Why Bicyclists Ride Where They Do

by William Smith. 0 Comments

An alert reader emailed me last week with a very good question (I was very pleased, as that indicated that at least one person, other than me, had read my scribblings). It was basically, “Why do bicyclists ride where they do?” In other words, given the choice among various roads, why would a bicyclist choose a more heavily-traveled one than a less-traveled one, or a road with no shoulder over a wider one.

We bicyclists look for the same properties in a travel way that motorists do - good sight lines, direct travel (not too far out of our way), smooth pavement, less traffic - things like that. So we tend to use roads that meet that criteria. Unfortunately, some roads aren't up to snuff, but they go from where we are to where we want to be - or connect us to a road that we really want to get to. So we use what we've got. (Given current budget constraints, it is unlikely that we'll see much in the way of new roads for many years, let alone maintaining the ones we've got.) An example might be Maryland route 80, which is not one of my favorite roads. I've used it to get to Urbana from Frederick because it is superior to MD355 - but that's not saying much. It increases the distance and the time to get to Urbana, but route 355 is much busier. I have, however, used route 355 when I was short on time. There are partial bicycle accommodations in the Urbana area near routes 80 and 355, thanks to the State Highway Administration (SHA), which has been working to add and/or widen road shoulders and bike lanes along state highways – so there is hope on the horizon.

Other reasons for a bicyclist to choose one road over another include better scenery, better crossings over/under major highways, fewer stop signs/traffic lights, wider right lanes, fewer hills (or numerous hills, depending upon how masochistic the bicyclist might be) – and I am certain that my friends could give me twenty more reasons.

About fifteen years ago a new policy came about in Maryland that prohibited bicyclists from using certain roads that were previously available to them – this included US15 north of Frederick City. This caused problems for us, as we needed to use portions of US15 in order to cross at certain points or to reach roads that met route 15 at “T” intersections. Examples of these are Biggs Ford Rd. and Catoctin Hollow Rd, roads that were not possible to reach without riding on US15. A couple of years later, the policy was wisely rescinded. The predicted bicyclist roadway deaths never occurred, of course.

Where is a bicyclist prohibited? That would be in the travel lane of a road where the speed limit is greater than 50 miles per hour (riding on the shoulder in this case is permitted, as well as leaving the shoulder in order to execute a left-hand turn), limited-access highways, and certain bridges.

I've read where people have accused bicyclists of “playing chicken” by riding on major roads, or skinny roads with no shoulders present. This is not true. The decisions of which roads we take are based on a logical evaluation of where we are, where we're heading, how much time we have, the distance, the terrain, the road conditions, the amount of traffic, etc.  The various weights given to these criteria depend upon the overall bicyclist comfort level, which is directly related to the cyclist's abilities.

The roads are public thoroughfares, open to all road users – including cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles. We all must get along and share the public roadways.  As Canadian humorist Steve Smith is fond of saying, "We're all in this together."

Next time I'll discuss some of the enhancements that are in progress in the city of Frederick concerning bike lanes and trails.

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