Prince George’s is hiring a bike and pedestrian coordinator

Cross posted at Greater Greater Washington

Prince George’s County leads the Washington region in pedestrian deaths, and it’s behind when it comes to trails and streets that are safe and useful for people on foot and bike. To fix the problem, the county will soon hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator and develop a bikeway plan.

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Photo by Cindy Shebley on Flickr.

News of the hire comes from Darrell B. Mobley, Director of the County’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T). Mobley says his agency wants to facilitate bicycling.

More specifically, Mobley wants to make the county’s bike network more usable. While Prince George’s has a lot of trails and local streets that are perfect for bicycling, they aren’t connected well enough for bicyclists to reach a destination without riding on more hazardous state and county roads. Mobley wants to create a bicycle network across the county using trails, bike lanes and safe streets.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and several county council members have urged DPW&T to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator since Rushern Baker first became the county executive. The county posted the job this week, specifying that it’s a Planner III position that will pay between $53,000 and $97,000 per year.

The coordinator will report to Victor Weissberg, the special assistant in the director’s office who has long been responsible for representing the department on bike and pedestrian matters. According to Weissberg, the coordinator will have frequent access to both Mobley and Andre Issayans, DPW&T’s Deputy Director.

Developing a bikeway plan is likely to be one of the first tasks for the new hire, says Weissberg.

The county’s master plan of transportation shows where bike lanes and trails should be built in the very long run, but it does not address what will actually done or when. Weissberg says that creating a bikeway plan would probably require supplemental funding.

“When the county is ready, we will find the money,” says Greg Billing, director of advocacy for WABA.

Weissberg is not sure whether DPW&T will create a formal bicycle plan or something more like an internal work plan. But he promises to share drafts with the bicycle community and others as the plan is formulated.

Does the new hire signal a substantive change in county policy, or just an institutional commitment?

When Mobley was a top official at the Maryland Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration (SHA) issued a policy declaring that bicycles would be presumed to ride on all state highways where bicycles are not explicitly prohibited, and that SHA would make at least some effort to make bicyling safer. For example, roads might get signs that told drivers that bicycles may take up the full lane.

By contrast, DPW&T has stated that some roads are not part of the bicycle network, that cyclists use these roads at their own risk, and that no “use full lane” signs would go up on such roads because doing so would encourage other cyclists to ride on them.

Mobley says that he is not ready to endorse SHA’s approach. He says that it is too soon to say that bicycles are part of the expected traffic mix on all county roads because he has not examined all of these roads. He wants to wait for the bike and pedestrian coordinator to come on board so that the county can adopt a position based on a reasoned analysis.

“Give us some time and we’ll work through these challenges,” says Mobley.

 

State Gets Priorities Wrong In College Park Street Redesign

The current SHA plan for Route 1 would place narrow bike lanes next to high speed traffic. Locals want protected bike lanes. Credit: Jeff Lemieux

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) announced December 12 that it will allow bicycle boxes and “cycletracks” (i.e. protected bike lanes) on state roads, at the bi-monthly meeting of the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC). But the good news was overshadowed by concern over SHA’s proposal for rebuilding US Route 1 (US 1) through College Park, which provides minimal bike lanes. The current plans for US 1 call for narrow 4-foot bike lanes adjacent to generous 11-foot travel lanes for drivers.

Typically, if a highway has 11-foot travel lanes on a straight, level grade, then the road is designed for 40 miles per hour.

A possible showdown over the bike lanes in College Park has been brewing for several years. Local residents and officials want a safer road. And statewide advocates have been increasingly frustrated as SHA rejected advice to adopt a complete streets design guidance. SHA prefers to design highways for motorists and then provide minimum bike accommodation with whatever space remains.

The Localities want Protected Bikeways

In 2011, the City of College Park and then-Councilman Eric Olson told SHA and County planners that when US-1 is rebuilt, it should have protected bike lanes rather than the narrow bike lanes that SHA generally prefers. The premise for a protected bikeway was that the main street of a college town needs to be safe for all types of cyclists. If drivers invariably speed through town, a protected bikeway is needed to keep cyclists safe.

The planners revised the sector plan to include protected bike lanes, and SHA’s independent design consultant recommended a behind-the-curb cycletrack. But SHA proposed 11-foot travel lanes and 4-foot bike lanes. SHA senior officials, many of whom are cyclists, worried that behind-the-curb cycletracks would increase the risk collisions when confused drivers make right or left turns across the bikeway. In response to the widespread objections, SHA is now looking at a buffered bike lane, according to a December 16 letter from SHA Administrator Melinda Peters, a competitive cyclist.

