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crasic's view

Elsewhere, crasic writes:

The Most Direct Route is Not Always the Best

... Your driving commute route is usually a horrible bicycling commute route. I purposefully avoid big roads as much as possible and take small residential streets or dedicated bike paths when available. An extra mile on a bike path can actually save you time over a shorter busy commute route — not to mention the savings to your health, safety, and the increase in your general enjoyment. If my commute reminds me of my Sunday ride, then I know I have a good route.

You are a bicyclist. There is no reason to endanger your life on the 50mph [80 km/h] express-way when the 25mph [40 km/h] residential street can get you there just as quickly. In California, residential streets are often extremely wide (Parked car + Bike Lane + 1.5Width lanes both ways) compared to dedicated expressways — and can be orders of magnitude more safe and comfortable to ride. The pavement is often newer and less broken.

If you are new to the area, spend a weekend or two just exploring local residential streets. Hop on over to Google Maps and find the a way to use small streets to get to where you need to go. (Often this involves riding through the residential maze and with at least 5 or 6 street changes.) Practice your route at least once and carry a printout of the route with you at least the first few times.

[...] During busy commutes, drivers are often distracted in many different ways (putting on makeup, drinking coffee, worrying about being late, etc.) and can be unaware of bicyclists. Nothing will ruin your day more than an accident on the way to work.

John Forester's view

But, if I remember correctly, John Forester writes in Effective Cycling that four-lane main streets (with traffic lights) are better for commuting than little two-lane residential streets (with four-way stop signs at every block). The main streets are straighter and flatter. He adds that, if you take the lane, drivers will notice you and give you space. (Personally, I do generally take the lane.)

My usual practice

[Edit: I'm in Toronto, Canada.]

I'm seriously annoyed by having to brake heavily at every single four-way stop sign (especially when descending). Also, the residential street grid doesn't always pass underneath expressways or major railway lines. So I tend to end up doing most of my commuting along busy 30 mph [50 km/h] main streets, rather than quiet residential streets.

I don't usually commute during rush hour. The car drivers seem to calmly accept it when I take the lane; and I accept the drivers' right to use the road too.

My question

Is it wise for me to stick to main streets for the majority of my ride, even though there are quiet residential streets just a block away?

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    Streets with 30mph limits are very variable. Some have a typical flow of nearly 40mph, while others are stop-start. My experience is that both can be ok if there's space, but the transition can be tricky. Variation in driving habits between countries and even cities is significant, so I can't answer for where you live.
    – Chris H
    Sep 28 '17 at 8:40
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    Also we don't have 4-way stops but cars not seeing bikes at junctions when the bike has right off way is an issue for most types of junction.
    – Chris H
    Sep 28 '17 at 11:06
  • Where I live we have a speed limit at 60km/h, but you won't get fined up to 80. So' I'd say 50 is just great for biking =)
    – k102
    Sep 28 '17 at 11:43
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    Main streets tend to flow much better. If I take side streets I have to stop at many more intersections and that kills my momentum. The best tracks are free flowing and let the rider keep going.
    – Criggie
    Sep 28 '17 at 19:09
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    I'm closing this question as "opinion" because there are too many perfectly-valid viewpoints. A road that is okay to one rider is dangerous to another, and each rider must make their own decisions.
    – Criggie
    May 23 at 2:32
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You need to exercise judgment based on your circumstances.

I generally agree with the advice to ride on arterial roads rather than side streets. But in my own town, there are some arterials I'll gladly ride on, and some I won't go near. There are many side streets that would be slow, with constant stopping, and a couple that are practically bike highways.

So: is it "wise" to ride on main streets? That depends on whether you're trying to get somewhere quickly or want to take it easy. On how fast and aggressive traffic is on the road. On how wide the lanes are.

If you're asking whether it's "safe," that's another question. Bike riders tend to be overwhelmingly concerned about "overtaking collisions," where the car runs over you as it passes you. These are obviously scary. They make up a low proportion of all bike v car collisions, although they do make up the plurality of all bike v car fatalities (although less than 2% of bike v car collisions result in a rider fatality). Most bike v car collisions occur at intersections. If an arterial has fewer intersections along the way, and those intersections are better controlled, it seems that the arterial should be a safer place to ride.

