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?

  • 2
    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
  • 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

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.

  • 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. – Michael Hampton Apr 13 '18 at 18:38

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