Dec 092011

A few years ago Montgomery County added bike lanes to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda.  Some cyclists opposed the change while some others said they felt they could finally ride on Woodmont.  The bike lanes pretty much fail between Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue (by Barnes and Noble, Cosi’s, etc.) because of parking and loading activities next to the bike lanes, as shown below.  But I think a lot of riders ignore the bike lanes there and just ride in the travel lane.  Cars go very slow in that block.  I find the bike lanes elsewhere on Woodmont to be generally usable except for. . .  the nightmare at Elm Street (and Hampden Lane).

Loading zone and/or bike lane between Elm St. and Bethesda Ave.

The right hook. The block between Hampden and Elm heading south has become a problem.  The county first painted the bike lane to the right of the right turn only (RTO) lane all the way to Elm St. where drivers turn right.  Oblivious cyclists wanting to go straight could get clobbered by oblivious drivers turning right.  Cyclists decried the design, shown here:

Southbound bike lane approaching Elm St. as it was first painted

The Plan.  So I helped DOT come up with the following configuration, based on some study and the advice of bike engineers around the U.S. (it’s a challenging problem).  This new design allows cyclists to move over to the left side of the RTO lane before they reach Elm.  Here’s the design (click to enlarge):

Striping and signing plan for Woodmont Ave.

This design has these features:

  1. The solid line delineating the bike lane would end 60′ before reaching Hampden. At that point it would become a dashed line ending at Hampden, or even better the dashes could just be omitted as shown in the diagram.
  2. After Hampden there would be no bike lane for the first 20 feet. Then a “dashed” bike lane would appear to the left of the RTO lane for 40′, followed by a standard bike lane for 40′ until you reach Elm St. (exact distances may vary but you get the idea).  The whole block is very short at 100′ long, which is part of the problem.  Bicyclists don’t have enough time to transition over to the right left.
  3. Bicyclists are encouraged to move over to the left while in the segment where there’s no bike lane.  (This segment includes the Hampden intersection itself).  There’s supposed to be a sign saying “right turn lane, yield to bikes” overhead as you approach the RTO lane.

Reality.  Unfortunately DOT has gone through three iterations of trying to implement this design and still can’t get the painting right.  (DOT has done a great job on some restriping projects but has failed on others).  Now the bike lane goes all the way to the Hampden intersection stop line instead of stopping 60′ short.  You can see that here:

Bike lane today, looking southbound towards Hampden

Then the bike lane restarts on the left side of the RTO lane immediately after the intersection.  There’s no transition area at all, except for the intersection itself I suppose.  For good measure there’s a bike lane symbol where there isn’t  supposed to be a bike lane.  Here’s the view looking south towards Hampden:

Bike lane today, looking southbound from Hampden

This layout freaked out at least one county official when she encountered it last month during our bike tour of Bethesda.

What to do now.  Here’s a question: Was the original Woodmont Avenue bike lane really so bad?  It had one key advantage: it was simple.  Simple to paint and simple to ride.  Was the right hook problem any worse at the RTO lane than it is at Bethesda Avenue today?  I saw a bus turning right onto Bethesda Avenue almost hit one of those officials riding with us last month.  DOT could put up a big sign before Elm St. telling drivers turning right to yield to cyclists.  Drivers already have to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.  This would catch drivers’ attention:

Same photo, new sign (this is not a real sign; it's Photoshopped)

OK, maybe that’s too big.

Ultimately we probably did the right thing in the striping plan by providing a gap in the bike lanes where cyclists could cross over to the left.  But part of me thinks that a bike lane to the right of the travel lanes even across Elm (maybe with dashed lines guiding cyclists through the intersection) wouldn’t be so bad if everyone were sufficiently warned of what to do.  Instead of making riders merge into a moving stream of cars,  this solution establishes that the cyclist has the right of way through signage and gives him/her a place to stop if it’s not possible to merge right away.  Call me a heretic, or maybe just pragmatic.

(By the way, I never asked for the bike lanes on Woodmont!)

  8 Responses to “Woodmont Avenue striping (nightmare at Elm Street)”

  1. The new bike lane on eastbound Forest Glen Road at Holy Cross Hospital has a very similar problem – a right turn lane into the hospital that creates a difficult merge problem for cyclists continuing straight.
    I’m seeing more cyclists on this road than before, and I’m hoping the greater number of cyclists is raising awareness among motorists. That may contribute more to safety than the bike lane markers can.

