Bike Commuting- Route Planning, Traffic

Posted by Doug Shidell, December 16th, 2008 3 responses

This is part two of a multipart posting on Bike Commuting.

Route Planning

Don’t expect to ride the route you normally drive. The reason you drive your favorite route to work is because that route was designed to make your drive faster and more convenient than any of the alternates. And if you like that route so do other drivers, for the very same reasons. Your route probably carries a lot of traffic, and heavy traffic usually means an uncomfortable biking experience.

The best bike route may not be the most direct and it may have more stops signs and slower speed limits than your preferred driving route. This is one of the most important barriers new cyclists face. Instead of a direct route, which usually includes a highway, you have to negotiate a number of turns and stop signs to get between home and work. This is a temporary problem. Each time you ride the bike, your route will become more familiar and more comfortable until you begin riding it on autopilot, just like in an automobile.

Bike route planning is personal. Some prefer the most direct route, regardless of traffic. Others will do almost anything to avoid riding in traffic. The following hints are designed to minimize your exposure to traffic without adding a lot of miles:

  • Find a parallel route. This is easiest in cites and neighborhoods designed in grid format. Often moving just one or two blocks off the main thoroughfare will put you on a low traffic, reasonably direct route.
  • Ride a road that is interrupted by a park. Often the park will have a bike path that will take you to the other side where you can continue on the road. The park stops through traffic, reducing overall traffic on the road.
  • A bike path may take you out of your way a little, but the traffic-free riding will more than make up for the extra distance.
  • Frontage Roads: These are a mixed bag. Some run parallel to a freeway and carry very little traffic. They have the advantage of very few cross streets so stop signs and lights are minimized. On the other hand, some frontage roads serve many businesses. Traffic can be high and cross traffic is heavy because of all the driveways into and out of the retail businesses.
  • Freeways and rivers create barriers that often force you to cross on high traffic bridges. You can often get quite close to the bridge using quiet residential streets. Move from the residential area to the main thoroughfare at a safe intersection, cross the bridge, then turn off the main road and move back into the residential area.
  • Use the knowledge of others. If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Madison, Wisconsin, or Milwaukee, WI, consider the bike maps by Bikeverywhere. You can also get great information by talking to your local bike dealer or asking fellow bike commuters at work.
  • Test the route: Ride it on the weekend or test the route in your car, before riding in. Don’t try your route the first time on a day when you have to worry about getting to work on time. It will create unnecessary stress.

Riding in Traffic

Riding in traffic is perhaps the biggest barrier to getting started bike commuting. The route suggestions above will help you avoid traffic as much as possible, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid traffic altogether. The key to riding in traffic is to act like a driver. That means, if you wouldn’t do it in a car, don’t do it on a bike. For example:

  • If you don’t normally drive the wrong way down the road, don’t do it on a bike.
  • If you don’t normally drive on the sidewalk, don’t do it on a bike.

You’re probably asking yourself: “Why wouldn’t I ride my bike on a sidewalk? The sidewalk is separated from traffic. There’s a curb there. You could be 15 feet away from traffic. Wouldn’t it be safer?”

Not necessarily. Sidewalks, like roads and freeways, have a “design speed.” Freeways, for example, are designed to handle traffic that flows at 70 miles per hour. Sidewalks are designed for traffic that flows at 3 miles per hour, or the speed of a walking person. Intuitively, we all understand this, even if only on a subconscious level. Consider your actions as you approach a sidewalk from a driveway. You automatically check for pedestrians, either through your peripheral vision or by checking a couple of feet to the left and right of your car. Any pedestrian beyond that distance is far enough away that you can safely cross the sidewalk without hitting him or her.

A bicyclist, riding 10-15 miles per hour, travels much further than a pedestrian. When a car and bicycle collide on a sidewalk, the most common reaction on the part of the motorist is that the bicycle “Came out of nowhere.” Sometimes that is literally true because sidewalks aren’t designed to allow a motorist to look for a fast moving vehicle approaching from that far away.

The same thing applies to riding the wrong way on the road. Again, as a motorist, consider your actions when you come to the edge of the road. You look left to see if any cars are coming at you in the near lane, then you look across the road and to the right to see if anyone is coming from that direction. If all is clear, you pull into the road. What you didn’t do was look down the near lane on your right. You logically expected that anyone in that lane was moving away from you. You could easily miss a bicyclist coming at you in that direction.

Be predictable

This brings up the most important rule of the road: Be predictable. If you look at the flow of traffic in a larger picture, you see that everything about traffic rules and regulations is about making everyone’s actions predictable. If you use your turn blinker, others expect you to make a turn. Rear brake lights broadcast that you are slowing down. Stop signs, stoplights, turn lanes, median strips, no passing paint; all guide you down the road in a predictable manner.

We all know what happens when someone makes an unpredictable move. If a motorist, for example, passes you on the freeway, then suddenly turns into your lane, your blood pressure goes up. You may hit the horn, curse, or worse. That motorist did something unpredictable. It caused you stress, and it could have caused an accident.

The same concept applies to bicyclists. If you do something unpredictable, like riding on a sidewalk, running a stop sign, weaving through traffic or making unexpected turns, you are doing something unpredictable, and increasing the chances of an accident. The predictable action is to act like the rest of the vehicles on the road.

Filed under: Bikeverywhere News

3 Comments to “Bike Commuting- Route Planning, Traffic”

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  2. Vehicles Says:

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