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Sharrows tell drivers to share the road with cyclists, except when that road is a state highway

Sharrows are great for streets where there isn't room for a traditional bike lane. But sometimes, they're used as a way to avoid putting in a bike lane, which is bad for bicyclists and drivers alike.


New sharrows on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Photo by Paul Meyer.

Last week, sharrows appeared on Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and East-West Highway in downtown Silver Spring. It's one of eighteen state highways in Maryland where cyclists are allowed to take the full lane, and the sharrows let drivers know to look out for them.

Reader Paul Meyer tweeted this photo of the lane markings and wrote, "Sharrows on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring?!? A start."

Sharrows are a start for Montgomery County, which has embraced bicycling without always committing to the infrastructure needed to support it, like bike lanes. The county has had Capital Bikeshare for just over a year, including in downtown Silver Spring, but due to a lack of safe places to bike, it's gotten off to a slow start.

Georgia Avenue is a big, wide street, with six lanes of traffic, turn lanes, and parking lanes. Though the signed speed limit is 30 mph, the lanes are wide, which encourages speeding. This is the kind of street that only the hardiest cyclists would ride on, and sharrows won't change that. Cyclists will continue riding on the sidewalks where they feel safer, but they're already barely wide enough to accommodate pedestrians in some areas.

Sharrows are ideal for streets that are too narrow for a bike lane. Because of the amount and speed of traffic on Georgia, cyclists need their own space. This street would be a good candidate for bike lanes with a buffer or even cycletracks, where a physical buffer would give cyclists additional separation from vehicle traffic, which benefits drivers too.

Obviously, that would require taking lanes from cars, and in the case of cycle tracks, redesigning or even removing parking spaces. County and state transportation officials have traditionally been reluctant to do that, most recently with Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. And so sharrows are sometimes used as a substitute for a bike lane where the political will to build one isn't there.


Sharrows are great for narrow, slow streets like Illinois Avenue in Petworth, but not for big, fast streets. Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

But if there's any community that should have the will to give cyclists a place on its streets, it should be downtown Silver Spring, where a majority of residents walk, bike, or take transit to work. Nearly a third of all households don't even have cars, and 40% of its public parking spaces are usually vacant.

The new sharrows on Georgia Avenue tell drivers to pay attention to cyclists. But as long as Georgia remains a big, fast street that prioritizes driving over everything else, drivers won't have many cyclists to watch for.

Where DC area bike fatalities happen, in one map... and what's the real "intersection of doom"

Since 1987, over 100 DC area cyclists have died in motor vehicle crashes. This map shows where they are. And there's just one intersection in the region which had two separate fatal crashes. Can you guess where?

In the above graph, red pins show crashes in an intersection, yellow in the roadway, black in a crosswalk, blue on the shoulder of the roadway, orange on a sidewalk, green in a bike lane, or white where the location was not available.

These fatalities have occurred in every jurisdiction, on busy highways and quiet neighborhood streets, and on every part of the roadway from sidewalks to traffic lanes.

The real "Intersection of Doom" is at Gaithersburg's edge

The intersection of Lee Highway and North Lynn Street, where drivers make a right turn across cyclists' path coming off the Mount Vernon Trail, gets much coverage as the "Intersection of Doom." But fortunately, I found no actual bicycle fatalities there.

Nor were there any where the Mt. Vernon Trail connections cross the George Washington Parkway, another harrowing experience for cyclists and a big problem spot that needs fixing. But there was one location where two separate fatal bike crashes occurred.

In 1997, a driver hit 15-year-old Alexis Smith on her bicycle in the crosswalk as she crossed the ramp from Great Seneca Highway to Sam Eig Highway, just west of the end of I-370 in Montgomery County. Then in 2009, another driver hit and killed Codi Alexander, 16 at the same spot.

However, Montgomery County wasn't the place with the most fatal bike crashes.

Prince George's has the most deaths by far

Of the seven jurisdictions I looked at, Prince George's had the most fatalities, with 36. Here is the full list:

JurisdictionNumber
Prince George's36
District of Columbia25
Montgomery21
Fairfax19
Alexandria2
Falls Church2
Arlington2

Some of the variation might be explained by population and square mileage, but Prince George's County is neither the largest nor the most populous. And comparisons get more complicated because DC's surge of daytime population means that considering its resident population understates the amount of exposure cyclists have there.

