Cycle tracks in small towns: North Beach, Maryland has one, but does it really work?

Do you remember the good old days of bicycle advocacy, back when the prevailing ambition was the introduction of bike lanes, buy applying solid stripes on the pavement?  If you’re older than twenty, you probably should remember those days; they weren’t that long ago.  As recently as the mid-2000s, the standard for bike-friendliness was bike lanes, and those bike lanes were perfectly satisfactory if they included a three-foot wide path, clearly marked through paint stripes and maybe a little bicycle emblem, all located usually the shoulder of the road, near either the curb on the on-street parking.  With this visually demarcated space, bicyclists would at last feel welcomed on the roads they had shared with dangerous, heavy, high-speed motorized vehicles.  They had a path of their own.

Advocacy organizations like People for Bikes have long used a carefully articulated methodology to assess bike-friendliness of various cities or even communities within cities.  But painted bike lanes comprise a diminishing share of their research and benchmarking for what constitutes a safe environment for biking.  Pushing for better bike lanes in urban settings just isn’t a major preoccupation anymore, for one simple reason: the bike advocates have found a better alternative to paint.

Protected bike lanes like the one above are better than stripes in almost every way, and their superiority is so axiomatic it hardly warrants explanation.  Of course they offer far greater protection from cars; the cars cannot cheat and lurch into the lane, a situation that can prove fatal for bicyclists who might still be minding their own business in their clearly striped little path.  Of course their visibility transcends any sort of paint atop pavement, which fades or wears over time, gets confusing around unconventional or busy intersections, and offers no real distance from cars that are parallel-parked on the street, particularly when dooring takes place—the infamous situation when a person in a car swings open the door right into that bike lane, smacking into an unwitting bicyclist coming by.  Protected bike lanes or cycle tracks guard against all of this.

protected bike lane (cycle track) in North Beach, MD

The examples photographed above come from North Beach, Maryland, a tiny vacation community along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  It’s a mere 40-minute drive outside the vast metropolitan expanse of Washington DC, yet small enough (under 2,000 permanent residents) that plenty of people in the DC metro are blithely unaware of it.  Though the town has marketed itself as a beachfront resort community with calmer waters than one would typically find along the Atlantic, the bigger splashier destinations of Rehoboth Beach, (Delaware) and Ocean City (Maryland) have long eclipsed North Beach.  (Much bigger wave action in those towns as well.)  Despite receiving a good drubbing from Hurricane Isobel in 2003, North Beach forged a path toward recovery that helped reassert its role as a quick weekend getaway, absent the hassle of crossing the Bay Bridge into the Delmarva Peninsula, where most DC and Baltimore residents prefer to catch some sun and sand.  Those who opt for North Beach are spared the often mind-numbing trip back west across the Bay Bridge, amidst all the traffic of people leaving coastal Delaware and Maryland on a late Sunday afternoon.

The ensuing years since that devastating storm suggest a general trajectory toward recovery at North Beach.  First of all, the postage stamp sized beach is thriving.

And on a late spring day, the boardwalk seems to yield good crowds as well. 

cycle track in North Beach

I’m willing to go out on a limb here and posit that those recovery-based investments included the cycle track featured in this photo series.  It’s definitely not new; the Google Street View dated September 2009 shows it looking more or less the same that it does today—except, of course, that the trees are much smaller.  But it’s not likely it predates the devastation of 2003’s Isobel, because the storm almost certainly damaged Bay Avenue (the pavement immediately near the waterfront) as well as the boardwalk.  Additionally, protected bike lanes weren’t at all common prior to 2003.  Not finding any overt reference to the date of the cycle track through online research, I can only surmise the the Town of North Beach constructed it between 2003 and 2009.  The trees were basically saplings at the time of the 2009 Google Street View.

Rookie-level forensics notwithstanding, I’ve also concluded that the North Beach cycle track is old by cycle track standards for one other critical reason: the sub-par design.

