Greater Greater Washington

Maryland leads, but counties hesitate on new bike signs

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has started installing new signs informing users that "Bicycles May Use Full Lane." But most roads are managed by local governments, and none of them yet plan to use the sign as extensively.


Photo by Richard Masoner, www.cycle­licio.us on Flickr.

The decision to place "use full lane" signs on state highways took a sustained campaign by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) and an intervention by the state's Secretary of Transportation, followed by a year-long debate among senior SHA managers, which had to be settled by SHA Administrator Melinda Peters.

Why was there so much angst over a sign that merely states the law?

According to state employees, the sign came to symbolize a struggle between two schools of thought among traffic engineers: the traditional view that cyclists should ride as far right as practicable, and if that's not safe, stay off the road; and the modern view that cyclists are welcome on all roads, even if that requires riding in the center of the lane.

Within SHA, skeptics became supporters

While gradual, SHA's transformation has been remarkable. In April 2011, its Office of Traffic and Safety announced that SHA would not post any "use full lane" signs (PDF).

Tom Hicks, who was director of the office, explained in June 2011: "We assume that the bicycle requires a 4-foot operating width all the way to the right, while the automobile requires a 10-foot operating width. Drivers may have to move left into the next lane to pass. Potential conflict is increased if the cyclist moves farther to the left."

With some encouragement from MDOT Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, a few months later, Mr. Hicks became a strong supporter of Maryland's yellow "use full lane" warning sign. "We think that this sign will be very useful on some highways," he told me. "I knew there was a solution in there somewhere." Last week, SHA posted the white rectangular version of the sign on MD-193, MD-212, MD-450, MD-500, and MD-704, which suggests that Cedric Ward, his successor, may prefer that version of the sign, which is officially known as "R4‑11".

Once the guidance on these signs is refined and fully implemented, there will be no ambiguity on state highways about where a bicyclist is assumed to ride.

Local governments have different stances

Cities have been most eager to use the signs. Laurel has the white rectangular signs and sharrows as part of a bike route parallel to US-1, and the city engineer endorsed placement of the yellow warning sign along US-1. The City of Baltimore uses the R4-11 signs on bicycle boulevards. Across the state line, the District of Columbia and Arlington (which operates its own roads) have used the R4-11 sign for more than a year.

Montgomery County has not posted any "use full lane" signs yet, but it intends to follow the approach described in the recent SHA guidance for the sign (PDF), according to Fred Lees, the county's chief of traffic engineering studies. Anne Arundel plans to limit the signs to a few cases where citizens report hazards caused by drivers not expecting to see cyclists using the full lane. "We already have 70,000 signs on county roads. Signs that merely tell people the law should not be needed," says James Schroll, the chief traffic engineer for Anne Arundel County. "There are better ways to inform residents that the law allows cyclists to take the lane."

Prince George's County still has the ambivalence about bicycling that SHA had in the past. Haitham Hijazi, Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) says that the County will use the R4-11 signs along some roads that have at least two lanes in each direction.

But the county has rejected requests to post those signs on two-lane roads. In a meeting with WABA, DPW&T explained its reasoning:

DPW&T believes that signs and pavement markings increase its liability because doing so would imply endorsement of riding those roads. Today, cyclists ride those roads at their own risk. The County has never stated that all of its roads are part of the cycling transportation network. Installing signs and pavement markings would in effect endorse biking on those roads, making the county liable.
In rejecting a request for a sign on Church Road, where drivers regularly honk at cyclists using full lane, DPW&T traffic engineer Cipriana Thompson said that "this is a use-full-lane situation," but disputed the research that R4-11 signs increase safety. Others at DPW&T suggest that cyclists who use the full lane do so for political reasons, rather than their own safety:
DPW&T cares about public safety and is concerned when members of the community take safety lightly or knowingly commit acts of high-risk behavior as a mechanism to achieve a public action.
Advocates and officials seek common ground

WABA and other advocates disagree with the view that cyclists should not ride on 2‑lane roads that are too narrow to share. But rather than debate the point, they plan to work with Hijazi on specific roads that he is willing to improve. Councilman Eric Olson (D‑College Park) supports a pragmatic approach: "I look forward to working with DPW&T and the bicycle community on the new signs."

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is also supportive. John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, who lives in Prince George's County, has seen first-hand the need for better signage. "When I drive to church on Sunday morning, I see a lot of bicyclists on Lottsford Vista Road," he observes.

"That road has been widened in some places, but parts are still narrow, and cyclists move into the lane there. We already have deer warning signs, so surely we should have signs to warn about vulnerable people in the roadway."

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George's County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George's on the state of Maryland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified. 

