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The Roads We Have

By John Andersen

WideRoad.jpg (15254 bytes)

Wide Roads!

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 rears 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 have today.

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 high.

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.

LFone Route Image by Lenore Kennedy. Image of a Dutch cycling path by Lenore Kennedy.  Read about her bicycle journey through the Netherlands in POLDER TO POLDER

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:

Trip Distance
In Km
Average trips per person per day

0-0.5

0.05

0.5-1

0.14

1-2.5

0.44

2.5-3.7

0.17

3.7-5

0.06

5-7.5

0.09

7.5-10

0.02

10-15

0.03

15-20

0.01

20-30

0.01

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 walking distance.

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.  From 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 bike path!!

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 along roadways:

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 enormously 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 bike paths.

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 journey.

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 Type

Facility Relative Danger Index

Major streets and roads w/o bike facilities

0.66

Minor streets and roads w/o bike facilities

0.94

Signed bike route only (BR)

0.51

On-street bike lanes (BL)

0.41

Multiuse trail

1.39

Off-road/unpaved

4.49

Other (most often ‘sidewalk’)

16.34

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 the chart.   

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 available.  

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 unnecessary.

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 unwarranted fear.

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.    narrowstreet.jpg (25601 bytes)

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 engineers. 

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 claim. 

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.

Results: In 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.

Source: The 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 lighting. 

Surprise them.

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. 

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08/16/11
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