Happy Friday, all. I occasionally participate in the weekly BikeSchool Twitter conversation that takes place every Thursday night beginning at 6 P.M. California time. A “professor” asks a series of questions to generate discussion on bike-related topics.
Last night’s guest professor, Matthew Dyrdahl, is the Bicycle & Pedestrian Coordinator for the city of Minneapolis, MN. Among his many good conservation starters, he asked if people “should” use a path next to a road if it’s available.
****Q10 If there is a shared-use path (aka: a trail) adjacent to the roadway, should people on bikes use it? #bikeschool
— matthew dyrdahl (@matthewdyrdahl) April 29, 2016
I think most people discussed this in terms of using a shared path, i.e. if there’s heavy pedestrian usage, should cyclists use the path? Given Matthew’s position as a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, I realize now that he maybe asked this in terms of cyclist and walker conflict on shared trails.
Last night, though, I assumed Matthew was asking about this in terms of the motoring public’s perceptions and, more specifically, mandatory sidepath laws. In other words, should cyclists be required to use a sidepath if one is available next to the roadway? I answered:
#bikeschool Q10 mandatory sidepath laws evil. If facility good, people will use it. If facility bad, shouldn't be compelled.
— Richard Masoner (@cyclelicious) April 29, 2016
To expand on my 140-character summary: If a bike facility is worth using, people will naturally use it. If the path off to the side of the road is not worth using, the cyclist shouldn’t have to be legally compelled to use it.
We don’t ride our bikes in traffic because we think it’s fun to get out in front of people in cars, nor do we do so because we’re ignorant or stupid or lack ‘common sense.’ We do it because we need to get from Point A to Point B. If a good path is available nearby, I’ll probably use it. If I’m riding on a narrow road with heavy traffic in spite of the presence of a nearby path, however, there’s a good reason I avoid that path.
Those with a windshield perspective often don’t understand why that guy on the bike is on the road in spite of the perfectly usable bike path just over yonder. Even many policy savvy and informed cyclists wonder why cyclist’s shouldn’t be compelled to use a bike path. Let me list a few reasons:
- Bad Design: I’m blessed to have decent, usable paths in my area, and a few are even excellent, but bike paths are often poorly engineered. My usual commute route, for example, floods underneath Highway 101 in San Jose, CA when more than a tenth of an inch of rain falls. The maddening thing is that this is by design: the airport economy parking lot funnels all of their storm drain outlets directly onto the trail. The airport tarmac itself drains to the Guadalupe River about 50 yards north of this location, leading to more trail flooding in after even the slightest rainfall.
We have a similar drain on the Los Gatos Creek Trail, where a school parking lot storm drain dumps directly onto the trail underneath Leigh Avenue. Who designs this stuff?
Anybody who’s ridden a bike can go on forever about design flaws. A real winner is this barbed wire fence immediately adjacent to the Ralston Avenue sidepath in San Mateo County, California. Any highway engineer who designed a road that’s guaranteed to cause injury in the slightest crash would lose his engineering license and his job.
- Poorly maintained: The existence of a path near a roadway doesn’t mean it’s usable. Sidepaths are at the bottom of the list when it comes to allocating scarce maintenance funds. It could be flooded; blocked by mud and fallen trees; covered in horse manure; or have gaping, bike-eating potholes.
- Exceptions can be subjective, and a ticketing authority may not agree that a foot of snow might be impassable on your bike, because hey, look, there’s a sled dog team pulling a young, fit, professional Olympic athlete on a fatbike on that path right now so what’s your problem?
- Public safety: As I’ve mentioned previously, personal safety is a thing. The Silicon Valley Virtual Route Scouts have struggled with the question of directing new cyclists onto some of our more isolated trails. Every week, we have news about rapes, robberies, assaults, and other violent crimes on bike trails. Many cyclists feel safer sharing the road in heavy traffic than riding on an isolated trail. This perception of personal safety is never among the list of exceptions in mandatory path laws, as far as I know.
What’s your personal story of that time a helpful friend directed you to a safer, alternate route through an active artillery range?