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Saw some signs on MD-450 yesterday and, as I was being passed over 60 mph by a lady in a Scion, I thought to myself "who in their right mind would ride a bike on this POS stroad?".

the sign came to symbolize a struggle between two schools of thought among traffic engineers

A struggle which, it seems, the "traditional" engineers are still winning. Again, I reiterate that the SHA has NO CLUE on how to handle the inner ring, streetcar suburbs, and is far too concerned with LOS than the people that live there.

by thump on Aug 6, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

In general, the white R4-11 signs are used when there are multiple lanes for motor traffic or when there is enough room in a lane for a car to give three-foot clearance while passing a bike riding toward the right side of the roadway. The yellow W16-1(3) signs are reserved for cases where providing that three-foot clearance would force motor traffic into opposing lanes, or when special circumstances dictate the need for the yellow signs (loss of shoulder, for example). Those are the general guidelines that SHA is using for the signs - I have to imagine that they'll change over time, just as many of the Administration's guidelines change year after year.

by cf101 on Aug 6, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

It's only a high risk situation because most drivers aren't aware of the law.

by drumz on Aug 6, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

Those signs are the equivalent of "We drive no the right, not on the left" and hence useless clutter. There is no need for more signs along the roads. There is a need for significantly less signs along the roads.

by Jasper on Aug 6, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

Signs like these tell people something they should know, but don't know. They are useful education.

Also very useful would be a sign "Yield to pedestrians in marked and unmarked crosswalks."

Getting rid of useless signs makes sense, but "drive with care" is a better target. As well as "walk with caution," especially when the sign is pointed at drivers.

by Ben Ross on Aug 6, 2012 5:16 pm • linkreport

Those signs are the equivalent of "We drive no the right, not on the left" and hence useless clutter.

The problem here is that everyone knows to drive on the right. There is a not insignificant number of American drivers who believe that bicycles on the road are not legitimate. Shoving a 4x3 foot sign in their noses may get the message across in an appropriately unsubtle fashion.

by oboe on Aug 6, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

I'm with Jasper on this. Less signs, more road reconfiguration so that speed/behavior is managed through psychological and physical means.
@Ben Ross-On RI Ave. NE there are "Yield to pedestrian" signs in the median of many intersections from RIA Station to the MD border and I have yet to see one obeyed. I stopped one time (the only time I've had a ped trying to cross in front of me) and was honked at mercilessly by the cars behind me while the other two lanes just kept whizzing by w/ the ped afraid to cross. The same happens on the MD side of the border in Mt. Rainier where there are no less than 8 "yield to ped" signs approaching the circle. They are rarely heeded, and if you don't just walk across (thus putting you in danger), no one will stop for you. I've been in the crosswalk and have had cars swerve into the other lane to go around me. On one night no less than 3 police cars didn't stop or went around me.

by thump on Aug 6, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks for your thoughts, as we refine what we discussed last week.

@thump: Of course, you realize that the answer as to why someone would ride on MD-450 is that bikes are prohibited on US-50. The alternatives add several miles. As mentioned in the article last week, M-NCPPC has asked SHA for a road diet. A Custis-like trail from the beltway to the Anacostia Trail is needed, but to date, M-NCPPC has been more interested in connecting Bowie to Odenton.

@cf101: That is what I would have guessed, until the white R4-11 signs were posted on Glenn Dale road last week. So maybe low traffic volumes are part of the equation too? Also, while that was my guess from speaking with Tom Hicks before he retired, I actually don't see this in the guidance. If you do, can you help me to see it?

@Jasper (and Ben Ross): I think these R4-11 signs are somewhat analogous to a painted crosswalk. (Jasper can indicate whether he thinks they are a waste of paint for similar reasons). They ought not be necessary, but they seem to do some good.

@Jasper and thump: The research showed that the signs Texas drivers to pass with greater clearance. Can you reconcile the research with your opinion that they do no good?

by Jim Titus on Aug 6, 2012 6:41 pm • linkreport

R4-11 signs were posted at every vehicluar traffic entrance of the University of Maryland's College park campus over a year ago. The campus speed limit is 20 mph, throughout the campus, and almost all lanes are too narrow to safely allow bicycles and motor vehicles to occupy them parallel to each other. Bicycles are entitled to full use of any lane and center-aligned sharrows will soon be added to reinforce this policy.

With over 4,000 bicycle parking 'spaces' on the campus and growing levels of bicycle traffic, UMCP encourages all road users to learn to share. Campus policies, master construction plans, and police practices all support education and enforcement efforts.

An added benefit is that UMCP graduates will be better educated and better experienced adult cyclists when they leave the campus. It's nice to see efforts to give those graduates better conditions to continue to use their bicycles throughout their lives.

by JB55 on Aug 7, 2012 7:39 am • linkreport

@ Ben Ross:Signs like these tell people something they should know, but don't know.

That is what public announcement campaigns are for. Not road signs.

Also very useful would be a sign "Yield to pedestrians in marked and unmarked crosswalks."

I'll second thump here. I pass many of those, and they all get ignored. I get nearly run over on a daily basis with plenty of those sings around.

There really is a problem with an overload of inefficient signs. A person can but process so many visual hints.

The problem with these signs is that they imply that bikes may only use the whole lane where these signs are shown. Which is nonsense.