Take any isolated lateral street section of the cycle track, and it’s not so bad: it includes a grade separation from the boardwalk, allowing a clear distinction, and the bulky plantings separate it from the street, offering considerable landscaping and even shade from the now-mature trees.  But it fails at its most crucial function: to assert itself as a discrete path for bicyclists passing through the tiny town.  In the above photo, notice the figures in the distance on the cycle track; they’re just pedestrians walking in a zone intended exclusively for bicycles or other alternative transportation.  This condition is common.

waterfront cycle track in North Beach, MD

The painted indicators don’t seem to achieve anything; people sit on the edge of the landscaped barrier, lingering leisurely in the bike path.  The condition could function as a loose zero-sum-game, where pedestrians gain two discrete walking paths (the boardwalk and the adjacent cycle track) at the expense of the cyclist, who cannot safely use the cycle track because pedestrians are so lackadaisical about it.  But then, it doesn’t really matter because few cyclists are around to consume and thus to confer value to the cycle track.  And the absence of cyclists only incentivizes pedestrians to disregard the intended restrictions of the cycle track.  Thus, all that money on wooden planter barriers, soil, trees, flowers, shrubs, pots, etc seems all for naught.  Might as well have added a simple white stripe for the meager number of bicyclists that come by.

That’s not the only fault, however; after all, reasonable enforcement would be all it would take to restore the cycle track to its intended user.  Warn the peds not to walk on the cycle track, and issue a citation if they continue to disobey.  But it still probably wouldn’t matter, because, on the north end of the board walk, Bay Avenue blithely enters North Beach’s tiny central business district: a cluster of local shops at a single intersection.

But the cycle track resumes for this block, and on that side of Bay Avenue (the side closest to the water) it doubles as the sidewalk.

It still features the planters that signal a protected bike lane, but at this point bicyclists and pedestrians have no choice but to “share the road”, even though the protected nature typically indicates to bicyclists that they get favored treatment.  And, worst of all, the point where the beach boardwalk ends and the urban “downtown” portion of Bay Avenue begins is completely ambiguous.

The path for pedestrians and the path for bikes just spill out into a general shoulder.  Broad though it may be, it creates an easy point for conflict between bicyclists and pedestrians, as if there weren’t enough already.  And then, several feet further to the north, it once again becomes a cycle track…but there’s no separate sidewalk for pedestrians.

sidewalk and cycle track in North Beach, MD

The bicyclist in the second photo—a rare sight, I’ll confess—not only is biking on a dedicated space that unwitting pedestrians may also use, but it’s just inches from the entrances of these houses, so their front access is through a cycle track!  This condition only exists for a couple hundred feet (if even that), which is probably why the designers could get away with it.  But I’ve never seen anything like this before.

I hate to be a crank who criticizes good-faith efforts to expand opportunities for alternative transportation, especially in small towns, all the more when they feature a waterfront space that should capitalize on recreation and walkability.  But I’m not sure that urban planners, bicycle advocates, or transportation engineers have yet reached a comfortable end-state in the design of protected bike lands.  As a Greater Greater Washington article indicates, a debate continues to rage on what the appropriate name for these increasingly common features should be: cycle track or protected bike lane?  Separated bike lane, or buffered?  While the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) prefers cycle track, it does convey a dedicated space where cyclists can and even should go as quickly as possible, like a track for runners.  Protected bike lane is more intuitive—most people can figure out what it means—but it’s wordy, and it can encompass a gamut of protections, from the thick, sturdy but poorly conceived one here in North Beach to its opposite in nearby Washington DC—“protected” only by flimsy bollards but conceived to work effectively within a larger network of lanes, paths, and—ahem—cycle tracks.

This North Beach effort is a minor disappointment that is unlikely to result in any major mishaps.  The whole cycle track initiative is only a half mile long—the same longitudinal length of North Beach as a whole.  And it generally looks very attractive.  But it then begs the question as to whether or not it was a wise investment.  It doesn’t really link to anything else; the larger town of Chesapeake Beach immediately to the south doesn’t offer anything similar, nor does it feature the same waterfront configuration to support it.  Was the post-Isobel cycle track A) an attempt to collect bicycle advocacy brownie points?  Was it B) a desperate attempt to find a use for some ESF-14 long-term community recovery funding through an implementable bicycle plan?  Or is it yet another example of C) moving the goalposts to an always just-out-of-reach urban utopia, coming from people who banged the drum about bike lanes in the 1990s and now persistently shout “mere bike lanes are just the beginning”?

How about D – all of the above?

