Illegal Bicycle Instruction Road Signs

Walk Bike On Sidewalk Road Sign


The other day, I was browsing through the blogs when I saw a link on the Street Smarts blog to a post about the “railroad crossout in Lincoln (Massachusetts).” I didn’t even have to click on the link to guess what the post was about (visit the post to view photos of this fiasco). It could only have been referring to the railroad crossing debacle on Route 117.

Route 117 is one of my favorite places to ride, and has been for years. I was furious when I saw what had been done to the railroad crossing in Lincoln.

I have ridden through that railroad crossing more times than I can count. Before the Town of Lincoln butchered it, the road was narrow and required drivers to slow down and use caution when crossing the train tracks.

Not once, did I encounter a problem at that crossing. But, apparently, 75 years after the tracks were laid on that road, Lincoln suddenly discovered a problem related to the train.

As a casual observer, I saw nothing wrong with the train or the crossing. Even though the train doesn’t blow its horn at the crossing, by slowing down and paying attention before crossing the tracks, anyone who is not hearing impaired can hear the train coming.

We shouldn’t have to coddle drivers – with model railroad layout roadways – into not killing themselves. What kind of idiot hears a train barreling down the tracks and decides to go around the railroad gates to cross in front of it? If drivers are that stupid then they deserve to be hit by the train.

As a bicyclist, I stop – a good distance from the tracks – when the railroad gates come down. I do not attempt to cross the tracks until the gates rise, signaling that the coast is clear. Is there some reason why drivers can’t do the same thing? According to the Town of Lincoln, drivers can’t be relied upon to do this on their own.

Rather than creating a farcical obstacle course, Lincoln should have repaved the road and painted fresh lines to demarcate the lanes. This would have been sufficient. But, some genius – who didn’t consider how people used the road – decided to put a median down the middle of a road where it wasn’t needed. As a consequence, what was previously an easy area for cyclists to ride, is now a hazard.

A couple of things bother me about this “improvement” project. First, the Town of Lincoln knew that a lot of cyclists used Route 117. Still, the town went out of its way to make the crossing more dangerous for cyclists, allegedly to improve safety for drivers. One person’s safety should never be at another person’s expense.

As an afterthought, Lincoln tacked up a sign, directing cyclists to get off of their bikes and walk on the sidewalk to cross the train tracks – notice that they didn’t instruct cyclists to ride on the sidewalk.

The sidewalk in question is narrow, bumpy, fraught with obstacles, and difficult to walk on when wearing road shoes with cleats. A cyclist also has to walk across the tracks at an odd angle, making it easy to catch a road shoe (with soles not designed for walking) and trip. Further, after cyclists cross the tracks and get back onto the road, they have to walk on a narrow stretch that puts them very close to the cars who are rounding a bend in the road.

In order to avoid hitting the pedestrian/cyclists, the cars have to cross over into the other lane. And, they can only do this once they have cleared the median barrier. Does this sound like an improvement in terms of safety? To me, it sounds like a head on collision waiting to happen.

This entire scenario will be totally untenable with the first snowfall. Cyclists won’t be able to walk their bikes on the snow-covered sidewalk, and with the difficulty a plow will have removing  snow from the narrow areas around the median, the cars will barely be able to squeeze through the crossing, as well. So much for high-tech road planning.

The second problem is the ridiculous sign with “instructions” for bicycles. Signs instructing bicycles to walk on the sidewalk are illegal. Bicycles are vehicles. They are meant to be ridden – not walked with – and they are entitled to use the road by law.

Nowhere in Massachusetts law does it say that a town has the right to post a sign forcing a bicyclist to dismount and walk. Instead, accommodations should have been made to allow cyclists to safely ride across the tracks.

According to roadway design regulations, all Massachusetts cities and towns are supposed to take pedestrians and bicycles into consideration when designing or improving roads. To get around this requirement, Lincoln posted a sign for the bicycles, rather than providing an area for them to ride on the roadway. This instruction sign is a loose interpretation of  state regulations, at best.

It appears as if Lincoln was more concerned with aesthetics – a sleek looking railroad crossing – than functionality or the safety of all road users.

My solution to this preposterous situation is to ignore the bicycle instruction sign. I intend to take the lane and ride across the tracks. The cars will have to slow down and drive behind me until the median ends. Every cyclist who rides through the Route 117 railroad crossing should do the same.

Ignoring the bicycle instruction sign shouldn’t be difficult; in the last ten years, I’ve seen a Lincoln police car exactly one time. In fact, I once wondered – almost out loud – whether Lincoln had eliminated its police department as a result of budget cuts. However, should I run into a Lincoln police officer, I will inform him/her of a cyclist’s right to take the lane, and of my resulting intention to “disobey” the illegal bicycle instruction sign.

The poorly conceived railroad crossing plan on Route 117 is a perfect example of why cyclists must be involved at the planning stage of all road design projects. When they are left out of the planning process, everyone ends up with a downgrade of a formerly usable road – and a dangerous situation to boot.

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7 Responses to Illegal Bicycle Instruction Road Signs

  1. Thanks for your eloquent response to my post!

  2. Self Righteous Cyclist says:

    Your posts just keep getting better and better. Rock on.

  3. Weston Resident says:

    I agree with your sentiments, but wanted to add a little perspective. I live near this crossing in Weston and had the same concerns. Some research turned up that the crossing changes were required at the Federal level. Lincoln wouldn’t drop money on this otherwise … largely for the reasons you have mentioned.

    The driver is the worry feds have about crossings where trains can’t use horns. When there are accidents at said intersections, there is a mandate to “do something” to improve safely. Channeling is considered an acceptable calming measure that improves safety. Lincoln had its hands forced: channel or accept horns. Yes, it completely ignores bicycle safely and its choice in this case could have been much better. There were many complaints lodged which only resulted in the ridiculous sign. But to really fix the situation, the standards at the Federal level for crossings need to be modernized — hmmm, maybe a little bit daunting.

    In the meantime, I too ride through the center of the lane and expect traffic to slow behind me. In fact, I find cars have been pretty accomodating….

    • Thanks for the additional information. It’s too bad that some additional thought wasn’t put into this before they went forward with the present design. After seeing how badly this turned out, it might be a good idea for bicycle advocates to dedicate some of their energy to pushing for the modernization of railroad crossing standards at the Federal level. Any changes would be a long time coming though , so for now, cyclists will have to coordinate road use with the drivers in Lincoln – who are generally bicycle-friendly – to make the best of a bad situation.

  4. David Wean says:

    Whether or not the road change was necessary, the correct sign is “Bikes Allowed Use of Full Lane”.

    I heed a “walk bikes” signs only when it is posted next to one that says “motorists must get out and push their cars” .

  5. Joe says:

    Near miss bike-car accident here on St Patty’s day morning about 10:30 AM. See my post on John Allen’s page.

    • Joe,

      I’m sorry to hear about your close call on Great Road. Since I’m familiar with the road, I always take the lane well before I reach the tracks — as John suggested. However, doing this isn’t feasible for someone who is unfamiliar with the road because they can’t anticipate how the layout of the road around the train tracks will affect their ability to navigate the tracks.

      As a general rule, I ride towards the center of the lane on roads where there isn’t much of a shoulder. This makes cars notice me and forces them to slow down to pass me. Using such a tactic gives me more time to react to unexpected obstacles on the road, without having to worry about what is going on behind me.

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