Most fatal crashes happen at intersections

If we combine fatalities listed as in the intersection and in the crosswalk, it shows that more than half of all fatal crashes happen at intersections. (Some crashes listed as on sidewalks or in bike lanes also may be at intersections.)

TypeNumber
Intersection37
Roadway36
Crosswalk20
Shoulder7
Bike lane3
Sidewalk2
Unknown1

Where this data comes from

I assembled this list and map from two main sources: media reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Most media reports are newspaper accounts available on highbeam, which is why they only go back to 1987. These accounts are usually very accurate and reliable. I only flagged one possible error during the review.

However, these are not particularly comprehensive. Only 53% of all fatal bike crashes get reported in newspapers, and usually as only one story about the fatal crash itself. Occasionally a reporter will follow up with a second item once authorities release the victim's name. For a particularly sensational story, there may coverage all the way through a trial and sentencing. Most media accounts, however, just end with a line saying something like, "Police are continuing to investigate the incident."

The NHTSA FARS data, on the other hand, is significantly more comprehensive but riddled with a vast array of errors. It also only goes back to 1994. Some of the errors come from problems with the forms themselves, while people filling them out introduce others.

These errors ranged from trivial cases, such as mislabeling a female fatality as male, to nonsensical cases where a bike fatality was coded as "Safety Belt Used Improperly," to the outright misleading case where a cyclist was mislabeled as a pedestrian. But 98% of the fatalities with media accounts also appeared in FARS.

Still, FARS data under-counts total bike fatalities because it does not include crashes on driveways or parking lots or crashes that don't involve a motor vehicle. I identified 15 such fatalities. In addition, the United States Park Police apparently doesn't submit FARS forms to the NHTSA, as crashes they investigated don't appear. Nor do bike deaths that arise from medical conditions such as heat stroke or from murder (except in the one case where the murder weapon was a car). So while the FARS data is more comprehensive, it is not complete.

The map above includes every bike fatality identified except for one that had an unworkable location description.

* The original version of this post failed to count one Arlington fatality.

Cross-posted with footnotes at TheWashCycle.

Offbeat pedestrian and bike signs in Panama

Panama's capital, Panama City, lacks pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, but the country has some pretty amusing signage. For example, there's this "pedestrian" sign. Perhaps we should all be aware of bootylicious robots.


All photos by the author.

My personal favorite was this jogger sign. If a jogger ran past me with that physique, I would drive slower.


Jogger sign

I didn't see any bike lanes or people biking around the city, but the "Respect It" signs are all over the city.


"Respect It."

Crossing the street in Panama requires courage and attitude of a honey badger. Literally, you have to look straight and walk across without any hesitation or risk getting hit. Everyone ignored the pedestrian signals.

Not just a phase: Young Americans won’t start motoring like their parents

A raft of recent research indicates that young adults just aren't as into driving as their parents were. Young people today are walking, biking, and riding transit more while driving less than previous generations did at the same age.


Charts from the US Public Interest Research Group.

The vast majority of state DOTs have been loathe to respond by changing their highway-centric ways. A new report by the US Public Interest Research Group, points out the folly of their inaction: If transportation officials are waiting for Americans born after 1983 to start motoring like their parents did, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Though some factors underlying the shift in driving habits are likely temporarycaused by the recession, for instancejust as many appear to be permanent, the authors found. That means American transportation agencies should get busy preparing for a far different future than their traffic models predict.

"The Millennial generation is not only less car-focused than older Americans by virtue of being young, but they also drive less than previous generations of young people," write authors Tony Dutzik, Jeff Inglis, and Phineas Baxandall.

There's a good deal of evidence that the recession cannot fully explain the trend away from driving among young people. Notably, driving declined even among millennials who stayed employed, and "between the recession years of 2001 and 2009, per-capita driving declined by 16 percent among 16 to 34 year-olds with jobs," the authors write.

Even as the economy has rebounded, car commuting has declined, and the drop is most pronounced among younger workers. According to the Census, between 2006 and 2013, the share of commutes by driving or carpooling dropped 1.5 percent among workers 16 to 24, 1.3 percent among workers 25 to 44, and 0.5 percent among workers 45 and older. The drop in car commuting among 16- to 24-year-olds continued after the recession ended, though at a slower pace, falling 0.5 percent between 2009 and 2013.

