Thanks to WABA's members and supporters, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is very likely to adopt a sign that says “Bicycles may use full lane” and post the sign on 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.
Origins of the sign
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, 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. 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.
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 “if I hit you, it is your fault because you are not where you are supposed to be.”
Michael Jackson of the Maryland Department of Transportation has been concerned about this problem for about a 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 St, NW (see photo by Michael Jackson) while commuting to work during the 1970s.) But for a sign to become widespread it has to 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.”
Challenges, then acceptance, within the state government
The R4-11 sign became part of the federal MUTCDin December 2009. Many states automatically adopt the MUTCD; but Maryland has its own MUTCD, which is similar—but not identical—to the federal MUTCD. When I first heard about the sign in 2010, I assumed that Maryland would adopt it, but that we would then have to fight to get highway departments to actually use it. For years, MDOT and SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety had tenaciously fought efforts to repeal the law requiring cyclists to ride in the shoulder. SHA seemed to adhere to the "separate facilities" paradigm, not the "use full lane" approach of vehicular cycling. Asking for the signs in specific places seemed like the best bet for moving the process along.
Last summer, the Glenn Dale Citizens Association asked SHA to post R4-11 signsin and around Glenn Dale, specifically mentioning Glenn Dale Rd. (MD-953) and Annapolis Road (MD-450) inside the Capitol Beltway. SHA quickly replied that they were looking into it, but nothing else happenned. Over the winter I heard rumours that the idea of a bike using the full lane was not very popular at SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety. But the basis of the concern was unclear when relayed third hand. I asked SHA to set up a meeting with me and two other cycling advocates (Jack Cochrane and David Cranor) to explain how SHA thinks about traffic flow and lane sharing as it designs facilities. In May, SHA responded that it had decided not to adopt the R4-11 sign, in a letter signed by Bob Herstein of SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety. The letter did not become public until the June meeting of the Glenn Dale CItizens Association. Recognizing the statewide significance of the letter, WABA 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.
By coincidence, the meeting about how SHA thinks about sharing the road had been scheduled to take place two days after the alert went out. SHA assembled an impressive array of senior officials and key staffers, including both Bob Herstein and his boss, Tom Hicks, Director of SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety. Mr. Hicks said that SHA assumes that an automobile needs an operating lane of 10 feet, while a bicycle needs 4 feet of operating room. Therefore, on a road like Glenn Dale Road with 10 or 11 foot lanes and no shoulder, the required operating area of the bicycle overlaps the required operating area of the automobile.
"Where should the cyclist ride," I asked.
"The cyclist will ride where the cyclist feels comfortable," he said. "That is up to the cyclist. Generally, the cyclist should be as far to the right as practicable, operating within the 4-foot operating lane."
I pressed the issue a bit more. "A 4-foot operating space could mean that the tire is from zero to 4 feet from the curb. Or do you mean the left shoulder is no more than 4 feet from the curb?"
"The left shoulder," another official chimed in.
"A lot of cyclists would say that this is too close to the right edge of the pavement. On Glenn Dale Road you have driveways, tree branches, mail boxes coming up to the edge of the pavement. Do you recognize in road design the idea that perhaps cyclists need to be farther to the left than this 4-foot operating lane?"
"We recognize that the cyclist will ride where the cyclist feels safe," said Mr. Hicks. "There is a difference between safety and comfort. Drivers generally feel most comfortable with a 12-foot lane width, but the safety studies show that there is no increase in safety in going from a 10-foot lane to a 12-foot lane."
"Of course there is a double yellow line along most of the road," I said. "Are you assuming that the driver will cross the double yellow line?"
"Yes," he said. "Certainly the double yellow line has an effect on driver behavior. Some drivers will encroach a foot or so while other drivers will change lanes. By riding farther to the left, the cyclist tends to reduce the clearance between the bike and the passing car."
"Some people assume that by using the full lane, a cyclist discourages a motor vehicle from passing at all, unless it is safe to pass by occupying the lane to the left, the oncoming lane in this case. So the clearance actually increases if the cyclist rides farther left."
"We have seen no research to demonstrate that point of view," said Mr. Hicks.
Another official added: "I find that drivers either pass within about 3 inches or they move to the other lane."
At this point, the discussion moved to the R4-11 sign. Tom Hicks and Bob Herstein explained why SHA had decided against using the R4-11 sign. Mr. Hicks said that his chief concern is that the R4-11 sign does not clearly communicate the range of its applicability. Does it mean use full lane just where the sign is, or for several miles? I pointed out that speed limit signs do not state their range; and Hicks pointed out that the speed limit of a given sign applies until you get to the next speed limit sign. I asked why that could not be solved with an “End” R4-11 sign when you want it to end, or append “next 2 miles” below the R4-11 sign if it is important to do so.
Tom Hicks indicated that the “end” sign might be one way to go, but that a better approach is to use a yellow diamond sign to convey the intent of the R4-11 sign. The yellow warning signs can have “next 2 miles” while the white rectangular signs generally do not. He then unveiled an alternative: A yellow diamond with the words: “[Bicyles] may be on the roadway.” He said that he was not committed to those words, but that he thought a yellow diamond would be better because the message is a warning, not a regulation. I told him that those particular words would not solve the problem: It would be too much like “[Bicyles] Share the Road” because drivers might still assume that the cyclists are along the right edge of the pavement. I suggested that the sign needs to say something like “[Bicyles] may be anywhere in the lane” or “[Bicyles] may use center of lane” or “[Bicyles] use full lane”. We all agreed to think more about the wording. (We also discussed sharrows but that is a topic for another post.)
The next day, 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. About a week after that, Mr. Hicks sent me a different yellow diamond sign, this time 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. I also explained to SHA that our main concern is not the shape and color of the sign, but with the widespread use of the sign. 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.
Lack of Awareness at the local level
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. Yet 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 “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.
I think that under the leadership of Rushern Baker, eventually DPW&T will see these signs as a cost-effective (albeit small) interim step toward improved bicycle safety. 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. And ,ost counties have not even thought about it. 
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 the 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 them 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.
But don't expect the government to do everything. Is there a county road where you take the lane and drivers treat you badly as a result? If so, then contact your local public works department and ask for a "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" sign now. Ask others to make the same request. If the public works department says "no", ask them to explain where you are supposed to ride, and how drivers are supposed to know where you are supposed to be without that sign. Ask them to talk to SHA as well.
Although the final chapter of Maryland's approval of R4-11 has not yet been written, localities are free to put up the signs now. But you have to make them.
(Jim Titus is a member of WABA's Board of Directors from Glenn Dale, Maryland, in Prince Georges County. The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily the opinions of WABA. For a similar post that does express WABA's official opinion, please go to the WABA blog )
 MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)
 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.
 MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)(6)
Advocates from Baltimore, Frederick, St. Mary’s, and Washington Counties have asked their county transportation departments (as well as the cities of Hagerstown and Frederick) whether they are willing to post a "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" sign, and so far, none of those jurisdictions could answer the question.