Maryland to adopt “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign; skeptical localities

Thanks to you, our WABA members and supporters, the Maryland State Highway Administration is very likely to adopt a sign that says “Bicycles may use full lane” and post the sign on many roads where lanes are too narrow to share side-by-side.  But most narrow roads are operated by local governments, and we don’t yet know what they will do.

A quick recap of where we are on this issue.   As Maryland’s new Driver Manual points out, often “the safest place for a cyclist to ride is in the center of the lane.”   If you ride too close to the right edge, people pulling out of side streets or driveways may not see you.  Some drivers pull a few feet onto the pavement before stopping and observing traffic.  It is not practicable for a driver to yield to you if she cannot see you.  So Maryland’s general requirement to ride as far to the right as practicable and safe,[1] means that one should ride within a few feet of the right side of the roadway, not along the right edge.  And many lanes are too narrow to share side-by-side even if you do ride all the way to the right.[2] Yet some drivers will try to squeeze past, which is very unsafe.  Recognizing this safety issue, the Maryland Transportation Code allows a cyclist to use the full lane if it is too narrow to share side-by-side with an automobile.[3]

Unfortunately, many drivers do not realize that cyclists are just trying to be safe and responsible when they ride in the center of the lane.   Some drivers yell, honk, or aggressively pass a bike with very little clearance as if to say “you are not where you are supposed to be.”

Michael Jackson of the Maryland Department of Transportation has been concerned about this problem for the last decade, and has long advocated the use of signs to inform both cyclists and motorists that bicycles can use the entire lane.  (He first noticed such a sign along 13th Street, NW (see photo by Michael Jackson) while bicycle commuting to school during the 1970s.)   But for a sign to become widespread it must be part of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).   Fortunately, Jackson is also on the Bicycle subcommittee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which revises the MUTCD every few years.  He helped persuade his subcommittee to put forward the R4-11 sign, a white rectangular sign that says “[bicycles] may use full lane.”

The R4-11 sign became part of the federal MUTCD in December 2009.  Many states automatically adopt the MUTCD; but Maryland has its own MUTCD, which is similar—but not identical—to the federal MUTCD.   Last summer, the Glenn Dale Citizens Association asked SHA to post R4-11 signs in and around Glenn Dale.  In May, SHA responded that it had decided not to adopt the R4-11 sign.  We did not find out about that letter until late June, at which point, we sent an alert advising members to write the Governor and other key officials and ask them to reverse that decision.  More than 600 people did so.

Within days, Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation Beverly K. Swaim-Staley responded to the 600+ people who wrote, promising that SHA would issue guidance for the R4-11 sign, and referring people to Tom Hicks of SHA.

About a week later, Mr. Hicks sent me a graphic of a yellow diamond sign with the wording “[Bicyles] May Use Full Lane.” It was the same as the original sign that SHA had rejected in May, except with a big yellow diamond instead of a modest sized white rectangle. WABA’s executive director Shane Farthing told me: “Few people other than those in this email chain will care whether it is a white rectangle or a yellow diamond.”   So we told SHA that this sign would be fine and explained to SHA that our main concern is not the shape and color of the sign, but with the widespread use of the sign to communicate both that cyclists may be in the roadway ahead, and that they have a right to be.  Another SHA official told me that SHA staff was pleased with its innovation and likely to post the signs wherever communities sought them.

Highway officials pleased about a sign that says “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.” That’s progress!

State officials still appear to be deliberating on whether the yellow diamond or white rectangle is the way to go.  WABA and other Maryland advocates have steered clear of taking a position on that question.

But we do want to see these signs along the streets where we ride, not just in the manual.  Montgomery County intends to post the signs.  But Prince Georges County has been less enthusiastic.  Last May,  Haitham A. Hijazi, Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) told Shane Farthing and me that he would only be willing to post the sign on roads with at least two lanes in the same direction and neither a shoulder nor a sidewalk.  (In subsequent correspondence, DPW&T has also emphasized that even along these multi-lane roads they will not post the official R4-11 sign from the MUTCD, but instead will post the older “Bicycles may use full right lane” signs.)

For almost a year, DPW&T has been saying that it will not post R4-11 signs (or sharrows) on narrow two-lane roads.  I am not sure why—or whether everyone at DPW&T objects to the R4-11 signs for the same reason.  Last fall, I asked DPW&T to put sharrows and an R4-11 sign on a short and narrow section of Church Road, on which I rode when taking my daughter to pre-school.   The planners from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission quickly endorsed my request because the county master plan shows this road as a bike route.  But DPW&T wrote back and denied my request on the grounds that the geometry of the road was inappropriate for the warning sign.  The letter referred me to Cipriana Thompson, P.E., who agreed that with 10-ft lanes, “this is a use full lane situation.”  But the Department would not post R4-11 signs “because posting such a sign would imply that we endorse riding on this road, and we do not believe that people should ride bicycles on this road.”  Director Hijazi generally made the same points.  He recognizes that people ride these roads, but does not agree with WABA that this implies a duty to warn drivers.

DPW&T believes that signs and pavement markings increase its liability because doing so would imply endorsement of riding those roads.  Today, cyclists ride those roads at their own risk.  The County has never stated that all of its roads are part of the cycling transportation network.  Installing signs and pavement markings would in effect endorse biking on those roads, making the county liable.[4]

Both the University of Maryland and the City of Baltimore are already using the sign, with plans for more.  Laurel plans to use the R4-11 sign with sharrows. On the other hand, Harford County activist Jeff Springer doubts that his county will use the signs.  Most counties have not even thought about it. [5]

The variation of opinion among the localities is typical of many issues.  Yet I am struck by how the “old-school” state highway engineers have found a way to be comfortable moving forward on this issue, while their local counterparts have not.  Certainly the policy decision by Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation caused SHA to take a second look at the issue; but principals of traffic and safety—not political pressure—are what really brought their thinking around.  Many of the localities have traffic people with skills, backgrounds, and outlooks similar to Tom Hicks.  Rather than rushing the process of adopting guidance for R4-11, SHA should engage those localities to give as many of them as possible an opportunity to buy into the process and feel ownership in the final product.

We are not asking the highway departments to tell cyclists where to ride.  We are just asking for a warning sign that clearly tells drivers that cyclists may be using the full lane.  The limitations of the “[Bicycles] share the road” sign are palpable to anyone who takes the time to think about it.  Engaging SHA about a new sign could motivate several localities to actually take the time, and find merit in a sign that they would never use if it simply showed up as an option in the  MUTCD.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Glenn Dale, Maryland in Prince Georges County)


[1] MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)

[2] For example, if you ride with your tire less than 1 foot from the pavement edge, your left shoulder has to be at least two feet to the left of the pavement edge, which would be 8 feet to the right  of the double-yellow line, if the lane is 10 feet wide.  If a typical 7-foot SUV wants to pass you with the legally required 3-foot clearance, then its left side must be 10 feet to the left of your shoulder, which would be 2 feet across the double yellow line. So that SUV cannot pass you safely if there is oncoming traffic.

[3]  MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)(6)

[4] Minutes from meeting between WABA and DPW&T, May 24, 2011.

[5] I am awaiting replies from Baltimore, Frederick, St. Mary’s, and Washington Counties, as well as the cities of Frederick and Hagerstown.