Bicycle commuting in the outer suburbs
August 11, 2019 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I am interviewing for a job on the outer edges of the DC suburbs in Maryland. How can I figure out if it would be bikeable or not? Are there resources or guidelines for bike commuting in places like this?

It would be 5 to 6.5 miles each way, depending on the route, which is fine.

What I'm worried about is safety. I've biked in cities and close-in suburbs, but I have less experience in an area like this. The office is located in what are basically outer suburbs, the kind of area that was mostly farmland 20 years ago. There are bike lanes on some roads, but they can be inconsistent. A lot of the roads are 4 lane roads that go pretty fast (40 mph or higher).

The good news is that it should mostly be possible to stay in bike lanes or on pretty wide shoulders, on at least one route. It also looks like I could use neighborhood streets in a couple places, although it's not possible to take neighborhood streets the whole way.

I'm concerned about two main things: the safety of biking next to fast-moving traffic, even if I'm on the shoulder or in a bike lane; and the possibility that I'll come across abrupt choke points that throw me into traffic. Like, imagine a route that's great aside from a 1 mile stretch on a fast-moving 4 lane road where there isn't a shoulder or even a sidewalk. What the hell, Maryland?

All the advice I've heard about bike commuting has been specific to the inner city, not Outer Stripmallville, MD. Is there general advice out there for bike commuting in less dense areas like this? I've tried to look at cycling maps, but Maryland's cycling resources are sparse, especially in this part of the state (Prince George's County). I know Google Maps incorporates cycling routes into their database, but they're not perfect (see above about the route that suddenly shunts me into traffic). I've used Street View to view all the possible routes I could take, but that's obviously not the same as being there in traffic.

I'm being vague about the specific location, but I'm hoping there are general rules I can learn for assessing this sort of thing. If you're an expert on eyeballing bike routes or you happen to be familiar with PG County, Maryland, please MeMail me if you want, and I can tell you more about where I'm trying to go.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Test-ride your new commute before you commit. Nothing like experiencing it first-hand to know how you’ll feel about it.

I ride in an environment a little like the one you’re describing and I’ve developed a few strategies to dealing with car risks such as continuous and aggressive bell ringing to let drivers know I’m there, taking a whole lane when necessary so they’ve not trying to squirm around me, and pushing out in front of intersections so I’m in everyone’s field of view. My scariest moments have been in people’s blind spots; don’t ride there.

Check out Strava’s heat map of bicycle activities to decide on routes based on where others ride. PG County looks shockingly sparse to me.
posted by migurski at 10:34 PM on August 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think test riding during commuter hours is the only answer. I know some intrepid PG County bike commuters but the area varies a lot in "bikeability". (Also drivers in the whole DC region can be both aggressive and distracted.) I would be sure to have front and rear light, reflective stuff on bike and your person, bell and maybe also whistle.
posted by gudrun at 2:53 AM on August 12, 2019

I've commuted by bike for three decades - albeit in a different country than you - and those are exactly the kind of roads & situations that I actively avoid.

I'm lucky that I have quiet back lanes on my current commute - but if those fast four-lane car-dominated roads are your only available routes, then it would be a no from me. On the shoulder: ok, just about, if forced. But with no shoulder (and especially, on preview, with aggressive & distracted drivers) - no, I would not be doing that.
posted by rd45 at 2:56 AM on August 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

PG is big - In Greenbelt, Hyattsville, CP, there might well be a longer but safer way to your destination. National Harbor or Largo Town Center maybe less so, but I'm not familiar with those areas. Don't ride along the 4-lane roads you describe. The posted speed limit may be 40, but in practice these roads will be much driven much faster and much more aggressively than you would expect, especially during rush hour.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 5:53 AM on August 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Post in the Washington Area Bike Forum for route-specific recommendations.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:32 AM on August 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Suggest you post this to the DC Women & Bicycles Facebook group, if you'd be comfortable disclosing the location to a closed group. It is very active, and people there love to share commute route advice.

It is hard to give specific advice without knowing the route and your abilities. I often prefer 4 lane roads since you can take a lane, but a 40 mph patch with no shoulder/sidewalk would be a solid no for me, however short it is. I would start with the most conservative route (even if it is double the length, and probably with a weekend test ride) and gradually explore the more direct alternatives.

