Jan 152014

Trail advocates have recently been pushing the county to study the idea of building hiker-biker trails in the rights-of-way of major Pepco power lines.  These strips of land can be ideal sites for trails because they are generally free of development and forest cover, consist of many miles of continuous straight segments, and cut directly from community to community to create excellent connections.

Montgomery County’s Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee  (PBTSAC) has commissioned a working group of public officials and stakeholders to explore the issue.  The PBTSAC may then make a recommendation to the County Executive and/or County Council.  The working group met with Pepco and presented its findings to the PBTSAC last week.

To sum it up, Pepco is very resistant to the idea.  The utility argues that it’s their land and cites everything from wanting to be good neighbors to fearing that people might light bonfires under their lines as reasons not to allow the trails.  In response to the well-supported argument that the extra eyes and ears of trail users would improve security in the corridors,  Pepco asserts that they already watch the lines.  Yet they claim that numerous security problems would arise despite their observation if trails were built, so clearly their observation has shortcomings and more eyes and ears would help.  It’s not unreasonable for Pepco to claim that they can do whatever they want with their own land, but as a utility they already have a mandate to use their resources to serve the public.  These resources include their power lines and the land under them.  If there’s a public benefit that can be gained through a second use of the land at virtually no expense or risk to the utility, Pepco should be required to allow this use.

John Wetmore of Perils for Pedestrians has compiled a gallery depicting trails under power lines that exist today around the country.

To elaborate on Pepco’s rationale against power line trails:

1. Safety.  Pepco says it’s safer not to have anyone near their high tension lines and that safety is their number one priority.  But we can point to a large number of trails along power lines that have not had any safety issues.

2. Private property.  Pepco does not even want us to use the term “right of way” because that might imply they only had an easement, whereas they own the land fee simple. They use the analogy that asking for a trail on their land is equivalent to asking for a neighborhood dog park in someone’s front yard.  Yet Pepco used condemnation powers (or the threat of condemnation) to take private property to assemble their utility corridors.  Shouldn’t the public get something back in return for allowing Pepco to condemn private property?  In any case, public use of these corridors should be considered part of Pepco’s mission to serve the public.

3. Liability.  Pepco feels they have the least liability when they post No Trespassing signs and forbid anyone to be on their land for any purpose.  But to address this concern, all 50 states have passed recreational use statutes.  Let’s ask Pepco what the shortcomings are in the Maryland recreational use statute that could be changed to address their liability concerns.

4. Good Neighbors.  Pepco says they have an obligation to their neighbors not to allow any activity on Pepco land that might disturb them.  Yet consider that many quality trails built in the county were initially opposed by immediate neighbors but embraced by communities they pass through.  If neighbor opposition always stopped trail construction, we’d have very few trails indeed.  Moreover, utility corridors are wide enough that the trails could be located considerable distance from rear lot lines.  The types of activities that tend to draw complaints, such as motorized ATVs, would remain illegal even with a trail there. 

Pepco does not talk at all about trails as a way to give back to the community  (“We’re connected to you by more than power lines” is Pepco’s registered trademark).  Allowing these trails could have a greater impact than all the other ways they give back to the community.

 Posted by at 9:04 am on Jan 15, 2014  Comments Off
Sep 232013

Montgomery County DOT is proposing to add bike lanes to Marinelli Road in North Bethesda.  The bike lanes would be added between Executive Blvd. and Rt. 355 and would be at least 5 feet wide.  Adding bike lanes would be accomplished by narrowing the existing travel lanes to as little as 10 feet (sometimes called a “lane diet”) as follows (click on photo to zoom):

MoBike requested this improvement after reviewing the White Flint Sector Plan, a template for the massive redevelopment occurring the White Flint sector.  The plan calls for far too few bike lanes on streets in the White Flint sector, including Marinelli Road.   Ironically it’s much easier to add bike lanes to an existing street in the sector than to a street that hasn’t been built yet, because for new streets the plan is very specific about pavement width, number of lanes, sidewalk features, etc.

It’s crucial to add these bike lanes now before redevelopment creates pressure to add or remove lanes or add parking or modify sidewalks in ways that could forever prevent bike lanes from being built.  The best window is right now, since the roadway is going to be resurfaced in the next few months.

