Every year along about this time, a driver in Montgomery County has to wait behind cyclists traveling more slowly than the driver would prefer to drive, on a road with a nearby trail. And then the driver prepares a radio commentary or circulates a letter asking why those cyclists are on the road instead of the trail. This year, the letter is from someone who spends alot of his time in the Bethesda area. In a widely circulated letter, he wrote:
I am both a bicyclist and motorist. Jones Mill Road is extremely dangerous, I think we all agree to that. I have seen 2 car/bike accidents in the past 3 years. Even one is too much. But I see bicyclists with limited lighting and motorists putting on makeup, eating, talking on cell phones.
This road has just barely room for 2 cars to pass and any bicycle on the road halts traffic and causes danger to all, particularly during rush hour. Adding to motorists frustration is the fact that we just resurfaced the immediately adjacent hiker/biker trail and the bicyclists refuse to use it.... They already have a trail, why not use it and avoid all this danger…
I… see huge gaggles of 40-50 bicycles completely blocking the road--not courteous and definitely not sharing--arrogance again. But during weekdays and particularly during rush hours, I just see arrogance by the bicyclists, with no concern for sharing the road with cars. I see bicyclists in danger and frustrated motorists almost every bike day.
IS it right for the bicyclists to force sharing a non sharable road when they have a trail right there? … Perhaps we organize a campaign to put up road signs stating (no bicycles, use trail). Yes, I ride that trail on bicycle almost every Mon, Wed, Fri and Saturday and drive that road every weekday.
Michael Jackson, the director of bicycle and pedestrian access for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) provided a reply that hit on just about every aspect of this issue:
Your concerns are commonly shared by many members of the public. However bicycling has a lot of counterintuitive truths.
Under Maryland law bicycles are vehicles and bicycle vehicle operators have generally the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicle operators. Bicyclists are legally entitled to use most roadways in Maryland including Jones Mill Road. Toll roads, interstate highways and travel lanes with posted speed limits of 55 mph or higher are places where bicycling is prohibited...
Why Do Bicyclists Insist on Exercising Their Legal Right to Use Roadways Adjacent To Trails?
Another counterintuitive truth is that generally roadways are safer than trails. Trails have higher crash rates than roadways. While certainly a car/bike collision can lead to serious injuries and fatalities, unfortunately serious injuries and fatalities occur on trails. Bicyclists run into each other, run into fixed objects or simply lose control and fall.
Trails often cannot safely accommodate the speeds that skilled bicyclists can achieve due to relatively narrow widths, tight curves, limited sight distances and sometimes worse overall pavement conditions than adjacent roadways. Another complicating factor [is] the presence of pedestrians, including children, dog walkers, and less skilled bicyclists. Often these folks are less predictable in their movements than motorists. Common speed limits on trails are 15 mph, a speed easily exceeded by skilled bicyclists. However a cyclist rarely exceeds the legal speed limit on a roadway.
Finally roadways often provide a more direct route than the adjacent trails which have a tendency to meander. So due to improved safety, less hassle with pedestrian conflicts, higher speed limits and directness often bicyclists prefer roadways over adjacent trails…
Jones Mill Road Safety
You mentioned that you’ve seen two car/bike crashes (presumably on Jones Mill Road) in three years and that even one is too much. I assume the argument is that bicyclists should be banned from Jones Mill Road because of these crashes. If true than we would have to ban motoring as well, considering the 32,000 motor vehicle fatalities occurring annually, let alone the hundreds of thousands of injuries and collisions that occur nationally. Instead of taking that extreme step as a society we determine if motoring and bicycling are reasonable risks while we continue to work on improving safety.
Bicyclist Arrogance, Motorist Inattention and Road Rage O
ften the public believes that bicyclists are mere trespassers on public highways who deserve whatever abuse they receive from motorists. This is not the case. Motorists have to understand that bicyclists have as much right to use Jones Mill Road as motorists have. Bicyclists must travel in a lawful and courteous manner in the name of roadway safety and reinforcing the image of bicyclists as legitimate roadway users.It is true that bicyclists often aggravate motorists by violating traffic laws, including unnecessarily impeding traffic when riding in groups. As you noticed motorists often engage in distracted driving and occasionally can be prone to fits of road rage. The common factor is that both bicyclists and motorists are human beings with all the faults that come with being human…. there are jerks behind the handlebars, jerks being the steering wheels and jerks afoot. However this does not raise the danger level to such a degree that we should ban bicycling or motoring.
Why does this issue arise so often? First, Maryland actually did have a law requiring the use of sidepaths from 1970 to 1977. That provision was part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, portions of which have been adopted by most states. Second, although Maryland repealed the requirement fairly quickly, about 15 states still had it as late as 2005. Until 2007 the Virginia code authorized localities to require cyclists to ride on sidepaths. Someone who moves from another state to Maryland does not have to take a test on all the differences between their former state and Maryland laws, so people tend to assume that the law is the same in Maryland as the state whence they came. Finally, the mandatory sidepath law fits neatly into a conceptual model shared my most drivers, most public officials, and even many cyclists: that public safety and common sense requires bikes to stay out of through-lanes built mainly for drivers.
That's probably true for small children and others still learning to share the road. First-time drivers probably do not belong on the beltway during rush hour either. But the fact that many long-time drivers and public officials also do not understand what it means to share the road suggests that there is a serious gap in driver education. What is the point of all these "[bicycle symbol] Share the Road" signs if most people do not even know what they mean?
Update: After a series of emails with Michael Jackson, the writer of the original letter has retracted all of their previous concerns and apogized for using the word "arrogant".
(Jim Titus is a member of WABA's Board of Directors from Maryland and represents the Washington area on the State of Maryland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC). The opinions expressed here are soley those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official view of WABA or MBPAC.)