State Advisory Committee wants a Safe Street.

MBPAC is a committee of 13 private citizens and officials from 9 state agencies appointed by the Governor to advise the state on bicycle and pedestrian matters. This composition makes MBPAC a relatively cautious committee which is usually reluctant to second-guess agency proposals. Nevertheless, MBPAC’s resolution last month was fairly blunt:

Whereas…. SHA proposes to rebuild US 1 with eleven foot wide travel lanes and four foot wide bike lanes, a design which …encourages high motor vehicle speeds,… places high speed motor vehicle traffic uncomfortably close to cyclists properly positioned in the bike lane [and limits] the ability of trucks and buses to provide the legally required three feet of passing clearance…Such an installation…would be more appropriate for a rural, low-traffic situation…Narrowing the motor vehicle traffic lanes would allow … wider bike lanes…and calm the motor vehicle traffic, enhancing safety in accordance with Maryland’s Complete Streets Policy…And the state’s flagship university deserves a design considerably better than the minimum requirements.

MBPAC strongly urges the SHA to rebuild the section of US 1 through College Park to the safest design possible, which would, at a minimum, include narrow traffic lanes and at least six foot wide bike lanes, and if possible include a … cycletrack, buffered bike lane, or trail.

(Disclosure: I wrote the first draft, which was revised by Greg Hinchliffe, interim Executive Director of Bikemore.)

MBPAC and Advocates have struggled to get SHA to update its guidance.

Over the last two years, MBPAC has reviewed SHA’s bicycle design guidelines, and urged SHA to make highways safe for cyclists, rather than merely provide narrow bike lanes. SHA’s guidelines provide for 4-foot bike lanes unless the speed limit is 50 mph (or 8% of the vehicles are trucks). With such narrow bike lanes, motor vehicles pass cyclists in a bike lane with less clearance than when they pass a car.

For example, a 9-foot truck will pass a bicyclist in a 4-foot bike lane with an average clearance of two feet—less if you consider the mirrors and random meandering within the lane. By contrast, if the truck passes an SUV in another 11-foot travel lane, the clearance will be three feet.

Why do SHA design guidelines provide drivers with more clearance than bicyclists? SHA has declined to explain its thinking. When MBPAC pointed out that such narrow widths are unsafe, SHA did not suggest that the bike lanes are safe:

Table 2.1 has been developed to provide simple consistent guidance for engineers to determine the minimum width needed for bicycle lanes. The heading of this table will be revised to state “Minimum shoulder widths” instead of “preferred”. Factors such as density of cross streets and volume of traffic will be considered on a project by project basis to ensure that the most appropriate measures are being implemented.

Let’s give SHA the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps it is not cost-effective to build a wider bike lane along a rural highway with few cyclists, and four feet is a reasonable minimum. MBPAC wanted the design guidance to address the more common situation where the minimum is inappropriate, but SHA simply assured cyclists that it would not be bound by the minimum unless providing a safe facility “increases the cost significantly.”

What about narrowing the travel lanes?

The over-riding concern of both WABA and MBPAC was that the design guidelines start with a given level of service for motor vehicles, and then define how to provide some accommodation to cyclists with the remaining room and funding. MBPAC recommended that the guidance should discuss how SHA defines that level of service —most importantly speeds—given the presence of bikes and pedestrians. SHA responded that it considers the various design documents (designed to promote safe and efficient motor vehicle transportation) and that “It is neither realistic nor appropriate to attempt to include those policies in this document.”

There is no need to explain how the presence of bicyclists affects the overall geometry of the highway, because in general, it doesn’t. In essence, SHA declared that it has no intention of developing guidance for a complete streets policy in which roads are designed to balance the needs of all road users.

Given SHA’s devotion to 11-foot lanes, perhaps the US 1 proposal should have been expected. But recently some pedestrian fatalities led SHA to lower the speed limit to 25 mph, and send other signals that it wanted drivers in College Park to slow down. SHA usually resists lowering speed limits: many SHA engineers have told me that it is futile to set speed limits more than 5 mph below the design speed. If that’s so, then the only real opportunity to slow traffic is when a road is rebuilt. So why doesn’t SHA want to do that?

“Our engineers generally set the design speeds to be 5 mph faster than the expected travel speeds, to keep drivers safe” explained a state employee, who asked not to be identified. With a speed limit of 25 mph and speed cameras set to 37 mph, drivers are safer and more comfortable with 11-foot lanes and a design speed of 40 mph.

