A Tragedy of Good Intentions
One of the city’s easiest cycling routes
is Manchester Road from Kingshighway to McCausland. The road here runs alongside a major rail line, so it’s fairly flat – while parallel routes north and south are full of hills. For almost all of this stretch, Manchester Road has two travel lanes in each direction and offers plenty of room for all traffic, regardless of speed. Sight lines are excellent. Motorists never have trouble changing lanes to pass. Unfortunately, only the cognoscenti know how great this section of Manchester is for bicycling. Perhaps others perceive this to be a “scary” arterial road, until they try it and discover that this section of Manchester is not intimidating at all.
MoDOT’s plan would destroy a perfectly good cycling route by manufacturing conflict and creating incivility on yet another public roadway.
Because this is my route of choice for many trips west, my ears perked up when I heard last month that the Missouri Department of Transportation was planning to re-stripe this section to accommodate bicyclists. With my day job and a vacation preoccupying my time, I did not request to see the plans until last week. But what I saw is alarming. If implemented, MoDOT’s plan will destroy a perfectly good cycling route by manufacturing conflict and creating incivility on yet another public roadway.
Here are the plans: MoDOT Proposed Route 100 Striping
Elements of this plan
are fine. The plan’s scope covers Manchester Road from St. Louis’ city limits east to Vandeventer. West of McCausland and east of Kingshighway in The Grove, the plan implements – with one glaring exception – best practices, by recommending that shared lane markings be placed in the center of already-existing travel lanes. Between McCausland and Kingshighway, though, it’s another story. Here the plan recommends bike lanes at dozens of intersection crossings and – most astonishing of all – a single eastbound “shared” lane more than one mile long going under Hampton between Dale and Macklind.
What’s wrong with bike lanes?
Engineering principles don’t vanish just because one of the vehicle lanes is for bicycles.
Many people think bike lanes are exactly what they need – until they use them. At intersections, bike lanes on the right edge of the roadway encourage cyclists to violate our traffic system’s cardinal principle, which is the concept of “First Come, First Served.” Every driver knows this rule: The first one at the intersection has the right of way. This right is not based on speed. Yet many motorists do not realize how fast cyclists can move. When motorists & cyclists meet up unexpectedly at intersections, usually and thankfully no one gets hurt. Instead there is only the garden variety grumbling that feeds incivility. Who has not heard about the “dumb-motorist-who-cut-me-off” or the “idiot-cyclist-who-blew-through-the-intersection! Didn’t-she-see-I-was-making-a-right-turn” (?!?)
At worst, though, is this:
This is what we call “manufactured conflict” – and totally unnecessary! Traffic engineering principles don’t vanish just because one of the vehicle lanes is for bicycles. Bike lanes typically create other issues as well, and the ones on Manchester will be no different. On the eastbound side, much of the bike lane is on the edge of the road, where debris tends to accumulate. This section of Manchester is a heavily-used truck route. Trucks tend to spew off even more debris than passenger vehicles. Flat tires, anyone?
On the westbound side, the plan calls for a seven-foot-wide curbside parking lane. Next to this would be the striping of a two-foot “buffer” lane, a five-foot-wide bicycle lane, a 10-foot wide travel lane for motorists, and a 10-foot-wide center turn lane. This striping proposal creates conflict on both sides for cyclists: Car doors typically swing open three to four feet, so a two-foot buffer is not wide enough to prevent “dooring.” Meanwhile, this striping plan places cyclists even closer than they are now to fast-moving motorists (the posted speed limit is 35 mph).
Avoiding doorings and debris are just a couple of the compelling reasons that cyclists may choose to avoid bike lanes. Yet the very existence of a bike lane on a roadway can cause a great deal of misunderstanding. Motorists believe that cyclists must use the bike lane – and be nowhere else on the road. (Want to witness an otherwise rational motorist become livid with rage? It’s easy. Just ride on a road with a bike lane – but dare not to use it.)
Given the traffic volume, this proposal calls for a truly astounding re-striping idea
Eleven blocks of incivility – or worse.
On the eastbound side of Manchester, the plan calls for a single “shared lane” that goes under Hampton between Dale & Macklind. If implemented, this reconfiguration is sure to provide a one-mile-long stretch of incivility for all users. A center turn lane is planned for this section, so motorists could use the center turn lane as a passing lane. But many are unaware that it is legal in Missouri to cross a solid-yellow line to pass an obstruction or slow-moving vehicle. I know of not a single cyclist who wants to hold up other traffic, yet this reconfiguration could force them to do so – or worse, ride on the right edge of the lane, which would invite dangerous same-lane passing.
The irony is that right now cyclists can easily use this section of Manchester, since motorists have another lane in which to pass a slow moving vehicle (i.e., a bicycle). Why would MoDOT would want to force motorists to “crawl” behind cyclists? Given the number of truck drivers who use this route, this striping plan is a recipe for rudeness:
Another feature of the single “shared” lane is that it crosses one of the city’s most dangerous rail crossings for cyclists. With the angle of these tracks on the roadway, cyclists can catch a wheel in them and crash. It would not be good to do so in front of a line of motorists.
If MoDOT implements the proposed striping plan
MoDOT will be able to check the appropriate boxes on Federally-mandated forms that money was spent on bicycle facilities. But MoDOT is not likely to “feel the love” from cyclists – or even encourage more to use this stretch of Manchester. Many cyclists are now well aware of the hazards associated with road-edge bicycle lanes, and consider these to be yesterday’s solution. (For cyclists who want segregated facilities, the fashionable trend is cycletracks, but that’s another story.)
When I’ve talked with others about this plan
The biggest surprise is that MoDOT proposes reducing much of Manchester between McCausland & Kingshighway to one travel lane for motorists in each direction. People ask: Why would they want to do this? One friend who lives in Dogtown asked, “Have there been any accidents? Are there problems with the configuration now?” Either she or I would be likely to hear of any bad news that involved cyclists; fortunately, neither of us have. Another cyclist observed: “Wow, they’re turning something simple and straightforward into something confusing and dangerous for all road users!”
Has MoDOT performed a traffic study to determine the real effects of reducing motorist capacity to one lane on Manchester, especially eastbound at Kingshighway? With the current two-lane configuration, the signalization at that intersection is often not long enough to move all the vehicles through. If there is any traffic at all I expect to sit through at least two signals while waiting to cross Kingshighway (whatever my mode of transport). Reducing motorist capacity can only make this situation worse.
Finally – the “glaring exception” alluded to above – MoDOT proposes shoehorning a 4-foot bike lane between two 11-foot-wide lanes on westbound Manchester at Kingshighway. This would encourage cyclists to violate other drivers’ right-of-way at a very busy intersection. There is a bus stop located here. Metrobuses are 11 feet wide. It’s just too tight. It would be far preferable (and far safer!) to paint shared lane markings, encouraging cyclists to simply take their place in traffic.
What, then, should be done?
MoDOT should could keep the current configuration and place shared lane markings in the effective center of the right travel lanes from McCausland to Kingshighway. When shared-lane markings, or “sharrows,” are placed in the “effective center” of a travel lane, they not only demonstrate the safest place for a cyclist to ride but are less subject to wear and tear, because the effective center of the lane is between the tire tracks of motor vehicles. Posting the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane – Change Lanes To Pass” would be helpful as well.
In the end, being expected and respected as a normal part of traffic really is as simple as that.
Postscript: I’ve been asked to provide contact information for MoDOT. Deanna Venker is the area engineer in charge of this project:Deanna Venker, PE
Area Engineer, City of St. Louis
Missouri Department of Transportation