There's also a big mismatch between the places where the recession hit hardest and the places where driving is dropping the fastest. "The states and urban areas that experienced the biggest increases in unemployment during the recession were generally not those that experienced the greatest declines in VMT," the authors write.

While economic factors can't be completely discounted, the authors argue that they are not as significant as longer-term shifts in attitudes. A survey by Deloitte, for example, found that millennials are three times more willing to give up their cars than their parents' generation. The National Association of Realtors found that today's young adults are more likely to view a car as "just transportation" and not inherently superior to other modes.

Driving rates peak between the ages of 35 and 55, and millennials will likely drive more as they reach that stage of life, but they will still drive less than their parents did during those years, the authors conclude. Standard traffic models that guide transportation spending decisions and forecast steadily increasing driving rates for years on end fail to account for these shifts.

Dutzik, Inglis, and Baxandall say policy makers need to respond immediately to prepare for a future where Americans aren't driving more every year. They recommend incorporating a greater degree of uncertainty to projections about how many cars are going to be on the road in the distant future.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.

Regulators want to create a new app for taxis to compete with Uber. Would it succeed?

Taxi operators have complained that companies like Uber and Lyft are not competing on a "level playing field" with more heavily-regulated taxis. In response, DC Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton has suggested, in effect, a way for the taxis to compete with Uber: Run their own Uber-like app. Would it work?


Photo by Koman Tam on Flickr.

The proposal originated when some (as-yet-unnamed) group offered to donate code for a similar app to the Taxi Commission. Linton would have the taxi operators create a cooperative company that would then control and market the app and set rates for rides using it.

The co-op would have to provide every taxi driver in the city with a smartphone to log into the app and accept rides, whether or not they've bought into the co-op or not. But nobody would force the driver to actually log in.

Linton says that this will give the industry a chance to compete. But it's up to that industry to seize the opportunityor risk going out of business.

Why might you use the app?

If the industry does indeed embrace this path, there could be some real reasons to use such an app. In my anecdotal experience trying UberX and regular taxis, the taxi drivers know faster routes around town and also have an easier time actually getting to my house rather than circling the neighborhood multiple times.

We actually have Uber-like apps that hail regular taxis now. Hailo, like Uber, lets you see the locations of taxis that work with the app, get an estimate of time to pick you up, and find out within seconds which cab can come get you.

Mytaxi is another app offering this functionality. Uber also has its own taxi mode, though the company pushes the other options like UberX more actively. Curb, formerly Taxi Magic, also has an app, though right now that just passes your request to a taxi company's dispatcher rather than finding you a vehicle directly.

Some riders might want to choose an app that brings more experienced drivers. Some might also want to patronize an app for drivers who earn something closer to a living wage. But they will only do that if the service is actually better.

Finally, if every taxi driver in DC gets a device to log on, that's a lot of cars. The services like Hailo have only gotten a small minority of taxis on board; this would bring a big fleet right from the start.

Why might the app fail?

This app would compete with all of the other apps. Those have companies with marketing budgets behind them, and a built-in user base.

We don't know how good this app is from a technical standpoint. If it's a lot clunkier than Hailo and Uber, people won't use it. And even if it's great now, keeping an app competitive requires constant technical work. Will the co-op be able to hire the right people with the coding chops to pull it off?

Also, part of the promise of new "sharing economy" tools is that user feedback through "stars" and other means provides a check on quality that regulators formerly offered. Instead of needing inspectors to check a hotel's cleanliness, an Airbnb user can just see what other people who stayed there recently said. With taxis, Uber and Hailo and the others have a strong incentive

Ubser, Hailo, and the others have strong incentives to dump drivers who aren't providing good rides or good customer service. If a driver gets low stars regularly, there's a good chance they'll stop working with the driver.

Linton says the proposed regulations allow the co-op to kick drivers off the system for cause. One question is, will it? The co-op's managers could decide that to compete with the likes of Uber, they need to maintain high quality. Or, they could instead prioritize protecting all members, as some labor unions end up doing, regardless of performance.

One big reason many DC residents embraced Uber is because there were a lot of old, decrepit taxis with drivers who seemed to be trying to cheat them (and because payment is a breeze). I've found Hailo cabs to be in good shape and it's just as easy to pay with Hailo, but if the co-op has every cab, will it be able to ensure riders don't get one of the small minority of really bad taxis?