What’s next?

WABA and other cycling organizations will be very disappointed with anything less than MBPAC’s minimum recommendation: ten-foot motor lanes, and six-foot bike lanes (plus a one-foot gutter). Granted: Widening the bike lanes alone would be a step in the right direction; protected bike lanes would be even better. But any design that fails to calm traffic to the 25 mph speed limit would be completely at odds with MDOT’s official complete streets policy.

SHA and cycling advocates each have a poor understanding of what the other is trying to accomplish. This situation can be avoided if SHA enunciates clear policies regarding when and how driver comfort, safety, and speed will be compromised for cyclists and pedestrians, just as its bicycle guidelines already are clear about how bicycle facilities must be adapted to motor vehicle service. WABA endorses MBPAC’s call for a meeting with SHA on US Route 1, which should hopefully bring cyclists and SHA staff closer to a meeting of the minds.

Jim Titus is a WABA board member from Prince George’s County

Feds Withdraw Claim That Bike Helmets Are 85 Percent Effective

The federal government is withdrawing its long-standing claim that bicycle helmets prevent 85% of head injuries, in response to a petition filed by WABA under the federal Data Quality Act.

In 1989, a study in Seattle estimated that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Efforts to replicate those results during the 1990s confirmed that helmets reduce injuries, but not nearly as much as the Seattle study suggested. Yet public health advocates, government web sites, and the news media have continued to repeat the 85% factoid to the point that it has become a mantra.

Bad information can cause problems, even when it is promoted with the best intentions. If people think that helmets stop almost all head injuries, consumers will not demand better helmets, and legislators may think it makes sense to require everyone to wear one. So we asked two federal agencies to correct the misinformation, and they recently agreed to do so.

How Effective are Bicycle Helmets?

Helmets absorb the shock from a crash.  If your head strikes the ground or a vehicle, your brain could be seriously shaken by the sudden deceleration.  Helmets should decrease that shaking.  The deceleration will be more gradual as your head depresses the foam in the helmet, rather than striking a hard surface.  Helmets can also prevent head fractures by spreading the force of the impact, like the difference between being hit on the head by a rock or a beach ball with the same weight.

That’s the theory.   But how often do helmets actually prevent head injuries?  It’s hard to tell.  Experiments on people are unethical.  So researchers instead collect hospital data on people involved in bicycle crashes.

In 1989, a team of researchers from Seattle collected data about cyclists who went to area hospitals after a crash.  The team was led by Robert S. Thompson, MD, who directed preventive care for the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound.  Only 7% of the cyclists with head injuries wore helmets, but 24% of those without head injuries did wear helmets.  Based on a statistical analysis they estimated that helmets had reduced the risk of a head injury by 85%. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctor Thompson’s study was a “case-control study.”  This type of study originally showed the link between smoking and cancer. “Case-control” is a misnomer because there is no true control group.  Epidemiologists often say that case-control studies are a good way to show whether something has a good (or bad) effect on health, but not to accurately quantify that effect.

So the fundamental contribution of the Thompson study was to demonstrate that helmets do reduce the risk of head injuries.  But public health advocates recognized that the 85% estimate was a good factoid for risk communication: it means that failing to wear a helmet makes you more than 6 times as likely to experience a head injury.  Government web sites and newspapers repeated this factoid, to the point where it has become ubiquitous in discussions about bicycle helmets.

Meanwhile, dozens of researchers sought to replicate the Thompson findings in their own communities.  They also found that helmets reduce the risk of head injuries.  But they found less of a beneficial effects than Dr. Thompson found in Seattle.  Some of the studies also found that helmets increase the risk of neck injuries.

In 2001, a review of all published studies found that helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 45–71%, and increase the risk of neck injuries by 0–86%.   That “meta-analysis” was updated in 2011:    Helmets reduce head injuries by 25–55%, but because of the increased risk in neck injuries, the combined reduction in head and neck injuries is only 2–26%.

Yet government web sites, public health advocates, and the news media continue to repeat the 85% estimate.

Misinformation encourages helmet laws, discourages better helmets

Bicycle safety is one of WABA’s central missions, and we have strongly supported bicycle helmets for the last few decades.  We require helmets on all rides that we organize. One of our sponsored projects is the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), which reviews bicycle helmets and encourages improvements in their design.  (BHSI raises its own funds, and is not supported by WABA membership dues.)

