Tuesday, May 4

Shoulders Make a WORLD of Difference

Texas Highway 170 as it Exists - Eye Line is About Where
I Ride - Following "The Land Rover Rule"
This Riding is OK? It's Either This or a Hike Through the Buffalo Pasture!
I see a lot of discussion about the shoulder on Texas 287, and whether or not Reed Bates AKA “ChipSeal” should have been riding on it. These discussions neglect the way Texas and its citizens treat these highways and “Farm to Market” roads, many of which are built to similar standards. In truth, the presence or absence of a shoulder makes a difference to any cyclist traveling on a high speed road right of way, regardless of his or her choice about where to ride within that right of way. This post does not address whether a cyclist should ride on the shoulder or in the traffic lane, on a high speed road, when that road HAS a shoulder. My personal opinion is that circumstances vary, and the safety call should remain with that of the person whose butt is on the seat. THIS post addresses how the presence or absence of a shoulder changes things in a real and tangible way.

I ride the Alliance Gateway Freeway each day to work. Texas Highway 170. The portion I ride is much like the high speed portion of Texas 287 Reed was ticketed on, except that it has evolved beyond where Texas 287 is today. Texas 170 has THREE lanes in each direction because its shoulder was converted into a third traffic lane.

Texas Highway Planning Includes Shoulders
Many suburban and rural roads in Texas, like Highway 287, are constructed with two traffic lanes in each direction, but with an improved shoulder wide enough that the road can be easily converted to three lanes in the future if traffic patterns make it advisable. This is frequently done on FM roads in suburban areas. For example, FM 1709, in Keller, has three lanes in each direction. It was converted from five lanes with a wide shoulder to seven lanes around 2007. FM 1938 was converted in 2008. Both are on my commute route, but both were converted before my new commute started so I can’t provide a clean “before/after” narrative.

If Ellis County continues to grow, and traffic outgrows the four-lane 287, it might be converted to six lanes in the future. If that had already happened, Reed would ride in what is now the shoulder without complaint, he would not have been ticketed, and there would be no heated Internet forum discussions. So, what’s really different? It seems illogical to presume that Reed would impede traffic LESS if there were no shoulder; it also seems illogical to presume that what USED to be a shoulder has suddenly become safer for him.

Four Reasons Why Shoulders Change Things for Cyclists
The first is that motorists are much more accepting of ANY cyclist (or other slow traffic) riding in a traffic lane if they do not see a “nice” alternative. I have NEVER been harassed in any way or honked at while riding on Texas 170. I have NEVER experienced a close pass while riding on Texas 170. There are two other bike commuters in my building that also ride that road. Their experience is identical. If the road suddenly acquired a “nice wide shoulder,” does anybody think I’d be able to say that if riding the traffic lane and NOT that shoulder? I never claimed my motorists are entirely rational.

So, what ABOUT that shoulder/lane? At the instant the shoulder is converted to a traffic lane, changes take place. The most obvious is that motorists start to legally use the new lane. These motorists keep it swept free of debris. It also causes some cyclists to experience nostalgia for the “good old days” if they previously preferred to ride ON that shoulder. Given a choice, some might decide to take alternate routes.

The third change is less obvious – at the moment the shoulder is converted to a lane, it enters the primary attention zone of crossing and overtaking traffic as PART of the roadway. If you are a motorist looking to cross such a road, your strongest attention will (and should be) focused on the traffic lanes, because those are where the danger lies. Any shoulder gets less attention, because traffic is only rarely ON the shoulder. In truth, this affects ANY cyclist riding on a right-of-way with a shoulder, because he has a choice between riding on the shoulder, where people have a reduced attention focus, or the lane, which people pay a lot of attention to but where they have been conditioned to expect a cyclist will not ride given a “nice” alternative. The perception of these relative risks, along with the debris, is why different cyclists will make different choices and why those may change with differing traffic situations. In truth, there truly is NOT one answer that is correct for all situations, which is partly why the law provides discretion TO the cyclist. I hate to say it, but Texas lawmakers DO get things right some of the time. It’s also why veterans survive better than new cyclists.

The fourth change is subtle. When a shoulder is converted to a traffic lane, maintenance changes as well. The traffic people now must keep that former shoulder up to a standard compatible with the rest of the road. Road users get really NASTY if two lanes of a three lane road are smooth and nice while the third lane shakes their teeth out, or it suddenly becomes a turn lane with no warning signage. Cyclists riding between Waxahachie and Ennis are rare enough that flats and discomfort on a shoulder do not get politicians thrown out of office. While I have not done any formal study, I suspect shoulders used in the HH100 receive a LOT of attention in the weeks prior to that event.

Aggies Say “Break ‘em Off!”
So, how might Texas “fix” Highway 287 and make it safer for cyclists? Well, one solution would be to simply amputate its shoulders by converting it from a four lane road to a six lane road. Texas does not do this for one simple reason – traffic volumes on Highway 287 south of Waxahachie do not justify that expense. Given the distances in rural Ellis County, dedicated cyclist infrastructure is not a real practical notion. I guess the other solution would be to figure out how we can all share the road harmoniously. I will leave THAT to the cycling forums!

Texas 170 if it Were Striped the SAME WAY as Texas 287
Where ChipSeal was Ticketed - Exact Same Riding Position
In What Way is Traffic Impeded Differently by the Cyclist?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shoulders are more useful when there are few side roads. I have about 5 miles of 2 lane with 6' shoulder then a guardrail in west Houston. I move over onto the shoulder to let cars pass, then take the lane when approaching the few side roads. The cars and I get sling fine. My risk is drunks, texters and pinball accidents that could pinch me on the guardrail.

Often, there a Texas shoulder is an acceptable place to be.

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