|A bicyclist riding over steel road plates|
at Washington & Dearborn on Oct 10, 2014
-- photo by Brendan Kevenides
The following article appeared on the Urban Velo blog on October 9, 2014.
Steel road plates suck. Ask any urban bicyclist and they'll tell you from experience about steel plates. They are often not installed flush with the pavement or at least with tapered ramping. Many times they shift so that dangerous gaps exist between them and the street, or between two or more plates. Even when they are installed correctly they get very slippery when wet. But it does not have to be this way. In fact, it is not supposed to be that way at all. There are standards in place which prescribe the properties of steel road plates and how they are to be installed.
Steel plates are generally used to cover trenches created in the road way to allow traffic to use an area during off work hours while construction is ongoing. Steel is generally used because it is tough yet elastic. It can take the heavy loads from motor vehicle traffic without breaking. However, for bicycle traffic, not to mention pedestrian and motorcycle traffic, they can pose hazards as noted. In light of that danger many local departments of transportation have adopted guidelines and specifications regarding how they are to be used. For example, in Chicago companies utilizing steel plates to cover areas that have been excavated must use plates that are "safe for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles." Plates must be installed so that gaps "between adjacent plates must be no greater than 1/2 inch." When they are placed in a bicycle lane they "must be orientated perpendicular to the travel way, whenever possible." They "must be firmly bedded and secured to the adjacent pavement to prevent rocking or movement." Steel plates "in the path of bicycle traffic shall have ramps installed" or a plate locking system in place.
The Chicago Department of Transportation's Rules and Regulations do not make specific reference to plates having anti-skid properties. However, the general requirement that "all plating. . . be safe for bicycles" arguably covers that issue. Gregory Pestine, a civil engineer with Robson Forensic based in Chicago has stated in his pamphlet, Steel Road Plates & Roadway Surfaces in Work Zones,that "plates should be coated with an anti-skid coating." Notably, the New York City Department of Transportation requires just that. Its rules require that, "All plating and decking shall have a skid-resistant surface equal to or greater than the adjacent existing street or roadway surface." According to Guidelines on Motorcycle and Bicycle Work Zone Safety, published by The Roadway Safety Consortium, "Covering steel plates with a material that increases friction helps motorcyclists and bicyclists retain control, especially in wet weather."
A quick Google search reveals that steel road plates with anti-skid properties are common and easy to come by. But is it just me, or are they rare to see in the wild? I having been riding in Chicago regularly for a long time and I cannot say I have ever seen a steel road plate that had slip resistant properties or coating. My experience here has been similar to what a group called Transportation Alternatives found in a 2004 study looking into the matter in NYC. It found that 66% of to 1,006 metal construction plates it looked at in Manhattan were not skid resistant. I am not aware of any similar such study pertaining to Chicago, but I would be surprised if we fared better.
If you see an unsafe plate you should call your city's 311 service and report it. Very serious injuries can result from plates that are not compliant with safety guidelines. If you are injured due to a slippery or otherwise unsafe plate you may have a viable case against whomever installed it.