Mixed messages of the road

Sharrows (road markings, lower left) at the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Elliott Road extension affirm that cyclists can use the full lane in the roundabout. Studies have found that drivers often don’t know what these marks mean. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.


By Michael Schwalbe

Road design sends a message. A long, straight, wide road with a high-speed limit tells motorists, “This road was built to help you move quickly and with ease. You belong here.” Cyclists get the message, too: “This road was built for cars. You don’t belong here. Ride at your own risk.”

Often, the messages are mixed. An in-town street might feature painted bike lanes—appearing to welcome cyclists—but a high-speed limit, bike lanes that end abruptly, inadequate signage, and intersections that fail to safely accommodate cyclists belie the welcome. “Ride here if you insist,” the message seems to be, “but keep in mind that bikes don’t really belong on this road.”

Ephesus Church Road on the east side of Chapel Hill is an example. The road, which runs through a residential neighborhood and past an elementary school, is straight and wide and has a posted limit of 35 mph, although the average is about 40, with some drivers pushing it to 45 or 50. With today’s oversized SUVs and pick-up trucks, these are deadly speeds

A few years ago, the Town of Chapel Hill, in cooperation with the NCDOT (which controls the road), added painted bike lanes on Ephesus between the Orange/Durham county line and the entry to Ephesus Park. This was a good addition; if nothing else, it gave cyclists a claim to space and reminded motorists that bikes may be present. 

But going west, after the bike lane ends, the road narrows again prior to the start of the entry chute that leads into the roundabout where Ephesus meets the Elliott Road extension. There is a short bike lane—again, only paint—along the edge of the entry chute, but the lane ends at the roundabout. So, what are the messages here? 

The discontinuation of the bike lane between Ephesus Park and the roundabout says that cyclists’ needs were not a DOT priority when the road was rebuilt to create the roundabout. The bike lane in the westbound entry chute says that cyclists should squeeze over to the right and get out of the way.

The abrupt end of the bike lane at the entry to the roundabout raises doubt about whether bikes belong there at all. Sharrows on the pavement say yes, but there is no sign indicating that bicycles may use the full lane prior to or within the roundabout.  

The 35 mph speed limit sign posted after the school zone and just 650 feet before the roundabout—and the lack of a sign telling drivers to slow down—says that motorist speed is what matters. 

Speed limit sign on Ephesus Church Road going west tells drivers they can accelerate to 35 mph after the school zone rather than slowing for the upcoming roundabout. The generally recommended safe speed for roundabouts is 18 mph. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.

In the case of Ephesus Church Road, it would be fair to say that the design of the road, the high speed limit, and the accompanying signage send a mixed message to cyclists. “Sure, ride here,” the bike lanes say, but much else about the road adds a qualifier: “bearing in mind that motorist convenience, not your safety, is the priority.”

Bike lanes themselves can sometimes send an odd message.

For instance, Europa Drive is less than a quarter-mile long, connecting Legion Road to Fordham Boulevard. Bike lanes run about 650 feet along both sides of the road. I suppose it’s better to have these lanes than not, but they’re largely cosmetic, since few, if any, cyclists use the unbikeable intersection of Europa and Fordham. I suspect that some drivers see these lanes and think that all bike lanes are unserious, serving no real purpose.

There are other places in town where the messages are mixed.

Weaver Dairy Road and Weaver Dairy Extension feature lovely bike lanes that deliver cyclists to the intersection with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But the intersection has no detection loops to recognize the presence of bicycles and trip the light. If no cars are present, cyclists must ride onto the sidewalk and press a button to get a walk signal. Here, the bike lanes say cyclists are legitimate road users, but the need to use the crosswalk signal says cyclists are more like pedestrians.

Bike lanes at the intersection of Weaver Dairy and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are helpful. But lack of detection loops for bicycles means that cyclists must wait for cars to trip the light, or dismount and push a button for a walk signal. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.

Weaver Dairy Road is in fact a good example of how bike lanes can be both welcoming and worrying. On the upside, the lanes run for a five-mile stretch between Fordham Boulevard and Homestead Road, making Weaver Dairy an inviting beltline for cyclists swinging east or west around the northern edge of Chapel Hill. This is good infrastructure.  

But because debris bounces to the right edge of the road—into the bike lanes—frequent sweeping is needed to keep the lanes usable. I’ve seen the same bits of glass, gravel, plastic, and metal in the Weaver Dairy bike lanes for weeks at a time. “Ride here,” the bike lanes say, while their grungy condition says, “but don’t expect a clear path; be ready to dodge and weave.”

Gravel in bike lane on Weaver Dairy Road near Timberlyne Shopping Center is a chronic problem. Large photo is from October, 2021. Inset photo taken at same location is from April, 2024. Photos by Michael Schwalbe.

Even one the most common signs—share the road—is ambiguous. Cyclists think the sign speaks to drivers, telling them to share the road with cyclists. But drivers, as some studies have found, interpret these signs as speaking to cyclists, telling them to move over and get out of the way of cars. This is why some cycling advocates prefer signs that clearly tell drivers to yield to cyclists, move over to pass, and, where appropriate, allow cyclists to claim the full lane.

It matters what the roads say to cyclists and motorists. If we want to get more people on bikes, then road design, infrastructure, and signage should send a clear message that cyclists are welcome and that cyclist safety is a priority. When the message is ambiguous, cyclists—or would-be cyclists among the “interested but concerned”—are less likely to use the road, and less likely to feel comfortable if they do.

Drivers who get the message that the roads are built for cars, not bikes, are less likely to treat cyclists with respect. Here again, road design, infrastructure, and signage can teach drivers to think differently about cyclists, seeing them as legitimate co-users of the road, rather than as trespassers on automotive territory.

The message that bikes don’t really belong on the road contributes not only to hazardous driving but also to the anti-cycling bias that dampens law enforcement. All too often cyclists who are injured or killed by motorists are blamed for risking their lives by being out on the road at all, as if they failed to get the message that roads are for cars. This anti-cycling bias in turn works against prosecuting motorists who injure or kill cyclists.

To make the roads safer and boost cycling as a mode of transportation, we need to root out the mixed messages that feed anti-cycling bias. The messages conveyed by road design, infrastructure, and signage need to be clear and consistent: cyclists are welcome here; these roads are for bikes, too; the safety of cyclists matters; drivers must take care to protect vulnerable road users. Until we get these messages sorted out, many people will remain would-be cyclists, and cyclists will continue to be seen as risk-takers on the road to trouble.

Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.  
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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1 Comment on "Mixed messages of the road"

  1. Deborah Fulghieri | April 30, 2024 at 4:52 pm | Reply

    My son was hit by cats twice in an eight month span- both times both he and the driver were following the road markings. The bike lane markings often end before an intersection, which tells the driver that they can turn right without looking around or stopping. (He was lightly injured both times, and both times the bike was destroyed)

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