I'm seriously considering bicycling to work, and I'd like some advice on the way to choose a route. Specifically, I have these two options:

  1. Go on a path with only 2 cross streets, but a road that is 55 mph. I'd probably have to bike off-road, but there's a well maintained dirt shoulder.
  2. Go on a path with a bike lane, only 35 mph traffic, but many cross streets, traffic lights, etc.

Each is about the same distance, so that's not a significant factor. I'm more familiar with the first route, as it's a clear cut reason to drive that way, but I know my way around the second route. There really isn't any other routes, although I might be able to make the second route a bit more off of a main road with a bit of work...

Also, feel free to give any generic advice to choosing a bicycle route.

  • I love to go through parking lots to avoid traffic. As you get to know the route by bike, you'll start to see other options.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 3:00
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    What kind of traffic do these roads see? How many lanes in each? Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 5:26
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    I always choose the downhill route, there and back.
    – user229044
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 8:08
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    I was just able to test out my bike/ route this morning on my way to work, and it worked out great! I did make one small hiccup, but, well, it was the first time, so... I'm hoping to make it in half an hour in general, which is only a few more minutes than it took me by car. Thanks for the tips! Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 17:42
  • I select the fastest route in the morning because I leave early and the bike paths are mostly empty; and coming back, I pick the one that brings me closer to services (stores, restos...) so I can do stuff after work.
    – Max
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:06

7 Answers 7


If you really would only feel safe riding on the dirt shoulder, I'd keep that route as a last resort, since dirt will probably slow you down more than traffic lights and 55 mph traffic is likely scary and dangerous. On the other hand, lights might be more annoying than an overall slowdown from dirt.

Try one, then try the other. Time yourself. Weigh how pleasant the ride seemed. Try each of them each way. Pick the one that was faster, or the one that was more pleasant, whichever matters more to you. It's likely the faster one will also be the one that felt more pleasant, since losing momentum is a major annoyance for most of us cyclists.

Personally, I find stop signs slow me down more than traffic lights, especially on a route that I take frequently. With a traffic light you can learn the timing and either stop pedaling or pedal harder in order to avoid hitting the red.

I can tell you how I chose my routes:

  1. Look up routes on maps. Google maps has some decent cycle route data now; turn on the "bicycle" and "traffic" overlays. The Strava Heat Map is a great way to see what routes are popular locally. Your local bicycling advocacy group likely has maps highlighting the best routes. It's likely your local government has an official map of where bike paths/lanes/routes are. Get multiple routes figured out. Look for side roads, bike paths, etc. Small residential roads you'd never consider in a car often work great on a bicycle. And google maps may not suggest that awesome side road because it's not designated as a bike route.
  2. Pick the top few routes.
  3. Ride the best seeming one. You can do this as a test ride on a non-work day, especially if you're concerned about timing. Keep your eyes out for possible side roads, bike paths, etc.
  4. Ride a different one. Repeat until you've tried all the reasonable seeming options.
  5. Try them in the reverse direction. Sometimes what you don't like on a route won't be there going the other way.
  6. Take what you've learned and adjust.

I have two basic commutes, a mixed-mode with 4 miles of bicycle ride, or a 12-mile ride all the way to or from work. In both cases, my favorite route to work is very different from my favorite ride back home, except for the half mile closest to my house and a few miles in the middle of the 12-mile trip.

Roughly ordered priority of selection criteria for picking routes, based on thinking about why I take the routes I do:

  1. One bad spot can ruin a route. All perfect smooth bike lane except for that intersection that you feel like you're going to die in half the time? Terrible. Try a route that avoids the bad spot.
  2. Avoid bad road positions. For instance, a busy narrow 55mph road that's one lane in each direction with no shoulder would be bad. But if it's plenty wide with a wide shoulder that would be fine. Or a narrow low-traffic 25mph street would be fine.
  3. Avoid difficult turns. Needing to merge across multiple lanes of busy fast traffic is what I find the worst. There's other ways to make a left turn, but they're usually slower.
  4. Avoid long waits. Signals that don't pick me up (or just have a very long cycle), stop signs facing busy road that doesn't have to stop.
  5. Avoid annoying traffic patterns. Signals or stop signs that always have a long line. Places where everybody makes a right turn and I want to go straight but it's hard to merge into traffic, etc.
  6. Avoid difficult hills. I don't return home on one road that I love for getting to work because it ends with a short steep hill with a left turn. I prefer long gradual slopes over short steep ones, but you might find you have the opposite preference.
  7. Find bike lanes. Or a good shoulder with not too many right turns across your path. I believe most of the US classifies these into 3 classes: class I is dedicated bike-and-pedestrian-only ("bike path"), class II is a bike lane, class III is a route/suggestion (but might have sharrows or other measures). I usually prefer class II, since class I usually involves dealing with pedestrians and most of the class III stuff around here is a joke with better side-street options.
  8. Find smooth pavement. Avoid potholes, badly maintained road, etc. Hopefully obvious why. I find sometimes the pavement going one way is much better than going the other.
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    +1 for try different routes. There is not one best route. It will depend on the person, what they are feeling like and whether they need to pickup milk on the way home. Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 17:14
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    You'll be happier with multiple routes anyway. If I ride the same sixteen mile commute all week every week, it gets tedious. I find that I switch it up and sometimes end up taking rather out-of-the-way routes home just for a change. Hell. It's not like I'm wasting gasoline by joy-riding around!
    – DC_CARR
    Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 22:18
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    Dirt tends to turn into mud when it rains. If it is a shoulder then there is more water than usual because it is running off the street. If it has some hills you get small erosions.
    – BPugh
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 13:00
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    One cool tool for route finding from Strava is their heatmap: labs.strava.com/heatmap
    – jcbrou
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:01
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    It lets you see where other people are riding.
    – jcbrou
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:02

