Martha’s Vineyard Transportation Plan tackles bicycle safety

The plan proposes shared-use paths and educational campaigns to address problematic bike safety on the Island.

A map of the Martha's Vineyard Bike Network Plan as of 2014. — Courtesy of M.V. Commission

On any given day on Martha’s Vineyard, bicyclists of all ages and skill sets take to the Island roads for pleasure, exercise, or transportation. On warm summer days, shared roads and paths can become quite congested, leaving the rules of the road and safety concerns by the wayside.

On June 19, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission released a draft version of the Martha’s Vineyard Transportation Plan 2015-2040 (MVTP), which outlines long-range transportation plans, goals, and strategies working “within estimated federal and state funding to establish priorities for improvements to the Island transportation systems.”

Within the 139-page document is a plan to improve the Island’s network of bike paths, more technically referred to as off-road bicycle accommodations — shared-use paths that accommodate any mode of nonmotorized transportation.

The recommendations included in the report follow the publication on June 2 of the results of a transportation survey that included 119 responses on a range of transportation issues.

Off-road bicycle accommodations ranked fourth in a list of 15 concerns, behind ferry service (1), road safety (2), and pedestrian facilities (3).

A total of 77 participants strongly agreed that the network of shared-use paths (SUP) should be completed so the centers of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown are linked to one another.

Comments on the creation of a proposed shared-use path connecting the three towns were mixed. Some agreed: “Duh,” one anonymous commenter said. “Probably impossible,” said another.

One person preferred on-road accommodations: “I generally think bicyclists need to be accommodated in the road.”

Others preferred the construction of bike-specific paths: “Shared-use paths are generally dangerous, and Holland does not build any. Bike lanes do make sense.”

‘Many benefits’

Section 10 of the plan directly addressed the importance of bicyclists and pedestrians. “Walking and bicycling not only play a vital role in the Vineyard’s transportation network, but they are important means to promote fitness and a healthy community. Nonmotorized modes have many benefits — economic, health, and cultural — not associated with the motorized modes of travel.”

The report also noted the prevalence of those modes of transportation on the Island: “A large number of trips on the Island are by pedestrian and bicycle. The majority of visitors to the Island come on foot rather than by motor vehicle, and many additional visitors arrive by bike. Both walking and biking are popular recreational activities.”

The report said that although the towns are conducive to walking and biking, “gaps in the infrastructure, narrow road rights-of-way and competition for vehicles traveling and parking are impediments.” It noted that many visitors are unfamiliar with the roads, and elderly visitors may have particular difficulty.

The plan recognized that bikes and pedestrians often end up on the roadways simply due to a lack of any alternative: “Both pedestrians and cyclists are also often compelled to use the roadways, as there is inadequate additional right-of-way for a path, sidewalk, or trail, and no alternative public-access route.” It said road competition, limited roadway width, and high-speed motor vehicles are a safety concern for all modes of travel.

Skilled cyclists also use the roadways by choice: “This usually is for reasons of safety: Experienced road cyclists often travel at relatively high speeds (in excess of 15 miles per hour), which is too fast to safely mix with slower-moving cyclists, pedestrians, and in-line skaters on shared-use paths.” It said roads are more likely to be clear of surface debris that can be particularly hazardous for narrow road-bike tires.

Rules of the road

The report also addresses the rules of the road and the frequent conflicts among user groups. The MVTP states, “Motorists need to recognize that bicyclists have as much right to use the roadway as motorists, which holds true even when a shared-use path parallels the roadway.”

Motorists are legally required to give bikes a minimum of three feet of clearance when passing, and do so at a reasonable speed. On the other side of the coin, “cyclists on the road are responsible for conducting themselves as if they are a motor vehicle, including riding with motorized traffic, in single file when cars are present, and as far to the right as safely possible.”

By state law, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on a public way as any other vehicle. It is the responsibility of the passing vehicle to pass any other vehicle, including a bike, safely and responsibly.

The Bicyclist Safety Bill became law on Jan. 15, 2009. The law made “dooring” (opening a car door into the path of a bicycle or other vehicle) subject to ticket and fine, and permitted bicyclists to ride two abreast when they do not impede cars from passing. It also added legal protections for bicyclists who choose to ride to the right of other traffic on the road.