Safety recommendations for a commute like this: in addition to the front and back lights and bell mentioned above, wheel lights would get you side visibility. I would also consider an led vest and a pool noodle on the back of the bike. Safety in numbers is the absolute best thing you can do, so ride where other cyclists are whenever possible.
posted by veery at 7:11 AM on August 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I used to live in Lanham and bike commuted to college park and did some road cycling around that general part of PG. I don't know how that compares to where you're going to be. I'll drop you a memail for specifics but I felt like much of PG county was more cycle-friendly than most of lower MoCo, which is where I moved next. However, that's from the perspective of someone who was an active commuter/road cyclist for decades and is not particularly intimidated by sharing the road with cars in anything short of a 6-lane no-shoulder very heavy traffic situation (like New Hampshire Ave.) Your comfort level may be different.
posted by drlith at 7:42 AM on August 12, 2019

Good tips above, and you've got most of the general route-checking tips I'd offer for that kind of environment (which sounds similar to my old bike commute into Outer Officepark). Google Streetview is incredibly useful for this stuff (pay attention to the dates the camera van went through in case conditions have changed significantly.)

Would suggest some route scouting on weekends. Your options with commuter traffic would probably be a subset of your options without traffic, so knowing what the possibilities are is a plus. Streetview will get you much of the info you'd need, but not all.

Sometimes I've found it useful to spread out a big paper map (preferably one with current bike infrastructure info) so I can see the whole thing at once; it can make route connections pop out that I wouldn't have seen with online maps. And, uh, on looking at PG County's bikeways map it's apparently ten years old?! Consider contacting the person listed on that page and asking whether that's still current and if they have any suggestions for you, or if there's anything new in the works.

If you come across anyone with a similar commute (even if not identical) or notice bikes parked at this workplace, it's usually worth asking what routes they choose and why. Some people might be up for a bikepool, even if it's just once to show you the ropes.

If intermodal commuting is an option (transit for part of the trip), that can be a way to skip the more obnoxious parts of the commute.

One other thing about my old suburban hellscape bike commute: it got better and more direct every year, with fewer weird detours to avoid awful roads, and more dedicated bicycle infrastructure. If there was a public meeting addressing remotely anything to do with biking in the area, I showed up and asked for safer commute options. I know I wasn't alone in doing that, but I like to think it helped.
posted by asperity at 7:45 AM on August 12, 2019

Biking in much of PG County sucks, to the point that I won't do it at night anymore. It's often worth going well out of my way to avoid e.g. East West Highway or Chillum or Route 1, all of which in theory have shoulders or sidewalks but all of which are full of horrid distracted/aggressive drivers.

At a minimum you are going to want all the above safety gear, gloves in case you have to bail, and an alternate method of transportation for when the county fails to clear the roads properly. You've also probably noticed how bad the roads are in the entire region right now - you definitely want to ride your test route a couple times and remember where the horrid potholes are.

Feel free to memail me with specifics.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:51 AM on August 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much, this is all very helpful.

I looked at the Strava heatmap, and it looks like the routes I've had in mind are fairly well-traveled... but there are still parts where they suck. Should I take bike traffic with a grain of salt? I'm assuming there must be times that people are forced to do risky things.

I'll definitely get more safety gear -- I already have lights, but I should have more safety gear even if I don't end up commuting.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:00 AM on August 12, 2019

I used to bike commute for six years or so, but it was back in the pre-smartphone era. I've wanted to return to the practice a few times since, but I see so many drivers looking at their phones while I am driving that I just can't risk doing it. I only ride my bike on largely traffic-free streets and dedicated bike paths nowadays.

My suggestion would be to double up on lights and reflective clothing to make sure you grab drivers' attention away from Instagram while you're on the road. Be safe.
posted by cross_impact at 11:04 AM on August 12, 2019

Oh yeah, distracted driving reminds me -- have any of you experienced unusually aggressive drivers around here? Back when I used to bike in Montgomery County, I had a handful of people do deliberately aggressive and dangerous stuff to me (as in, gunning their engine and blowing a stop sign so they can zoom directly in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes). I haven't experienced anything like that lately, but the more I'm on the roads, the more I worry that I'll be more of a target for some idiot's road rage. I never gave this enough thought when I was younger.

I try to practice everything they talk about on, but one thing they don't seem to mention is if there are any ways to avoid deliberately aggressive driving. Should I just be assuming that any given car around here might try to cut me off or run me off the road? Or is distracted driving going to be 99% of the problem?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:40 AM on August 12, 2019

I believe the frustrating nature of traffic inside the Beltway increases rosd rage and aggressive driving. I've also used just a bicycle for commuting between Hyattsville, College Park and Greenbelt, and it wasn't the motor traffic that made it tiresome so much as the nature of the terrain (too many long, big hills) and the often-unpleasant weather. If you do this year-round you WILL be riding in the rain, and the wind, and sometimes, freezing rain mixed with snow. You'll also be riding over the occasional patch of ice. Unless you have the kind of job where you can go back to bed after you wake up and look out the window, get ready for some character-building rides!
posted by Rash at 4:24 PM on August 12, 2019

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