I would suggest staying away from 55mph roads, they're no fun to ride on (unless you're out in the countryside). Drivers are in a hurry, not looking out for cyclists and at those speeds there's not as much margin for error.

Try to pick a route that lets you enjoy cycling. It'll make it much easier to get out the door every morning. If option #2 has slower traffic (both from the speed limit and traffic stops) plus a bike lane to boot, then that's a much better way to go. Why suffer on a dirt/gravel shoulder when you cruise down a smooth lane of your own? The stops may slow you down too, but once you learn the route you should be able to figure out the timing (blocks where there's no need to hurry, others where you may want to hustle to make the next light).

When I was commuting in Vancouver, I had similar choices and stuck with the busy route (70km/h so not as fast as 55mph) far too long out of a perception that it was faster. When I finally switched to the slower, bike-friendly route I enjoyed the trip more and rode more often. The trip time didn't change much either.


For myself, I would choose the road with the bike path. The start/stops are annoying, but in general a road with the bike path will have more cyclists, and so the motorists will also be more used to dealing with them. Additionally, you will have the extra room on the road, which also makes it less likely that someone will cut in on you while trying to pass. Lastly, riding on a dirt shoulder is fun the first few times you do it, but it wears pretty thin pretty quick in my experience. Mountains are where mountain biking should be done IMO ;-)

How to choose a route? For myself, I look at the local department of planning for the bike routes and/or bike lanes that are available. I don't mind riding a little longer to be on a dedicated bike path, it is much friendlier to ride, even than a dedicated bike lane. Failing that, I look for the bike lane, and then "quiet" streets.

In my experience, riding down a busy street without a bike lane can be pretty hairy. I have had motorists who think that it is funny to try and scare you silly. After all, you are riding on their road.

  • Vancouver has suggested bike route streets, there are no specific bike features - but it means that cyclists all use the same side street and so there is a crowd for drivers to spot and deal with.
    – mgb
    Commented Feb 1, 2011 at 17:04

Start simple, and work your way up!

When I started riding to work, I at first stuck to all the bike paths I could find, or failing that, roads with bike lanes. And that was fine, but as time went on, I started shaving the route some, skipping the bike path in one section and riding on the road in traffic.

Over time (5 years), the route changed to the point I just ride on the roads, the most direct and fast way, on a regular basis. Once in a while, I'll go out of my way to add another hill on the way home, or go ride along the river for the scenic route.

What I'm saying is start by finding a route you'll be comfortable in, then, over time, you might find your comfort levels shift, and you'll adjust your route accordingly. If you start with a route that's too aggressive for you, or scary, or just uncomfortable, you're more likely to just give up on bike commuting than adjust the route down to something simpler.


In the UK I like to use CycleStreets UK to prepare my commute :


It gives you options to plan your routes via the Quietest / Fastest / Balanced routes.

Personally I plan my route by the fastest way and avoid too crowded pedestrian neighbourhood since I am always late to go to work (although i have to cycle via SouthAll in west-london which get really busy on mornings).


I have some general principles:

  • I don't like sucking exhaust fumes, so avoiding traffic whenever possible is my first priority.
  • Safety is my next priority, which means avoiding cars as much as possible. I'm lucky that here in Vancouver we have lots of separated bike lanes and lots of designated bike routes that go through quiet residential streets and have traffic-calming measures to keep the cars going slow on them.
  • The other thing I take into account when finding a route is that I don't like to go up a hill and then immediately back down (or down and then back up). I'd rather ride farther and go part way around a hill than go up it and then coast down the other side.
  • Great points about avoiding up-down hills.
    – user23374
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 22:31

It totally depends. No single answer there. I changed my commuting path many times, depending on my skill and weather conditions. To have an overview start with a map with cicleways and elevation: (http://www.osm.org/#layers=C)

Also try different online routers:

Most probably the fastest way is not covered by a bicycle network. So take into account:

  • do you mind motorized traffic for an extended time?
  • what about dirt? is your transmission protected/do you mind cleaning/oiling it often?
  • what about rough surfaces? you have suspension/bigger tires?

As you are starting, probably look for a not-necessarily direct route with as less traffic as possible, then iterate from there with your experience. Don't rush.

  • Gidday and welcome to SE Bicycles. Good first answer, please keep it up.
    – Criggie
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 21:47

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