By Jeff Lemieux and Patrick Wojahn
In the summer of 2013, Maryland Governor O’Malleyannounced funding to “purchase right-of-way for [sic] bicycle, pedestrian and safety improvements” for Route 1 in College Park, by the University of Maryland. One news report at the time indicated that the plan called for a “bicycle and pedestrian trail along U.S. 1 from College Avenue to Md. 193 in College Park.”
For bike riders in College Park, this was very exciting news. Northern Prince George’s county has an excellent bike trail system paralleling Route 1 and Metrorail’s Green Line, but many of the larger roads in our area are hostile to bike riders and pedestrians. For example, Route 1 does not have continuous sidewalks in many stretches between the University of Maryland and the beltway, and there are no protected bike lanes or cycle tracks on any of the larger state-maintained (numbered) roads in the area.
Last week, the Maryland state highway administration (SHA) described a plan for section of Route 1 between College Ave. and Greenbelt Road that would create a narrow five-foot painted bike lane (four feet plus a one foot gutter pan) next to the curb.
Rendering of SHA’s proposed typical section for Route 1 between College Ave and Greenbelt Road
Given the bus and delivery truck traffic on Route 1, a narrow bike lane could be hazardous, squeezing cyclists between an 8” concrete curb and large vehicles in dense traffic. In addition, buses that are stopped or idling by the curb would force cyclists into the roadway and mixed traffic – something neither cyclists nor drivers prefer.
We predict that the SHA design will not be popular with either cyclists or drivers. The College Park officials at the SHA presentation asked hard questions about whether protected bike lanes could be built instead.
Picture from SHA newsletter describing the Route 1 proposed cross section.
The ultimate design decision will make an enormous difference in the long run for College Park’s accessibility and business development. Since the entire roadway is being rebuilt, this is once-in-a generation opportunity for Prince George’s county. Will the bike lanes be protected or buffered, as part of an urban street design that is welcoming to pedestrians, bikes, and bus riders? Or will the bike lanes just be a stripe of paint between the curb and a roadway that is designed more like a suburban strip or rural highway?
Fortunately, much better designs have been in use nationwide for decades, and some even utilize a narrower roadbed (meaning less right-of-way acquisition and less of the expensive full-depth road reconstruction). Protected bike lanes, used nationwide and worldwide, provide physical separation between cyclists and vehicle traffic – providing a more comfortable and safer ride. An example of protected bikes lanes through another University town (Cambridge) is shown below.
Protected Bikes on Vassar Street, through MIT campus – Cambridge, MA.
If Route 1 were to be rebuilt in this fashion – keeping the same proposed center median – it could look something like this:
Route 1 rendering, rebuilt with protected bike lanes behind the curb
Notice how cyclists do not have to compete with faster vehicles that can hit or kill them, nor do they have to compete with slower pedestrians on crowded sidewalks (like they do now). This is a win-win for all road users and dramatically improves everyone’s safe travel.
Alternatively, SHA can also follow the lead of other states by implementing buffered bike lanes that provide striped or curbed buffers, separating bicyclists from vehicle traffic within the road. An example of such a typical section for Route 1 is shown below.
Buffered bike lanes within the roadbed
Twenty four states use protected bike lanes. Washington DC uses them extensively, and they have coincided with a boom in population and tax revenues for the city. By using flexposts in conjunction with narrow curbs for protection, DC has developed protected bike lanes on streets with limited road width. For example, the new two-way cycle track on First Street, NE in Washington uses flexposts and a narrow protective barrier (either a narrow curb or a row of parking stops) to create effective protection for cyclists within a narrow roadway.
A narrow curb protects the two-way cycletrack on First Street, NE in Washington DC
Although there is limited space in the right-of-way on Route 1, SHA is working on expanding the right-of-way beyond its existing width, giving College Park a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create sufficient space to safely accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. Protected bike lanes will encourage bike commuting to the University and surrounding businesses, and will take car traffic off the road. In order to encourage bicycle infrastructure to have an impact and get more cars off the road, people need to feel safe using it. Unprotected bike lanes alone will not accomplish that.
SHA should give greater consideration to protected bike lanes outside the curb, as well as buffered or projected bike lanes inside the roadbed. Alternatively, a two-way cycletrack might be feasible, especially on the west (University) side of Route 1.
It is time for a progressive state like Maryland to have progressive transportation standards that take into account local context and the community’s economic development potential. Instead of rubber-stamping a traditional rural highway design for every state highway, SHA needs to consider and design for the local users. College Park not only has a relatively high-density and a large built-in student population that doesn’t use cars, but also has local businesses that are on small lots with very few parking spaces – i.e. neighborhood-serving businesses. Route 1 is not a regional arterial and should not be treated as one by highway engineers.
College Park and its large cycling community, the State’s flagship University, and Prince George’s County deserve better than just a narrow stripe on the road. Please contact state officials to ask for buffered or protected bike lanes instead of a narrow curbside bike lane. To have your voice heard, please contact:
State Highway Administrator
Melinda B. Peters
Office of Highway Development - Highway Design Division
District Engineer for SHA, District 3 (Prince Georges and Montgomery)
Brian W. Young, District Engineer
Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator
Dustin M. Kuzan
Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering
Maryland State Highway Administration
Jeff Lemieux is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Planning Board and co-chairs the WABA/Prince George’s Advocacy Group.
Patrick Wojahn is a councilmember for District 1, College Park City Council.