In the 1990s, we supported proposals to require children under the age of 16 to wear bicycle helmets, which eventually became law.

Yet we draw the line when it comes to laws that require adults to wear helmets.  Several researchers have demonstrated that such laws do little to promote safety; but they discourage bike share and other uses of bicycles for short trips.  So this year we fought hard against a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would have required all adults to wear bicycle helmets on any trip, no matter how short.  Fortunately, objections from cyclists persuaded the sponsor of the bill not to push it forward–at least this year.

Thanks to occasional articles in the Washcycle, local cycling advocates have known for years that public health advocates overstate the effectiveness of helmets.  But with all the ways by which drivers and cyclists misunderstand each other while navigating the roads, helmet effectiveness has not ranked high in our list of misconceptions to fix.

That changed this year.  The Maryland Department of Transportation supported the mandatory helmet bill, based on the web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which says that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries.  An article in the Washington Post questioned why cyclists opposed the mandatory helmet bill, and stated that helmets prevent 80% of head injuries, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  The mandatory helmet law was promoted by people who were relying on incorrect information on federal agency web sites.

As we prepared our testimony on the bill, we realized that most helmet research has been focused on making helmets cool, rather than more protective.  Better ventilation and more fashionable designs might encourage more people to buy and wear helmets, but it does not make someone safer.  Could that be because everyone is assuming that helmets are already 85% effective?

If people thought that helmets are less than 50% effective, might there be a greater focus on what really matters—a better helmet?

WABA pushed agencies to correct the misinformation

Last February, I sent emails to both CDC and NHTSA, pointing out that the 85% estimate is incorrect, and providing citations to newer research.  A few weeks later, CDC thanked me for pointing out the new research.  I spoke with an epidemiologist over the phone, who told me that CDC would remove the error.  She confirmed the conversation in a letter.

NHTSA staff told me that they were too busy to discuss the matter. That led us to conclude that a more formal request would be necessary: The Data Quality Act requires information on federal web sites to be accurate and supported by appropriate research.  So I asked NHTSA to provide the underlying documentation.  NHTSA confirmed that the 85% figure was based on the Thompson study.[1]

On March 15, we sent our formal “request for correction” asking NHTSA to either remove the statement that helmets are 85% effective, or revise the quantitative estimate so that it accurately reflects the published literature. [2]

Sixty days later, NHTSA agreed to remove the 85% estimate from its web site.[3]  We expect other agencies to follow the lead of NHTSA and CDC, though some may need some encouragement.

(Jim Titus is on WABA’s Board of Directors and a resident of Prince George’s County)


[1]  We also asked NHTSA to support its claim that helmets are  “the single most effective to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash”, but it was unable to do so.

[2]  Our petition also asked NHTSA to “delete all statements … asserting that wearing a helmet is the single most effective way (or device) to prevent a head injury, unless this claim has been substantiated by a peer-reviewed study showing that helmets are more effective than other ways or devices for preventing head injuries.”

[3]  NHTSA did not, however, agree to our request that the agency either substantiate or remove the claim that “wearing a helmet is the single most effective way (or device) to prevent a head injury.”  NHTSA said that WABA had not met its burden of proof.   Evidently, WABA and NHTSA disagree on whether NHTSA is required to provide at least one study showing its statement to be correct, before WABA would be required to show the statement to be wrong.  We are thinking about whether to appeal.

 

Successes for Cycling in the 2013 Maryland General Assembly

Franklin's Bike Parking

In the Maryland General Assembly, our efforts to promote and defend the interests of bicyclists were reasonably successful this year—especially compared to how things might have turned out. There were no major advances specifically for cycling this year. But WABA and its members and supporters helped stop a bill that would have been very harmful to bicycling. We also helped a coalition of transportation groups to persuade the legislature to increase funding for transportation for the first time in 21 years.

Here is a rundown of the legislation that we followed this year in Maryland.

Bikes on sidewalks
The Maryland code prohibits bicycling on sidewalks, unless the locality enacts a law to legalize it. Delegate Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill the last two years to reverse the presumption, so that bicycling on sidewalks would be legal unless the locality prohibits it. Before the legislative session started, we notified Delegate Miller that WABA would not take a position on such a bill this year. Local legislation legalizing sidewalk riding has already been enacted by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, so it was unclear whether this bill would have much of an impact in the Washington area other than in a few municipalities. We doubted that we would be able to devote time and energy to this bill. HB 160 attracted little attention, and received an unfavorable report from the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Mandatory helmet law
Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, introduced HB 339, which would have required adults to wear helmets when bicycling on any highway, including trails. As soon as the bill was introduced, WABA immediately went into high-gear to do all we could to stop it. Hundreds of our members and supporters sent emails to delegates on the committee asking them to oppose the bill. But it appeared to be an uphill battle because about half the committee had sponsored it.