There might be a better way

Taxi drivers might compete even better with Uber if the co-op can negotiate with companies like Hailo or mytaxi or another to essentially offer the large fleet of taxi drivers at one fell swoop.

The co-op could still run its own app, but wouldn't succeed or fail based on whether it can build, run, and market an app. Instead, it can draw on the talents of a company that's good at app development and marketing.

To make this work, the co-op would just need to set up a computer-to-computer interface, known as an API, where a Hailo-type app could look up the locations of nearby taxis and ask them to accept a ride. The co-cop would be the backend, and its chosen partner(s) could be the front end.

The co-op would negotiate rates and could ensure its drivers get a reasonable wage while also being competitive. It could do what it's positioned to be good atrepresenting drivers' needswhile not trying to also be the best tech company out there, something governments and industry associations have a poor track record on.

Update: Hailo also announced today it is closing its operations in North America. This makes the app likely more necessary if taxis are to compete with Uber and Lyft, because competitor apps aren't finding profitability doing it on their own. Alternately, it means that if the industry consortium existed and could offer more cabs to companies like Hailo, it could boost their success and productivity.

The roads don't work, and neither do the sidewalks: How Maryland has failed Wilson Bridge cyclists

Want to ride a bike from Virginia to DC via the Wilson Bridge Trail? Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. Thanks to poor planning and neglect, it's far easier said than done.


This sidewalk gap between Harborview and National Avenues is filled with loose gravel. Photos by the author.

Biking into DC from Alexandria and Fairfax, you ride across the Wilson Bridge and onto a trail. Then, official maps show a bike route which involves a few turns to reach the DC-295 corridor.

However, to do that, cyclists either have to make an illegal left turn on the road. Taking the sidewalk is no better, because there are large gaps in the sidewalk full of gravel which are difficult to ride on.


The bike route to the Wilson Bridge. Image edited by the author from Google Maps.

How the connection is supposed to work

You can see the bike route in the above map. It first continues parallel to Harborview Avenue (A) and ends at Oxon Hill Road. From there, you should be able to turn left onto Oxon Hill (B), left onto Bald Eagle Road (C), and then hit an access road (E) that leads to the Oxon Hill Farm Bike Trail (F) toward DC Water, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the US Naval Research Lab, and a handful of neighborhoods.

But here's the problem: Northbound cyclists on Oxon Hill Road can't legally turn left onto Bald Eagle Road (C). To get to Bald Eagle, they must either make an illegal left turn, continue up Oxon Hill and detour via Indian Head Highway (a major road), or ride north in the southbound Oxon Hill Road bike lane.

The other option is to ride on the sidewalk that runs along the west side of Oxon Hill Road. But even if we set aside that we're talking about having no choice but to bike on the sidewalkwhich shouldn't ever be the casethere are two unfinished driveways on Oxon Hill that cross the sidewalk route, each leaving a vertical drop of about four inches.

Roots of the problem

These problems aren't random. They're the result of decisions made by the National Park Service and, more recently, the Maryland State Highway Authority.

In 2010, NPS blocked an effort to create a direct bicycle and pedestrian route along I-295 between the bridge and DC Water's home on Overlook Avenue. Such a trail would eliminate this entire problem altogether, and its absence undermines the Wilson Bridge Trail's value.

As for the Maryland SHA, there is no left turn option from Oxon Hill Road onto Bald Eagle because of a 2013 SHA project to open Oxon Hill Farm Road, which created a shortcut to allow freeway traffic from the westbound Beltway to bypass Indian Head Highway en route to southbound Oxon Hill Road.

Deciding to do this meant not building Oxon Hill Farm Road to connect Forest Heights, Sachem Drive, and surrounding neighborhoods. And another Oxon Hill sidewalk gap, this one between National and Bald Eagle, has been left for so long that dirt and vegetation are beginning to stabilize the gravel.

Both issues show the SHA's underlying culture of neglect for neglect for cyclists and pedestrians.

One Fairfax cyclist, Paul Bernhardt, has found his own solution to the problem: Rather than commuting to work along Oxon Hill Road, he simply rides along the I-295 shoulder. Bernhardt's willingness to take such a dangerous route to avoid the mess around Oxon Hill Road pretty much says it all.

"I'm not going to ride two extra miles up and down a big hill just because they were too stupid to build the trail. I'm riding where the trail should have been in the first place."

