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Cycling stress map helps bikers avoid tricky streets

By charting biking angst, this Maryland county created a clever planning tool for safer streets

The color-coded Montgomery County Bicycling Stress map gives riders a visual atlas of roadway angst.

While planners push the ideal of shared streets that are safe for every mode of transportation, city cyclists (as well as pedestrians) know most areas offer far from an idyllic commute. For many riders, sharing streets means constantly watching out for cars, and during trips to new neighborhoods, divining which routes are low-volume and more importantly, low risk.

One county in Maryland decided that the best way to help stressful cyclist would be to turn that angst into some sort of action. The idea led Montgomery County to create a first-of-its-kind bicycle stress map, a colorful new tool to help riders plan routes, and planners focus on the most effective areas for attention and upgrades. As more cities focus on upgrading cycling infrastructure, tools like this, sort of a Waze for bicycling angst, can help push data-driven decision making that doesn’t break the budget.

“It’s a great way to engage the public and advocate for different biking infrastructure improvements with policy makers.” says David Anspacher, a transportation planner for the suburban, Washington, D.C. county. So great, in fact, the American Planning Association presented the project with an award at the group’s annual conference earlier this week in New York City.

Cyclists in Montgomery County

To create the map, researchers and planners looked at 3,500 miles of road in Montgomery County, analyzing them for cyclist stress. Streets were graded based on speed limits, the number of lanes, the volume of traffic (cars and pedestrian), and whether or not they had protected or separate bike lanes.

After each roadway was checked and rated via Google Street View and aerial photos, it was then fed into a “Levels of Traffic Stress” formula that helped determine the colors and contours of the multi-hued, spaghetti-string map. Blue, or Level 1 streets, represents safer, less stressful routes, then green, yellow, orange, and finally red travel up the spectrum, depicting more and more dangerous roadways.

Since being released last April, the map has helped local cyclists with route-planning, laying out bright red lines across the area they should avoid. The tool has also helped the county plan roadway improvements, offering advocates a more concrete and data-driven means of pushing for better cycling infrastructure. To help make their point, planners presented the map to local officials along with videos of riders on red and yellow streets, shot from the cyclists point of view. Viewers audibly gasped when they saw the reality of riding on unsafe roadways.

Anspacher and his colleagues hope this method of dramatizing data, and showing the realities of bike riding, can help create the momentum for Montgomery County to draft a new master plan for cycling. Nobody, especially those using the roads, wants to see red.