As Shane Farthing and Greg Billing explained, mandatory helmet laws could undermine the success of a bikesharing system in the Maryland suburbs. It would also force people to choose between breaking the law and not bicycling on occasion, when wearing a helmet is not feasible. Some advocates are also concerned that the effectiveness of helmets has often been overstated on government web sites.

WABA has long been one of the strongest advocates of helmet use in the mid-Atlantic region. We require helmets on all rides. We have long facilitated the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (although it raises its own finds). During the 1990s, we strongly advocated a mandatory helmet law for children under the age of 16, which was eventually enacted. But it is not always a good idea to pass a law that requires adults to do things for their own good. We did not support a law requiring all adults to ride a bike either.

We were fortunate that Delegate McIntosh is an avid cyclist and genuinely supports cycling, while disagreeing with us on the question of a mandatory helmet law. She heard the passion with which bicycle advocates from both Baltimore and the Washington area opposed her legislation (Bike Maryland took no position). Although our logic did not persuade her on the helmet issue, as a good politician she concluded that she would rather work with us on matters where we agree than against us on the helmet bill. In late February, McIntosh decided not to push the helmet bill further this year so that we could work to increase funding for the state’s cycling infrastructure.

Transportation funding
Because Maryland has not raised the gas tax since 1992, the funds available for new transportation infrastructure have been dwindling. Last year, Governor Martin O’Malley proposed to extend the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, but neither chamber passed the bill.

It was important to increase the funds for transportation this year, because otherwise, federal funding for the Purple Line would be unlikely. Yet prospects did not look good during the first two months of the legislative session. Then, Virginia increased its sales tax to fund transportation near the end of its 60-day session. Shortly thereafter, Maryland’s governor, speaker, and senate preesident announced a plan to increase the gas tax by an amount equal to roughly 1 percent of the retail price of gasoline for each of the next three years.

With the helmet bill behind us, we strongly supported House Bill 1515. Hundreds of our members and supporters wrote their legislators to indicate their willingness to pay higher taxes to increase funding for transportation. The bill passed. As a result, the state will be able to proceed with its Capital Transportation Plan, which allocates about 7 percent of the funding to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Safe-passing bill
Like the District of Columbia and many other states, Maryland generally requires drivers to leave at least three feet of clearance when overtaking a bicyclist. But the Maryland law has several confusing exceptions, including one for narrow highways. No one knows whether that exception includes standard highway lanes in no-passing zones, or only genuinely narrow highways such as one-lane bridges. Bike Maryland championed House Bill 445, which would have removed that exception. Although we endorsed the bill, our focus on the helmet bill made it impractical for us to do anything more than lend out name to their efforts, and the bill received an unfavorable report from the Environmental Matters Subcommittee.

Contributory negligence
The Maryland Court of Appeals is considering a case that could, if successful, repeal the doctrine of contributory negligence. Maryland is one of only five states that retains this legal doctrine, under which a plaintiff who is even minimally at fault cannot successfully sue to recover damages caused by someone else’s negligence. This doctrine is very unfair to cyclists, who may lose the ability to pay for significant medical bills or the loss of earnings after a severe accident.

Last fall, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether to replace the doctrine of contributory negligence with comparative fault in the case of Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia. The case involves a volunteer soccer coach who smoked pot before practice, tried to swing on a portable goal, and fell on his face. He sued for damages from the soccer league for failing to warn him about this hazard, but the jury found that he was contributorily negligent, so he could not recover damages.

If any such bill has a significant chance of passing, we will work to include an exception for bicyclists who collide with motor-vehicle drivers.

Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince George’s County.

Photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC

Legalize Changing Lanes to Pass a Bike in No Passing Zones

An Opportunity to Help Motorists and Cyclists: A “Change-Lanes-and-Pass” Rule

My neighborhood has many polite drivers who wait behind me as I ride on two-lane MD-953, which has double yellow (no passing) lines the whole way. I am usually in the center of the 10-ft lane, pulling a trailer with my daughter.  Even when I don’t have the trailer, 95% of the drivers wait until the oncoming lane is clear, change lanes, and pass.  And when I am riding toward the right side of the lane for some reason, the vast majority still change lanes to pass.

