Jan 182014

County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer have introduced a council bill to change county road standards in urban areas to better serve pedestrians and bicyclists.  Bill 33-13 seeks to 1) reduce car speeds, thereby making pedestrians and bicyclists safer, 2) stipulate certain road features to improve pedestrian safety and access, especially at crosswalks, and 3) better accommodate new technology including bike sharing.  Roger Berliner briefly summarizes the bill here.

Whenever roads are rebuilt or in some cases resurfaced, engineers can choose from a toolkit of improvements designed to make urban areas safer for biking and walking.  The tools include everything from curb extensions (aka bulbouts or neckdowns) that make crosswalks shorter to HAWK beacons that blink when a pedestrian wishes to cross the street.  One of the most effective things designers can do to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety is simply slow cars down.  One way to do this is by reducing the speed that drivers perceive is a safe maximum driving speed, using techniques such as narrowing lanes, making turns sharper, and reducing side banking on curves.  The “design speed” of a road refers to the speed it’s designed to accommodate, which is closely related to the speed drivers believe is safe.  County standards stipulate a target speed for each roadway type, indicating the prevailing car speed designers seek to achieve by adjusting the design speed and using other techniques.

With that in mind, Bill 33-13 was introduced to modify the county’s road standards governing urban streets as follows:

  • Reduce the widths prescribed by the standards for travel lanes, turning lanes, and parking lanes
  • Reduce the “target speeds” specified in the standards for various urban street types
  • Limit the size of curb radii in urban areas (i.e. make turns sharper)
  • Require curb extensions (aka bulbouts or neckdowns) at the end of parking lanes.
  • Require 6′ wide pedestrian refuges in the median of 6-lane divided roads at intersections
  • Require construction of curb ramps, curb cuts and sewer grates that are not hazards to bicyclists or wheelchair users and meet ADA standards
  • Require designs that facilitate future accommodation of technology such as bike sharing, car-sharing, electric car charging, intelligent signals, smart meters and way-finding systems
  • Permit the County Executive to contract with developers to share the cost of such technology

The Road Code

Montgomery County road standards are codified in a set of regulations commonly referred to as the “Road Code”.  To view the regulations, go to Chapter 49 of COMCOR here or open them in PDF form.  Chief among the Road Code’s stipulations are rules governing roadway target speeds, dimensions of various street elements (such as travel lanes, bike lanes,  shoulders, medians, sidewalks and tree panels), and stormwater management.   In 2008 these standards were substantially updated to make them more specific to their surroundings (context sensitive) and generally more accommodating of walking and bicycling than the old standards.  I served as the bicyclist representative on the Road Code Work Group, a task force of stakeholders tasked with coming up with new Road Code standards.

Designers and engineers do not have to blindly follow the Road Code.  Engineers can seek exceptions to the standards.  Planners have wide discretion to follow, extend, or deviate from the standards (the Planning Department has its own policies and interpretations) but the Road Code carries great weight and serves as default rules.  In any case all designs must be approved by the relevant bodies or officials (Planning Board, County Council and/or County Executive).

One of the guiding national manuals on context sensitive design is Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach sponsored by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  This guide helped inspire some of the Road Code changes.

Travel Lane Width

The bill calls for travel lanes (not bike lanes) on some urban roadway types to be considerably narrower than what’s specified in the Road Code today.  The bill calls for the outside curb lane (the rightmost travel lane if it’s against the curb) on all urban streets to be 11′ wide including the gutter, and for other travel lanes to be 10′ wide including any left-side gutter.  Compare that to the templates in today’s Road Code which call for outside curb lanes in urban areas to be as wide as 14′ and inside lanes as wide as 12.5′ (and never less than 11′) depending on context.  Reducing lane widths in the Road Code could free up more space for bike lanes and other street elements as well as lead drivers to slow down.

Target Speed

The county designs its streets with a particular vehicular speed in mind, referred to as the target speed.   Target speeds for various contexts are officially specified in the Road Code. On all but the smallest streets (where target speeds are already 25 mph or less) and freeways, the bill would reduce target speeds on county roads in urban areas to a flat 25 mph.  Target speeds in urban areas in today’s Road Code are: 30-40 mph for Parkways, 25-40 for Major Highways, 25-35 for Arterials, 25-30 for Minor Arterials and Business District Streets and 25-35 for Industrial Streets, as specified on PDF page 24 in the text portion of the Road Code.

Bicycling Implications

MoBike and WABA are in the process of weighing in on the bill.  Certainly we welcome any reduction to automobile speed on county streets.  Allowing narrower lanes leaves more room for bike accommodations.  I thank councilmembers Berliner and Riemer for paying attention to pedestrian safety.  As a bike advocate and a parent and a fellow vulnerable road user (and indeed often a pedestrian myself), I feel cyclists have to stick up for pedestrian safety.