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  • As a cyclist I've never experienced an overtaking collision. Certainly a couple of close passes, but the majority of my UH OH moments have been a car in front of the bike for some reason - a pull-out by a driver that didn't see me coming is by far more common. Or the clack of a door opening.
    – Criggie
    Sep 28 '17 at 19:15
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    My case is the opposite of @Criggie's -- every time my bike or body has come into contact with a vehicle, the vehicle has been overtaking. But near misses are another matter.
    – Chris H
    Sep 29 '17 at 8:01
  • I long ago stopped worrying (much) about overtaking collisions. Now I only really worry about cars at intersections failing to stop when and where they should have stopped. This was exactly the cause of both cycle-car collisions I've been in. Apr 13 '18 at 18:38
  • @ChrisH Depends a lot on the particular place (you are from the UK, Criggie from NZ). I'll write an answer to that effect. May 22 at 16:20
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I second in particular the first sentence of Adam's answer ("exercise your judgement") but would like to add another thought or two.

I have ridden bikes in places as disparate as Berlin, Germany; Houston, TX; Portland, OR, and two weeks or so in Manhattan.

My experience is that in general riding on the road feels safer where motorists are used to bicyclers and have more practice overtaking them safely. In Texas one could feel that they didn't quite know how much lateral distance to keep, whether to wait or not etc. — generally spoken, how to behave when confronted with this alien traffic participant. In Portland and Berlin it's not always exactly safe but I usually feel that the motorists know what they are doing.

But there are exceptions to that rule which were caused by the traffic situation.

Portland is known as a bicycle friendly city but I felt extremely uncomfortable on the roads that connect Beaverton to the city (Barnes/Burnside and NW Cornell); they wind through mountains without any shoulder or bike path and even though they are in parts only one lane in each direction they serve as commute arteries, with non-residential traffic. Here with a short tunnel as an extra:

enter image description here I tried a few times to navigate them but felt so unsafe and uncomfortable that I decided not to ride them at all. Instead I took the bike on the tram/light rail, which is very good there.

In Houston (Bunker Hill area) the advantage was that there is often a shoulder or sidewalk or strip mall one could use. And you have to give Texans a point: Many things there are indeed bigger. Cars easily can use one of the many other lanes...1

Eight lanes on Westheimer...

Going on larger roads like Briar Forest without that was uncomfortable but felt doable. It was not as prohibitive as the Portland situation because visibility was better (no hills, no tight curves) and there were two lanes per direction, allowing the cars to pass easier. In the picture below the sidewalk ends and does not re-appear for a few miles. As an aside, the occasional pedestrians I saw were Mexicans, presumably household helps in the surrounding wealthier neighborhoods. They would simply walk on the grass shoulder, where a little dirt path had formed, which is not an option for cyclists.

Briar Forest, sidewalk ends

As a general observation, paradoxically I feel safer when I'm faster: The motorists behind me feel less of an urge to pass quickly, and they have more time to notice me and come up with a conscious plan of action. Being slow made the uphill sections in Portland particularly unsafe.

My rule is the following:

Be wary if there is no bike path or shoulder and you must be directly in the cars' way. Listen to your gut feeling. If it feels to uncomfortable, it is probably too dangerous. Dangerous encounters are warning shots. Heed them.

The actual level of danger is a mix of the general bike-awareness of the motorists and the particular street situation, the latter overriding the former: Is the visibility good? Is it a street with businesses (Westheimer) or a pure through-street (Barnes)? Is it easy for cars to pass or are they stuck behind you unless they take risks?


1 Still doesn't mean it's exactly safe though. About 250 people die each year in Houston from traffic accidents, and most of Westheimer is on Houston's "The High Injury Network" — I hope that link works. Actually a surprising and laudable first step in addressing the deficits. From "driving" with street view I'd venture the guess that the traffic lights are to few and far between (none for pedestrians, for example) so that people cross the street in an unsafe way.

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    I can't see anything significantly wrong here - clearly shows that a fast road by itself is not inherently bad. I commute along a 60 km/h road but with so many cars on it they're often doing about my speed of ~30 which feels great. Being at the same speed as the cars is great.
    – Criggie
    Jun 13 at 3:31
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    Minor niggles - "bicyclers" might be better as "cyclists" or "riders" but that could be a regional thing. Perhaps the specific road examples could be illustrated with a screengrab from google streetview ?
    – Criggie
    Jun 13 at 3:33
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    @Criggie Good idea. I had actually forgotten that Westheimer has four lanes in each direction (five, if you count the turning lane!). Crazy. And I didn't find a stretch without sidewalk within the city, so I added a Briar Forest example instead. Jun 13 at 9:25
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    bleurgh! all those roads look horrid, and even as a confident cyclist I'd think twice before riding them.
    – Criggie
    Jun 13 at 11:41
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    @Criggie Well, as I said: Houston's Briar Forest wasn't comfortable but felt doable; it's 35 mph and has 4 lanes. Admittedly I always hurried to pass the stretch without sidewalk. Portland's Burnside felt undoable. Jun 13 at 13:08

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