Countless drivers have probably done you the same favor on another road. But they are technically breaking the law.

We think Maryland should legalize changing lanes to pass a bike riding in a no-passing zone. Not only are these drivers being safe, they actually enhance safety.

Why would cycling organizations initiate a reform that increases motorists’ rights? Aside from the fact that it probably will make us safer, cyclists probably understand this issue better than motorists. Cyclists have discussed many “rules of the road” that make sense for motor vehicles, but do not enhance safety when applied to bicycles. We would love to see those laws reformed. In some cases we may lack the political power to compel the changes we hope to see. But we probably do have the power to secure the right to change lanes and pass a bike when there is a double yellow line. So I think we should.

But Let’s Not Go Too Far: The “Partly-Cross-the-Line and Pass” Rule

By coincidence, some other Maryland advocates are considering a similar reform, but they would go even farther. Their idea is to allow drivers to cross the double yellow line to pass bikes, without the requirement to fully change lanes. This “partly-cross-the-line and pass” rule seems to be motivated by the observation that some cyclists ride far enough to the right so that a car barely has enough room to squeeze between the bike and the yellow line, and some drivers do. This rule would allow motorists to move only partly into the adjacent lane to pass the cyclist by the required three feet.

We prefer the requirement that the motorist fully change lanes. Motorists frequently report difficulty in gauging the three feet of space they are required to leave when passing, so why not apply the normal requirement that motorists change lanes? It is an existing behavior with clear rules and expectations. There is no need to encourage drivers to pass while occupying parts of two lanes.

Additionally, the requirement to change lanes before passing would discourage the idea of “squeezing” around others—whether the cyclist or a potential oncoming motorist. Finally, the State of Maryland will soon start erecting signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane”. We think that “change lanes and pass” better reinforces the message of those signs, than partly crossing the line and sharing the lane.

Over the next few weeks, advocates in Maryland will be deciding which approach to take. While WABA took a major role last year in the promotion and passage of the Maryland vehicular homicide law, this year WABA intends to play a supporting role to Bike Maryland, which frequently leads statewide efforts to enhance cyclists’ rights through state legislation.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince George’s County)

Planning to Extend the WB&A Trail in Both Directions

WABA is urging Prince Georges County to continue with plans to connect the Anacostia River Tributary Trails with the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Trail. At the annual budget hearing last week, WABA board member Jim Titus urged the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) to authorize $45,000 this year to extend the WB&A trail about 2 miles westward across US-50 and the Capital Beltway. (See map).

The WB&A Trail follows the right of way of the old WB&A railroad from the Patuxent River in Bowie to MD-450 in Lanham. MD-704 has been built along the right of way from about that point to the DC line. Many people who use the WB&A Trail would like to continue along MD-704, but doing to can be hazardous because the speed of traffic is typically 55-60 mph, and there is no shoulder along MD-704 until one crosses to the other side of US-50.

Extending the WB&A across US-50 and the Capital Beltway would immediately improve the usefulness of the trail because the Beltway is often a serious barrier to mobility. It would also provide a route to the New Carrollton Metro. On the broader scale, extending the WB&A across the Beltway is a key step toward the eventual goal of a trail between the WB&A and the Anacostia River.

Last year, Councilman Eric Olson persuaded M-NCPPC to commission a design study on how to connect the WB&A to the Anacostia River Trail. More than $125,000 was set aside for the study, whose scope of work included the following task:

Identify appropriate long-term improvements necessary for a safe and attractive bicycle and pedestrian connection(s) linking the Anacostia Trail Network with the WB&A Trail. This portion of the study should address the “big picture” of how we ultimately want to connect the Anacostia Tributaries Trails Network with the WB&A Trail over the long term. This route(s) may serve as the alignment for the East Coast Greenway and the America Discovery Trail within Prince George’s County, as well as serving as a critical east-west connection in the countywide trails network.

The winning contractor’s bid was for less than half the money—but in the end, the contractor only did half the job. The study designed a trail from the Anacostia River to New Carrollton, but not the “safe and attractive connection” between New Carrollton and the WB&A Trail. We are hoping that M-NCPPC will now complete the study—possibly using the funds that were left over from last year.

M-NCPPC’s decision to focus on the inner portion of the Anacostia to WB&A corridor is understandable, given the County’s need for safe bike routes into the District of Columbia. Yet the near-term opportunities from extending the WB&A may be just as great. This two-mile extension would probably be built by the State Highway Administration (SHA) because it will follow MD-704. It is already the county’s top bike-ped request to SHA. While SHA’s budget is down, it has not declined to the same extent as M-NCPPC‘s budget, which relies on the property tax in a county where assessment are down 40%. So this is an opportunity to leverage scarce resources to accomplish something big.