The following diagrams show cross-sections and mock-up photos of the proposed changes.  Section “AA” (see satellite view) is relatively easy to restripe to include bike lanes while keeping the existing travel lanes:Google Maps shows the current section “AA” configuration:

View Larger Map

Kudos to DOT for their willingness to narrow the travel lanes to 10 feet.

But section “BB” is a challenge.  That’s because there isn’t enough room on the south side of the concrete median to provide two travel lanes and a bike lane.  DOT’s solution is to simply end the bike lane (with an “open” end) while the right-hand travel lane flows into the straight/right turn lane.  The straight/right turn lane would be 12′ wide.  DOT would paint sharrow symbols near the curb.

Unfortunately this forces cyclists to merge into right-hand lane traffic at the end of the bike lane or else get forced into the curb.  The cyclist has nowhere to go if he can’t merge in time.

If the DOT solution is adopted, the sharrows must be placed be in the center of the lane, not near the curb, because cyclists are safer taking the lane. (The sharrows may be accompanied by Bikes May Use Full Lane signs).  As far as lane width, a 12′ lane is too narrow to share side-by-side safely but too wide to make that fact obvious to drivers and cyclists alike.  A lane of that width leaves it unclear to some drivers whether they can pass a cyclist in the same lane, leading to driver anger when the cyclist takes the lane.  An 11′ lane is much less likely to have that problem, so DOT should make the right-hand lane 10′ or 11′ wide.  However, some cyclists prefer 12′ over 11′ (it is physically possible to share a 12′ lane with smaller vehicles).

It would be far better to remove the median which would allow the bike lane to continue all the way to the intersection.  According to DOT, removing the median would only cost on the order of $10K, though it would remove an unsanctioned pedestrian refuge. However, it’s unclear whether the bike lane could continue across the intersection.  If it absolutely cannot, removing the median is not an improvement.

Another solution is to change the travel lane configuration approaching the intersection with Rt. 355.  The new layout would have the left-hand lane of eastbound Marinelli flowing into the left turn lane, while cyclists and right-hand lane drivers would sort themselves into the two rightmost lanes  after the bike lane line ends.  Sorting could happen in a long stretch without lane lines (first graphic below), or the transition could be made more explicit (second graphic below or something similar).  Drivers would feel they have to merge into the flow of bicyclists, not the other way around.  It’s inferior to removing the median, but surprisingly it works on some other roads.

Possible Marinelli/355 intersection restriping - open mixing area

Possible Marinelli/355 intersection restriping - second option (rough idea)

This does however require drivers in the left lane to change lanes if they want to continue straight, something DOT will probably oppose.

Here’s the Google street view of the section BB (the reverse angle shows a better view).

View Larger Map

Whatever happens,  cyclists must tell DOT what they want soon, because the resurfacing project is scheduled to start in month or so.

 Posted by at 11:51 am on Sep 23, 2013  Comments Off
Sep 222013

The Montgomery County Parks Department is seeking public comments on  its new Rock Creek Trail Signage Plan and Trail Signage Design Manual.  Comments must be submitted to the Parks Dept. by September 30th.  The Rock Creek Trail Signage Plan identifies a comprehensive set of signs to be posted along the Rock Creek Trail.  The accompanying Trail Signage Design Manual will be used as a standard for future hard surface trail signage projects.   To submit comments or ask questions, contact Lucas Bonney, Project Manager, at Lucas.Bonney@MontgomeryParks.org or 301-495-2572.

According to the Parks Department, the effort is 50% complete, and…

Community comments on the proposed signage types are being solicited during the month of September 2013 in anticipation of briefing the Montgomery County Planning Board on the status of the project in October 2013.  New signage is planned to be installed along the Rock Creek Trail during late Fall 2013 / Winter 2014.

Question:  Do you prefer green signs or brown signs?  The Parks Department hasn’t decided yet (some diagrams show both).  Existing bike route signs along roads are green.

