Why Do Bicyclists Insist on Riding on Roadways?
It’s a common question, among both non-bicyclists and novice bicyclists. Many assume it’s less safe than riding on sidewalks; others think roads “belong” to motorists. Some point to bad behavior on the part of some cyclists to “justify” getting bicyclists off the roadways.
The simplest and most important answer is this:
Bicycling on roadways is safer than bicycling on sidewalks.
(The “roadway” is the part of the “road” or “street” designed for use by vehicles. An exception can be made for children. The impulsiveness of many younger kids makes them somewhat safer on sidewalks, but there is still some level of risk for kids on sidewalks.)
It is also easier and faster.
The professional studies on this matter all agree; indeed, in 15 years of working as a professional in bicycling safety, I have yet to see a report which even hinted that roadway cycling is less safe than sidewalk cycling. Bicyclists encounter fewer conflicts and crashes with motor vehicles and other hazards (obstructions, etc.) when on roadways than on sidewalks.
Before I start explaining why, I want you to think about the last time you had a close call with a bicyclist while driving a car. Chances are very good that the bicyclist was either on the sidewalk, in a crosswalk, entering the roadway from a driveway or curb, or otherwise violating a basic rule of the road (which of course causes conflicts between any types of vehicles).
The “sidewalk is safer” belief is based on the assumption that most bicyclist crashes involve an overtaking motor vehicle. In fact, overtaking crashes account for only about 5 percent, and the vast majority of those involve bicyclists traveling at night without lights, or motorists trying to squeeze by unsafely during daylight hours. The idea that motorists somehow fail to see bicyclists traveling in the same direction directly in front of them during normal seeing conditions is absurd. There are thousands of bicyclists who have logged thousands of miles (I have over 150,000 miles under my belt), being passed by millions of motorists. If a motorist fails to see a roadway cyclist in normal circumstances, it is an extremely rare circumstance.
I informally surveyed some of my fellow cyclists. The 14 who responded reported traveling more than half a million miles combined with only two crashes; neither crash involved an overtaking motorist. Some simple (and rounded) numbers for you. At 12 miles per hour, 500,000 miles equals about 42,000 hours. With one automobile passing only once every five minutes (what one might experience on more rural roads), that equals about a half-million passing cars. With one car passing each minute (which is still very low for suburban and urban conditions) we’re up to 2.5 million passing cars. The people I surveyed however ride routinely in suburban and urban environments where they are passed much more frequently. With three cars passing per minute, we’re up to 7.5 million.
It’s hard to imagine a safer type of encounter! One which happens many millions of times a year and results in only a small handful of crashes. What’s more, the few overtaking crashes that do occur in urban and suburban areas tend to have less severe injuries than other types involving turning and crossing conflicts.
About 9 out of 10 crashes involve a motorist crossing a bicyclist’s path or a bicyclist crossing a motorist’s path: left turns, right turns, perpendicular crossing movements, and merges. Bicycling on a sidewalk increases the chance that the motorist will not see the bicyclist, increases the chance that the bicyclist will not see the motorist, and creates more confusion and uncertainty for both parties. Bicyclists on sidewalks cannot make proper left turns; they must cross more lanes of traffic to do so.
What’s worse, on streets where there is a sidewalk only on one side, sidewalk bicyclists will have to travel on the left side, against the flow of traffic. A number of studies have shown this to increase crash risk four-fold due to those turning and crossing conflicts.
But You’re So Vulnerable…
Indeed. When you’re vulnerable, your top priority is to reduce your crash risk; you do this by reducing the number of conflicts and putting yourself in a position where you can do something about the conflicts that do occur. The most important strategy for a bicyclist is to be sure he or she can be seen by motorists who might be on a conflicting path. The roadway bicyclist is more reliably seen than the sidewalk bicyclist, and is in a better position to react to motorist mistakes.
Bicycles are vehicles.
They have met both the common and legal definition of a vehicle from the beginning. Bicycles were defined legally as vehicles by most states in the 1880s, well before the automobile was invented. (The first vehicles were animal-drawn wagons and carriages.) Florida defines a bicycle as “every vehicle propelled solely by human power.” (Electric helper motors are also permitted in the definition.) Florida statutes also state that bicyclists have “all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle.” Florida defines traffic as “Pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, and vehicles, streetcars, and other conveyances either singly or together while using any street or highway for purposes of travel.”
