20

Upfront, I'm willing to admit that I have some nervousness when it comes to commuting by bike that I need to get over. However, I want to know if all of that nervousness is unfounded, or if some of it is valid.

I live in the Southeastern U.S., where bikes aren't really regarded as things that belong on the road at all. This is a map from this article published on Wired in 2015:

Bike-friendliness map

As you can see, the Southeast doesn't fare too well. My specific question, though, is about roads like these (image credit: Google Maps):enter image description here

I've ridden on 4+ lane roads before, but never with a speed limit higher than 35 MPH (~55 KPH), and often with a bike lane. The speed limit on this road is 55 MPH (~90 KPH), and this road and others like it (with no bike lanes) would be unavoidable on my commute. Are roads like these safe to ride on or is the speed of traffic too fast?


Edit: Sidewalk Clarification

Since a lot of people have mentioned sidewalks as a potential option, I figure it's worthwhile to add some details. First, the sidewalk on this road is not consistent. There are multiple spots where it just stops and then resumes 30 or 40 feet later. In other places, it stops and resumes on the other side of the road... but without a crosswalk to get there. Secondly, I checked our state laws, and riding a bike on a sidewalk is illegal.

As an aside, like many U.S. states, we also have an FTR (Far-To-the-Right) law, meaning riders can't take the lane (except for in a few circumstances). The state really isn't bicycle friendly.

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    What is that black splotch? Bicyclist road kill? – RoboKaren Feb 7 '17 at 16:44
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    @RoboKaren Haha, it's super secret redaction. It was the road name. – arbitrarystringofletters Feb 7 '17 at 16:48
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    Phew. It looked like splattered black Lycra and had me worried!!! – RoboKaren Feb 7 '17 at 16:49
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    I think I would increase my life insurance before riding on such a road so that my family could be supported in my absence. – Rider_X Feb 7 '17 at 17:12
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    There's a sidewalk there; in this case I would use it. Anyway, the southeast US is probably the worst part of the country for cycling. – Michael Hampton Feb 8 '17 at 4:26
20

Determining an acceptable risk level is really a subjective personal assessment, no one can tell you whether or not something is of an acceptable level of risk. As such I will give you my judgement criteria for riding on roads shared with automobiles.

  1. I avoid roads without a large shoulder or bike lane. While many still advocate for taking a lane, the failure mode (e.g., a rear collision) presents too much of a risk in my opinion.
  2. I avoid large speed differentials, I would qualify vehicles traveling over 50 kph as having a large speed differential. This reduces reaction times as the closing velocity is quite high, which can lead to accidents. I don't trust that most drivers are doing an effective job of scanning the road ahead of them.
  3. I also try to avoid roads with much traffic, either by riding in off-times (e.g., 5 am) or sticking to largely unused roads. This further reduces the risk.
  4. Finally, roads with good sight lines and acceptable closing speeds are preferred over roads with bad sight lines and higher closing speeds. (Thank you to @gerrit for the suggestion.)

I also ride away from traffic whenever I can so I tend to mix in a lot of dirt and asphalt. For very quiet rural roads with low speed limits I am happy to forgo criteria (1) because there are fewer interactions with vehicles and you tend to stick out like a sore thumb in that scenario. But I also mitigate this further by only using these roads in good weather conditions (e.g., not at night in the rain).

In terms of line of clear sight I feel this only provides some safety as it still requires drivers to scan ahead and recognize objects. Many do a poor job of this, or the search images they are looking for do not include cyclists so they can miss an utterly obvious rider at the side of the road. This is why I put line of sight last.

From my criteria I don't think you need a critical assessment of your photo. I would suggest looking at alternate routes (perhaps ones that are less direct) or look on sources such as Open Street Maps, as they have a good cycling path maps including off-road/dirt paths that can be used to tie together routes so that busy and dangerous roads can be circumvented.

At least where I live, this has been a good strategy.

