Friday, August 15

My problem with bike maps

In recent years, city governments and various organizations have sought to encourage bicycle commuters by publishing maps of the area with bike routes clearly identified. Don't get me wrong; this is good. Anything that can send the message that cyclists are welcomed and accommodated for in transportation planning can only help people feel more comfortable riding. The trouble is that the actual maps that are published end up being less than helpful, in my opinion. Here are two maps that I've looked at to help me navigated around Charlottesville (available here and here):

The lines that are designated as bike routes are typically along major roads. Sometimes there are actual bike lanes painted on the roads, but other times these "bike routes" simply amount to a sign placed cautioning drivers to share the road. It's great that cities are making efforts to turn high traffic areas into multi-modal transportation routes, but anyone who regularly gets on a bicycle soon realizes that its best to avoid the high traffic areas altogether, official bike lane or not. The safest, most comfortable, and sometimes quickest route from point A to B is more often than not along the lines that are not highlighted on the bike map.

The issue here is that bicycles follow an entirely different feeder pattern than cars do. Designing roads for cars has been the art of funneling the traffic from low-volume residential roads into specific arterials, which are designed to carry much larger volumes of traffic. Eventually an entire hierarchy of streets emerges, from the tiny residential street to the interstate highway. The purpose of this system has frankly always been to manage the nuisance of automobiles and meet their space requirements. Nobody wants to live or work on a busy street, so the traffic is cordoned off to designated areas. Directional efficiency is sacrificed to gain the benefits of a pleasant environment. Not a bad deal.

But bicycles operate differently. Since they are not as large, noisy, or dangerous as cars, there is really no reason to discourage the use of residential roads. Rather than compete with drivers on congested arterials, most cyclists would rather find a nice quiet street, even if it means going a few blocks out of the way. Unfortunately, none of the bike maps that I've seen offer much help in finding these peaceful alternatives. By and large, they are simply repetitions of the basic car feeder patterns.


Chiara said...

Hello Daniel
I am writing an article about biking in Charlottesville and I wanted to chat with you about your experience.
Email me at

wild chicken said...

I always prefer taking resi roads if I can. One thing I never understood is why they put a bike lane on the very narrow Spruce Street in Missoula. I always took Alder, even after they put the island on Orange St. I'd work around it.

Jim Duncan said...

Outstanding post, and it's something I have been learning and struggling with as I've taken to biking around Charlottesville. It's a fascinating topic.

Have you read the ACCT blog?

Daniel Nairn said...

Carol, you're making me miss those little things about Missoula!

Jim, Thanks for commenting. I have read the ACCT blog, and there's actually a little link to it on my sidebar. They do a good job keeping it up to date. I intend to become a member one of these days.

Jeff M said...

I think the routes bikes take can go beyond roads. An example: I often ride from near Georgetown over to UVA's North Grounds. Rather than taking Barracks to Milmmont to Arlington, I prefer to exit Barracks at the Rivanna Trail crossing, cut through the woods behind UVA's Softball field and pedal through the area UVA calls "The Park." Much less traffic. But currently the softball field is being reconstructed, and the crew there has blocked off the entire area, rendering this route unusable. Since UVA encourages bicycle use, it is discouraging that they do not understand and account for such traffic.

Daniel Nairn said...

I agree, Jeff. Your comment got me thinking that I wonder if there is a way to measure where people are actually biking, in order to help make the trip easier.

Traffic engineers have those little road counter bumps on the road, and there's only so much flexibility motorists have. I can't think of any way to get data about bike usage except for surveying people or just counting by observation.