Sidewalks Are Obstacle Courses
Poles, benches, trash cans, branches, support cables, bushes, eroded edges, parked cars, sprinklers, newspaper boxes…the list goes on and on. Two out of three adult bicyclist hospital admissions in Florida do not involve motor vehicles.
Sidewalks Are For Pedestrians
It’s unfair to pedestrians to expect them to share their minimal space with vehicles designed to go 10 to 20 mph. When engineers do design facilities intended for sharing between pedestrians and bicyclists, they make them at least 12 feet wide; the average sidewalk is 5 to 8-feet wide.
Roads Belong to Everyone
The other common argument against bicyclists’ use of roadways is that we “don’t pay gas taxes.” This argument is based on yet another erroneous assumption: that gas taxes (and license and registration fees and tolls) cover the full cost of road building and maintenance.
The fact is that roads are paid for through a number of other means, and to a significant degree. While it varies from place to place, a reasonable estimate is that only about 60 percent of road costs are covered through “user fees” such as gas tax, tolls and fees. The rest are covered by sales taxes, property taxes, impact fees, and in some places income taxes. What’s more, most bicyclists are also motorists, and of course pay gas taxes as well.
Motor vehicles are responsible for far more than 60 percent of the costs. Whenever a road is widened it is due to motor vehicle usage. Bike lanes and sidewalks (which only account for about 2 percent of road costs) are only “necessary” because of automobile use.
Gas tax funds are used to build sidewalks; the sidewalk is an element of the “street.” Should pedestrians also be required to pay user fees to walk on sidewalks?
Our streets are not “commodities” to be bought and sold; they are public spaces to be managed in a way that balances the needs of all users.
Delay? Not So Much
Another key argument is that bicyclists delay motorists. While there are some occasional circumstances in which bicyclists delay motorists, this is far more a matter of perception than reality.
Here’s a list of just some of the things that legally delay motorists: transit buses, school buses, Amtrak and freight trains, pedestrians crossing the roadway in crosswalks, garbage trucks, postal vehicles, farm tractors, delivery trucks parked in the roadway (which on some streets is illegal, but still accepted), other motorists slowing to turn right, other motorists stopped to turn left, traffic signals, and yes, bicyclists. And even on the roads that don’t have any of those things – freeways – motorists manage, with amazing regularity, to delay one other.
As one of those bicyclists who is often “in the way,” I can tell you that I often catch up to the motorists who make a big deal about being stuck behind me. They were in a big hurry to get to the next red light and wait behind a half-dozen other motorists.
With so many instances of delaying traffic permitted by law, one has to wonder why bicyclists would receive special attention.
But Isn’t There an “Impeding Traffic” Law?
Yes. Florida Statute 316.183 (5) reads: “No person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.”
Notice it reads motor vehicle. A bicycle is a vehicle, but not a motor vehicle. Though admittedly rare, horse-drawn wagons and carriages are still permitted use of roadways, and they would also be unable to meet that statute if it read just vehicle.
Even if 316.183 read just vehicle, a bicyclist commanding full use of a lane because it is too narrow to share safely with another vehicle or for a number of other reasons explained in Florida Statute 316.2065 (5) is in compliance with law.
But They Don’t Obey the Rules!
Fair enough. Many bicyclists violate the rules of the road. There’s plenty of blame to go around on this matter. First, law enforcement officials don’t think it’s important enough of a problem to cite cyclists for violations of the basic rules of the road such as running red lights, rolling through stop signs, driving the wrong way (facing traffic), or traveling at night without lights. Motorists also share some blame in this. Many bicyclists try to justify their law breaking as a way to “keep out of the way” of the motorists who sometimes harass them.
We see what we want to see. Stand on the side of a road with a radar gun for a while and you will see how frequently motorists exceed the posted speed. Spend some time as a pedestrian and you’ll see how frequently motorists violate a pedestrian’s right-of-way.
No matter how many bicyclists violate the rules, that doesn’t justify infringing on the rights of law-abiding cyclists. You need us out there as an example!