In 2014, the Maryland Department of Transportation developed an ambitious Twenty-Year Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The state's policies for building bicycle facilities on state roads are well-intentioned, but unfortunately the results often do not meet the needs of people who bike.
This master plan outlined the state’s goals to improve the experience of walking and bicycling in the state. Three of the goals are to:
- “Expand walking and bicycling networks, remove barriers, and enhance connections with transit and travel destination,”
- “Enhance pedestrian and bicycle safety to reduce injuries and fatalities and to make walking and biking comfortable and inviting,” and
- “Effectively balance the needs of all transportation users to promote travel choices, ensuring that bicyclist and pedestrian needs are prioritized in appropriate locations.”
These are laudable goals. Making walking and bicycling safe and comfortable is important for improving accessibility, encouraging walkability and bike-ability, and reducing traffic congestion.
However, while sharrows (shared lane markings) and bike signage could be considered bicycle “facilities,” they do not make bicycling comfortable and inviting, nor fully address the needs of cyclists. So how do these facilities get built?
The Maryland State Transportation Code, Section 2-602 states:
The General Assembly finds that it is in the public interest for the State to include enhanced transportation facilities for pedestrians and bicycle riders as an essential component of the State’s transportation system, and declares that it is the policy of the State that:
(1) Access to and use of transportation facilities by pedestrian and bicycle riders shall be considered and best engineering practices regarding the needs of bicycle riders and pedestrians shall be employed in all phases of transportation planning, including highway design, construction, reconstruction, and repair as well as expansion and improvement of other transportation facilities;
This essentially means that whenever the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), which is responsible for building and maintaining all state roads (but not the sidewalks), designs, builds, or rebuilds a road, they must take walking and bicycling into account. As a policy, this is beneficial and legitimizes walking and bicycle as modes of transportation.
In practice however, the SHA engineer will design the road to accommodate the necessary level of motor vehicle traffic and then consider the bicycle facilities that can fit on the roadway. All of the approved bikeway facilities are listed in the SHA Bicycle Policy & Design Guidelines, and include protected bikeways, traditional bicycle lanes, shared lane markings, and signage.
If a protected bikeway is feasible, it will be built. If not, a traditional bicycle lane will be considered, if that doesn’t work, a sharrow is considered, and so on. This means the bicycling facilities that are eventually built often reflect the space limitations of the roadway, and not those that would achieve the plan goals.
Best engineering practice ≠ best bike facility
In short, the legislation does not dictate a level-of-quality for bicycle facilities — the “best engineering practices regarding the needs of bicycle riders and pedestrians” does not always align with the actual needs of bicycle riders and pedestrians.
Even though a facility can technically fit on a roadway, it doesn’t mean it’s right for that road. Bike lanes without any separation, sharrows, and “Bikes may use full lane” signs are all included in the SHA Guidelines, meaning they are considered “best engineering practices,” but they certainly aren’t appropriate for a street where people drive 50 mph and they won’t achieve the state’s bicycle goals.
A narrow residential street where people drive 20 mph is more appropriate for things like sharrows. The bicycling facility needs to meet the context of the road it’s on.
Bicycle facilities need to be more than just considered
It’s easy to blame SHA for the sharrows and the signs that are placed on busy state roads, but they are only responsible for implementing a state policy that doesn’t have the nuance needed to achieve Maryland’s bicycling goals. A better policy would go beyond considering bike facilities that merely fit on the road to one that would require bicycle facilities that reflect the context of the road – roads with high speeds and lots of traffic should have facilities that separate people bicycling from motor vehicles; low speed and low traffic roads should have sharrows or signs.
Requiring bicycle facilities that reflect the context of the road will better serve the needs of people bicycling and in turn make bicycling more comfortable, inviting, and safe. This is something SHA already does for Maryland’s Scenic Byways. They call it, “Context Sensitive Solutions,” and SHA adapts the unique character of each road to encourage improvements within that road’s character and that of adjacent neighborhoods. The treatments for these scenic byways are published in “Context Sensitive Solutions for work on Maryland Byways.”
Effective transportation serves the needs of the user for all modes. We wouldn’t expect the state to build a dirt road for a freeway-level connection, and we shouldn’t accept a sign when a protected lane is needed. Building bicycle facilities that reflect the road and traffic condition is the first step to achieving a network that enhances connections, increases safety and comfort, and will balance the needs of all people.