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12 thoughts on “Cycle tracks in small towns: North Beach, Maryland has one, but does it really work?

  1. Chris B

    This got me thinking about The Cultural Trail in your home metro. It is “combined use” in several places…but my experience on Alabama St. where it is separated has been pretty consistent. Despite clear bike and ped marked separated sections, cyclists sometimes ride on the sidewalk and pedestrians sometimes walk on the bike track.

    The pedestrian walks, logically, are up next to the buildings where sidewalk used to be, and the bike tracks are where one lane of street pavement was removed. The bike track is nearest to street parking, which probably encourages drivers to walk to their destination on the closest paved surface. The ped walk sections connect straight on to the mixed use sections so I imagine that contributes to cyclists “riding on the sidewalk”.

    And then, of course, there is the missing piece in front of the Conrad Hotel where the sidewalk is used by the hotel as a loading and valet parking zone for several hundred feet. That’s akin to the abrupt transition you described in “downtown” North Beach.

    Reply
    1. Brian M

      Chris: Browse the amusing YouTube Channel “One Cyclist in Lisbon” Among other things, he has an amusing take on clueless pedestrians taking over cycling paths. My other pet peeve is pedestrians who meander four abreast, blocking BOTH lanes of the cycle track!

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    I guess my point is this: even a big-city, big-budget, state-of-the-art bike trail suffers some of the same shortcomings as its small-budget, small-town cousin.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      IMO, protected bike lanes are still a novelty within the transportation engineering world, and engineering is–justifiably–a profession that is apprehensive to modify time-tested practices. Removing a lane of traffic would have been unthinkable as recently as 1995, and the forces shaping that cycle track differ from block to block, based on traffic flow, curb cuts, density of pedestrians, even the use or tenancy of the buildings abutting it (which are subject to change). It’s understandable that a network as large as the Cultural Trail will have some weak spots, despite being generally carefully conceived. And let’s not forget political influences, like the Conrad segment. (Which I was hoping had been handled and “fixed” by now. How naïve of me!)

      The North Beach cycle track fundamentally looks good. But it was a huge investment in looking good for a final product that simply shows few actual users. The height of the landscape boxes (is there a better name for those) almost makes it impossible to see when approaching it from other perpendicular streets, and it has only a few breaks–I think about seven–across its entire length, so it’s almost like a limited access highway…difficult to enter or exit, compared to the flimsy but fully open nature of bollards, which allow more flexible ingress and egress. It seems more like a vanity project in the long run. I suppose would could argue the CT is a vanity project as well–certainly intended to elevate the profile of its city. But there’s visible utility and almost everyone would say it has improved bikability in Indy over the long-term.

      Reply
  3. Brian M

    Maybe the real problem is the insistence on elaborate capital improvements (I have no hope for a Dutch system of vast networks of connected trails and paths with cycling the priority) The real problem may be simply the insistence on free flowing FAST automobile travel in busy neighborhood settings. You might not need elaborate paths if cars are driving 15 mph.

    The other problem I have is exemplified in the bicycling-oriented university city of Dais, CA. Davis has an amazingly complete network of paths, especially on the university campus but not exclusively so. They recently completed a short (well under a mile) stretch of expensive, complex, concrete cycle tracks in a stretch of strode (Mace Bld) where I doubt there is much bicycle traffic anyway? It sure looks impressive, though. My problem is the complete, well-used network of bicycle paths is often in a terrible state. Rather than spending tens of thousands on a half mile of “infrastructure” they should be cleaning up the root damage and repaving the existing, well used paths! But that is not as “prestigious” and a maintenance job doesn’t offer ribbon cutting ceremony opportunities or grants!

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Bingo. For a locality, state and federal grants may pay most of the cost of a new installation. But then…maintenance that the municipal government must pay 100% of. Or defer. Guess which happens most of the time.

      At least for car infrastructure there is some gas tax money allocated for maintenance.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Sounds very similar to the vanity bike lane conditions at North Beach (Maryland again, not SF). Granted, the one in Maryland looks great because it gets no use and, I suspect, has seen little to no expansion in the proceeding years. Probably in part because there’s no place in the municipality for it to expand; the entire town is one-third of a square mile in size!

          Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      From what I recall in Amsterdam, the network isn’t elaborately landscaped or filled with smart bicycle-only signage and signals; it’s just comprehensive. And my experience in Copenhagen (an even better bicycle city, at least from my observations) is that the cycletracks work much like the ones in North Beach in terms of a curb cut separating them from the sidewalk on one side, and the street on the other. But they’re very plain jane–no landscaping, but it is almost universally understood that they are reserved for bikes, so pedestrians need to hustle across them when going from sidewalk to street. If they don’t they’ll get plowed over because they’re very well used.

      Obviously there are so many other variables in these two cities: significantly greater population density (both in the urban area and nationwide), high taxes on fuel/vehicles that make car ownership more of a luxury, at least among the young (it was noticeable how much the bicyclists in Copenhagen skewed under 40). In Denmark, a household that owns more than one car is perceived as a bit on the posh side. And, of course, the attention to smart, purposeful connectivity–thinking a bike path all the way through, from intersections and crossovers to ease of parking.

      What happens when one or more of these variables are absent? We get examples like this one, shared to through an urban forum of which I’ve been a long-term member. This may be the single most stupidly conceived bike lane I’ve seen in the US. At least it didn’t cost much.
      https://clips.twitch.tv/LazyBigVelociraptorTwitchRPG-eQKliMyfNEgtHM7x

      Reply
  4. Alex Pline

    Cool to read your take on places I am really familiar with! A few comments on this:

    1. I am almost certain that infrastructure existed prior to 2003. We ride through North Beach many Saturdays during the summer and I’ve been doing that since 2003 and it has always been there to the best of my recollection (which is sadly not foolproof at 60 years old).

    2. While it may be sort of “useless” in the sense it isn’t connected to any wider network around North Beach and its southern neighbor Chesapeake Beach, where there is a water park and presumably one might want to ride between the two, I think the real value beyond perhaps a safe place for a 5 year old to ride for 1/4 mile is that it narrows the street along the boardwalk so cars must drive slowly (enhanced by the speed bumps).

    As you mention one can only speculate the reasons this was installed, but regardless it’s not an expensive investment as the pavement would have been there as part of the street anyway, so it’s really the cost of the planters that create the separation. Seems like a pretty cheap way to narrow the street even if that is not the original intent. After all, despite planners best intentions to plan, “getting it right the first time” is almost impossible, but who cares if it is not expensive and ultimately has some other value that was not part of the original intention. So I take a little less of a skeptical view on this. Now if it were some super expensive thing that was useless, that’s another story (such as this: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/3/1/complete-street-check-waste-of-money-check).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Interesting to think how old that infrastructure might actually be, Alex. That would put North Beach at the forefront of cycle tracks. And I’d agree it’s hardly the most egregious example…but it’s an awful lot of infrastructure for such a tiny municipality. And it does require regular maintenance (groundskeeping), since it’s represents a half-mile band of landscaping that requires regular attention, all for a dedicate lane that doesn’t get enough use that pedestrians even really know what it is. And it seems like an “insider” thing: only people familiar with the area will necessarily use it, while anyone approaching it from one of the perpendicular streets can’t tell what it is. However, it is very well maintained and it looks very nice. The trees have matured and are almost generating shade–part of the “unintended value” you reference, since if they were normal street trees planted in the tiny strip (terrace) between the sidewalk and the street, most of them probably would have gotten taken down by now.

      And it’s definitely better than that example your cite in Obetz, which has to be the most fatuous intersection upgrade I’ve ever seen. Sheesh. About the only justification I can determine is that it promotes ease of passage at a tricky, busy intersection, where a lot of people will need to turn northword along Alum Creek Drive to get on to I-270, and this could prevent bottlenecking. But it creates a needless complex variant on the “Michigan right” that is going to confuse people who are new to the interchange. And it still isn’t even all that good for bikes or pedestrians!

      At first, I thought the saving grace to this Obetz design was that at least a speed bike association could use the loop pattern for a fun little criterium. But then I realized that the original Alum Creek/Groveport intersection is blocked by bollards and a media, so cars are forced to make right turns or detour using the whole Grover Port extension road and overpass. So no criterium. This seems like the sort of needlessly complicated approach that a German traffic engineer would use. And what a huge waste of money!

      Reply

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