The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is no longer deliberating on whether to approve the Bicycles may use full lane sign, but rather on the shape and color of the sign A version with a white rectangle has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration and is commonly known as “R4-11”. SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety has proposed that the same words be placed on a yellow diamond. (See pdf). WABA and other cycling organizations have remained neutral about the shape and color of the sign. What matters is that the sign actually be posted throughout the state along the many types of roads where the safest way to legally ride a bicycle is by using the full lane. We have also suggested that SHA should engage the localities to help motivate them to use whatever sign is eventually adopted.
Cycling activists have recently asked several local governments about their willingness to use these signs. Most localities have no experience with R4-11 and have been unable to tell us what they are likely to do. An exception is Bryon White, the city engineer with Laurel’s Department of Public Works, who is also responsible for bicycle and pedestrian issues. On roads with a speed limit of 25-30 mph, the city is already using the R4-11 sign, along with sharrows marked in the middle of the lane. “I think accompanying R4-11 with sharrows really makes all the difference; the location of the marking in the center of the lane takes all the ambiguity away, for a reasonable driver.”
On roads with higher speed limits, however, White opposes using the R4-11 and sharrows.
While a bike can legally go on roads like this, it is generally impossible to keep up with traffic, if there’s even a slight uphill grade. You are essentially forcing many other vehicles to slow down to your speed or pass you in another lane (if one exists) or cross a double-yellow when safe. Although the inconvenience would be relatively infrequent, I prefer to designate an alternate adjacent parallel route as the preferred bike route with appropriate signs, markings and/or striping for bike lanes… We are at the beginning of our bike master plan build out. As the network gets built, more and drivers will become accustomed to seeing and looking for cyclists, I envision the City may eventually be willing to use the signage on roads with faster speeds.
The citizens of Laurel have been generally supportive of sharrows and R4-11 signs on the lower speed roads; but they might not favor he town directing cyclists to use the full lane on the higher speed roads.
So are cyclists simply on their own against aggressive drivers on higher speed roads?
I agree with the premise that faster roads are where warning signs are needed. But if you put a particular sign any old place to warn drivers about something that rarely occurs–in this case, a bicyclist legally using a whole lane on a fast-moving road–then motorists will begin to ignore the warning sign. That would defeat the whole purpose of the R4-11 sign. Yet there is a subset of cyclists that are adept and confident enough to travel at high speeds with traffic; so I would prefer that we use a yellow diamond version of the Bicycles may use full lane sign there.
As an example, White points to US-1.
Currently, we have Share the Road warning signs on US-1 through Old Town Laurel. Cycling there seems awfully dangerous. The road lanes are about 11 feet wide. I have seen cyclists on this road, though not a lot. The yellow diamond version Bicycles May Use Full Lane seems to make more sense there, and I would be in favor of SHA replacing the existing Share the Road signs there with this newer warning sign. The bottom line is that engineering judgment has to be exercised because bicyclists’ abilities to accelerate and maneuver vary greatly. Only a small percentage of cyclists can or would ride on US-1, though it is perfectly legal to do so.
My job is to build a grid network of preferred bike routes that will be appropriate for cyclists with different degrees of skill. That means that in the City of Laurel, US-1 is not a preferred route in the City's bike master plan--and likely won't be. We have safer adjacent parallel roads. By this end of next year, a bicyclist will be able travel the entire US-1 corridor through the City, using a route that is parallel to US-1 and only one block away. This alternative route consists of on-street bike lanes, sidepaths, and low volume shared roads; yet it still provides direct access to all the commercial developments in the corridor. I expect that the large majority of cyclists who travel north/south will use this preferred route...
Does that mean riding US-1 is off-limits? No. It is a legal route that bicyclists can take, and it should be signed as such. Because of its narrow lane widths, I think that means using the yellow diamond version of R4-11, as opposed to more ambiguous share the road.
SHA could compromise on R4-11, by incorporating both versions Bicycles May Use Full Lane into the Maryland MUTCD, with guidance indicating that engineering judgment should be applied on which type of roads to use them. For example, slower, lower-volume roads would use standard white R4-11; and roads with higher speeds and many curves or poor lighting, or more potential conflict points, would use the yellow diamond version.
(Jim Titus is a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA). The opinions expressed herein are solely those of Bryon White whom he interviewed, and do not necessarily reflect the official views of WABA.)