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    @arbitrarystringofletters - I would look for off-road trails as one possibility, many online maps do not show all the trails available. Try Bike Route Toaster as they have an Open Street Map cycling map layer which has a good array of paths and trails. – Rider_X Feb 7 '17 at 17:18
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    Unfortunately no, there aren't any trails nearby. There is a sidewalk, but it stops abruptly pretty soon after the section of road in the image. I think I just need to move to the Netherlands. – arbitrarystringofletters Feb 7 '17 at 17:23
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    @arbitrarystringofletters - Can you use a mixed mode approach (e.g., drive part way or put your bike on public transit - if they allow it - some do)? – Rider_X Feb 7 '17 at 17:29
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    Strava's Heat Map is great for finding alternate routes. – jcbrou Feb 7 '17 at 17:55
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    @arbitrarystringofletters - driving to the starting point could also open up a variety of new routes for you, I would look at it as an opportunity. I suggest spend some quality time pouring over maps, being forced to get creative can really take you to some neat places you might not explore otherwise. – Rider_X Feb 7 '17 at 19:52
19

@Rider_X has already given a good answer.

I would add an important consideration: local driver and cyclist cultures.

As you and the map you cite indicate, there is little pro-cycling culture in this area. If you don't see other cyclists riding there, then don't do it yourself.

The road you picture is quite poorly designed, even for motor traffic. That center turn lane is recognized world-wide as a recipe for head-on crashes, and the lack of any run-off at the roadside means that breakdowns or vehicle stoppages will cause potentially fatal obstructions.

If it's not safe for motor vehicles then it's not safe for you.

As a counter example, where I live on the edge of a city of 4 million people, my ride yesterday evening started on a two lane road (one each way) with an 80 kph (50 mph) limit and bike lanes, and after 10 km (6 mi) switched to 100 kph (60 mph) and no bike lane. But crucially, there is a verge that can be used as an escape. Of course, I had to take care, and especially listen for vehicles approaching from behind. But every single vehicle that passed me did so with at least two meters to spare. At one point I heard what turned out to be a 24-wheeler approaching, and moved onto the verge (which was deep loose gravel). The truck driver honked to thank me after he passed. My point here is that in this area the culture is for cyclists to be reasonably well respected road users.

Cyclists are vulnerable when mixing with other traffic. If you have to ask is it safe then the answer for you is no.

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    Those cycling rear facing radars sound made for your use case. Stay safe out there! – Rider_X Feb 7 '17 at 23:05
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    What city has 4 million people. Where I live, a truck honking the horn wouldn't be to thank me. It would be to express his disdain for bicyclist using the roads. – Rich Manson Feb 8 '17 at 3:11
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    @RichManson Plenty of cities worldwide have 4M people. A truck honking his horn behind you probably means "get out of my way!"; a truck honking his horn after he's already passed you certainly doesn't mean that. – David Richerby Feb 8 '17 at 11:13
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    And here comes the EV.. – Antzi Feb 9 '17 at 2:18
  • @Antzi I was passed by a Tesla (S) in a 40mph zone a little while ago. Even at that speed road noise is signficant (especially from a heavy car). It's in the really slow stuff that you have to worry most about EV silence. The lack of an engine note removes a clue that someone's about ot overtake though. – Chris H Feb 16 '17 at 10:01
5

I need to ride on a road exactly like that. Looks exactly like Florida. I have an 18 inch side which appears a bit bigger than yours which is the bike lane. Then there is the berm which is what they call the grass. I need to get over 30 miles on this road to get to a destination I am interested in. So, it is too far for me to hike in a day. I have driven on this road and vehicles achieve speeds of 65 MPH+ regularly. There are no streetlamps so it is very dark at night. I have seen cyclists lazily peddling in that small lane without much trouble.

When I need to I plan to ride on the berm (grass) as much of the way as I can. I have tried it with my mountain bike and I am stable on it, at least for short distances. I notice you have a bit of sidewalk on the left so I would use that whenever I could. I would not trust to ride in the small bike lane provided. One mistake from that idiot behind you and you will be a red splotch.

I would advise that you map out this road very carefully by driving over it or even hiking it. I have seen roads in the southwest narrow until there was no bike lane or grass to use and that I consider a death trap. Fortunately, we have plenty of berm here in Florida because some people here hike and trails sometimes follow roads.

One more point I might add, drivers here despite that poor reputation know about and respect bikes. This has been improving because of the bad record Florida has maintained for years and police crackdowns. The Southwest was much worse, particularly Vegas where drivers would come up on the curb to hit a biker(happened to me twice).