We are mindful that many of our members are especially interested in extending the WB&A Trail east into Anne Arundel County, where a 4-mile segment to Odenton has been built. Officials hope to eventually build a trail along the right of way of the WB&A’s South Shore line from Odenton to Annapolis. For the last decade the planned trail crossing over the Patuxent River has been on hold because the owners of the right of way on the Anne Arundel side of the river oppose the trail. (We offer our condolences to the family of Buz Meyer, the most prominent foe of the trail, a devoted naturalist, and community-minded environmental educator and gun safety instructor, who died last month.) Although Anne Arundel County and a developer own the land immediately next to the right of way, the County has chosen not to pursue a trail next to the right of way, for reasons it has not stated publicly. (County officials did make off-the-record statements about their thinking; but it is unclear whether those reasons are still relevant today.)

County officials have instead pursued a detour that would cross the Patuxent River about ½ mile northwest of where the trail currently reaches the river on the Maryland side. The Maryland State Highway Administration and M-NCPPC are cooperating with Anne Arundel on the detour crossing.

Rail trails almost always follow the old railroad right of way as closely as possible, unless there are unusually compelling reasons for a significant detour. Such reasons may exist in this case, but so far they have not been articulated to the public.

WABA is unlikely to play a leading role in the extension of the WB&A Trail eastward from Bowie to Odenton and beyond. Our area of advocacy includes Prince Georges County, but not Anne Arundel County. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the long-established plans of Prince George County and the City of Bowie for the trail to cross the Patuxent near the old railroad bed may be cast aside for an inferior detour, without a serious effort by local governments or the State of Maryland to engage cycling organizations in a dialogue about the alternative routes and potential costs and benefits of each option. We hope that the voices of bicycling advocates statewide, including groups like like Bike Maryland, the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the Prince Georges Bicycle and Trail advisory Committee, will all be consulted before the state or M-NCPPC takes significant steps to move the trail’s crossing away from the railroad right of way.

Maryland to adopt “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign; skeptical localities

Thanks to you, our WABA members and supporters, the Maryland State Highway Administration is very likely to adopt a sign that says “Bicycles may use full lane” and post the sign on many 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.

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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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 “you are not where you are supposed to be.”

Michael Jackson of the Maryland Department of Transportation has been concerned about this problem for the last 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 Street, NW (see photo by Michael Jackson) while bicycle commuting to school during the 1970s.)   But for a sign to become widespread it must 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.”

The R4-11 sign became part of the federal MUTCD in December 2009.  Many states automatically adopt the MUTCD; but Maryland has its own MUTCD, which is similar—but not identical—to the federal MUTCD.   Last summer, the Glenn Dale Citizens Association asked SHA to post R4-11 signs in and around Glenn Dale.  In May, SHA responded that it had decided not to adopt the R4-11 sign.  We did not find out about that letter until late June, at which point, we 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.

Within days, 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 of SHA.

About a week later, Mr. Hicks sent me a graphic of a yellow diamond sign 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 and explained to SHA that our main concern is not the shape and color of the sign, but with the widespread use of the sign to communicate both that cyclists may be in the roadway ahead, and that they have a right to be.  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.

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.  But 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 the older “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.[4]

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.  Most counties have not even thought about it. [5]

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 Maryland’s 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 their thinking 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.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Glenn Dale, Maryland in Prince Georges County)


[1] MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)

[2] 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.

[3]  MD Transportation Code §21-1205(a)(6)

[4] Minutes from meeting between WABA and DPW&T, May 24, 2011.

[5] I am awaiting replies from Baltimore, Frederick, St. Mary’s, and Washington Counties, as well as the cities of Frederick and Hagerstown.

Update on “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign in Maryland

Having asked you to contact Maryland officials about the State Highway Administration’s (SHA) decision to reject the Bicycles May Use Full Lane sign (R4-11), we wanted to give you an brief update on our progress to see that decision reversed.

As far as we know, everyone who wrote Governor O’Malley, the State Highway Administration or the the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) received a letter from MDOT Secretary Beverly K. Swaim-Staley stating (in part)

Consistent with Governor O‘Malley’s policy initiatives to encourage bicycle use and accommodate bicyclists, MDOT and SHA will develop guidelines for the appropriate use of the R4-11 sign. As we previously agreed, the SHA will consult with stakeholders before adopting a final set of guidelines. I apologize that incorrect information was communicated prior to any formal decision.

