Members of the only cycling advocacy group in southern Delaware are trying to make their voices heard concerning Route 1 safety issues. And it appears state transportation officials are listening.
Pedestrian and bicycle safety has become a hot topic with the formation of a Route 1 task force and the announcement of a $6.5 million project to construct sidewalks, install street lighting and provide 12 new crosswalks along the Route 1 corridor.
Sussex Cyclists representatives have met with DelDOT and Delaware Transit Corporation officials two times this year, including an Aug. 26 meeting; another meeting is scheduled early in 2014.
Mike Tyler, a long-time advocate for Sussex Cyclists, said lines of communication have been opened between the cycling group and the Delaware Department of Transportation. “They need input from people who use the road and live here to tell them what they are not seeing,” Tyler said. “There are solutions if we work together.”
Group advocates change in classification
The ultimate goal of the group would be to see DelDOT lower the speed limit and reduce the width of Route 1 lanes to provide a separate bicycle lane. But that could be a pipe dream, at least in the near future. Under the current Route 1 configuration, the far lane on each side of the highway is shared by buses, bicycles and vehicles making right-hand turns.
Tyler said a change in classification of the roadway could pave the way for major changes. He explained that Route 1 is considered a rural highway, which allows for higher speed limits – the limit on most of Route 1 is 45 mph – and wider travel lanes. Tyler said a change to an urban classification would allow state transportation officials to reduce the speed limit and reduce the width of travel lanes. That could provide space for a bicycle lane separated from the travel lanes.
“We know the characteristics of an urban thoroughfare and Route 1 is not being treated that way,” Tyler said.
“Anything major like that would not happen until DelDOT repaves the road,” said Tony Pezone, former president and advocacy committee member.
In the interim, the group is advocating a change in how the shared lane is used by restricting cars and trucks from riding in the lane except to make right turns in specified areas. Tyler said that would require a change in the way the lane is marked by taking away the dotted white line and replacing it with a solid white line in most sections of the roadway. Vehicles would not be able to cross a solid line.
“The lane is abused by everyone and his brother,” Tyler said.
He and Pezone said during Sussex Cyclists summer safety pit stops they have witnessed numerous cars driving in the fourth lane for extended periods of time to make turns; others didn't turn at all.
“The dotted line is confusing and cars can cross it at any time,” Tyler said. “A solid line would create a real transit lane for buses and bikes only with very few areas for other vehicles.”
Tyler said DelDOT officials are considering their suggestion.
Tyler said Delaware State Police told the group that enforcing the current restriction for right-hand turns only has become nearly impossible because several cases have been dismissed in court.
Buses and cycling on Route 1
In addition, Sussex Cyclists would like to see the shared lane restricted to DART buses only and only Friday, Saturday and Sunday or during other heavy traffic periods.
Sussex Cyclists members say there is a history of lack of attention to their concerns dating back to the Route 1 expansion project in the mid-2000s. Part of that project was the addition of the fourth, shared lane.
“The shared lane was totally unacceptable,” Pezone said. After reviewing the plans and making suggestions, the group was told it was too late to make changes to the plan, he said.
As a concession, DelDOT officials told the group that buses would not use the shared lane Monday through Thursday except during high-traffic times. Pezone said that has never occurred. Now, he said, all types of buses use the lane, not just DART buses.
“Bus drivers have told us that it's their lane. They never heard the directive or ignored it,” Pezone said.
That's water under the bridge as far as the group is concerned. “Some people might say riding a bike on Route 1 is crazy, but bikes belong there and will always be there,” Tyler said.
Although neither Tyler nor Pezone would recommend that youngsters pedal along the busy highway, they agree cyclists can ride safely on Route 1. “You have to ride defensively and always be aware. I tell cyclists to take the lane, stay away from the debris zone along the curb and gutter and ride in the lane where the 'U' in bus route is,” Tyler said.
“As currently configured the road is less than ideal for bicyclists, especially with drivers improperly using the transit and turning lanes for through traffic,” said Mark Luszcz, DelDOT's chief traffic engineer. “We design roads for users that pay attention to traffic signs and obey traffic laws, but we understand drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians will often react poorly when congestion is prevalent. Others will react improperly, when they are not familiar with the area.”
Luszcz said both dynamics occur in beach towns; especially during the summer making the road challenging for everyone who uses it. “This is one of the main reasons we support the speaker's creation of the Route 1 Task Force and look forward to its continued deliberations,” he said.
No bicycles on DART buses
Because of the way DART buses are designed, many students who use their bikes to commute to work are forced to ride at night if they work late, Tyler said. DART buses can only accommodate two bicycles on racks in the front of the buses.
Sussex Cyclists suggested that cyclists be allowed to carry their bicycles with them at night when fewer people use buses. Tyler said the group was told it would create a dangerous situation and set a precedent. “They said they would have to do the same thing for buses all over the state; in other words one size fits call,” he said. “There is a great deal of inflexibility on this issue.”
Sussex Cyclists' views will be taken to task force
Tyler said he's surprised a Sussex Cyclist representative was not asked to serve on the new Route 1 task force, headed by House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. He said the group supports the upcoming Route 1 pedestrian safety project; Tyler said the crosswalks will work to slow down traffic. “This will urbanize the road even more,” he said. “Remember they have traffic lights every two blocks in Ocean City.”
Tyler said comments have been made about the possibility of a multi-model path for bikes and pedestrians away from traffic on one side of the highway. Tyler said because of numerous curb cuts and turn offs, motorists would not be expecting bikes and walkers coming from two directions at the same time. “This would create a more dangerous situation,” he said.
“We see a spark of hope and DelDOT wants to continue to meet with us,” Tyler said. “What has gone unseen by DelDOT is starting to be seen.”
Luzscz said thoughts and ideas expressed by Sussex Cyclists will be discussed during future task force meetings. In addition, he said, a safety audit of Route 1 will take place in the near future.
“Riding in the beach resort areas is something that should be as pleasurable and as safe as we can make it, while also recognizing the need for bike riders to share the roads with other modes, including cars, buses and pedestrians,” Luszcz said.
And as to major changes in the corridor? “Anything is possible, but it must make sense in terms of safety, traffic efficiency and finance,” Luszcz said.