@ Jim Titus:I think these R4-11 signs are somewhat analogous to a painted crosswalk. (Jasper can indicate whether he thinks they are a waste of paint for similar reasons).

No. Painted cross walks are a very efficient and logical visual reminder of what's going on. Much better than another cluttered and ignored sign along the road. Plus painted crosswalks do what they are supposed to do: indicate a place where pedestrians (and bikes) may cross. These signs create the impression that bikes may only use the whole lane here. Which is incorrect.

The research showed that the signs Texas drivers to pass with greater clearance. Can you reconcile the research with your opinion that they do no good?

I'd prefer sharrows, or the yellow signs warning for the presence of bikes. Those make more sense.

@ JB55:Bicycles are entitled to full use of any lane and center-aligned sharrows will soon be added to reinforce this policy.

But bikes are entitled to the full use of any lane anywhere. Not just where these signs are shown.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 9:27 am • linkreport

Just look at the amount of signs that a car driver gets to process here.


View Larger Map

All that while also dealing with merging traffic and choosing the right lane, and preparing for another split in the road, whichever way you go. I see more than ten signs, excluding road markings.

@ Jim Titus: There are two indicators of a pedestrian crossing. Which one is better? The painted stripes or the yellow sign that stands in front of another sign?

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

@Jasper. The view you express about sign clutter is accurate in some places, but probably not elsewhere. A related point, which Ben Ross also made, is that these may be more useful than some of the signs already along the road side. For example, although MD-953 has relatively few signs, it installed alot of no-parking signs a few years ago, even though no one ever parks there.

I agree that the analogy with painted cross walks is not perfect. I was thinking about your original point, that the signs are just repeating the law and may lead people to assume that the law only applies where the signs are posted. That is a problem with crosswalks as well, as many drivers do not realize that there are crosswalks at every intersection whether they are marked or not. The crosswalk does not tell pedestrians to assert their rights of way, they may choose to wait for cars to pass.

In some ways, sharrows are more like marked crosswalks, except that sharrows seem to be a more positive message to ride in the center of the lane (or wherever the sharrow is placed) while R4-11 just makes it an option. On a high-flow road like MD-450, a mid-lane sharrow may be a little more aggressive about encouraging cyclists to use full lane than the state wants to go. If there is a mid-lane sharrow and a cyclist chooses to ride to the right, a driver who negligently pulls out of a driveway and hits the cyclist could maintain that the cyclist is contributorily negligent for not riding in the center of a lane with mid-lane sharrows.

I will also add that to a large extent, R4-11 can simply replace Share the Road signs, so that instead adding to sign clutter, they replace a sign whose meaning is unclear with a more unambiguous message which actually tells most drivers something that they did not know.

Ultimately, we have to inform drivers that cyclists have the right to use full lane, because that is often the safest to be, and make sure that drivers understan why that is so. Whatever your alternative way of doing so might be, such as public service announcements, these signs do not prevent public service announcements. I actually started by revising the MD driver manual when I had the chance, because new drivers have not choice but to learn the new rules. But I think that the new signs will actually make it more likely that the passage in the Driver manual will be studied, because the new sign will be added to another page in the manual, ensuring that the message will show up twice. The sign is also sure to help reinforce the message of MD's in-progress police training video. And the GGW articles alone have generated coverage by drive-time radio shows on WMAL, WTOP, and WAMU (later in the week)

by Jim Titus on Aug 7, 2012 10:26 pm • linkreport

@JB55: If you are still following this, can you relate your comment about UMD to the planned sharrow project by the City of College Park which just got funded. Clearly, it would be useful to continue the R4-11 signs on Campus Drive accross US-1 onto Paint Branch Pkwy.

by Jim Titus on Aug 7, 2012 10:31 pm • linkreport

@ Jim Titus:Ultimately, we have to inform drivers that cyclists have the right to use full lane

That is true. More stringent driver's ed is start there, but does not read all people with a driver's license. I like PSAs and billboard campaigns better for reminders than street signs. Another idea would be to send people a brochure with new rules and reminders whenever they renew their driver's license. And of course, have that information standard on DMV websites.

You are right that 'no parking' signs are a massive addition to sign clutter. But that is an unfortunate result of the general rule that you can park anywhere, except where indicated. That rule would have to be inversed. Only parking allowed where indicated. That would save an infinity of signs.

by Jasper on Aug 9, 2012 9:49 am • linkreport

The larger issue is not the individual cyclist but the "teams" of middle-aged wanna be's and has beens, that believe their training for the Tour. These idiots are completely blocking the road and creating a hazardous situation. I live Potomac, MD, which these cyclist clowns could never afford to live, however they enjoy the winding roads, riding past the $1M homes and beautiful views. They probably bike down from their lousy apartment or townhouse in upper Montgomery County, while stopping off at the local Starbucks to show off their ridiculous riding costumes and make believe they are part of the Potomac circle. Grow up and get a clue, middle-aged fool!!!!!!

by Stan Thompson on Sep 22, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

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