Finally, DC's zoning update steps forward

After a debate that has stretched for seven years, reforms for lower parking requirements near transit, basement apartments, and corner grocery stores are actually close to becoming reality in DC.


Photo by Lachlan Hardy on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning's proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP's recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that's otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

If you're interested in the wonky details, below are many of the specifics about what is changing in DC's zoning.

What happened with accessory apartments

Tuesday night, the commission debated whether to allow accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes in low-density areas. Currently, higher-density residential zones allow two or more units in a single building (like a rowhouse), but low density zones (including some row house areas like Georgetown) allow only one unit except for an antiquated domestic worker provision.

While Chairman Anthony Hood tried to only permit accessory apartments if the owner goes through a special exception hearing, the rest of the commissioners voted to allow homeowners to have one accessory unit inside their home as a matter of right.

However, when it came to garages or carriage houses, the commission didn't question the recent OP revision to only allow accessory units there after a special exception hearing. They adopted that rule with no discussion.

The commissioners did ease restrictions on the lot size and home size required to qualify for an accessory unit. They removed a minimum lot size rule altogether and shrank the required house size from a large 2,000 square feet to a more modest 1,200 square feet in R-2 and R-3 zones. They also removed a combined six-person cap on the total number of people in the primary residence and accessory apartment; instead, they will simply limit the number of people in the accessory apartment to three.

What happened with corner stores

The Zoning Commission approved a proposal to make some corner stores legal in medium-density residential zones for the first time since the city adopted its 1958 zoning code. Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that corner stores were an important way to help seniors have easy access to daily needs.

However, through the years, the list of rules for what stores are allowable got longer and longer. What the Zoning Commission finally approved was only allowing small grocery stores as a matter of right if they devote a certain area devoted to perishable foods like dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, and food that must be prepared at home. Beer and wine sales can't exceed 15% of the floor area and requires a special exception hearing.

While these stringent rules will mean that few new corner grocery stores will sprout up, it is likely to inspire a few small entrepreneurs to open up small groceries. Beyond the small grocery stores that would qualify as matter of right, the rule would also allow other types of stores if they go through a special exception process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

What's happening with parking

The commission agreed to reduce required parking by 50% for developments near transit (½ mile from Metro or ¼ mile from streetcar or bus priority corridor). In doing so, the Zoning Commission rebuffed the Office of Planning's recent proposal to exclude bus priority corridors from the list of transit services that would qualify.

The commission also inserted one significant change that hadn't been part of the earlier proposals: Developments that take advantage of the 50% reduction would also be ineligible for residential parking permits (RPP).

Current housing developments tend to contain one space for each two or three units voluntarily. The new rule will require just under three for developments away from transti (technically, one per three units after the first four). Cutting that in half means a minimum of one per six units near transit, clearly below market demand.

In effect, therefore, most developments will still park above the minimum, and allows the market to decide what is appropriate rather than forcing most buildings to build more. At easily $50,000 per parking space, this is an important way to make housing less expensive to build.

The commission did adopt OP's suggestion to exclude the West End neighborhood from the Downtown zone that requires no parking, but seemed to support for removing requirements from downtown. However, Chairman Anthony Hood expressed skepticism toward any proposal that removed parking mandates entirely. The commission will consider the downtown zones tonight.

Commissioners also agreed to require one space for each single family home but waive that if no alley access is available. This is a fair compromise that will protect continuous sidewalks and not force curb cuts and driveways on a rowhouse block.

If a property owner feels it's impractical to provide the required parking, it will also be easier to get an exception. The owner will now only need a "special exception" rather than the much more stringent "variance" standard that applies today. Either way, however, asking for a reduction requires a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which costs time and money.

The new special exception rule will allow the board to reduce parking requirements by considering the lack of demand, proximity to transit, or, in a provision added by Commissioner Marcie Cohen, the affordability of the housing. Any special exception would also require a Transportation Demand Management Plan, or traffic and parking demand reduction plan, which DDOT would need to approve.

Buildings can also share parking or put parking off-site to meet the parking requirements. If a project proposes building more than twice the minimum required for a building where the minimum is 20 spaces or more, the developer will have to add amenities like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, or green roofs.

The commission will deliberate on the last few items tonight. After that, officials will create a new draft of the zoning code for one more round of public comment.

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