On the last Saturday of 2014, driver Heather Cook struck and killed cyclist Tom Palermo with her car in Baltimore. Police have filed charges against Cook, but Tom’s killing highlights the need for protected bike lanes on roads that are designed for high speeds.
Roland Avenue, the site of the wreck, is a four-lane divided road with narrow, unprotected bike lanes that run alongside cars. This stretch has wide traffic lanes and few crosswalks or traffic calming features. The road’s design gives cues to drivers that highway-like speeds and frequent passing are OK. While the charges against Cook allege that she was distracted and impaired, it is also clear that her speed, along with a road design that puts slower-moving bikes close to fast car traffic, were key factors in the crash.
Roland Avenue is a case study in how a road’s design may affect driving attitudes
Roland Avenue shows us that a narrow, unprotected bike lane does not work on a street designed for high traffic speeds. Though Roland Avenue is shade-covered and mostly residential, the road’s design tells drivers that it’s more like a high-speed through road than a calm neighborhood street.
Roland Avenue combines wide travel lanes that “forgive” swerves and weaves with a bike lane that has no physical barriers between cars and bikes. The bike lane itself is effectively narrowed because it lies mostly in the left-hand door zone of a parking lane at the curb. There aren’t many well-marked crosswalks, and the long distances between traffic lights let drivers build up speed. Despite the poor pavement quality, we wouldn’t be surprised if average or at least common car speeds on that stretch were well above 40 mph, regardless of the speed limit posted.
Route 1 in College Park is an opportunity to get it right
A few months ago, we co-authored a post on how the State Highway Administration is developing Route 1 in College Park for cyclists and pedestrians, but the specific infrastructure it has in mind is still unsafe. With tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff traveling up and down the Route 1 corridor every day to go to the University of Maryland, a bike lane here will both accommodate current need and help bring down the number of cars on the road.
For the bike lane is going to be safe, though, it needs to be separated or protected from errant traffic. And unfortunately, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has put forth plans for Route 1 that have dangerous bike lanes similar to those on Roland Avenue.
There’s no parking lane along Route 1 in College Park, meaning the minimum protection for bike lanes should be flexposts and six-inch parking stops like those along the 1st Street NE bikeway in DC. Alternatively, the Route 1 bike lanes could go on the sidewalk side of the curb, which you can see in the illustration below. An even more creative solution would be to design a two-way bike path in the median, similar to DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue design, or on the west side of Route 1 (which has fewer driveways).
So far, College Park city officials, University of Maryland officials, and local bike advocates have been unable to persuade SHA that narrow, unprotected bike lanes are an unsafe choice for Route 1. In fact, SHA has said that their internal guidelines restrict them from putting protected bike lanes behind the curb, and the agency is unwilling to use “vertical” protection measures for bike lanes, like flexposts.
The 1st Street NE protected bikeway in Washington DC uses flexposts and parking stops. Photo by the author.
Commercial and neighborhood streets should be safe and useful for everyone, not just drivers. It’s time to design multi-lane roads to reduce the risk of a distracted or drunk driver weaving across the bike lane stripe and running cyclists over.
Tom Palermo might still be alive had bicycle safety been a priority when building Roland Avenue. If the SHA rebuilds Route 1 using a similarly poor design, the results could be similarly tragic.