It states that bicycles may be ridden on sidewalks outside business districts when necessary in the interest of safety, unless otherwise directed by local ordinance. The bill requires that bicycle operators signal by either hand their intention to stop or turn, provided both hands are not necessary for the safe operation of the bicycle.

Objectives proposed

The MVC proposed a list of objectives regarding bike safety in the transportation plan, including an educational campaign, improved road treatment, and the construction of shared-use paths.

According to the plan, 37 miles of SUPs have been constructed around the Island over more than 35 years, starting in the mid-1970s with the paths along Beach Road from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs and around the State Forest. Those paths are generally eight feet in width. Newer SUPs are 10 to 12 feet in width, which is the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s (AASHTO) minimum and standard width.

In 2009, the MVC conducted a study that looked directly at the Island’s SUP network. It noted that Island bike paths provide direct links between the down-Island towns, “but stop at the perimeter of the downtowns and, notably, do not connect to the ferries,” thus reintegrating bicycle traffic with motor vehicles where roadways are most congested.

It identified major gaps as a contiguous path from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven, through or around Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, connections to the center of the towns and ferry terminals, the northeast quadrant of the State Forest perimeter, and the entire lack of paths in the up-Island towns of Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury.

Constraints to constructing SUPs include cost, the necessity for road resurfacing, and landscape features like stone walls or major trees. And where SUPs already exist, there are remaining problems. The narrow width of the paths cannot accommodate the volume of traffic.

The lack of a physical barrier separating SUPs from the roadway is a concern should the path user or motor vehicle driver veer from his or her lane. Frequent vehicle crossings cause vehicles to block the SUP in order to pull into traffic. Cracks, potholes, debris, overgrown vegetation, and dirt have accumulated along the paths due to insufficient maintenance, the report noted.

Cycling solutions

Specific solutions for bike safety on the Island in the plan included a number of SUP updates or additions: “Improve the SUP through the hospital site, and improve the existing segment along Eastville Avenue (MV Hospital, Oak Bluffs), create a SUP along the eastern and northeastern perimeter of the Manuel Correllus State Forest (Edgartown) to complete the perimeter loop of the Forest, create a short SUP segment connecting the northeast corner of State Forest to the Vineyard Haven–Edgartown Road shared-use path (Oak Bluffs), create a continuous SUP from the drawbridge to Sunset Lake (Oak Bluffs), and realign additional portions of County Road to provide buffer space between the road and the existing shared-use path (Oak Bluffs).”

It also proposed developing an educational campaign informing people of the rules of the road and safety measures, painting centerlines on SUPs, improving bicycle access to transit, bus, air, ferry terminals, and park-and-ride lots, and providing bicycle-parking facilities at those locations.

Frank Brunelle, a resident of Beach Road, has vociferously opposed the SUP proposal since 2012. He has concerns with many aspects of a Beach Road shared-use path, including the width of the path, barrier trees being a hazard, curb cuts, and congestion.

“It’s not a shared-use path per se that I am against, it is the context in which this particular design is attempting to be used,” he said.

Mr. Brunelle would like to see 5-foot sidewalks for pedestrians, 4.5-foot shoulders for bicyclists, and 10.5-foot travel lanes for motor vehicles as a solution.

Priscilla Leclerc, MVC transportation planner, said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) has been directly involved in all plans and discussions with the MVC joint transportation committee. After discussion and research, it was decided that visitors, especially families biking around the Island, are the safety priority, due to their unfamiliarity with Vineyard roads. The solution proposed was the down-Island network of SUPs. She said the MVC knows there are concerns, but they must be weighed.

“There’s concerns with everything, always, I think,” she said. “So the discussion included that. If you could, ideally, start over with a new road, you might do it differently.”

Instead, they have to work with what they have. Right now, there are three major projects in discussion: the Tisbury Beach Road SUP project, drainage for Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, and a SUP on the Oak Bluffs side of Lagoon Pond Bridge leading into town.

“I think there’s ongoing looks at safety, and I know our joint transportation committee is very concerned with safety, and looking and reviewing what we have for information, and how to improve it,” she said.