For generations, bicyclists have shared roads with automobiles. These days, the
roads we have are positively luxurious compared to the narrow, shoulder-less, winding
roads of the past.
In most places cyclists have excellent roads with wide shoulders which make travel easy
and comfortable. And , yes, SAFE!
Of course there are exceptions. There are areas where roads are full of potholes,
narrow, heavily trafficked. There are locations where road rage occasionally
its ugly head. But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule. We
have some of the best bicycling conditions in the world!
Why are roads today so much better than in the past?
The interstate highway system, which was begun under the Eisenhower administration
implemented a roadway surface design intended to handle massive military deployments as
well as regular commercial traffic. The country had just come out of two large scale
wars. Fought over the most miserable roads in the world. Hampered every step
of the way by transport problems all over the world, and even here at home. The
Congress and the Highway administration opted for overkill.
What they developed, patterned after the Autobahn in Germany, was a highway system that
proved very adept at handling large volumes of traffic at much higher speeds, very safely.
The death rates on the interstate system were miniscule compared to heavily
trafficked two lane roads like the famous Route 66.
This was not lost on engineers, and they slowly started applying what was learned to
local roads and city streets. The result are the road construction standards that we
The roads we build today have all of the following:
- Wide lanes, usually 14 foot minimum in new construction
- Shoulders, usually paved, and wide enough to get disabled vehicles out of the roadway
- Long sight lines, no blind corners
- Gentle grades
- Clear marking and signage
(Note: With regard to the second point, wide shoulders, most folks think these wide
shoulders are for bike lanes. In fact, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has
a design document stating 22 reasons for wide paved shoulders, paraphrased here. Only one of them deals with bikes. The
"bike lane" is there for safety and efficiency of motor traffic. Further,
even when actually designated as a bike lane, the lane markings are controversial.
Bike lanes are only painted on roads that are already wide enough. Therefore, any
safety benefits claimed for bike lanes is likely due to the road width alone. Bike
lane stripes often cause as many problems as they supposedly correct.)
The design standards today are generally in place for all new construction, and even
apply to rural roads and highways.
Narrow unsafe roads just aren't being built anymore.
Why Cyclists benefit from Wide Roads
It's obvious you say. Well, perhaps. Bicycles are the only vehicle that are
"Expected" to share the lane with another vehicle. The traffic laws
explicitly disallow lane sharing by all other vehicles (except for consenting
motorcycles). In most jurisdictions the requirement for bicycles to share the lane
is not explicitly stated. Rather it is implied, that, bikes being so narrow, they
should be ridden as "far to the right as practicable" (which does not mean as
far to the right as is possible), thereby allowing cars to pass in the same lane.
A 14 foot lane is more than adequate for sharing between a bicycle and motor traffic.
The area to the outside thereof (the shoulder or bike lane) is a luxurious windfall
for cyclists. Not always the safest place to ride, especially in areas where
there is high density of turning traffic, the shoulders of modern roads nevertheless
provide more than adequate room for comfortable cycling even when traffic volume is
Looking for Bicycle Heaven?
Lots of people, who genuinely believe they are Bicycling Advocates show up at various
public hearings around the country to lobby for additional funding for bicycle facilities.
Almost invariably they erect a pedestal and place upon it the Dutch cycling paths,
as the penultimate cycling nirvana.
While certainly pleasant enough for casual travel in a small country where distances
are short, these paths are not what we need in North America.
|Holland is a small place, densely populated with
a road system inherited more than designed. America, (meaning virtually all of North
America) is exactly the opposite. Our distances are greater, and our cycling speeds are
greater. Our road system is mostly newer. In most places our roads are wider.
Dutch paths are best suited for speeds of under 10 mph, and distances under 4 miles.
Image of a Dutch cycling
path by Lenore Kennedy. Read about her bicycle journey through the Netherlands in POLDER TO
According to a study by the Tinbergen Institute,
the Average number of one way trips per person per day broken out by distance
in Holland looks like this:
|Average trips per
person per day
Note that the vast majority of trips are less than 2.5km (1.5Miles)
and there are hardly any over 7.5km (4.6Miles).
In North America, distances are much longer.
Five miles is an often quoted average, but it is an average for beginner cyclists as
well as long time commuters.
Many ride much further. Bill Moritz's study found that the average for
"Bicyclists, rather than people who occasionally ride bikes" was about 10
miles one way (17km).
So although Holland has a great deal of cycling, (50 percent of the Dutch cycle every
day) it is not representative of North American Cycling. For all the
cycling paths the country boasts, the Dutch Paths just are seldom used for any great
distance. Most Dutch cycling is for local errands usually within
Country paths just won't cut it in countries the size of the US and Canada.
