Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mandatory Sidepath Legislation in the Transportation Bill

The recent Senate version of the Transportation Bill is a serious infringement on cyclists' road rights in the form of a mandatory sidepath law that states,
The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road unless the Secretary determines that the bicycle level of service on that roadway is rated B or higher.
Briefly, if the Secretary decides that a road fails to meet an arbitrary standard more related to comfort than safety and there is a  paved path within 100 yards, then the Secretary can prohibit bicycles from that road regardless of the path's maintenance and construction standards.

John S. Allen is leading a charge against the discriminatory bill and you can find his letter to a Senator with additional information and opinions on this linked page.  I highly recommend reading his take on the issue.  Below are a few additional comments and points I want to emphasize.

By no means am I an expert on Bicycle Level of Service (BLOS) or its alternatives, but it appears to be a tool for transportation people to design an appealing bicycle network for ordinary folks as opposed to a rigorous standard based optimizing safety and convenience.  Playing with this BLOS calculator suggests that virtually any park road without a bike- or wide-outside-lane will fail to attain a B rating and be prohibited to cyclists at a Secretary's whim if a paved path is within a 100 yards of the road.  Simply based on personal anecdotes, the general public is unfamiliar with the safe-cycling literature and often misguided regarding conditions leading to meaningful differences in cycling risk.  In short, I would expect perverse decisions such as the example of Mount Vernon presented later.

The term "bicyclist" includes a variety of individuals such as children, occasional riders, and experienced adult riders.  Not surprisingly, a rider's safest route from point A to B can vary across these people.  But perhaps less obvious is that the safety of other side path users are at stake, as well.  Judging from local facilities, there are many multi-user paths where for everyone's safety and convenience, the experienced road cyclist should stay on the road.

Fundamentally, if a road alternative is safe and convenient choice under present conditions, then the experienced cyclist will take the alternative.  With this in mind, under the present wording of the bill, the National Park Service -- or whoever is in charge of the side path and road -- has no incentive to improve conditions for bicyclists on either the road or side path.  The bottom line is that people who regularly ride bicycles are no fools and are generally the best prepared to evaluate alternatives.  The riders also have the most to gain or lose.  Taking the decision out of their hands and putting it in the care of an administrator can only make the situation worse.

The Washington DC area has a good example where the National Park Service has prohibited bicyclists from the scenic road adjacent to the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

At that location, the Mount Vernon Trail is steep, narrow, lots of sharp curves, poor lines of sight, poorly maintained, lined with trees, and with deep ditches just to make things exciting. Moreover the multi-use trail is used by pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. I know of no official statistics of how many cyclists are rescued from those ditches every year -- they are very deep -- but in non-winter months reports of such incidents on local forums occur on a regular basis. The road is well-maintained with good lines of sight and two lanes to facilitate passing. Nonetheless, NPS has made cycling on this stretch of road illegal. Also notice that for a lot of trips, taking the scenic road is much faster and convenient.

In my opinion, it's obvious that for most cycling adults, the scenic road is much safer. But everyone is entitled to their own perspective and should choose the alternative they think best.  Now this is just one example that I'm familiar with and cataloging these examples broadly would be very time intensive.  However, across the internet people are pointing out examples where our road rights can be greatly infringed.  Broadly, do we really want people that may or may not have any real cycling experience or knowledge making these decisions for us? Do we want people who may or may not have our interests in mind making these decisions for us? In my opinion, the answer is an obvious no.