Nov 302014

The Montgomery County Council just passed Bill 33-13 entitled Urban Road Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements. The bill makes modest changes to the county’s road design standards to make our streets better and safer places for bicyclists and pedestrians.  It does this primarily by calling for measures to reduce motor vehicle speeds.  County road standards are codified in laws and regulations known collectively as the Road Code. The enacted bill updates relevant portions of the Road Code, either by changing the law directly or directing the County Executive to modify relevant regulations.

Here’s the executive summary of the bill’s stipulations.

  • Through lanes and turn lanes on urban roads must be no wider than 10′ unless next to parking or a curb in which case they must be no wider than 11′
  • Parking lanes on urban roads must be no wider than 8′
  • Curb radii on urban roads must be no greater than 15′ with some exceptions
  • Target speed on urban roads must be no greater than 25 mph
  • 6′ wide pedestrian refuges must be provided at every intersection on all divided 6-lane roads
  • All roads must include “complete streets” features to promote safe use by all travel modes, and all roads must serve bicyclists without exception
  • Two new bikeway types are defined – segregated bike lane (cycle track) and buffered bike lane
  • Road Code language is made more inclusive of non-car modes
  • Various corrections and clean-ups made to Road Code language
  • Note: Many of the provisions may be overridden by the County Executive, County Council, and/or Planning Board for safety or other reasons

State roads are not affected by the standards.

Kudos go to Councilmember Hans Riemer and Councilmember Roger Berliner who sponsored the bill! They worked closely with stakeholders to craft it.

Stipulations of the passed bill are as follows.

Width requirements for urban streets

The bill specifies new requirements for urban roads, i.e. roads in one of the county’s designated urban areas. (All areas of the county are designated as urban, suburban or rural, and roadway standards vary accordingly). These requirements may be overridden by the county executive if he finds that public safety would be impacted. These requirements apply whenever an urban road is constructed or reconstructed. A simple resurfacing or restriping project would not have to follow them, but the requirements would still carry significant weight in that case.

  • Each through travel or turning lane on an urban road must be no wider than 10 feet, except that a single travel lane adjacent to a parking lane must be no wider than 11 feet and a through travel or turning lane abutting an outside curb must be no wider than 11 feet, including the gutter pan.

This means that a lane next to a bike lane would have to be 10 feet wide. Previously the standards called for 14′ curb lanes on some streets, ostensibly to accommodate bicycling among other needs. But 14′ was not adequate for safe bicycling (as cyclists noted when the original standards were adopted).

  • Each parking lane on an urban road must be no wider than 8 feet, including the gutter pan.

Note that 7′ parking lanes already appear throughout the county and are wide enough to accommodate most passenger vehicles.   So 8′ is certainly not a hardship.

  • The curb radius at the corner of each intersection of two urban roads must not exceed 15 feet except where there is only one receiving lane [or] a curb extension is located…”

Bikeway definitions

Significantly, the bill adds two new bikeway types to the definitions in the law – separated bike lane (cycle track) and buffered bike lane – to reflect the latest advances in bicycle accommodations:

  • “Separated bike lane, also known as a protected bike lane or cycle track: a bikeway that is physically separated from motor vehicles and pedestrian facilities.  The separation may be vertical, such as a curb; horizontal, such as a landscape panel or parking lane; or a combination.  A separated bike lane may be in a one-way or two-way configuration.
  • “Buffered bike lane: a bikeway separated from a motor vehicle travel lane with an area of striped pavement.

These definitions aren’t very robust compared to some existing definitions in the code.  For example, the type “bike lane” remains carefully defined as “a portion of a roadway designated by striping, signing, or pavement markings for the preferential or exclusive use of bicycles, and on which through-travel by motor vehicles is not allowed.”  The overarching term “bikeway” is still defined as “any area expressly intended for bicycle travel“.  But it now encompasses five types: shared use path, shared use roadway, bike lane, separated bike lane, and buffered bike lane.  Separated bike lane and buffered bike lane are not meant to be subtypes of bike lane.