Even if there were money enough to build them, there is sacredly any room to put these
paths. This is because to serve the needs of cyclist, for commuting or recreation,
paths would be needed everywhere. Just as we need roads everywhere.
In a rural
setting, the paths might do. But then, there is hardly any need for a path system in the
countryside. There is far less traffic in the country, and road building standards in
generally include wide shoulders, and wide lanes. Plenty of room for cyclists to
share the road. Yes, there are some narrow rural roads, but seldom do these have any
significant traffic. If they did, they would be widened.
No, the places we would need paths in North America would be in cities and towns.
factory to home, from office to school. Virtually everywhere that roads and streets
already go. Imagine the cost of such a system!. Imagine your ire if you were served
with eminent domain papers notifying you of the taking of 20 feet of your back yard for a
Why duplicate our road system?
The roads we have are perfectly adequate for bicycle use in the vast majority of cities
and towns in the US and Canada. So why do so many people, who believe they are
acting in the interest of cyclists, want bike paths?
Probably one of the best articles on this subject, is John Foresters article "Objective
and Psychological Explanations for Differences in Bicycle Programs of Different
Nations". Mr. Forester explains a great deal about the mind set that causes some
well meaning people to consider the grass greener on the other side of the pond, as well
as aspects of history the lead to different road development.
Even the League of American Bicyclists does not generally support bike paths
It is difficult, if not impossible, to design a safe-side path-style separated
bicycle facility in most locations. The reason is because accidents occur at
intersections; every driveway or side road is an intersection; and side paths
complicate those intersections in ways that impact safety...
These complex intersections demand that the bicyclist proceed very gingerly, at
slow speed, watching for intersecting traffic from unconventional directions. This fact is
counter-intuitive, and some riders attracted to separated facilities are unaware of it.
The differences population density, the distance between cities, and the vastly more
extensive road system in the US mean that a path system like that in the Netherlands would
be impossible to build here today. Much of the Dutch Path system is actually
composed of maintenance roads for the hundreds of miles of canals and waterways that the
Dutch have built over the centuries. Each of these must be occasionally dredged and
maintained, which requires access via truck. Many of these paths were also once tow
paths along which teams of draft animals pulled barges. Very few were actually built as
In addition, these paths, plentiful as they are, are still
not adequate for the amount of cycling done in the
Netherlands. In spite of having one of the most extensive cycling path systems, the
The US Government FHWA
Study Tour for Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety in England, Germany, and The
Netherlands found that "Bicycles are allowed on approximately 96 percent of
roads in The Netherlands, and are prohibited on only about 4,000 km of roads that are
generally comparable to U.S. interstates. Most roads are intended for joint bicycle and
motor vehicle use. Approximately 4 percent of roads have separate cycle paths for
bicyclists and mopeds running along both sides. Outside the urban areas, approximately 13
percent of roads have bicycle lanes."
But does that mean that paths are "bad"?
No, Not all paths are bad. Especially in rural areas where there are few road crossings
and intersections. In this country, Rails
to Trials is an organization specializing in converting old abandoned rail road
lines to bike trails between cities. Some of these cross great distances. There
are few intersections, and no auto traffic. A great way to take a casual journey, or go
bicycle touring. Some sections may be very out of the way, but if you plan to camp
on your trip and you happen to be near one of these trails they make for a pleasant
But getting to work or just to the store down the road is a different story.
There probably never was an railroad leading to where you work. And even if there
was a bike path, there is probably a hundred crossings between where you live and where
you work. Every one of these presents a serious risk to cyclists, especially
untrained or inexperienced cyclists who believe they are safer on a trail. Accident
statistics and surveys reveal that by you are far more likely to experience an accident on
a bike path than on the road. Over twice as likely in fact.
Check out these numbers from a study titled: ADULT BICYCLISTS IN THE UNITED STATES
- CHARACTERISTICS AND RIDING EXPERIENCE IN 1996, by William E. Moritz, Ph.D.
Click Here for the complete summary.
Facility Relative Danger Index
Major streets and roads w/o bike
Minor streets and roads w/o bike
Signed bike route only (BR)
On-street bike lanes (BL)
Other (most often sidewalk)
The Relative Danger Index, RDI, makes it easy to grasp the likelihood of experiencing
a crash on the various facilities relative to the kilometers cycled on each facility.
Note that you are over 30 times more likely to have an accident
on the sidewalk as on the street. Get your bikes off the sidewalk people!!
