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.
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.
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.
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.
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?