Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Outdated Standards are Allowing New Jersey to Avoid Designing Safe Streets for Bicyclists

Last week the New Jersey Department of Transportation announced plans to reduce the travel lanes and create shoulders on Black Horse Pike (Route 168). This will affect a one-mile section in Mt. Ephraim and Haddon Heights between Merchant Street and I-295.

On one hand, this will be a major improvement for bicyclists over the current wretched conditions on Black Horse Pike (many bicyclists used the sidewalk/driveways/parking areas). However, it continues a pattern of NJDOT claiming that shoulders are sufficient infrastructure to make a street bike-friendly and complete street-compliant. They are not. NJDOT is exploiting an outdated standard for bicycle infrastructure, one made further outdated by a 2012 NJ Supreme Court decision involving a bicyclist killed on the shoulder of an Essex County road.

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Unlike PENNDOT which created an onerous process to include bike lanes with the bikeway occupancy permit, NJDOT has no such constraint. In fact new bike lanes appeared earlier this year on Route 45 in Woodbury, Route 41 (Kings Highway) in Cherry Hill, and last month on Route 47 in Clayton and Glassboro.

New Jersey DOT's has set up a process to assure the implementation of complete streets on state roads. Every project must be reviewed by the Agency's bicycle and pedestrian office. There is also a checklist and a manual. The implementation of this process has created some success stories, probably none more impactful than the Route 52 causeway between Ocean City and Somers Point. Merchants in Somers Point have reacted so positively to the new Route 52 that the causeway is just begging for an economic impact study.

But hopes have vanished that NJDOT's policy would be a catalyst for a rapidly-expanding network of bike lanes on state roads. Instead, project managers are exploiting a big loophole in the state's "bicycle compatibility standards" that allows them to duck installing bike lanes. This loophole is caused by a horribly outdated chart.

NJDOT's Bikeway Planning and Design Guidelines defines the term "compatible roadways" thus:

Compatible Roadways - Roads which have design features which allow a competent bicyclist to safely share the roadway with motor vehicles. Compatible roadway design guidelines differ based on traffic volumes speeds and environmental setting. Because advanced bicyclists can be anticipated to use most of the roadways in the state, it is important that all roadways be designed as compatible for bicycle use.

The Compatible Roadways chart below outlines the minimum requirements for a road to be considered bike-friendly. These standards would make old-school traffic engineers raise toasts to John Forester's birthday (October 7th).

The bicycle compatibility chart shows how easy it is
to meet state guidelines (click to enlarge)
For those not familiar with NJDOT charts, here's what this chart proscribes:

For a road with 31-40 mph traffic and truck volume of over 5% (such as Black Horse Pike), NJDOT standards say a 14-foot shared lane is sufficient to consider the road a "compatible roadway" for bicycles. To repeat: as long as a lane is 14 feet wide, bicyclists should be fine sharing the lane with trucks driving 40mph.

Bike lanes can be a heavier lift due to reasons that we covered repeatedly here in the past. So it's no surprise that engineers will opt for shoulders or wide outside lanes to meet the complete streets mandate. Shoulders are not sufficient for bicyclist: they encourage on-street parking, can vary in width or disappear without notice, and most importantly do not guide bicyclists through intersections

If that isn't enough to convince you otherwise then consider this. In 2012 a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling (Polzo v. County of Essex) invalidated NJDOT's bicycle compatibility standards. In 2001 Mathi Kahn-Polzo died as a result from losing control of her bicycle by riding over a 2 inch depression in the shoulder of a county owned road. After a decade of litigation Supreme Court court ruled that Essex County was not liable in her death. What was a victory for municipal liability proved to be a disturbing wake-up call for NJ bicyclists, thanks to an excerpt in the decision of the case:

Bicyclists do not have special privileges on a roadway’s shoulder. Indeed, a bicycle rider is directed to ride on the furthest right hand side of the roadway, not on the roadway’s shoulder. The Motor Vehicle Code does not designate the roadway’s shoulder as a bicycle lane.

State legislation is needed to change Section 39 of the New Jersey Statutes to grant bicyclists those "special privileges". It is one of many recommended changes to the state's vehicle code, a code which consistently gets poor reviews by people versed in bicycle and pedestrian law (e.g. a bicycle is not a vehicle in New Jersey). Sadly, so far the New Jersey legislature has not taken any action on this.

In the 1990's NJDOT's bicycle compatibility chart filled a void by providing minimal but solid guidance for addressing bike accommodation within the department. But that chart is now seriously outdated, and allows NJDOT to pass off roads without bicycle facilities as complete streets. It is now time to formally adopt the current AASHTO and NACTO bikeway design manuals, to ensure that bicyclists safety and comfort is adequately addressed in complete streets implementation.

What if bike lanes were an option?