The new draft of the Montgomery County Bicycle Master Plan is about to go before the County Council. Please let the Council know you support the plan and tell them how it can be improved. Express your support at the hearing or in writing by July 10th. The draft plan is an excellent template for the future, representing a paradigm shift towards “low stress” bikeways like protected bike lanes (cycle tracks), shared use paths, and bicycle boulevards. The proposed network of low stress bikeways will attract more people who want to bike but are afraid of riding too close to cars. This will increase the number of people out there on bikes.
BUT WHERE ARE THE SHOULDERS?
It’s an excellent plan. We should all support it.
But it does have a few issues that should be addressed by the County Council.
Notably, the plan omits a great many bikeable shoulders and conventional bike lanes that are used by cyclists in the county today. The plan ascribes too little value to these so-called “striped bikeways” on busy roads, because it does not consider them to be low stress (they’re called “striped bikeways” because a real or implied stripe rather than a physical barrier separates bikes from cars). In a sense, the plan marginalizes confident cyclists who want both safety and efficiency – the “power users” of the bike network – who are often best served by striped bikeways. In most cases the plan doesn’t call for existing shoulders to be retained – even when it’s feasible to retain them AND provide a low stress option.
Many experienced cyclists rely on shoulders (and conventional bike lanes) because they provide some separation from busy traffic, but are often faster and more convenient than protected bikeways and sidepaths. They allow riders to maintain continuously higher speeds, maintain right-of-way at intersections, and ride where they’re more likely to be seen. Protected bike lanes, on the other hand, can make it harder to exit and re-enter the bikeway, which cyclists may want to do to get around pedestrians and obstacles, make quick left turns, avoid right-hooks at intersections, or avoid cars with their noses sticking out, among other reasons. When placed behind parked cars, protected bike lanes invite pedestrian conflicts and reduce visibility, making it dangerous to ride too fast. Yet they still expose cyclists to traffic at intersections. Sidepaths are even more problematic at intersections, and most importantly, they must be shared with pedestrians. Path cyclists must keep speeds down and always be concerned at side street and driveway crossings.
County planners point out that the plan doesn’t explicitly call for the removal of existing shoulders or conventional bike lanes, but the plan obviously intends to remove these bikeways on a vast number of roads, and planners aren’t willing to provide assurances for other roads. Where these facilities aren’t explicitly called for by the plan, they are at risk of being removed or narrowed (intentionally or inadvertently) the next time the street is modified or resurfaced. This can happen when:
- travel lanes are added
- intersections are upgraded
- the road is rebuilt during redevelopment
- traffic-calming curb extensions or median islands are built
- curb and gutter are added
- the shoulder is blocked with bus pads or drainage
- lines are repainted without consideration for bikes
Not specifying existing shoulders in the plan also makes it less likely they’ll be improved (by filling in short gaps, for example).
THE SOLUTION: PROVIDE BOTH
It’s still very important to provide low stress bikeways. So the solution, wherever shoulders have value, is to provide both shoulders (or conventional bike lanes) AND a low stress bike facility along the same road. The low stress element would likely be a sidepath or a two-way protected bike lane on one side. In some cases the shoulders may allow parking.
This “dual bikeway” treatment isn’t needed (or even possible) on every street. But it’s generally appropriate for roads which meet these criteria:
- Already has shoulders or conventional bike lanes
- Not located in dense areas
- Frequently used by bicyclists today
Dawson Farm Rd is an example of a dual bikeway, having both conventional bike lanes and a sidepath:
The Planning Department’s primary objection to dual bikeways is that providing shoulders or conventional bike lanes could make it more difficult to implement the low stress bike accommodation. But I’m recommending dual bikeways where they’re likely to be feasible. For some other roads I’m asking for what I call a “qualified dual bikeway”, meaning that if both bikeway types can’t be feasibly implemented, then just provide the low stress bikeway. This idea was rejected by planners, who seem afraid that any mention of the striped bikeway option could lead implementers to choose that and only that. The resistance to dual bikeways seems rooted in distrust of DOT — a belief that DOT will disregard the plan and use the dual designation as an excuse not to build the low stress component. My response is that I don’t trust DOT to do what’s NOT in the plan — because, after all, it’s not in the plan.
The Bicycle Plan notes that bikeable shoulders or conventional bike lanes “can” be provided as long as they do not substantially detract from the accompanying recommended low stress bikeway. I’ll work to make sure this becomes the policy of Montgomery County DOT and Maryland SHA. But it’s a weak guarantee. The plan should still stipulate these elements road by road, so it’s clear to everyone from DPS supervisors to DOT engineers to the next round of planners that these facilities are worth providing. I don’t see how this could be interpreted as a green light to ignore the plan’s low stress mandate, repeated over and over in the document.
Below are my recommendations of what needs to be added to the plan.
First Priority – Essential shoulders and conventional bike lanes
Here’s a prioritized list of the high priority roads where shoulders or conventional bike lanes should be explicitly specified in the plan in addition to a low stress bikeway. All of these roads have shoulders or conventional bike lanes already. (I’ve omitted roads where the Bicycle Plan already recommends shoulders or conventional bike lanes).
