In the UK there are cycle paths laid down with proper tarmac just like the stuff they have on the roads. However, none of them that I have come across are level enough to afford a comfortable ride at speed.

I don't understand why it has to be this way, it is not as if cycle paths get dug up every five minutes like the roads do, there are no 40 tonne HGV's to break up the surface and the machines used to lay the tarmac are just like the ones they use on the road.

This is unfortunate given that most bikes do not have suspension, whereas all cars do.

What countries are there where they bother to lay cycle paths completely level? Why are the British ones never made nice and smooth? Do rough cycle paths discourage you from using them, in preference to staying on the road?


Originally 'cycle lanes', I mean't 'cycle paths' - routes that are not necessarily adjacent to the road.

  • Are you asking about small-scale bumps, or large-scale levelness? Bumpiness could easily be just from lack of maintenance.
    – Cascabel
    Jul 7, 2011 at 14:03
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    "lay cycle lanes completely level" I don't think this exists.
    – Moab
    Jul 7, 2011 at 15:39
  • I'll note that there are some exceptionally smooth bike paths in my part of the US (though with the economic situation I don't know how long they'll be maintained). It takes some special technique, I suspect, to lay a smooth bike path, where there's no vehicular traffic to smooth out the rough spots. And the bike path will deteriorate (in smoothness) more rapidly, due to the lack of "steamroller" effect. Jul 7, 2011 at 17:23
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    I'm not sure about this question. I think that the situation with "bumpy" bicycle lanes is entirely dependent upon location. In my particular area, the bicycle lane condition usually matches the adjacent road; and in areas with recently upgraded roadways, the bike lanes are upgraded as well.
    – user313
    Jul 8, 2011 at 0:08
  • If the question were phrased "Why are cycle lanes often worse-maintained than roadways", would it be okay? (It's the same question, but mathew's version has more panache.) The question also addresses the possibility that some countries have better cycle lanes than others. It invites discussion a little bit, but there's a good question in this. I think it's okay. Jul 8, 2011 at 4:26

8 Answers 8


I think it is an issue of foundation mostly. Because roads get very heavy (as in weight) traffic roadbuilders spend a lot of time on the groundwork, compacting, digging away soft and unstable earth or sand layers and replacing them with gravel or other heavy rocky debris before the tarmac is laid down.

Because a bicycle path only sees light bicycles less time has to be spent stabilizing the base before the tarmac can be placed. Unfortunately this means there is less of a hard pack underneath the pavement to keep roots away, and there is not as much heavy rocks and other stuff underneath the pavement stabilizing inevitable small shifts in the ground. So bicycle paths shift a bit more, and they are more vulnerable to getting pushed up by roots.

What it comes down to -I think- is money. Building a solid foundation takes time and materials, and hence money. For a bicycle, anything paved is better than what was there before (nothing or running the gauntlet on the open road) so I assume municipalities choose to get the bicycle paths out there fast and cheap rather than roll them out slow but more expensive. Spending a lot of money on car-load resistant bicycle paths also just doesn't make economic sense for most municipalities.

The good news: Here in the Netherlands a lot of municipalities have realized over the years that the cheap bicycle paths cost a lot more in maintenance and repairs, so the quality is steadily improving.

  • Thanks - the insight on the situation in the Netherlands could be taken on board by my local council! Jul 8, 2011 at 9:22
  • I could get stropy about "anything is better than ... running the gauntlet of the open road" Jul 8, 2011 at 10:37
  • @Andy Morris, that is just my perception of the thinking of most municipal councils. This is not necessarily my own opinion. Jul 8, 2011 at 11:14
  • Moreover, cycle paths need to be maintained (cut vegetation, remove rubbish) and people in charge use motorized vehicles which are heavier than bicycles.
    – mouviciel
    Jul 14, 2011 at 22:36

Vehicular traffic will tend to, on a reasonably sound road, smooth the surface (like a steam roller) and eliminate lots of the small bumps. A bike lane, lacking such traffic, will develop bumps that do not get smoothed.

Plus what zenbike said.