Be safe and good luck!

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    Yes that's exactly the kind of road where I'd ride on the pedestrian side-walk: i.e. two lanes in each direction, speed limit is for the highway rather than the city, no cycle lane, and the side-walk is empty of pedestrians. I'd be willing to share the side-walk (e.g. get off or stop) if ever I do meet a rare pedestrians. – ChrisW Feb 8 '17 at 6:37
  • That is why I recommend scouting the route first. We have a highway here that has a pedestrian sidewalk on the left but not on the right. Someplaces have the rule that while you are in the street you are a vehicle but when you are on the sidewalk, you are a pedestrian. I have shared the sidewalk with pedestrians and have had no problems from the police for riding there. – bobbym Feb 8 '17 at 6:44
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    "I have an 18 inch side which appears a bit bigger than yours which is the bike lane." Anything that's narrower than a bicycle is not a bike lane. – David Richerby Feb 8 '17 at 11:14
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    Hi David, I was being a bit facetious calling it that. I will not ride on it but obviously that is just me because there are bikes on it every time I have ridden on the highway. – bobbym Feb 8 '17 at 11:42
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Statistically speaking you are much more likely to die from skydiving. Or, since someone is going to say, "but we don't parachute", is that more likely to being hit by a skydiver belonging to an unopened parachute? All seriousness aside, there are several things that a person is more likely to die from than cycling no matter the road. But then the question is which roads are more dangerous than others and maybe should be avoided. I like Rider_X's statement that the decision is a personal assessment issue because it really is just that.

Generally

I can only speak for myself and like me, some cyclist are comfortable on any road, at almost any conditions. If your alert and always aware of what is going on behind you then the risk is minimized. But then I have been riding on roads of every type for for 38 years. We can call this type 'A'. However, other cyclist, especially ones new to cycling, are understandably cautious and nervous around motor vehicle traffic. Especially thicker traffic on busier roads at higher speeds. We can call this type 'B'

Comfort does come with experience, confidence and mileage. But that doesn't mean that EVERY cyclist should bide on EVERY road at EVERY time. Since type 'A' feels very comfortable , he is less likely to make a dangerous mistake or do something unpredictable to confuse motorists and he feels perfectly calm and at ease. He is accustomed from almost 300,000 miles of bicycling to know where passing cars are from the sound of their tires hitting the pavement. He doesn't have to even look behind him or have a rear view mirror (Not advocating not having a rear view mirror) to know if motor vehicles are getting too close. Whereas, rider type 'B' does not have the same experience and confidence. Bottom line to this story is that even though I am comfortable on just about any road, there are still some roads and condition I try to avoid at certain times.

My experience from tens of thousands of miles

I have always found that the majority of motorist are alert enough to see and steer clear of slower moving vehicles. I used to say it was 97% and the other 3 percent had to not be paying attention just as they pass you and they may still miss you. But with today's handheld devices, motorist are more distracted than ever. Its not unheard of to see a motorist driving down a road with a device in from of their face while moving which is illegal in every state in the USA and probably every country I would imagine. All that being said, the motorist that i have the most problem with by far are the one that either don't think bicycles are allowed on the roads or should be on the roads or just upset that they have to deal with a bicyclist and try to come as close as they can to you on purpose as if to try and make a statement. Those are the ones you have to look out for the most. Even though they are paying attention, since they are trying to get close, they could get so close as to cause a critical mistake.

Your particular Road

That particular road does not look that long in the picture if your in the middle taking the photo. It does not have any shoulder to dive off on though and if there was another road nearby that was better, I would take it. Even if it takes you a half or even 1 mile out of the way. The average traveling time by bicycle to cover a mile id roughly 3 minutes give or take 30 second depending on if your faster or slower than average.

My criteria is to assess as many things as possible aside from my own comfort level as:

  1. Thickness of traffic at the time of day I plan to use it.

  2. Will I be commuting while near dawn or dusk and how lighted is the road.

  3. Are there blind hills and curves

  4. Speed of traffic

  5. Type of driver predominately traveling this particular road

  6. Road condition including pavement style, evenness, age (cracks and pothole), existence of a shoulder, layout, design,

  7. Type of vehicles using it. How many larger vehicles like trucks aas compared to the number of cars.

Not an all inclusive list by any means.

