanes, perhaps the US 1 proposal should have been expected. But recently some pedestrian fatalities led SHA to lower the speed limit to 25 mph, and send other signals that it wanted drivers in College Park to slow down. SHA usually resists lowering speed limits: many SHA engineers have told me that it is futile to set speed limits more than 5 mph below the design speed. If that’s so, then the only real opportunity to slow traffic is when a road is rebuilt. So why doesn’t SHA want to do that?

“Our engineers generally set the design speeds to be 5 mph faster than the expected travel speeds, to keep drivers safe” explained a state employee, who asked not to be identified. With a speed limit of 25 mph and speed cameras set to 37 mph, drivers are safer and more comfortable with 11-foot lanes and a design speed of 40 mph.

What’s next?

WABA and other cycling organizations will be very disappointed with anything less than MBPAC’s minimum recommendation: ten-foot motor lanes, and six-foot bike lanes (plus a one-foot gutter). Granted: Widening the bike lanes alone would be a step in the right direction; protected bike lanes would be even better. But any design that fails to calm traffic to the 25 mph speed limit would be completely at odds with MDOT’s official complete streets policy.

SHA and cycling advocates each have a poor understanding of what the other is trying to accomplish. This situation can be avoided if SHA enunciates clear policies regarding when and how driver comfort, safety, and speed will be compromised for cyclists and pedestrians, just as its bicycle guidelines already are clear about how bicycle facilities must be adapted to motor vehicle service. WABA endorses MBPAC’s call for a meeting with SHA on US Route 1, which should hopefully bring cyclists and SHA staff closer to a meeting of the minds.

Jim Titus is a WABA board member from Prince George’s County

Photo Recap Of The Coldest-est Day Of The Year Ride

As biking becomes a more popular, more safe, and more normal form of transportation in our region, more people are giving winter commuting a try.

To encourage and celebrate more year-round biking our Women & Bicycles program partnered up with The Bike House to host the Coldest-est Day of The Year Ride.

Thanks to all who joined us, the marshals, the sunshine, and thanks Paul L. for documenting the coldest-est fun!

 

 

DC Judge Upholds Three Foot Law; Case Highlights Need for Contrib Reform

Last week in the District’s small claims court, Judge Michael O’Keefe made a significant ruling for District bicyclists. In the incident at-issue, a driver passed a cyclist too closely, leading to a crash that caused minor injuries and property damage for the cyclist.

  • MPD failed to cite the driver for passing too closely. In fact, MPD initially cited the cyclist.
  • The US Attorney’s office declined to bring any criminal charges against the driver whatsoever.
  • The relevant insurer wrongly declined to pay the cyclist’s damages, citing his contributory negligence for being in the road and failing to move out of the way of the unsafe driver.

After months of work prodding these three entities to do their jobs and coming up empty, the cyclist was left with no recourse but to bring a civil case himself.  Despite knowing that his damages exceeded its $5000 limit, he chose to proceed in the District’s small claims civil court. Pursuing a small claim was actually his only choice, as he was unable to secure an attorney willing to represent him due to the relatively low amount at stake and the prior, incorrect, decisions of MPD and the insurer.

Because the incident was caught on a handlebar-mounted camera, the facts of the incident were minimally disputed, and the court was able to focus squarely on the law. WABA provided expert testimony on the application of DC traffic laws to bicyclists, with topics ranging from the purpose and usage of “sharrows” to the details of the three foot passing law.

Ultimately, based on the video and his reading of the law, Judge O’Keefe ruled in favor of the cyclist. The judge found that the driver had violated the three-foot passing law and that this aggressive pass caused the resulting harms.

When will police start enforcing the three foot passing Law? 

This case showed that the three foot passing law can play a role in helping cyclists secure civil recovery for damages. That is good. But it is not the law’s intended purpose. The law is meant to enable police to ticket motorists who unsafely pass bicyclists. It is meant to impose consequences on unsafe behavior and, ultimately, to make bicyclists safer.

In this case, the cyclist showed the same video of the same behavior to District police officers as he showed to the Superior Court Judge. If it was good enough for the judge, why wasn’t it good enough for the officer? What will it take for local police to actually enforce safe passing laws that now exist in the District, Maryland, and Virginia? And in the District, what will it take for the US Attorney’s office to pursue charges against drivers who illegally harm cyclists?

When will insurers properly apply the law to cyclists? 

Initially, the insurance company denied the cyclist’s claim outright, stating that he was contributorily negligent for failing to move out of the way of the motorist. First, that’s a grossly incorrect understanding of the law. (We can say that with certainty now that Judge O’Keefe has weighed in.) But because of contributory negligence, that misunderstanding is as far as the insurer has to go. If it can find any fault on the cyclist’s part, it doesn’t even have to look at the motorist’s behavior. It just denies the claim, using a misreading of the law as the trigger to apply contributory negligence as a knockout rule.

Last week, Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill in D.C. Council to address this issue. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2015, if passed, would change D.C. law so that the contributory negligence of a bicyclist or pedestrian could not be used to deny coverage so long as he or she was 50% or less responsible for his or her own injuries.

This would mean that contributory negligence would no longer be a “knockout rule.” Insurers might still get the law wrong–though we hope the industry will recognize the need for improvement and offer training on bicycling law–but under the proposed rule, the insurer would still be required to examine the fault of other parties and determine the responsibility of each party.

Conclusion

There is a lot to unpack in this case but it’s clear that many of the systems in place to protect bicyclists are broken. With little recourse, crash victims find themselves fighting, rather than working with, the institutions that are supposed to bring justice.

This case highlights the fact that the small claims court process works, but imperfectly. Winning this case required time, a tenacious cyclist, video evidence, and WABA’s presence in court. The cyclist has been without compensation for the more than six months since the crash  And even after a favorable judgement, the cyclist won’t receive full monetary recovery. The system needs to change, and it can start with the changing fundamental legal expectation that bicyclists must be without error to be compensated for injuries and damage caused by the negligence of a driver.