Not all signs are available for review yet, nor are the full documents.  When this goes before the Planning Board I will let them know that the community needs to be able to review all the material.  Just the images of the most important signs are available for review:

1. Trail gateway signs.  These are placed where users enter a particular trail.  The signs available for review at this time are:

2. Wayfinding signs – Indicate direction and mileages to important destinations.  If placed at intersections, they indicate destinations in each direction.  If placed between intersections, they indicate destinations ahead.

3. Trail warning signs – Alert trail users to sharp turns, steep slopes, limited visibility, dangerous crossings, etc.

4. Signs at road/trail intersections – Alert drivers to trail crossing, etc.

5. Regulatory signs

Not available for review yet are:

  • Mileage markers.  These are proposed for every one-half mile along the trail.
  • Trail etiquette signs.
  • Trail detour signs.

I generally like these designs.  The wayfinding signs are very similar to the signs MoBike and MCBAG worked out with MCDOT for bike routes on roads.. Great minds think alike!

More information, including schedule, is on the project web page at http://www.montgomeryparks.org/pdd/cip/rcreek_trail_signage.shtm .  To submit comments or ask questions, please contact Lucas Bonney, Project Manager, at Lucas.Bonney@MontgomeryParks.org or 301-495-2572.

 Posted by at 4:43 pm on Sep 22, 2013  Comments Off
Jun 132013

[Updated June 19th to reflect additional research]

Montgomery County is in the process of redeveloping the White Flint area, a 430-acre planning division located a few miles south of Rockville.  Under the White Flint Sector Plan, the area will be transformed from a hodge-podge of strip malls, commercial buildings and parking lots into a walkable mixed use community centered around the White Flint Metro station.  The plan’s vision is in part:

…transforming an auto-oriented suburban development pattern into an urban center of residences and businesses where people walk to work, shops and transit. Offices and plazas are full of workers during the day. At night and on weekends people attend the theater, visit galleries, and eat out… Rockville Pike will be transformed from a traffic barrier dividing the center into a unifying multi-modal boulevard…

The plan even states:

All streets must have ample space for pedestrians, bicyclists, and street trees.

This isn’t just an objective.  It’s a directive.  But the plan falls well short of meeting it.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation is trying to modify the plan by removing bike lanes and eviscerating a shared use path planned for an important road (Old Georgetown Rd) so they can retain more lanes for cars than the adopted plan stipulates.

Bike Elements – The Good

The plan talks about the importance of walking and biking.  It calls for the state to designate the area as a Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Area which allows for state funding of certain bike/ped improvements.  It calls for shared use paths or bike lanes along some streets, including currently hostile roads like Nicholson Lane, Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike.  The sector will serve bike through-traffic better than it currently does.  Car speeds on many streets will be lower than they are currently.

Bike Elements – The Bad

But the plan leaves several key streets with no accommodations for bikes — no bike lanes, no shared use path and no wide outside lanes.  The plan will make it awkward to ride a bike to some very important destinations in the sector, including the White Flint Metro station and Wall Park.  The plan will make it difficult to travel by bike along certain axes and force riders to go well out of their way to use parallel routes (or they’ll just use the sidewalk).  Roads without bike accommodations will include many new roads and some existing roads that are currently bike-friendly but will be rebuilt.

Here are the roadway and bikeway plans for the sector, respectively (click to enlarge):

Comparison of roads to bikeways in the final White Flint plan

The plan changed…

In 2009, MoBike provided input on the initial sector plan draft presented by the Planning Board to the public for comment.  Among other things, we asked for certain paths to be replaced by bike lanes, which is appropriate given the urban environment.  The Planning Department made some welcome changes in response to our input.  But it also inextricably removed important bikeways from the plan, including bike lanes and a path on Marinelli Rd (an important route to Metro) and bike lanes and a path on Executive Blvd.  The resulting draft was approved by the Planning Board and then by the County Council in 2010, despite objections by MoBike.

Compare the initial and final versions of the plan to see what was taken out:

Bikeways were lost between the initial and final versions of the plan

It’s unclear what happened.  There may have been confusion on the part of planners.  Or maybe bike advocates didn’t go to enough meetings.