- Tuckerman Lane (Old Georgetown Road to Falls Road) – A vital and popular route for road cyclists. Planners propose to replace the shoulders with protected bike lanes, when the best option is to add a sidepath and keep the existing shoulders. DOT is already designing improvements.
- MD 28 (Darnestown Rd/Key West Ave) (Seneca Rd and Shady Grove Rd) – Plan would remove shoulders from two segments – here and here – or about 3 out of 6 miles. This rare road route to Darnestown already has both shoulders and a sidepath. Planners want to eliminate the shoulders to widen the grass buffer, which would not actually increase the distance between the path and cars.
- Briggs Chaney Road/Norwood Rd (Automobile Blvd to Layhill Rd) – An important road biking route connecting the Rt. 29 corridor to the Olney area. It includes a short segment of New Hampshire Ave. Shoulders may need a few improvements.
- Knowles Ave (MD 547) (Beach Dr to Summit Ave) – This connects to the very popular Beach Drive and also forms part of a signed bike route from North Bethesda to Wheaton. At least provide a shoulder going uphill (a climbing lane).
- Kemp Mill Rd (Arcola Ave to Randolph Rd) – DOT specifically striped this as a shoulder bikeway and there appears to be room to add a path as well.
- Bells Mill Rd (Gainsborough Rd to Falls Rd) – These bikeable shoulders are needed to fill in for the Democracy Blvd shoulders that would be difficult to improve.
- Ridge Rd (MD 27) (Brink Road to Damascus High School) – Good shoulders with pocket bike lanes already exist for a significant length of this segment, and there appears to be room both this and a path.
- Dufief Mill Rd (Travilah Rd to Darnestown Rd) – Currently has bike lanes and it and links to MD 28.
- Gainsborough Rd (Seven Locks Rd to Bells Mill Rd) – Currently has unmarked shoulders shared with parking
Second Priority – Keep shoulders if possible (“qualified dual bikeways”)
This list specifies roads where both the existing shoulders and a low stress bikeway should be planned, but with a note saying that if both don’t fit, at least provide the low stress bikeway. I call these “qualified dual bikeways”. If the plan doesn’t specify the shoulders, DOT may needlessly remove them. In priority order they are:
- Fairland Rd (Old Columbia Pike to East Randolph Rd) – Has fast shoulders that get frequent use, but space may be tight.
- Plyers Mill Rd (Lexington St to Amherst Ave) – This is part of a signed cross-county road route (along with Dennis Ave, Tuckerman Lane and Knowles Ave). Protected bike lanes may work where shoulders aren’t adequate.
- Grosvenor Lane (Cheshire Dr to Rockville Pike)
- Massachusetts Ave (MD 396) (Goldsboro Rd to Sangamore St) – Good shoulders but space is tight; at least provide path and uphill shoulder (climbing lane).
- Montrose Rd (Seven Locks Rd to Falls Rd) – Already has shoulders, needs a path.
- River Rd (MD 190) (Ridgefield Rd to Norwood School main entrance) – This already has bikeable shoulders, with the portion east of I-495 marked as bike lanes. It would benefit from better striping near I-495.
Roads that are no-brainers
The following roads already have both conventional bike lanes and a shared use path that fit together comfortably. It’s unlikely that either bikeway would be removed, especially on the state roads, but it’s safer to recognize them in the plan:
- Woodfield Rd (MD 124) (Lindbergh Dr north intersection to East Village Ave) — State road.
- Clarksburg Rd/Stringtown Rd (roughly Dowitcher Way to Frederick Rd) — Partially a state road.
- Cherry Hill Rd/East Randolph Rd (Prosperity Drive to Old Columbia Pike) – County road.
- Richter Farm Rd (Great Seneca Hwy to Germantown Rd) — County road.
- Dawson Farm Rd (Great Seneca Hwy to Germantown Rd) — County road.
Roads that need more than a sidepath
For the following roads, shoulders exist and only a shared use path is recommended in the plan. Either keep the shoulders (and fix pinch points) or provide protected bike lanes, but above all, a path should not be the only bike facility.
- Dennis Ave (Georgia Ave to Sligo Creek Parkway) – Same comment as Plyers Mill Rd.
- Robey Rd (Briggs Chaney Rd to Greencastle Rd) – Has very wide lanes.
- Old Columbia Pike/Prosperity Dr (Industrial Pkwy to Cherry Hill Rd) – Has very wide lanes.
Plyers Mill Road:
Long upcounty state roads…
Some segments of the following state roads have existing shoulders or wide lanes that could be narrowed to make room for shoulders. But each road is long and complex. It’s late in this planning process to be studying each one. Therefore advocates may want to work with SHA, which has a good record of providing shoulders or bike lanes where they fit, regardless of county master plans. The general segments are:
- New Hampshire Ave (MD 650) (East Randolph Rd to MD 108) – Has some long segments with shoulders
- Georgia Ave (MD 97) (Norbeck Rd to Olney) – Has wide lanes
- Frederick Ave (MD 355) (Little Seneca Pkwy to Clarksburg Rd) – Has intermittent shoulders
Wide lanes on Georgia Avenue:
A special case: Little Falls Parkway
- Little Falls Parkway south of the Capital Crescent Trail crossing has existing shoulders but isn’t planned as any kind of bikeway in the Bicycle Plan (because the CCT is parallel, more or less). The plan should just recommend what’s already there (shoulders) but remain flexible.