Also, the bill updates the definition of shared use path, now saying that it’s “a paved path that is typically 10 feet wide but can vary between 8 feet and 14 feet wide, designated for bicyclists and pedestrians, that is separated from motorized traffic by a curb, barrier, or landscape panel“.  Before the law said it may be 8′-12′ wide (nothing about  10′).

The bill adds the definition of sidewalk, defining it as “a pedestrian walkway that fronts a road.”  (Per the county code, bikes are still permitted on sidewalks except where prohibited by local jurisdictions, e.g. Gaithersburg, Kensington).

Bikeway mandates

Existing county law states that “Bikeways and walkways must be constructed when any County road is constructed, reconstructed, or relocated“. The law previously listed exceptions to this, namely if the facility were determined by the Council or Planning Board to be less safe, not feasible or too expensive for the expected level of use. Bill 33-13 eliminates these exceptions, replacing them with a few limited exceptions that only apply to walkways.

The bill also adds this language to the law: “Each transportation project must incorporate complete streets infrastructure sufficient to promote safe and convenient travel along and across the right-of-way for all users.”  Be aware that “promote” does not mean “ensure”.

Complete Streets Definitions

The bill adds these two definitions:

  • Complete streets: streets that are planned, designed, and constructed to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities, commercial vehicles, freight haulers, and emergency service vehicles.
  • Complete streets infrastructure: any design feature that contributes to a safe, convenient and comfortable travel experience, which may include such features as…

The latter definition goes on to list every feature you could think of that benefits non-motorists, including several traffic calming devices. For bikes the list includes shared use paths, bike lanes, separated bike lanes, bike stations, bike storage facilities, and bicycle parking facilities.  The bill also calls for consideration of new technologies including bike sharing, etc.

Target Speed

The bill requires that the “target speed” for all urban roads be no higher than 25 mph (previously the law allowed for target speeds of 30, 35, 40 or even higher depending on road type). Target speed is defined as the intended maximum safe speed for motor vehicles given the surrounding land use and desired use by each travel mode, with an emphasis on making it a safe thoroughfare for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Target speed dictates design features like lane widths, curb radii, curb extensions, banking in turns, etc.  “Design speed” is the resulting safe maximum speed that’s actually achieved using these features, which if everything is done right should match the target speed.

Pedestrian refuge requirement

The following requirement for a pedestrian refuge island applies to any road in the county not designated as rustic or exceptional rustic.*

  • Every pedestrian refuge must be at least 6′ wide. A pedestrian refuge must be provided at each intersection on a divided highway with 6 or more through travel lanes.

This is the bill’s most detrimental aspect, adopted over bicyclists’ objections. The provision appears to prohibit median width reduction even if it would free up space for bike lanes or wider sidewalks at locations where pedestrians are unlikely to cross.  Our concern is that the provision does not allow for case-by-case judgement.

*Note: Rustic and exceptional rustic are official road designations applied to quaint old roads to keep them looking like quaint old roads, formally exempting them from usual safety standards.  MoBike defines rustic (or exceptional rustic) as scenic (or very scenic) roads that are terrifying to ride on wherever traffic volumes have been allowed to exceed anything ever intended for quaint old roads, i.e. everywhere in Potomac.  See Glen Road.

Curb Extensions Not Required

The initial bill required a curb extension at the end of every permanent parking lane except where a right-turn lane is designated, but that provision was scrapped. There was also talk of a provision mandating that curb extensions be designed to allow cyclists to pass around, over or through them, but that didn’t appear in the final bill either.

Missed Opportunity – Business District Streets

Unfortunately the bill does not modify the existing standards for so-called Business District Streets.  This was needed because the current Business District Street standard lacks any provision for bike lanes. The county can and does create business district streets with bike lanes, but only as a “modified” design, a custom configuration. Without bike lanes in the standard, planners and engineers may overlook the option of adding bike lanes or fail to recognize their importance on these streets, which are often the most useful streets for bicyclists.

Miscellaneous updates

The bill adds some rosy language to make the law more inclusive of non-car modes.  It makes various corrections or clarifications to existing law.

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