Business Streets Are Our Business Too

So-called business streets (aka business district streets) are the bread and butter of urban plans, fanning out from arterial roads to connect to destinations and smaller streets.    They are shown on the map of planned streets as blue lines.  Business streets are highly useful for cyclists, since 1) they are more direct and convenient than lesser streets, 2) many destinations are located along them, and 3) they carry fewer cars than arterials.  Bike lanes, wide outside lanes or perhaps cycle tracks are usually the best way to accommodate bicyclists on an urban business street.   Shared use paths are typically not recommended due to high pedestrian volumes.

But at most a third of the business streets in the White Flint Sector Plan will have any sort of bike accommodations (bike lanes or shared use path).   Some business streets will have two travel lanes, some will have four.  Without bike accommodations, cyclists will either have to ride single file with cars or use the right lane of a busy multi-lane street (or use the sidewalk).  Lack of bike accommodations will deter the type of cyclist we need to attract if we want to increase bicycle mode share.  Without special accommodations, less aggressive riders will ride on the sidewalk or not at all.

The root of the problem may be that the White Flint Design Guidelines define business streets to include no bike lanes.  In fact, none of the configurations for business streets (business district streets) defined in countywide “Road Code” standards (specifically these) include bike lanes.  It tilts the field against us when new roads are planned.

It’s galling that a lot of these streets will be new, so there will be no existing curbs, poles or trees standing in the way of creating bike space.  But no foot goes uncontested.  Developers want to maximize space.  Urban planners want street trees.  Businesses want on-street parking.  Restaurants want outdoor seating.  So we end up with a car lane, a parking lane, a “tree lane”, a “cafe table” lane, and so on.  Where are cyclists supposed to go?

Local Streets

At least the streets called “local streets” in plan terminology  (thin dotted pink lines in the map of planned roads) will be more suitable for cyclists due to their slower, tamer nature.   There may yet be opportunity to add bike lanes to some of these streets, since the plan appendix states, “The secondary grid [of local streets and alleys] is not an explicit element of the master planned street network“.  These streets are designed to “improve the permeability of the network for pedestrian and bicyclists” among other things.  But these streets will not connect to every destination.  Moroever, sticking to such minor streets often means having to cross larger streets, wait longer at signals, and zig-zag from block to block.  Too often that’s how cyclists have to travel in the county — dodging furtively from side street to side street.

What’s Needed

  1. Various roads need better bike accommodations than what’s planned (see below).  One-way or two-way cycle tracks may be suitable alternatives to bike lanes and shared use paths, respectively.
  2. Business streets without bike accommodations should incorporate dramatic traffic calming measures like brick pavement treatments, speed tables, etc.
  3. Drivers must be put on notice that White Flint is a bike-priority area using sharrows, signs, or obnoxious handouts if that’s what it takes.

Consistent with MoBike’s prior requests, the following streets need greater bike accommodations than what’s called for by the plan:

  • Marinelli St. (B-6) – Critical need.  Needs bike lanes or (less preferred) another bikeway type.  This road leads straight to Metro.  The road currently has four lanes.  Cut it to two and add bike lanes.
  • Executive Blvd. and its east extension (B-7, B-15).  Critical need.  Needs bike lanes or (less preferred) another bikeway type.  Lack of this route leaves few bikeways in that part of the sector, especially north south.  Some segments are planned to have wide curb lanes which could possibly be expanded to suit bicyclists, but others segments are not.
  • B-4, B-12, and B-16 – These need bike lanes or (less preferred) another bikeway type.  These business streets were recommended as bikeways by MCDOT.
  • Nicholson Lane (A-16) – Cyclists who aren’t of the “hard-core” variety have requested a shared use path in addition to bike lanes.  Cycle tracks (buffered bike lanes) might address the problem.
  • Woodglen Drive north of Nicholson Lane (local street) – As an extension of the existing Woodglen Drive, it should have the same accommodations (bike lanes + shared use path instead of just a path), depending on the character of the street.
  • Market St. (B-10) – This leads to Metro.  It should be designed so bicyclists are comfortable riding in the street (in addition to having the planned shared use path).  Cycle tracks are an option.