One last notable thing - LIGHTS

We have a retired guy in our club that rides with his lady friend on a tandem and they have about eight lights on their bike that they run at all times. With today's LED lighting you can have lights that are so bright they will make you stick out in the day time like a riding lawnmower going 70 mph on an interstate. My friends have been told by several motorist that they were almost blinded by their light in the day time. So you can always make yourself much more visible.

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    Yep - I don't mean to blind anyone, but the drivers see me alright! – Criggie Feb 8 '17 at 4:57
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First you need to check your local laws. Depending on where you are, there may be rules about "how" you ride on that road. For example in FL you are treated the same as a car. If you hit a person on the sidewalk, and they decide to press the matter, your classified, just about the same as a if you drove your Honda onto the sidewalk. Local bike clubs and what not can help with understanding local laws.

Now, just because you have the same responsibilities as a car, and the same liabilities as a car, doesn't mean your going to fair as well as the car that hits you. So keep that in mind.

Follow the simple rules (these are for my area, you may need to look up your area)

  • Ride on the correct side.
  • Take up an ENTIRE LANE (go ahead, piss 'em off ride in the middle of the damn lane, you allowed and supposed to. The official rule is that you have to ride far enough into the lane, that for cars to go around you they have to change lanes.)
  • Use the correct lighting. We have rules here about how bright and where lights must be.
  • Keep up with traffic. Now this is the important one for you. Again, here, you are legally required not to pose a impediment to traffic, while also driving in the middle of the lane. So if you can get your bike up to 40 - 55 MPH go for it. Otherwise your breaking the law (and you will get ticketed).

Me personally, not going in that road. It seems unsafe, and I don't see how I could meet the local laws (there's no way I'm getting my bike anywhere near 40MPH). I would look for alternative roads and paths. Google maps does a pretty decent job around here of highlighting "bike friendly" roads. But then again the city I live in puts bike lanes on main roads if the speed limit is above 35.

4

I have ridden roads like this, but only in large herds groups (30+ people) where we were able to draft and maintain 30+MPH in 55+MPH traffic. Also, there was a generally agreed upon "they'll have to get us all" mentality that if anyone was hit, the rest would ensure aggressive legal persecution prosecution would ensue. This ride was in the Gainsville, FL area back in the late 80's.

It was very nerve-wracking for the first few miles, then it got more comfortable. We were always very conscious of the traffic, and had constant communication through the group of traffic approaching from behind. As I recall, we also had a bit more shoulder.

Riding solo, I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole!

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    On the bright side, I guess that means this road is better than the grinch; touching him requires a pole longer than 39 and a half feet. – arbitrarystringofletters Feb 8 '17 at 19:43
  • @arbitrarystringofletters - valid point! – FreeMan Feb 8 '17 at 19:47
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Like the other answers have said safe bicycle commuting is subjective and undefinable to a large degree. When I lived in Colorado a child was killed in a crosswalk on a bike while riding with their dad. In contrast, I've ridden my bike on pretty unsafe roads1, and so far I'm unscathed. I'm sure a large part of this good luck on my part and tragically bad luck by that child. I bring this up to highlight that accidents might or might not happen regardless of where you ride. This doesn't mean you should flirt with danger but you should accept that commuting on a bike carries risk.

Based on the picture you showed I personally wouldn't have a problem riding on it, but I would only ride on it if there wasn't a better option. Keep in mind my judgment can be a bit suspect1, and both other answers have essentially recommended against it. If you do ride on that road be mentally prepared to have cars whiz by you pretty fast. That can be an unnerving feeling at first but it isn't bad once you get accustomed to it. It is important to keep riding your line in that situation though. If you get nervous and start swerving around when the cars whiz by that is increasing your danger. Also it would be better if you would commute during off-peak hours.

Like another answer mentioned I think it is important to consider the bike/car culture in your area. I have a friend who has lived all over the world. He once told me that Washington DC feels much more dangerous to bike commute to him than Kenya did. I currently live in Idaho, and the drivers are almost excessively accommodating when I'm towing my kid trailer. You should adjust your boldness based on how the cars react to your presence on the road. In my city people would give me my own lane on that road even if I didn't demand it, and in Washington DC I'd probably be driven off the road if my friend is to be believed.