Note also, that in most jurisdictions, bike route signs and on street bike
lanes are placed only on streets where there is ample width. Consider
that before you leap to the conclusion that on-street bike lanes are safest as implied by
No street department will chop a bike lane out of an already too-narrow street.
Therefore, most experienced cyclists attribute the low likelihood of an accident on bike
routes or bike lanes as being due solely to the increased width
Note major streets and roads without bike lanes also fared well, even though
these are likely to have much higher traffic levels. These heavily used routes were
safer than the minor streets.
Add to the dangers of separated paths (which is what most Multi use trails really are),
is the fact that they are often slow. Clogged with joggers, roller-bladers, and
children with dogs. They are also often designed with inadequate sight lines
(because the engineers who design them simply don't believe that bikes travel at 20 to 25
mph) and they are therefore risky to attempt any normal commuting speeds upon.
There are no rules on paths. As a consequence people get hurt. On the road,
the rule of law and the "Rules of the Road" apply. (Not to mention the
rule of gross tonnage). People behave themselves. Everyone is safer.
So why are paths so popular?
Paths in urban areas are simply unsafe as a normal means of transportation. Even
if they were safe they are slow. And even if they were faster, they are
Those most enamored of paths are people that don't ride
their bikes very much. They probably have drivers licenses, and usually have cars.
Yet when they come to a road on their bike they may as well be at sea. They just
don't know how to operate, and they are absolutely convinced they will be run over.
Yet this seldom ever happens.
If they used their bicycle to run to the store, to commute to work frequently, they
would realize it is not difficult, and not dangerous. It would become second nature
to operate among motor vehicles, signaling turns, being in the proper lane, stopping for
stop signs, riding with traffic, not against it, and by all means staying off the
sidewalks. They would find that their friends and neighbors are just not that
interested in running over them.
And if they thought back to the last time they themselves ran over a bicyclist...,
well hardly anyone ever has. It should become obvious that any responsible bicyclist
obeying the traffic laws has a very small probability of getting hit while cycling on
streets and roads.
The clamor for bike paths is based almost entirely on unbridled, unreasonable, and
Streets and Roads - Where Cyclists Belong
There are roads to everywhere you want to go. Usually good roads. Usually
well maintained, by your tax dollars. You've already paid for the road. Why do
you want to tax yourself again for trails and paths that are slow and dangerous? The
roads are fast and much safer, and they exist for everyone.
|City centers in older small towns may look tight and crowded,
but traffic is slow in these area, and the narrow streets work to a cyclists advantage by
making it obvious that it is too narrow to pass, and too narrow to lane-share.
In narrow streets cyclist are typically moving at the maximum speed of traffic, and
motorists really can't go any faster. They are content to wait their turn as
cyclists take the lane.
Even large cities with the densest traffic provide plenty of room for travel by bike.
The larger the city, the more alternative routes there are. In spite of the
protests popular among those who make a practice of clogging city streets
periodically to call attention to the lack of "bicycle facilities", the
biggest risk faced by most competent lawful cyclists is having their bike stolen.
Getting safely from home to office, from school to supermarket is not really a problem.
Worse, these people may actually get the facilities they want. To the detriment of
all of us.
Separate but Equal?
In transportation planning circles "Bicycle Facilities" means anything that
will get those #*&%$ bikes off the road. Transportation planners have spent the
last 30 years trying to get cyclists onto separate facilities (mostly bike paths).
As we learned in race relations, separate is never equal. Bicycle facilities,
(perhaps excluding on street bike lanes, where the jury is still out) are statistically
more dangerous than the streets. Why would a traffic engineer, whose job it is to
plan for the safe movement of traffic on roads and streets systematically subject cyclists
to such dangers?
One could only assume ignorance, the alternative would be to assume a callous disregard
of the lives and safety of one segment of the population (bicyclists) in support of a
perceived convenience for another segment (motorists).
Yet these efforts are often encouraged by cycling activists, (as distinguished from
active cyclists), who really want somewhere to go to ride their bike, instead of riding
their bike to go somewhere. These are the folks that lobby loudly for bicycle paths.
|Several legislative initiatives, most notably ISTEA
(Intermodal Surface Transportation
Efficiency Act) of 1991, have led to a slow change in official thinking on this subject.
The act had no measurable effect on the number of cyclists, or the quality of
on-road facilities for cyclists. Indeed much of the money earmarked for bicycle
facilities was squandered on projects that were only tangentially related to bicycling.
But it did bring to light the fact that bicycles were a legitimate means of
transportation. This again made them visible to transportation planners and traffic
The statistics of injury on separated paths (formerly recommended by USDOT) were such
that these measures could no longer be recommended. The policy of separated bike
paths was allowed to quietly slip away with no clear admission that the idea was
frequently a fatal mistake.