But there is a possibility here of unintended consequences, because making some roadway features larger can take away space utilized by cyclists.  Preliminarily, here are some concerns:

1. Most of the bill appears to modify only county laws (County Code), not regulations.  The Road Code is specified as a set of regulations. Thus the requirements added by the bill could possibly supercede the Road Code, in practice if not in theory.  If the bill simply directs the county to adopt new regulations then this is not such a concern.  It’s important to understand that the Road Code attempts to balance different uses of limited roadway right-of-way.  Not all street elements of desired width can fit on every road, and the Road Code suggests ways to balance the elements with one another, whether it’s sidewalks, bike lanes, tree panels or medians.  Would the bill upset the balance by putting the new standards into the County Code rather than regulations?  This needs to be addressed.  The County Code and regulations (COMCOR) can both be viewed online.

2. The amendment stipulates a curb extension at the end of every parking lane.  However, extensions can cause problems for bicyclists, who often ride in the parking lane to stay out of the flow of car traffic.  It would be better to recommend the extensions on a case by case basis based on context.  The new standard should mention curb extension designs that are more bike-friendly.

3. Pedestrian refuges are important because they protect pedestrians crossing wide streets, but requiring by a 6′ refuge at every intersection could preclude other elements that may be more important in some contexts, possibly including bike lanes.

4. The existing Road Code also has some oversights that should be rectified either in this bill or a later one.  None of the four templates for Business Streets (aka Business District Streets) in the existing Road Code make any provision for bike lanes, yet these streets are very common in sector plans and are vital for bike connectivity.  The oversight tells planners and designers that bike lanes are not so important on these streets.  Getting bike lanes on Business Streets can require street-by-street advocacy by advocates rather than being widely planned as a matter of routine.  If bike lanes are to be on equal footing as other street elements in the allocation of limited space, they at least must be an option within the existing templates.

5. On some street types, the Road Code templates call for a combined bike lane + parking lane width that is less than 14′.  While there may be situations where this is necessary, the templates should specify 14′ as the default.  This is the minimum needed to provide adequate separation from car doors.

The bill is a step in the right direction.  It also sets the precedent of making modifications to the Road Code, which bodes well for fixing its bike-related problems.   It remains to be seen how all the stakeholders in the Road Code development process including MCDOT, MNCPPC, environmentalists, MCPS, the fire department, the police department and AAA will respond to the proposal and to the idea of making changes through legislation rather than consensus.

  4 Responses to “Changes proposed to county road standards to help pedestrians and bicyclists”

  1. I do not see this bill as bike friendly. It seems to be an excuse to narrow down lanes to fit more lanes in for cars as the county DOT seems to enjoy doing particularly at intersections. I can say that when riding on road with narrow curb lanes and being forced to take the lane, I don’t have a good feeling about it and I always happy to arrive the part of the road where the lanes widen to get adequate space between me and the cars. I often experience nasty aggressive car drivers who will scream and blow their horn and even pass in an unsafe manner because they see me as a time obstruction or I don’t pay taxes as some have claimed meaning I don’t pay the gas tax when I am using the road but not driving.

    I feel that the county is going back to the old days when they intentionally built new roads like Muncaster Mill as narrow so that traffic would slow down . In reality the drivers are even faster due to more powerful bigger cars that are capable of bursts of speed. If cars are traveling slower on narrow roads why there so many accidents on them?

    I am in favor of pedestrian safety when crossing at intersections but the county needs to provide safer ways to cross such as longer walking signals and not allowing turning traffic at the same time. I am a pedestrian also and I can’t help but notice when I cross the street I have to dodge right turning cars (encouraged by lanes that are separate from through lanes by a barrier) and hold my hand up to get their attention. Even more dangerous are left turning cars which are on auto pilot.

    I look on this bill with suspicion and do not think it will be good for bicycling in the future.

  2. Lynne, the desire for wider lanes comes from MCDOT actually. It’s the planners and smart growth advocates who want narrower lanes. Creating space to add more lanes is not a rationale behind the bill. As you suggest, their rationale is traffic calming. Not that this is a reason to eliminate cyclists from the roadway! One problem is MCDOT’s definition of a wide outside lane. The Road Code says 14′-14.5′ but DOT only ever asks for 14′. 14′ is something we could lobby for. But bike lanes are the best solution available within the Road Code, since then you often get 11′ + 5′ which is much better.

  3. Correction: 14.5′ (not 14′) is something we can lobby for, since the Road Code says 14′-14.5′ but they usually use 14′. We could suggest language like “14.5′ is strongly preferred where cyclists are likely users, but must be least 14′”, something like that. One of MCDOT’s stated rationales for 14′ is bike use, even though their true rationale is much more likely to be automobile throughput.

  4. I agree . I hope that the Council will consider our comments before they vote on this.

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