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Posted by on Aug 12, 2013 in General | 10 comments

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:

Conflict zone!

Bike lane proposed here on eastbound Manchester. Currently motor vehicles sweep the lane of debris and push it onto the sidewalk

Bike lane proposed here. Motor vehicles currently sweep the lane of debris and push it onto the sidewalk. Where will the debris go once motor vehicles are no longer “sweeping” the road?

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?

This vehicle, parked in the proposed 7-foot-wide parking lane, is 8 feet wide, exclusive of its mirrors

This vehicle, parked in the proposed 7-foot-wide parking lane on westbound Manchester, is 8 feet wide, exclusive of its mirrors

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:

Rail crossing on Manchester

Because of its angle, this is one of the most dangerous rail crossings for cyclists in the city. Yet this is a feature of the proposed eastbound single “shared” lane with motorists

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.

The re-striping plan calls for shoehorning a four-foot bike lane westbound on Manchester at Kingshighway

The re-striping plan calls for shoehorning a four-foot bike lane into this mix of traffic (westbound on Manchester at Kingshighway)

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?

Shared Lane MarkingMoDOT 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.

This is a win-win solution – and a lot less expensive! Capacity is not reduced for motorists, yet the message is very clear: Expect bicyclists. Change lanes to pass.BMUFL sign

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
314.877.0118
Deanna.Venker@modot.mo.gov
@StLcityEngineer
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10 Comments

  1. So…what is the process? Is this something that is still proposed? Is there still an advocacy group working to deal with this? How do we get this overcomplicated rube-goldberg solution to a non-problem resolved?

    • I don’t know the process, Chris. I know that Deanna Venker is MoDOT’s area engineer in charge of this project. I will send you her contact info via email.

  2. Every point you make against this proposed road “improvement” is spot on. Thank you for taking the time to research this and bring it to light.

    Clearly, MoDOT put a lot of time into this plan. Unfortunately, as proposed, the plans make things worse for all users by engineering delay for motorists and creating conflict points and multiple danger zones for bicyclists.

    I hope they are willing to do the right thing: file these plans in the circular bin and implement a simpler, cheaper, and more effective solution: sharrows and the “May Use Full Lane” signage.

  3. Thanks so much for bringing this to public attention. I live in Dogtown and have used this stretch of Manchester for commuter cycling often. With the current double lanes of traffic in both directions there is plenty of room for cyclists to ride safely in the right lanes and motorists to pass in the left lanes; the road is shared smoothly. This plan would be a detriment to cyclists and motorists alike.

  4. MoDOT is following the recommendations of the Gateway Bike Plan, improvements which are also at the behest of local aldermen.

    As for my opinion, I disagree with you general disposition on bike lanes, but you do have good points on some of the potential ramifications of this plan.

    • I’m aware of this, Herbie. I also believe that everyone makes mistakes. It’s not too late to change course.

  5. Thanks for researching this so thoroughly, Karen.
    It does appear that MoDOT may have good intentions but they are going off the track by including bike lanes and reducing travel lanes on this stretch of road. They may have done traffic counts and concluded that two lanes are sufficient for current motor vehicle demand and are implementing a “Road Diet,” which I view as a fad generally adversely affecting on-road cyclists like you and me.
    It’s really important to get this from the horse’s mouth, though, i.e. from MoDOT. Otherwise it’s guesswork and potentially not very productive.

  6. I’ve now viewed part of the proposed Manchester restriping just west of Kingshighway where the configuration includes two 5 ft bike lanes, each with a 2 ft buffer, and two 12 ft travel lanes.
    What I didn’t recall seeing in your description was the inclusion of a 14 ft two-way left turn lane between the two through lanes.
    This configuration, with or without bike lanes, appears to be gaining acceptance as part of so-called “Road Diet” efforts. They are usually justified on various grounds, including claimed reduction in traffic accidents, and traffic counts.
    I attended a presentation before the Ferguson Traffic Commission earlier this year where a similar 3-lane configuration was proposed to replace the existing 4-lane striping in downtown Ferguson. If implemented, that would mean the removal of the two curb lanes which only recently were painted with “sharrows” over which you rode on Tuesday!
    Not only that, but one proposal was for the center turn lane to be reserved for emergency vehicles!
    Clearly, no thought was given to its impact on bicycle transportation, but the Traffic Commission was happy to approve it.

  7. Restriping is under way, according to the original plan. Single shared lane eastbound, 7′ parking lane, “safety zone”, and bike lane westbound. As of last week-end, stripes were down but bike lane markings had yet to be painted. I rode the stretch between Sublette and Tamm.

    • So what did you think, Jim?

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