And it was an unnecessary mistake as well.
For, while the transportation agencies were administering the disaster of the bike
path, these very same agencies were simultaneously building the solution. Our
current wide roads with adequate shoulders and well-engineered sight lines.
Bike Paths Encourage Cycling...
This is often the claim heard in defense of bike paths.
But is it true? Again path proponents point to the Dutch
experience. And here again the facts do not support this
Since 1990, the
total length of cycle paths has increased to almost 19,000 km,
generally speaking double the length in 1980.
Besides cycle paths, there were
also investments in roundabouts, reconstructions of junctions
and pedestrian/cyclist crossings, cycle tunnels, bridges and
parking facilities for cyclists; totaling an estimated 1.5
billion guilders. The costs were split up into approximately
fifty percent for the municipalities, 15% for the provinces and
the remainder for the national government.
1994, the total distance cycled was 12.9 billion km, compared
with 12.8 billion in 1990. (The number of km travel-led by car
was 125 billion in 1990 and 129 billion in 1994). Consequently:
Expansion and improvement of the bicycle specific infrastructure
does not necessarily increase the use of bicycles.
Autumn of the Bicycle Master Plan: after the plans, the
products, Ton Welleman, Dutch Ministry of Transport, Velo-city
conference Basle, 1995,
Can we Improve on Excellence?
This is not to say that improvement is not needed in some parts of the country.
Some roads are still narrow. Some streets are still full of potholes. Money
is scarce, budgets stretched, and traffic volume is growing.
The simplest thing YOU can do to rectify these conditions is just get on your bike!
One less car on the road! One less parking spot needed. You will help
others as you improve your health. As motorists get used to seeing bicycles on all
roads the acceptance of cycling as a legitimate alternative to motor transportation
grows. Who knows, maybe some of them will leave the car in the garage too.
But for those routes that really need improvement try this tactic. Attend the public meetings which are usually held as road
designs are being considered. Motorists will be there demanding improved
conditions. Wider lanes, fewer potholes, more parking, better street
Tell them you are a bicycle commuter.
Then, instead of asking for another boondoggle dangerous bike path, lobby for EXACTLY
what they want. Wider lanes. Smoother surfaces. Better lighting. Safer
conditions. Make it clear to them that a separated bike path means more dangerous
conditions for you the cyclist, and increases costs. Wider outside lanes mean
smoother traffic flow for all users. Bikes don't delay cars on adequate roads.
At these meetings, you will also find there are folks that want to spend the federal
transportation monies earmarked for "bicycle facilities" on bike paths through
parks or along lake shores. Point out to them this this is a subtle form a
fraud. These are TRANSPORTATION funds, which should be used getting people to and
from where they need to go. Suggest using recreation funds for these paths.
Lobby for using the transportation funds to improve the road system for bicycle use, so
that more people will find bicycle transportation a practical alternative to
driving. This may include bike parking, (including bike lockers) in nooks and
crannies near popular destinations. It might include replacement of in-street
sensors at signalized intersections to make sure they can detect a bike. It might
include shortcuts linking neighborhoods so children can bike to school on neighborhood
streets. Ask for another second and a half of "Green" at large
signalized intersections to make it easier to cross. These things are cheap.
When motorists complain (there are always a few) about being held up by bikes in the
streets, speak up for eliminating on-street parking, thereby freeing up two lanes of road
width making it easier for cars to share lanes with bikes. This usually shuts them
up in a hurry.
Side Rant: Where did the idea that possession of an automobile
entitled the owner to usurp 80 square feet of public space free of charge ever come
from? On street parking is a subsidy to motorists. Remember this nugget when
motorists start whining about the cost of bike parking or bike lockers.
Secondary Rant: Occasionally we get letters from
cyclists stating that the government in their area has put in place policies
that are bicycle unfriendly, or that they eliminate wide outside
lanes in favor of converting two lane streets to four lane
streets. Some have even reported that the local governments
have attempted to ban riding bikes on streets or riding bikes to
school, or have imposed bans on providing bicycle racks for parking.
They point these things out as if the bad government decisions
somehow justify bike paths. Nothing could be further from the
truth. Bad government decisions justify changing the
government, and nothing more. The best way to do that is
Attend the public meetings.
Work Toward the Standards
We have some of the best roads in the world. Good for cars and good for bikes.
If all roads are built to normal road building standards, the same standards that are
mandated by all states and provinces, there will be more than adequate room for bicycling.
There really is no need to ask for anything more.