  2. A straight-through bike lane on the right side of right-turning traffic is never acceptable. I don’t understand why the right southbound lane between Hampden and Elm is right-turn only, whereas the right southbound lane between Montgomery and Hampden allows straight-through movements.

    The problem is that the bike lane changes its alignment. The County should either create a straight alignment for the bike lane or stripe a continuous bike lane (with dashed lanes on both sides of the bike lane) where the bike lane alignment is shifted, and direct motorists to yield to bicyclists in the shifted bike lane.

    The best option for this street may be no bike lane at all, except perhaps on the left side of the right-turn-only lanes.

    • At one point I asked DOT if they could change the block from Hampden to Elm so that the left lane would be LTO and the right lane would allow straight or right. DOT said no and made some vague comment about traffic flow. But it’s not usually a congested intersection so I don’t see the harm in changing it.

  3. It is a conundrum. Even if you don’t request the bike lanes, once they’re there you are stuck with them and have to make sure they work. Personally, I prefer to ride with traffic rather than a bike lane. But I can ride faster than most, so my preference probably should not serve as the yardstick.

    This flow clearly does not work. Perhaps signage might help, but I’m of the opinion that if something needs a sign to work (a) it’s more a design flaw than a communication issue and (b) it probably won’t work that well.

  4. I travel down the Woodmont bike lane on my ride home and any seasoned commuter simply merges into the left edge of the right-turn only lane – the point is there are rarely cars in it except those going straight (that is ignoring the right turn only). Worse perhaps is that much traffic (at least during the evening rush) DOES make a right turn the block before (Montgomery ?) so the rider in the bike lane must be careful to watch given the standard right turn without turn signal…..

  5. The new configuration looks great, and is MUCH more helpful then the suggestions you made which I consider quite poor.

    Ending bike lanes before intersections and having a free-for-all is a terrible idea. Thats when MOST cyclists need the most guidance and feel the bike lanes are more important. A risk averse cyclist (ie, the 99% that dont bike for a living) are more willing to ride if the bike lane goes everywhere.

    Dont let your vehicular cycling ways screw everyone else over.

    However, I do agree that before Hampden the line should be striped, to allow turns, and not be solid.

    Want to make the painted design even better? Then ask them to do a striped line across the intersection, perhaps even painted green, to highlight the transition.

    Something like this across the intersection (although it should be striped) as the striping is done on this lane

    “Ultimately we probably did the right thing in the striping plan by providing a gap in the bike lanes where cyclists could cross over to the left.”

    A white line does NOT limit one, in a car or bike, from changing lanes. It’s guidance, not regulatory. Double white means no crossing, single white doesnt actually mean anything. You can switch left whenever you want.

    • The only way to really make this work for riders who are risk-averse (or basic or novice) is to not make them cross over a lane of traffic in the space of 100′. That means keeping the bike lane against the curb all the way, making the right turn only lane into a straight-right lane. The key difference in the Boston photos is that in Boston the right turn lane is a new lane, so cyclists are already to the left of this lane. Cyclists just need to continue straight, and drivers must yield to cyclists if they want to get into the turn lane. There are some cases of green lanes painted diagonally across a travel lane, but that forces drivers to yield to someone cutting in front of them, which is (IMO) both dangerous and confusing. Instead you leave a gap for cyclists to cross over on their own. A dashed line up to the Hampden intersection may work just as well as no line as you say, but only if cyclists are smart enough to ignore the dashed line if they have to. Novice cyclists tend to obey the lines, so solid lines should vanish at the right times. Bicyclists who stay in the bike lane all the way to Hampden could easily get trapped there.

      • Ive seen a few bike lanes where there is a sharp diagonal line, but I cant recall where they are on streetview. Some are on Cambridge MA.

        It’s strictly from my experience but I find that novice cyclists prefer guidance all the way, not the “youre on your own buddy” experience of disappearing lines, right where guidance is most needed.

        Heres another thing I like about the bike lane.

        Once it crosses the street, the right side becomes dashed. Thats the merging section really. Bikes have from the previous intersection, to where that second turn arrow is painted to move left…a whole bunch of time.

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