Support Protected Bike Lanes on Old Georgetown Road

This past Monday, October 17, 2022,  the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration announced a plan to install 2 miles of protected bike lanes on Old Georgetown Road (MD 187) in North Bethesda between West Cedar Lane and Nicholson Road and narrow driving lanes as part of a regular repaving project. This action is a direct response to mounting calls to redesign this dangerous corridor for bicyclist and pedestrian safety after two tragic crashes killed two young people riding their bikes on the narrow, unmaintained sidewalks.

While not perfect, this is the right plan for immediate SHA action, which claims space for vulnerable people and creates opportunities for short-term improvement. This plan needs vocal support to move ahead. Use the form below to show the project team that you support the project, urge SHA leadership to take bold moves to prioritize people biking and walking here and across the County, and thank Delegate Marc Korman and County Councilmember Andrew Friedson for their work pushing for the new protected bike lanes.  See the Oct 17 press release here.

Old Georgetown Road has long been a high speed, overbuilt state highway that has solely prioritized the fast movement of cars through this corridor connecting North Bethesda and downtown Bethesda.  Meanwhile, vulnerable road users who walk and bike along this road have been subject to extremely dangerous conditions.  In fact, in the past three years, two teenagers have died bicycling in the corridor, using the narrow unbuffered sidewalks that usually have obstacles on them that resulted in knocking both Jacob Cassell in 2019 and Enzo Alvarenga this past Spring into the road and into collisions with oncoming high speed car traffic.  Both young men died merely because they were using their bikes to get around.

The community responded strongly after both fatal crashes, organizing a ride with dozens of cyclists to do a Montgomery County Families for Safe Streets ghost bike memorial for Jacob Cassell, and by attending an SHA led walk-through of the road on September 9th.  WABA drafted a letter to MDOT SHA calling for protected bike lanes and other safer streets measures, getting other advocacy organizations to sign the letter sent to SHA in September 2022.  Crucially, MD State Delegate Marc Korman and County Councilmember Andrew Friedson met frequently with SHA District 3 employees since Spring of 2022, urging SHA to make substantive changes to make Old Georgetown Road safer for everyone using the road.

On September 29, SHA convened a public meeting to announce that as part of its repaving project, they would put in protected bike lanes on a large portion of the MD-187 corridor, that will provide safe walking and biking from NIH to North Bethesda. See the full presentation here.

Rendering of Old Georgetown protected bike lanes

The plan announced on October 17th is a good start, but is just the start. Let’s thank MDOT SHA for moving forward with this plan and thank Delegate Korman and Councilmember Friedson for fighting for improvements to Old Georgetown Road.  At the same time, we shold urge MDOT SHA to extend the protected bike lanes all the way to MD-410 and downtown Bethesda, while also lowering the speed limit from 35 mph to 30 mph, and providing safe crossings every .2 miles.

Map of proposed new protected bike lanes in Purple. Existing protected bike lanes in Green. Future bike lanes in Blue.

Old Georgetown Rd (MD-187) Safety Plan Community Meeting

In the past three years, two teenagers riding their bikes on sidewalks along MD-187, Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda have died in car crashes.  On Thursday, September 29, join us at a public meeting to hear what SHA plans to do about it and demand serious action for safe streets.

Join the Virtual Meeting
Join on Microsoft Teams
Or to join by phone, dial 667-262-2962 and use Phone Conference ID: 428 543 045#

Maryland State Highway Administration has taken minor actions in the wake of each death (a buffered bike lane in 2020, placing flex posts on those bike lanes, and doing walk-throughs with elected officials).  But no major remake of this very busy state highway have been made.  Drivers still speed alongside narrow sidewalks that have no buffer from cars going in excess of 40 mph, making biking and walking on those sidewalks hazardous and sometimes deadly.

We need to show SHA that the community is appalled at their lack of action and to demand that MD-187 be transformed into a road that all users, especially those who are not in automobiles, can safely use.  Please come to the meeting and insist that SHA move quickly on building continuous protected bike lanes, comfortable buffered sidewalks, and safe crossings on Old Georgetown Road.

See the event flyer here.

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

See Plans for Bethesda’s New Sidewalk Next Wednesday

The Maryland State Highway Administration is moving forward with a new sidewalk and crosswalk proposal for Wisconsin Avenue’s “green mile.” This is the partially sidewalk-less, crosswalk-less road that connects Bethesda to Friendship Heights, where bicyclist and pedestrian safety has been an issue for years due to lack of decent infrastructure. Many spoke up in support of this project at a meeting about a year ago, and now you have the chance to see the results of that action. On Wed., Feb. 19, the SHA will be presenting its final project plans and construction schedule for Wisconsin Avenue. Attend to learn about the timeline and thank the SHA for accommodating bikes and pedestrians. Meeting Details Wed., Feb. 19, 7:00 p.m. Chevy Chase Village Hall 5906 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815 Google Bike Directions As a refresher, SHA’s plans call for the installation of a $1.2 million six-foot-wide sidewalk along 0.7 miles of the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, which borders the golf course at Chevy Chase Club. Despite there being three bus stops between Grafton Street and Bradley Lane, there is currently no sidewalk along this stretch of the road. It is a hazard for anyone with limited mobility, and unpleasant for all pedestrians hoping to walk this section of the busy, six-lane Wisconsin Ave. The new sidewalk will address these concerns and provide a respite for less confident bicyclists who do not feel safe commuting on the street. Read the coverage from the Bethesda Now blog in 2013.  SHA’s plans also include several crosswalks, equipped with pedestrian-activated flashing lights over the road, to be built across Wisconsin Ave. to further improve biking and pedestrian safety. A summary of this specific piece of the project can be seen here. Thank you to everyone who has spoken up in support of this issue over the years. Any additional relevant information about the meeting will be posted here. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is the leading voice for bicycling in the region. WABA members and supporters enable us to advocate for better conditions for bicycling. Join today or make a tax-deductible donation to ensure that we can continue to represent you.