[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE:How to Find a Route to Work by Bicycle
"You can't get there from here" seems to be true for the bike commuter. Some helpful advice about seeking out bicycling routes for the busy commuting cyclist.
Questions Do all bicycling commuters have the same abilities? Are all streets and roads suitable for cycling? What kind of difficulties can a bike commuter face? Why is getting around town difficult for the cycling newcomer? How does the veteran cyclist view the situation? Are bicyclists stuck with the poorest roads? Why are bicycle routes harder to find? What kind of route is most suitable for motor vehicle traffic? What kinds of roads are unsuitable for motor vehicles? What kinds of roads make the best bicycling routes? How can a cyclist shorten the time involved in finding a new route? Why do cyclists tend to use the same routes? Do all cities have the same layout? How do these layouts differ?


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How to Find a Route to Work by Bicycle

Cyclists vary in their ability to handle traffic. At one end of the spectrum are those who pull off of the pavement at the approach of a slowly moving car on a quiet street, and at the other end are those who ride confidently among dense, fast traffic. Most of us fall between these extremes, making our own individual compromises between comfort and convenience.

"You Can't Get There from Here"

Many long years ago, I was told a wearisome, worn-out joke from an earlier era in which someone was being given extended road directions which kept failing due to bridges down and roads washed out, and the punch line was "You can't get there from here." It has been a very long time since there have been any roads in the USA unable to handle automobile traffic, but unfortunately, today's cyclists still face the dilemma of finding a suitable route among roads with narrow lanes, high speeds, and heavy traffic. In addition, cyclists are likely to encounter non-functioning traffic lights, hazardous road surfaces, and choke points such as narrow bridges, underpasses, and tunnels, which are likely to turn an otherwise good route into a dangerous situation. Even on a quiet back street, the cyclist is likely to be attacked by an unfenced dog or to face a challenging hill climb.

A Different Mental Map

The cycling newcomer to the game of finding a way around town is likely to face the double problem of minimal traffic skills and minimal knowledge of suitable streets, the second caused having always looked at the world from the seat of an automobile. The cycling oldtimer, on the other hand, has absolutely no trouble getting around town but is puzzled from time to time at learning of new stores or businesses built right on the busiest streets, and wonders why anyone would build a new store on a street which no one uses ("No one goes there any more; it's too crowded"). In fact, a map of the same town produced by a newbie and a veteran would look entirely different: the newbie has very limited knowledge of the back streets, and the veteran has only a cursory knowledge of the main ones.

The Most Suitable Roads

It might be assumed from what has been said that the cyclist is stuck with the inferior routes, but this is very far from the case. I have found myself enjoying the ride to work in the same town where the drive to work is an exasperating experience. A more carefully considered evaluation is that some roads are more suitable to bicycle use while others are more suited to automobile use, and the wise cyclist uses the roads best suited to the bicycle. The best automobile routes will be plainly marked on road maps and on signs; the best bicycling routes will usually only be discovered after some exploration on the part of the cyclist. Let's look at the different characteristics of the two kinds of routes.

A Typical Automobile Route

The typical automobile route is characterized by wide streets and roads with heavy, high-speed traffic. Most drivers take the straightest, fastest, and most important roads to travel around town and to work. While the automobile route seems to most obviously be the quickest, shortest method of getting from A to B, there are some real problems with it. That wide, fast route quickly fills up with other vehicles, there are very long wait times at traffic signals, and traffic congestion is likely. The average speed from start to finish on a busy route is usually less than 30 mph. Even when leaving the main road, motorists avoid the following routes as much as possible: narrow or winding streets and roads, streets with many right angle turns, streets with many stop signs, streets with broken pavement, streets with low speed limits, older streets which parallel the highway or interstate, and streets which lack signals at major intersections.

Roads Suitable for Cycling

The roads the motorist avoids are all prime cycling territory, but in addition, the cyclist has these additional opportunities as well: busy streets and roads which have wide outside lanes or paved shoulders, and streets that jam sufficiently to reduce motor vehicle speed.

How to Find a Bike Route for Yourself

While exploring all possible roads on a bicycle may be fun, it is also time consuming, so the first step in finding a bike route to work, routes around town, and/or routes out into the countryside for weekend excursions is to get a map of your city or town. In smaller cities and towns, a good place to find such a map is at the courthouse or city hall, where most often there is a free map with the city streets on one side and county roads on the other. In larger cities, detailed local road maps are available from any store or gas station selling road maps. Either kind of map is very useful because it will suggest routes that you otherwise wouldn't think of. That side road may go a short distance and then end, or it may be an excellent bypass of a busy part of town.

The second step, of course, is to explore the roads personally. You have to suit yourself about which roads you want to ride on. On a recent trip to Huntsville, I was advised to follow a bike route along residential streets that wound far too much for my pleasure, so I got on the main four-lane street and proceeded without difficulty towards my goal. But what if I had arrived in town during rush hour traffic, especially in the late fall, when it gets dark early? Then I would have appreciated the longer route.

Although we all have our own preferences and compromises, I notice in town after town that the streets I choose to ride on are the ones with the busiest bicycle traffic. Evidently, there is some kind of logic behind my choices that other cyclists share.

Layouts for Different Cities or Parts of Cities

I have noticed, over the years, that city street patterns fall into three types, when they can be classified at all. I will call them "small blocks," "large blocks," and "topographically determined."

A section of a city with small blocks has frequent intersections. The houses face onto the main streets with only some alleyways between the blocks. A layout like this provides many alternate routes for the cyclist, and because there are so many alternatives, few of them have a lot of traffic, even during rush hour. This is the way that downtown streets were laid out for most of the lives of our cities, and these older neighborhoods are the easiest to bicycle through. In traveling through an area of the town like this, if there is too much traffic on your block, move one block over and the traffic problem is solved.

A section of a city with large blocks has intersections half a mile, a mile, or even two miles apart. Houses do not face onto this blocks but are located on minor streets that wander around inside the hollow square. This block pattern was created to get people's houses away from automobile traffic, but it usually forces cyclists to ride on very busy roads. Hopefully, the few remaining through roads have wide shoulders, but that's not necessarily the case. Another possible route for the cyclist is to discover a route through the minor streets between the blocks which, although winding considerably, are free of high-speed traffic.

A section of a city with roads that are topographically determined has mountains, hills, valleys, streams, lakes, or an ocean which largely determine where roads can or can not be located. A road can be built up a high hill or mountain in one of four ways: 1) It can follow a stream upward. Such a road will wind around as it climbs upward and, initially, it will be much less steep than the rest of the mountainside although it might get quite steep near the end. Since the road is trapped within the valley it is following, it usually will have few intersections. 2) It can follow a ridge upward. This road will also wind a great deal and will be initially a steep route. Such a road is free to have frequent intersections. 3) It can climb along the hillside/mountainside. This kind of road will climb more gradually that the hillside, and it will have frequent switchbacks. Intersections will be limited and will often be located on the switchbacks. 4) It can run straight up the hill, no matter how steep. This kind of road is found mainly within cities and follows the rigid grid pattern, ignoring topography. Since it ignores topography, why do I include it with the roads that do? -- because a cyclist can't ignore its topography.

To Be Continued


Using Maps While Bicycle Touring  Talks about the same problem of finding a suitable route but for a different reason.


Getting Started: the Route Paul Dorm explains how to pick a route that suits a cyclist, not a motorist.

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