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