2022 | Transportation

With state reviewing Wheaton bike-lane project, some disagree on effectiveness, safety

Advocates believe pilot was success; skeptics opposed to the effect on turn lane

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A pilot project with bike lanes on University Boulevard from Amherst Avenue to Arcola Avenue ended in December. Many community members in Kemp Mill have expressed concern about safety of the lanes and how it removed a turn lane on Arcola Avenue.

From MDOT SHA

The Maryland State Highway Administration will host an online meeting on Wednesday to share details on a recent trial use of bike lanes in Wheaton.

For six months in 2021, the bike lanes were used on a 1.35-mile stretch of Md. 193, from Amherst Avenue to Arcola Avenue. The pilot project ended in December.

Although there has been support, not everyone has been convinced about its effectiveness. 

Kemp Mill residents have been concerned about the overall safety of the bike lanes, along with how the project took away a right-hand turn on Arcola Avenue on to University Boulevard, near the eastern terminus of the project.

Ira Ungar, past president of the Kemp Mill Civic Association, said in an interview that he is not against bike lanes. But the pilot project caused great disruption by eliminating the right-hand turn lane on Arcola Avenue, he said.

Ungar said that lane helps many residents in Kemp Mill connect to the state road, which gets them to Wheaton and many parts of the western side of the county.

Supporters, however, believe the pilot did not cause much disruption along University Boulevard and that the project greatly expanded access to bicyclists, pedestrians and others along the corridor. 

Tina Regester, a spokeswoman for SHA, wrote in an email that the pilot project was mainly meant to inform officials and give them a sense of how it and other similar projects would work in the future. 

“As we move forward with future accessibility projects for vulnerable users, a key takeaway is better balancing all the safety risks created with the improvements,” Register wrote. “The temporary changes made during the pilot at Arcola Avenue were implemented to ensure safety for both motorists and multimodal users in coordination with Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT).”

Ungar, however, believes that many residents did not feel the lanes were safe for bicyclists or pedestrians.

A local engineer suggested heavier plastic barriers for the lanes — perhaps filled with water or sand — and wrote a letter to SHA officials last May, but did not hear back, Ungar said. The barriers used in the pilot were plastic flex posts dividing the bike lanes from vehicle lanes.

Peter Gray, co-chair of the advocacy group Montgomery County Families for Safe Streets, is one supporter of the bike lanes.

In an interview, he said the lanes provided more of a buffer between bicyclists, wheelchair users, pedestrians and others, versus motorists on University Boulevard. In the past, those not in motor vehicles had to share limited space on the sidewalk off the road, he added.

Gray and Ungar also disputed how much the lanes were used — Gray thought use was considerable, while Ungar said he barely saw anyone using them. Regester wrote in an email that data at Wednesday night’s meeting would help answer this question. 

Outside of use and safety, Ungar said, the lanes needed to be better designed, and the Kemp Mill community needed to be alerted that such a project was being implemented.

“We have to be consulted before something is done that affects our traffic patterns,” Ungar said.  “And this affected a lot — every day, thousands of people were losing time.”

State Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Aspen Hill) said in an interview that she was disappointed that SHA officials did not alert her and other District 19 state lawmakers that the lanes were being built. 

Cullison emphasized that she supports the call for more protected bike lanes countywide. She said constituents in Kemp Mill want more bike lanes, but they were disappointed in the lack of communication from state officials and how the lanes were implemented.

Safety was also an issue, she said.

“The pilot was problematic because it wasn’t really safe for bikers and walkers, because those poles were not going to hold any car from getting into that lane,” Cullison said. 

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase), who represents District 18, said in an interview that he understands the concern of Kemp Mill residents, but sees room for compromise between supporters and opponents.

“From my non-traffic-engineering perspective, from what I saw, I think this helped with safety on University Boulevard,” Solomon said. “And the folks I talk to, absent the valid concerns that Kemp Mill [residents] raised, I think people appreciated it.”

Regester wrote that the early stages of COVID-19 made it tough to hold in-person meetings, but there were virtual meetings on the proposal before the pilot started, with the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee and Kemp Mill Civic Association. 

“In addition, we met with pedestrians and bicycle safety advocates several times before and during the project. In the future, we will be sure to improve advance communications and gauge interest with communities before moving forward with projects such as this,” she wrote.

SHA officials are scheduled to host a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday to release data on how much the bike lanes were used last year and to get feedback from residents. Comments can also be submitted online.

Regester wrote that SHA officials encourage feedback on this and suggest future bike lane pilot projects. Those requests can be sent via email to: shamd193bikelanes@mdot.maryland.gov

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