Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Gearing Up For Trouble!

On paper, the recent approval by the Maryland Transportation Authority to allow bicyclists to cross the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge starting on July 1st appears to be a great victory for Harford County cyclists and a step towards progressive policy decisions in reclaiming roadways for bike riders around the state.  In reality, however, the seemingly bike-friendly and environmentally-responsible decision may be creating more issues than it solves for vehicles and cyclists alike. 

The logic behind the decision to open the bridge to cyclists is simple.  Local cyclists have long clamored for a connection between Havre de Grace and Perryville.  The East Coast Greenway, a roughly 3,000 mile developing trail system between Maine and Florida, has also backed a connection across the Susquehanna River, as it would provide a vital link for the developing network.

Using the Hatem Bridge seems like a no-brainer, and there is no denying that cycling in Maryland has become much easier and safer in recent years.  Campaigns to raise driver awareness coupled with laws that address bicycle safety and a right-of-way regulation have vastly improved the cycling experience throughout the state and have led to a rise in ridership.  Harford County’s back roads, in particular, have become an outstanding backdrop for cyclists looking to log heavy miles while taking in some magnificent scenery. 

The Maryland General Assembly has certainly done its share to regulate vehicle and bicycle safety, most recently passing a comprehensive bill - House Bill 214 - expanding the responsibility a driver has when sharing a road with bicycles, among other vehicles.  Most notably, it clearly defines that, when passing a bicycle sharing the same road, a vehicle must exercise caution by giving three feet of distance between the car and the bicycle.  Under conditions in which three feet is not possible, as is the case with the Hatem Bridge, the driver must “slow to a reasonable and prudent speed that is safe for existing weather, road, and vehicular or pedestrian traffic conditions” and “may not endanger, impede, or interfere with the bicycle [...] or any other traffic using the highway.”

However, cyclists looking to extend their rides over the Hatem Bridge after July 1st may be putting themselves in unnecessary danger when crossing, while drivers caught on the bridge may find themselves being forced to a crawl when crossing the 1.3 mile expanse.

The main flaw in this plan is trying to retrofit a 20th century roadway so it adheres to 21st century road-sharing values.  The Hatem Bridge, opened in August of 1940, was designed as a narrow two lane road in each direction with no shoulder.  The claustrophobic nature of the bridge makes even the most capable drivers feel trepidation while crossing.  Adding bicycles to the mix will make the span even more tenuous. 

Experienced cyclists are well aware of the implications of sharing a traffic lane with vehicles.  The fear of trucks and cars barreling towards them coupled with the impatience of tailgaters as they wait for a break in traffic to merge can ruin any cyclists’ ride.  Cyclists can also expect to hear the requisite drive-by insults and blaring horns that are commonplace with shared-lane cycling, since many drivers fail to recognize bicycles as equal in lane usage on roads. 

Drivers, meanwhile, will not only have to come to grips with trips across the bridge taking one and a half or even twice as long, as two lanes of traffic are forced to condense to one, but will also be forced to navigate the strain of a shared roadway with bicycles on the cramped bridge.  Road sharing with bicycles is stressful enough for an unaccustomed driver, let alone being forced into it on a narrow bridge. 

It also stands to reason rates of accidents between two vehicles, and, perhaps more terrifying, between vehicles and bicycles will rise rapidly.  Just last year, the Maryland Vehicle Association released a report on bicycle safety, which stated that “over the past five years there was a six percent increase in the number of crashes” between bicycles and vehicles.  Of those crashes, according to the same report, “more than 80 percent of the crashes resulted in a death or injury” 

All of these factors combined point to a singular rationale that allowing bicycles to share lanes with vehicles across the Hatem Bridge will ultimately not benefit either group.  Drivers will be upset with cyclists, and cyclists will be upset with drives.  Unless an alternative crossing is developed that does not pit vehicle and bicycle against one another, such as the plan of retrofitting the Amtrak rail crossing with a bicycle lane, it stands to reason that cyclists will still plan to steer clear of a river crossing for quite some time.   

Blog Post by Joshua Marx
Blogger for the Havre De Grace Green Team


  1. A must read, this has a big red, flashing danger sign all over it. Maybe if we had the "upper" management here riding across the same time as traffic during a backup on south bound or north bound I-95 they would get moving on a better solution.

  2. Right now I have 3 routes to visit my extended family in PA: the Hatem Bridge, the Tydings Bridge, or the Conowingo Dam. All of them have their positives and negatives, but adding bikes to the Hatem Bridge makes that an all together undesirable route. Thank you for shining a light on this situation.

  3. Drop the speed limit to 25 on the bridge and triple the fines for speeding. Welcome across bicyclists!