The MDOT letter clearly implies that MDOT has not made a decision on the guidelines for the R4-11 sign. But it does not necessarily mean that MDOT has decided to actually use the sign, because the guidelines that states are allowed to issue under the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices include the option of not using the sign or substantially changing it.

Last week I spoke with several officials with SHA and MDOT Headquarters. There is clearly a difference of opinion within these state agencies. MDOT’s Director for Bicycle and Pedestrian Affairs is a champion of the sign. SHA’s Office of Traffic and Safety—which usually decides such matters—originally rejected the sign and continues to oppose it. At about the same time that the MDOT letter was being sent, SHA officials reiterated that they had rejected the R4-11 sign as approved by the US Department of Transportation, though they are open to an alternative way to accomplish the same objective.

Usually, when there is an internal disagreement, MDOT defers to the judgment of its Office of Traffic and Safety. But in this case, the 625 emails that you sent have elevated the issue to senior management.  There is a reasonable chance that the decision will be made on its own merits, rather than as a matter of deference to the office that originally rejected the sign.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince Georges County)

That’s safe cycling, not arrogance, says MDOT

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.

In this year’s widely circulated letter, a driver 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

Often 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 1970-77. 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 unless the law is publicized, people tend to assume that the law is the same in Maryland as the state whence they came. Finally, the mandatory side path law fits neatly into a conceptual model shared by 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. 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.

Throughout Maryland, the state and local highway departments have installed more than one thousand signs that say “[bicycle symbol] Share the Road.”   Clearly, many drivers believe that these signs are a directive to cyclists to share the road with automobiles by moving to the extreme right.  In fact, the signs are a warning to drivers that bicyclists are sharing the road.

But the main problem is that most drivers do not know what it means to share a narrow road.   A key principal of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is that road signs should have a clear meaning, but it seems that to many, “Share the Road” signs do not have a clear meaning.   Given this lack of clarity most “Share the Road” signs on roads without shoulders should be replaced with the new (R4-11) signs that say “Bicycles may use full lane.”  No ambiguity there.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Maryland)

General Assembly Passes Negligent Homicide Bill

Yesterday both houses of the Maryland General Assembly approved the amended House Bill 363, which creates a new crime of negligent homicide by vehicle or vessel. Passage of this bill culminates a 7-year effort led by Delegate Luiz Simmons (D-Rockville) and the families of victims killed by negligent drivers.

Under the existing law, drivers who kill have only been convicted of vehicular manslaughter if they were drunk, drag-racing, or clearly knew that their driving might kill someone. If the bill becomes law, a driver who should know that her driving could kill can be prosecuted for negligent homicide, with a maximum term of three years. The Governor has indicated that he will sign the bill.

We attribute the success this year primarily to the perseverence of Delegate Simmons and several people who dedicated themselves to ensuring that something good came out of the trajedy that befell them. We won’t try to name them all, but Adiva Sotzsky deserves credit for engaging the bicycle community. She and Ed Kohls simply would not give up.  Keniss Henry’s involvement added an extra degree of urgency to the matter within Prince Georges County after the death of her daughter Natasha Pettigrew, which is still under investigation. We also credit Senator Brian Frosh (D-Bethesda) for sharing his skepticism in a transparent fashion, which enabled proponents to address his concerns before the hearing in his committee.  Realistically, there would not have been time to address them after the hearing.  Bike Maryland and AAA have supported the effort for several years, prior to many Washington-area cyclists’ full engagement.

But with all of their great work, this bill still would not have passed this year had you, our members and supporters, not stepped forward. As always, you sent emails. But this time you also called your Senators—more than once in many cases. You asked your friends to call the key Senators—and they did. You handed flyers to people in public places and spoke with them about the importance of contacting their Senators. And they did. And the Senators got the message.  They spent enough time to learn enough to be confident in supporting this bill that arrived so late in the session. That is no small accomplishment because a responsible legislator does not create a new type of homicide lightly.

We can have no illusions that, by itself, making negligent homicide a crime will make our roads safe. Many forms of bad driving remain legal, many forms of illegal driving go unenforced, and many drivers are undeterred by enforcement. The subtext that enforcement is worse than the crime will continue in some places. But Maryland has removed the most offensive blemish of all from its transportation legal system—the idea that killing a human being has no legal consequence. Now it will.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince Georges County)