In summary, I personally don't feel like that road looks exceptionally dangerous, so I would ride on it unless the traffic is really unfriendly. That being said the only one that really needs to be comfortable riding on it is you. To repeat another answer, if you don't feel comfortable riding on that street then you shouldn't be riding on it. If you do ride on it then accept that cars will rush past you at close range.


1: I rode my bike out of Amsterdam on the autobahn, because that was the directions people kept giving me even though they saw me on my bike. After about 10 miles and strange looks from passing motorists the police pulled me over. Fortunately for me they just yelled at me and escorted me to the next off ramp, but I'm certain I could have been at least given a heavy fine. I also weaved through traffic in a huge roundabout in Barcelona that was filled with 20 - 30 mph bumper to bumper traffic merging from what felt like all directions. I was strong at the time so I wasn't too far below the flow of traffic, but my cousin said he was sure I was going to be hit. Both were stupid moves and I was lucky not to be hurt.

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    They say that luck will often save a man if his courage holds out. You have courage. +1 – bobbym Feb 8 '17 at 2:39
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    Don't they have signes "bicycle/pedestrians forbidden" ? – Antzi Feb 9 '17 at 2:23
  • @Antzi on the Autobahn? – Erik Feb 9 '17 at 2:23
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    @Erik Yes. In every country I went, I would sometime encounter this sign which is a good sign I wandered in the wrong place... – Antzi Feb 9 '17 at 2:28
  • @Antzi There probably was a sign. I remember that I was pretty sure I wasn't supposed to be there because interstate freeways in the States generally forbid bicycles. The strange looks from the motorists and people honking their horn at me was further proof that I wasn't where I was supposed to be. At that point though I was pretty frustrated with the directions people had given me and I was making good time so I kept riding. By the time the police caught me I was clear of the city so even though they didn't really give me directions route finding was much easier. – Erik Feb 9 '17 at 2:44
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+50

I appreciate you're asking for advice, and unfortunately I can't help. As others have answered safety is a very subjective experience. But I would like to explain what I think is a definitive answer from the perspective of the engineering and design, coming from the Netherlands, which has the safest and highest levels of cycling in the world.

The Dutch have the principle of Sustainable Safety, the objective of which aims to "lead to a sustainably safe traffic system in which: (serious) crashes are prevented, and, where this is not possible, severe injury is almost totally prevented" (see this fact sheet or this blog summary for more info).

The CROW Design manual for bicycle traffic is the infrastructure design guide used in the Netherlands, and specifies the default minimum of safe design for cycling. In it there is a simple table that specifies whether cycle traffic can mix with motor traffic given the maximum volume of motor traffic (measured in PCU, Passenger Car Unit), the maximum speed limit of the road, and the number of motor traffic lanes.

CROW table for cycle infrastructure

Using this table we can see that the point at which a road becomes too dangerous to allow mixing of cycling and motor traffic is when a road is

  • a rural access roads with…
    • a speed limit of 40mph or more
    • AND more than 3000 PCU per day
  • an urban distributor of…
    • more than two lanes in one direction
    • AND a speed limit of more than 30mph
  • a rural distributor
  • any through road

The types of road are planned and defined as follows (source: pedestrianiselondon.tumblr.com)

  1. Access roads (aka estate access roads) - streets that provide access to destinations, non-through routes to motor traffic.
  2. Distributor roads (aka district access roads) - streets that provide access to estate access roads, non-direct through routes.
  3. Through roads - roads that link distributor roads together and act as main routes for motor traffic.

From your image it's clear that the road is not within the Dutch safe limits even if the volumes of motor traffic were low. Were the CROW manual followed, an cycle track (which would be at least 2 meters of width per direction of bicycle traffic, physical separation from the road of something like at least 2 meters, and noise reduction), or an access road (that would typically be access only to motor traffic and thus be nearly free of cars) should be made.


Please note that the Dutch standards and implementations for both on-road and off-road cycle tracks, while not universally perfect, are much higher than in other countries. The general design of roads is more thorough too, which typically ensures the volumes and speeds of motor traffic remain as planned.

protected by Gary.Ray Mar 17 '17 at 16:01

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