2021 | Transportation

Bicycle advocates hope protected bike lanes pilot is just the beginning

State converted two traffic lanes to bicycle use for six months

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The pilot project runs on University Boulevard from Amherst Avenue to Arcola Avenue

Courtesy MDOT SHA

Local bicycle and transportation advocates are excited to see part of University Boulevard in Wheaton converted to protected bicycle lanes, hoping the 1.35-mile pilot project will spur similar projects countywide.

Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration (SHA) will turn state highway traffic lanes into protected bike lanes. It’s the first time part of an existing state road will be converted to those types of lanes, SHA officials said. 

The protected bike lanes opened on Friday and run from Amherst Avenue to Arcola Avenue, according to a news release. They will stay that way for four to six months, SHA spokeswoman Shantee Felix wrote in an email. 

The state will convert one eastbound and one westbound lane into protected bike lanes. Flexible posts will line the lanes, separating motor vehicle traffic from bikes.

Felix said pre-COVID studies showed that the 1.35-mile segment of University Boulevard could handle the project, with a moderate delay in vehicular traffic.

“This section of roadway presented the greatest benefit for both bicyclists and pedestrians by providing multi-modal enhancement from a great trail network such as the Sligo Creek Trail all the way to the Wheaton Central Business District,” Felix wrote in an email about why the location was chosen.

Alison Gillespie, an advocate for the project and co-founder of the Open Streets Montgomery Coalition, said in an interview that the Wheaton project is significant.

Gillespie said the state will collect data to see how much the bike lanes are used before deciding whether to make the protected lanes permanent or construct similar projects throughout the county and state. State officials will make that decision in early 2022.

“It’s exciting that State Highway is looking at multimodal transportation and incorporating that into their plans,” Gillespie said. “I think it’s really fantastic they want to look at another legitimate form of transportation — the bicycle.”

 

Felix said there aren’t any plans for a new pilot section, but that could change after the data collection.

The pandemic caused fewer people to drive, creating a good opportunity for the pilot program in Wheaton, Felix added.

Through SHA’s “Context Driven Guidelines,” officials are considering safety, land use, environmental issues, culture and community livability when planning and constructing transportation infrastructure like bike lanes.

“As an organization, we are always working to balance motorist and multi-modal demand along our roadways,” Felix wrote in an email. “Our new Context Driven Guidelines have given us a real tool to help assess and implement bike lanes wherever feasible.”

Gillespie and Peter Gray, another co-founder of the county’s coalition and a board member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said they sent a letter to SHA in June of last year. They proposed protected bike lanes on about 19 miles of state roads throughout Montgomery County.

There are nearly 100 miles of bike lanes, protected and unprotected, managed by the county’s Department of Transportation. That includes in municipalities and along other county roadways. Of that, there are 1.68 miles of separated lanes.

But those miles are separate from bike lanes along state roads, which are managed by the SHA.

Gray said some state roads in the county have bike lanes, but the difference with the Wheaton pilot project is it will offer protected lanes, separating them with a barrier from regular motor vehicle traffic, rather than relying only on markings on the road surface.  

Gillespie and Gray preferred the pilot project in Wheaton because a lot of residents in that area can’t afford cars, so they rely on bicycles and public transportation to get around.

They hope SHA officials consider extending the protected bike lanes all the way to College Park, once the pilot period is over.

“We want this to be a network of protected biking infrastructure, where everybody who is walking and biking along those roads can do so safely,” Gray said.

Gray is confident the data will show a demand for protected bike lanes on state roads.

He said SHA needs to see bicycles as a form of transportation, and not just a form of recreation, he said. 

State lawmakers and county residents will need to help, Gray said.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. Local advocates and some county and state elected officials will speak about the project at University Boulevard at Sligo Creek Parkway. Then, they will ride on the bike lanes to downtown Wheaton.

“I think that it’s going to take the political activism and support of the ordinary citizens of the county and the state to make this change,” Gray said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com