Prospects for Change

Unclear.  MoBike and other parties are insisting on bikeways over and above what the plan specifies.  Whether this means amending the plan, tweaking road designs during implementation, or finding creative ways to get around the plan, something needs to change.  Sector plans carry the weight of regulations.  Developers abide by them and expect the county to abide by them.   But that hasn’t stopped MoCo DOT from trying to modify the plan by scrapping the bike lanes and all but scrapping the shared use path planned for Old Georgetown Road so they can add extra car lanes.  But unlike DOT’s desired road changes, improving bike accommodations will bring the sector closer to its mode share goal of 50% and allow the sector to better realize its own vision.

Apr 252013

The Cedar Street bike lane in Silver Spring is a contraflow bike lane.  My question: Is it safe to ride the wrong direction in this one-way bike lane?

View Larger Map

A cyclist I rode with last week did exactly that.  A contraflow bike lane is one that provides for cyclists riding against the flow of car traffic on a one-way street. If you’re riding in the same direction as cars, you’re supposed to use the travel lane.  If you’re riding against the flow, you’re supposed to use the bike lane.

But the cyclist I was with, unfamiliar with the contraflow concept, rode the wrong way in the one-way bike lane despite the directional arrows painted there.  I urged her to move into the travel lane so she’d be going the right direction, but she was baffled as to why she should have to.  She didn’t want to share the travel lane with cars, though it’s a minor street and this stretch is only about a block long, so many cyclists wouldn’t be intimidated by this.

Here are what I see as problems with riding the wrong direction in the bike lane:

  1. The bike lane isn’t wide enough for two cyclists to pass each other head-on.
  2. Drivers might not expect cyclists going against the arrows (though honestly, they probably wouldn’t expect cyclists going with the arrows either).
  3. There is parking adjacent to the bike lane, and people getting out of their cars might not see a cyclist coming up from behind them (and the bike lane isn’t wide enough to pass an open car door).
  4. At the end of the bike lane, wrong-way cyclists would find themselves in an awkward position, left of car traffic (similar to a sidepath in that regard).

So is this a problem or not?

This is relevant because two-way cycle tracks are proposed for Bethesda Ave. in Bethesda for one block (as the Capital Crescent Trail).  This is similar to the Cedar St. bike lane except that both the travel lane and the bike lane allow two-way traffic.

FYI, the Cedar St. bike lane was originally only 20 feet long!  Neighbor opposition had left it in limbo.  Thus it won an award from Slate Magazine as the “stupidest bike lane in America“, which goaded the county Department of Transportation to finish the bike lane quickly.

Apr 232013

WTOP radio aired a news story last week that made an astonishingly incorrect statement about bicycling laws in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.:

D.C., Maryland and Virginia law states bicyclists can ride the center of the travel lane only if they’re going the speed limit.

Even worse, it attributed this assertion (with respect to Maryland) to the Montgomery County Police Department and said bike advocates are wrong on the point.

“Cyclists can’t necessarily always go as fast as traffic, but the law does give cyclists the right to use the road,” says [WABA Executive Director Shane] Farthing.  But Montgomery County Police Lt. Bob McCullough, deputy director of the traffic division, says that’s not the case.  Slow-moving bikes need to move to the right-hand side of the roadway particularly “when they reach a point that they are impeding traffic.”

I’m fairly confident that the police are aware of the law and that the reporter failed to paraphrase the lieutenant correctly.  Despite sometimes using terms like “impeding traffic”, MCPD has shown better understanding than this.

I replied to WTOP with this letter:

To WTOP Radio:

The recent WTOP news story, “Drivers, bicyclists relationship must be a 2-way street” is grossly incorrect in its description of what cyclists are permitted to do under Maryland law (as well as Virginia and D.C. law).  Maryland law does not state, to quote the article, that “bicyclists can ride the center of the travel lane only if they’re going the speed limit.”  The law allows cyclists to ride in the center of the lane in many more situations, because the right edge of a lane is often the most dangerous place to ride according to the Maryland Driver’s Manual.  For example, riders are allowed and advised to ride in the center of the lane when the lane is too narrow for the cyclist and driver to travel side-by-side within the lane.  That’s because keeping right in a narrow lane invites drivers to try to squeeze by in the same lane instead of changing lanes to pass or waiting for a safer place to pass.  Cyclists may also ride in the center of the lane if there could be pavement hazards (which drivers often can’t see), if there are cars parked to the right, if it’s a one-way street, and many other conditions.  Laws in Virginia and D.C. are similar.

