Have you ever ridden your bicycle along a state road and wondered whether the highway officials who made the road what it is today realized that cyclists use this road? What were they thinking? Sometimes that’s a rhetorical question. But in Maryland, that question also points to an important information gap: We really do not know what the highway engineers are thinking, though we see the results. And often they do not know what we think, though they often know what we want.
Gregory Slater and Dustin Kuzan of the Maryland State Highway Administration are trying to change this situation by inviting cyclists to give their perspectives on how to best solve some of the most vexing problems of accommodating cyclists on state highways. The original impetus was a set of emails concerning the gradual segmentation of the wide continuous shoulder along MD-564 between Lanham and Glenn Dale, which parallels the Amtrak railroad line from Lanham to Bowie. Over the years, various parts of the shoulder have been overlaid with bypass lanes (and a close cousin: the through lane that is routed onto what was previously the shoulder to allow for a new left turn lane on what had been the through lane). Slater and Kuzan have reached out to cycling advocates to talk about the generic problem of gaps in shoulders, at a place and time convenient to advocates with day jobs and children (e.g., 5:00-6:30 PM). That meeting will be in late July. In the mean time, we set up another meeting. I’m telling you about that now because you may have some additional questions that we would not have thought to ask.
This week, we will be talking about lane-sharing, an issue where most cyclists have opinions, but where our understanding of what key state officials think is poor. We will provide our views when asked, but we are going to focus on learning what the officials think, because:
- Their thinking is often the foundation of what we have now and what we are likely to see going forward;
- To the extent that we have ideas for improvements, those ideas are more likely to be well-received if they are presented within the conceptual frame of reference under which officials are operating; and
- The idea that they are working for us (the taxpayers) and must listen to us can only take us so far. If we really want them to listen to us, we need to listen to them fully explain their perspectives.
Perhaps the most fundamental question for this meeting is: At what point is a lane too narrow to share side-by-side, and how is (or should) that be reflected in the roadway, signs, and pavement markings? How does that critical width change depending on slope, traffic speed and volume, and on what lies to the right or left of the lane. Regardless of what cyclists "should" do, what are they actually doing and how is (or should) that be reflected in the roadway, signs, and pavement markings? How should an overtaking driver respond to a cyclist in the center of the lane, or riding as far to the right as practicable, or 7 feet to the right of the centerline (on a 2-lane road). Regardless of what drivers should do, what are they doing in these situations? And how is (or should) that be reflected in the roadway, signs, and pavement markings?
Most of SHA’s focus on how to accommodate cyclists has focused on additional capacity. The $65 million bike trail along the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the $30 million trail segments along the Intercounty Connector (as well as the $80 million segments not built), and extra width for bike lanes on many planned roads all got substantial scrutiny within SHA and many calls for public input. But most roads from the Capital Beltway to the District of Columbia may not be widened in our lifetimes. Many other state roads are unlikely to be widened because there is a newer parallel state highway. These essential bike routes are not always pleasant to bike; so we need to talk about how to make them better, even if such efforts will only provide marginal improvements.
Better sharing of the roads is one option. Ensuring that drivers and cyclists have a better mutual understanding of what the other is likely to do—and respect it—can make a given road less hostile. Last fall, for example, the Glenn Dale Citizens Association suggested that R4-11 signs (which say “Bicycles may use full lane”) would make roads in Glen Dale and MD-450 inside the beltway safer. Some officials within SHA have been signaling for the last few months that they are uncomfortable with that message because they think it will lead inexperienced cyclists to use the full lane and be struck from behind by inattentive drivers; other state officials have championed the sign because they think that the sign will only be posted in locations where using the full lane is safer than not. (Prince Georges County officials have indicated a willingness to use these signs along roads with two or more lanes in a given direction, but not on roads with only one lane each direction.) Other than requests for the signs at specific locations, SHA has received relatively little public input on this issue to date.
Other ideas where we need to better understand official thinking include fog lines that carve out a constant lane width so that cyclists can immediately discern where the lane is wide enough to share, wider lanes up hill at the expense of narrower lanes downhill, sharrows, a revised share-the-road sign with a less ambiguous meaning, and legalizing the practice of crossing a double-yellow line to pass a bicyclist as long as passing vehicle is entirely within the oncoming lane, changing speed limits to accommodate cyclists, and a reconsideration of center-line rumble strips on roads used by cyclists. What am I forgetting?
 Other than those who read this blog regularly.
 US-1 may be an exception.