  • This would suggest that the centers of traffic lanes should also be pretty bumpy. Is that the case?
    – Cascabel
    Jul 7, 2011 at 16:15
  • Very often -- depends on the characteristics of the road and traffic. Even the center gets much more traffic than the shoulder. On roads where the roadbed is being somewhat overloaded the "tracks" will become bumpy and the center is often smoother, but in other cases, where the traffic is a hair lighter and the roadbed is not overloaded, the tracks are generally smoothest. Jul 7, 2011 at 17:20
  • Agreed, try riding on a road with heavy truck traffic. It will be difficult to even control your steering.
    – zenbike
    Jul 8, 2011 at 7:16

Ah! Paths, not lanes! Ok so that's a different matter... Short answer, bike paths don't have to be bumpy...

In Portland, Oregon the bike paths are generally not bumpy. The city currently has around 76 miles of separate bike paths and in the entire metro area, bike paths are up to 235 miles (but not all are paved). (Not including lanes, bike boulevards, or cycle tracks.)

So, during the past 2 years I've been over nearly the entire Portland metro network, and very little of the bike path network is "bumpy". The few bumpy sections seem to be bumpy due to either age, erosion, or root growth. And additionally, the bumpy areas tend to be in low usage areas of the path network.

Portland leans very liberal/progressive, both the city government and the metro area promote cycling and we're fortunate to have a politically active cycling community. (One advocacy group is the Bicycle Transportation Alliance whose mission is to create healthy, sustainable communities by making bicycling safe, convenient and accessible.) As a result, the cycling infrastructure is very good and continues to get better.

Anyway, in Portland we have quality bicycle paths (and other cycling infrastructure) because the community demands them. If one lives in an area with a poor cycling infrastructure, I would recommend grassroots organizing and demand a better system from your local politicians.

Just for fun and to demonstrate a dynamic cycling community, here's a link to the World Naked Ride that took place on June 18th. Caution, there is nudity...

  • Heck, Rochester MN (population 105K) has 85 miles of bike trails. Jul 9, 2011 at 8:11
  • @ Daniel - The city of Portland itself is rather compact and like I said, the entire metro (tri county) area has around 235 miles of bike trails. With a total of ~ 180 miles paved. –
    – user313
    Jul 10, 2011 at 2:17

I'm not sure about British roads, but the American version of a tarmac road is laid in an arc, with the center of the road higher than the edge, for drainage purposes. The roads are often also banked as they travel corners, so the edge of the road is often higher or lower than the median.

In addition, cycle paths are usually on the outside edge of the road, and that is the place where most of the changes for drainage and banking will affect the most, so it often feels as if the road is not smooth in the cycle path area.

Whether we like it or not, the primary reason for the roads to be built is motor traffic, and that is what they are designed around. If the road was completely level, there would be far more accidents, and far less control possible in a car on the road.


I guess it depends on where you live. Where I live (Ottawa Canada) the bike lanes aren't usually any worse than the road they are on. The major problem for me seems to be sewer grates which often have broken pavement around them due to freezing in the winter. However some roads are very good. I often go 40 KM/H on my route to work, as some of the roads I travel on are in very good condition.

  • The only way I go 40kph (25mph) is downhill with a tailwind. Jul 7, 2011 at 21:45

The nice folks who maintain the cycle lanes around here are from either city streets or highway departments. Both of these agencies are focused on improving motor vehicle traffic flow. Bicycle infrastructure construction and maintenance is, for them, an ancillary acitivty. Generally speaking, many bicycle lanes are merely gutters with some paint stenciled on them.

Gutters, drains, and the shoulders of the road are generally not attended to in the way that the road pavement is.

Pavement quality tends to be better on bicycle routes that are maintained by park districts or by cities that have a clearly-defined policy of promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation.


In the UK, I'm going to guess that it's roots, getting under the paths: because the cycle paths have (compared with roads) less foundation, are dug less deep, are narrower, and have no paved verges (e.g. "side-walks").

  • Around here the problem is often gophers. Jul 9, 2011 at 16:39

I saw this article/publicity page recently Bicycle Profile Index


Bumpy bike lanes are unpleasant to ride on and pose a safety hazard for cyclists. COWI has joined forces with Dynatest Denmark in the development and marketing of a new measurement concept. Loaded with laser sensors, blinking yellow lights, a GPS and digital camera, the little Mercedes Smart measures out bike lanes millimetre by millimetre for the bumps, potholes, tree roots and other imperfections that make riding on some bike lanes anything but smooth sailing. ...

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