The Montgomery County Police Department has taken the time to work with the cycling community on this and other issues, so I’m confident the department knows the law.  Nowhere in the story is Lt. McCullough directly quoted as saying that cyclists must always move to the right.  Let’s not put words in MCPD’s mouth and perpetuate the dangerous myth that cyclists have to move over if they’re not as fast as cars.  I would like to see a follow-up story that corrects this piece of misinformation.  Thank you.

I hate it when news organizations misstate the law. It’s simply irresponsible.

Apr 222013
There’s a great line about bike trails in the Washington Post article this weekend about high demand for close-in homes of elderly homeowners…
…The prospective buyers weren’t interested in the ­three-bedroom, 1,092-square-foot ­house, which Cloud and her husband purchased for $5,000 in the 1940s. They wanted her lot, which sits next to a bike trail on a street within walking distance of the Metro and great public schools.
Who knew!  Trails that NIMBYs fight against are actually good for property values.  When advocates were pushing for the Matthew Henson Trail in Aspen Hill, I collected real estate listings in Bethesda touting proximity to the Capital Crescent Trail, and there were many.
 Posted by at 10:34 am on Apr 22, 2013  Comments Off
Apr 142013

The Mont. County Bike Action Group (MCBAG) meets Thursday 10/18 from 7 to 9 pm at MCDOT’s Gaithersburg office.  The location is 100 Edison Park Drive, Gaithersburg on the 4th floor. Check in with the security guard in the lobby (you may have to buzz in).  Security is very tight and you might not be allowed to take your bike to the 4th floor.

Dialing in is welcome since it’s not an easy trip for downcounty cyclists!  Dial in at 240-773-8120 (pass code is 498265).

Meetings are held at 7 pm on the third Thursday of the month during most months.  The location rotates between Gaithersburg and Rockville.

This month’s topic will be a review and discussion of potential projects to be submitted to the Maryland DOT’s Bikeways Program for 2014.  Under this program, the state is providing over $4 million statewide “to fund design and construction of projects that enhance bicycle access to transit, increase bicycle safety, extend shared-use paths, and improve facilities and wayfinding for bike routes that connect key destinations, such as work, school and shopping.”  The county must submit projects for consideration to the state by June 5, 2013.  Last year (for 2013) the  state awarded grant money to two projects now underway:

  • Clopper Road Shared Use Path from Steeple Road to Hopkins Road and from Village Fountain Drive to Little Star Lane in Germantown
  • Woodglen Drive bike lanes, sharrows and sidepath (Bethesda Trolley Trail) from Edson Lane to Nicholson Lane in North Bethesda

Grant money is provided for construction and/or design (or both).  The county applies for the funds and the state evaluates the projects based on the merit of each. Here is the full statewide list of funded projects approved for 2013.  The grant is usually under $100K for each project.  Montgomery County DOT will begin evaluating and prioritizing projects for this year’s project application submissions over the next few weeks and is looking forward to receiving your input.

Apr 142013

The Sierra Club is kicking off its bike initiative with a bike ride on Saturday, April 20th at 10 am.  The bike ride, with discussion, will loop through Silver Spring and Takoma Park.   The ride assembles at Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring near the skating rink.  It’s a great way to show your support for bicycling in Montgomery County.

Dan Reed (blogger for GGW) and Jack Cochrane (MoBike) will be leading the ride.  The route includes the Metropolitan Branch Trail, Sligo Creek Trail, and a few city streets, exploring a variety of semi-urban biking landscapes.  Stronger riders can continue on to Wheaton.

Along the way the Sierra Club will discuss its new Bicycle Statement, filled with ideas to make biking a safe and common activity for everyone.  The ride includes points of interest related to the statement.

Rain date is Saturday, April 27.  It’s free and open to the public. For more information and to make a reservation (optional), contact Ethan Goffman at ethan.goffman@maryland.sierraclub.org.

Hope to see you there!

Jack Cochrane, MoBike

 Posted by at 3:43 pm on Apr 14, 2013  Comments Off