- Little Falls Parkway north of the Capital Crescent Trail crossing is likely to be reconfigured due to the crossing fatality. The bike facility should include a shoulder on the northbound side. The temporary southbound configuration is a sidepath transitioning to a de facto two-way protected bike lane, which seems to work given the unique layout. But the trail intersection is being redesigned, so the Bicycle Plan should be flexible.
Little Falls Parkway:
Shoulders that ARE in the Bicycle Plan
Fortunately the plan recommends shoulders or conventional bike lanes on several roads. Here they are, excluding roads in rural areas (sorry if I’ve missed any):
- Bradley Blvd (MD 191) (Persimmon Tree Rd to Fairfax Rd) – Bike lanes and path
- Calverton Blvd (Gracefield Rd to P.G. County line) – Bike lanes
- Carroll Ave (University to Long Branch Pkwy, Flower Ave to Tulip Ave) – Bike lanes
- Democracy Blvd (Seven Locks Rd to Falls Rd) – Bike lanes and path
- Homecrest Rd (Longmead Crossing Dr to Bel Pre Rd) – Bike lanes
- Gateshead Manor Way/Aston Manor Dr/Sheffield Manor Dr (Briggs Chaney Rd to Shady Knoll Dr) – Buffered bike lanes
- Goshen Rd (Lochaven Dr to Odendhal Rd) – Bike lanes and path
- Greencastle Rd (Old Columbia Pike to Greencastle Ridge Terrace) – Bike lanes and path
- Jones Mill Rd (Jones Bridge Rd to East-West Hwy) – Shoulders
- Layhill Rd (MD 182) (Glenallen Dr to the ICC) – Bike lanes and path
- MacArthur Blvd (Falls Rd to D.C. line) – Shoulders and path (ongoing project)
- Midcounty Hwy (Shady Grove Rd to Montgomery Village Ave) – Shoulders and path
- Muncaster Mill Rd (MD 115) (Norbeck Rd to Muncaster Rd) – Shoulders and path (where they don’t already exist, shoulders will be difficult to add)
- Norbeck Rd/Spencerville Rd (MD 28/198) (Layhill Rd to Old Columbia Pike) – Shoulders and path (shoulders and two paths, one on each side of the street, west of New Hampshire Ave)
- Old Columbia Pike (Tolson Place to Tech Rd)
- Redland Rd (Muncaster Mill Rd to Needwood Rd) – Path plus shoulders that would very difficult to add
- Riffleford Rd (MD 28 to MD 118) – Shoulders
- Second Ave (Seminary Rd to 16th St) – Bike lanes
- Seminary Rd (Forest Glen Rd to Second Ave) – Bike lanes
- Seven Locks Rd (city of Rockville to Bradley Blvd, I-495 to MacArthur Blvd) – Shoulders and path
- Stewart Lane (Old Columbia Pike to Lockwood Dr) – Bike lanes
- Westlake Drive (Tuckerman Lane to Democracy Blvd) – Shoulders and path
- Wexhall Rd/Ballinger Dr (Greencastle Rd to Robey Rd) – Buffered bike lanes
In rural areas, the plan proposes bikeable shoulders on several more roads. It does this almost casually, covering many roads where there’s little hope of adding shoulders, like Seneca Rd or rural Clarksburg Rd. Rural Montgomery County can be a conundrum for road cyclists who don’t want to “take the lane” on fast roads – full of missing links and few comfortable ways to get there by bike. At least the plan calls for retention of what shoulders already exist in rural areas.
A parting thought
Sometimes I feel as if there’s a defensive posture in bike planning circles due to resistance planners must have received from avid cyclists when protected bike lanes were first proposed — resistance based on the notion that cycling is easier and safer when you’re not trapped along the edge of the road, possibly going in the wrong direction. Years of being told to “get on the bike path” can make bikers grumpy, and then to hear it from bike planners, well, that couldn’t have gone over well. Defensiveness can lead to fear of any messages that could be construed as distracting or mixed — messages like shoulders have value or dual bikeways are a good option. In the new draft Bicycle Plan, neither the objectives, metrics nor road-by-road recommendations pay much heed to the value of facilities that aren’t defined as low stress. But I shouldn’t be too critical. The plan authors did add a nice statement in the plan that truly acknowledges the value of shoulders (a statement I submitted by the way), which I appreciate. But I’m concerned that this plan (and almost every plan I’ve seen touting protected bike lanes) characterizes research data in a way that dramatically understates the percentage of likely cyclists who are confident riding in shoulders. That’s a sign that people might be trying just a little too hard to push for their favorite facility type. But then, we’re all zealous from time to time or we wouldn’t be good bike advocates!