What’s Wrong With Telling Cyclists to Ride on the Bike Path?

Outta the road, cyclist! There's a new law in town. Photo: ##https://picasaweb.google.com/112160710702091583388##Picasa/Herbert Crosby##

With all due respect to my vehicular-cyclist friends, I’m a big fan of separate facilities for bikes. They keep bicyclists safer and encourage more people to ride, and I know I make a lot fewer risky moves when I’m riding in a lane built for my two wheels and not a two-ton, 200-horsepower steel box.

So I have to admit, my first thought upon seeing the mandatory sidepath provision in the Senate transportation bill was: What’s the big deal? If cyclists have fought hard to get a separated path built in federal land, why shouldn’t we use it?

But the League of American Bicyclists set me straight with their blog post and action alert on the topic. The group says that while many states used to have similar sidepath laws, the idea has fallen out of favor recently, and here’s why:

The problem with the provision is that the restriction applies regardless of the quality, safety, and utility of the path provided; it disregards the needs of cyclists to be on the roadway to access shops, services etc.; and ignores our fundamental right to the road.

Here’s the bill language that has cyclists up in arms:

Section § 203 (d):

BICYCLE SAFETY.—The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road.

Bike advocates say it doesn’t make sense to say it’s too dangerous to have cyclists on some 30 mph roads, but where there’s no sidepath, sure, no problem! The League worries it’s a slippery slope toward a “paternalistic” attitude of keeping cyclists off all roads above 30 mph “for their own good” — and blaming the victim for accidents.

Plus, the League says, “if the path is any good, you shouldn’t have to force anyone to use it; they will use it voluntarily because it works.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. “Our communities are replete with examples of poorly designed, built and maintained paths that are little more than glorified sidewalks,” writes League President Andy Clarke. “Cyclists routinely ignore these shoddy paths because they are dangerous, slow, and out of the way.”

Cyclelicious highlighted the personal safety issues that arise on sidepaths in its post yesterday. It’s certainly an issue in urban areas. The recently-built Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC and Maryland has been rife with crime since it opened. And in Portland, a separated bike path along the I-405 overpass is widely known as the “Ho Chi Minh trail” for its high crime and low lighting.

The Bike League is especially concerned about this mandatory-sidepath provision being enacted in national parks because of an increasingly hostile attitude toward bikes on the part of the National Park Service lately. Advocates have gone up against NPS several times lately over substandard trail design in Olympic National Park, plans to build a trail unnecessarily close to the road in the Tetons, access issues along the Blue Ridge Parkway, event permits in Yellowstone, and a baffling ban on bike-share on the National Mall in DC. A blanket ban on bikes in the roadway in national parks just adds more fuel to that fire.

The League is circulating a petition to try to get the mandatory sidepath rule stripped out of the bill.

  • David Huntsman

    Tanya, with all due respect, I can’t tell what your position is.  You refer to sound reasons against sidepaths but you aren’t countering those reasons.

    Is there any more to your story?

  • Sometimes the Bicyclist can exceed 30MPH. Especially the streamlined recumbent bicycles, which can manage 55MPH. 
    Sure, sidepaths are nice for cyclists who can’t keep up with the speed. But we must acknowledge that some of them do go the speed limit (or faster).
    My main concern with this law is that some motorist is going to “take the law into his own hands” and assault some cyclist somewhere. 

  • Anonymous

    David Huntsman: 

    (from the article): Plus, the League says, “if the path is any good, you shouldn’t have to force anyone to use it; they will use it voluntarily because it works.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. “Our communities are replete with examples of poorly designed, built and maintained paths that are little more than glorified sidewalks,” writes League President Andy Clarke. “Cyclists routinely ignore these shoddy paths because they are dangerous, slow, and out of the way.”

    The worry is that it’ll give free rein to overzealous law-enforcement (and people who take the law into their own hands) to crack down on bikers, whether or not it’s justified.

  • But how much would this really affect people. The key here is “federally owned road”. While many roads are built or maintained partially with federal funds, there are actually comparatively very, very few roads owned by the federal government.

    As most of those federally owned roads are in remote park areas, it’s likely that even fewer have bike lanes within the prescribed distance. The greatest number of federal roadways are in the DC area, where a general bicycle ban is already in place. The problems mentioned here are not due to bike infrastructure within 100 yards of a federally owned road, but a general disregard for bicyclists by the National Park Service.PS: The NPS reversed its decision and will allow Capital Bikeshare on the National Mall and other properties in the District that it manages.

  • Shopsyclist-uz

    People like to refer to the adjacent paths as bike paths. They are used by the general population for what ever activities they see fit. The fastest people on these paths are the cyclist and they are required to yield to all slower moving people. In any incident the cyclist will carry the greatest burden for being at fault. If this provision were to pass will we see these paths designated for bicycles only and enforced a just vigorously? We will instead be losing almost all access to routes that use federal monies.

  • walker

    How I wish Shopsyclist-uz was stating the actual rather than the theoretical or the “guidance’ to riders.  It is my experience that serious cyclists will do almost anything to maintain their speed of movement without regard for other users when using a shared use path.  Recreational cyclists typically, but not always, do a better job of respecting others right of use to the paths.   I have more examples of poor behavior cyclist than I can count, and the routine attitude would seem to to be “its my path get out of the way.”

  • Anonymous

    @AdamL:disqus , when I would ride through the federally owned Rock Creek Park roads in DC, I was told “Get on the bike path!’ [sic] more times than I can count.  Unfortunately, the shared-use path that drivers were referring to is not only crowded with joggers, dogs, and strollers and full of sharp turns, it’s also in terrible condition with tree roots every few yards along some stretches.  No cyclist in their right mind would use it to commute. 

    I don’t know how many other federal parks there are in urban areas, but I’d guess more than one.  And even one is too many.

  • Brian Ogilvie

    How would motorists respond to a law that required that passenger cars take a parkway when there was one within 10 miles of a highway? (Given that cars are faster than bikes *and* that the driver doesn’t have to use any carbohydrate stores to travel 10 miles, it seems a reasonable point of comparison.)

    Why should cars be allowed on the New York Thruway when they can take the Taconic? And why should we allow them on Interstate 95 when they can take the Hutchinson River and Merritt parkways? Keep passenger cars out of the way of those dangerous semis and buses! Heck, there’s a perfectly good US highway system out there over most of the country. Since a collision between a semi and a passenger car almost always ends badly for the latter, let’s keep them off the Interstates and restrict them to US highways.*Putting it this way underscores the ridiculousness of the provision, and how little it has to do with safety, its ostensible reason. There are plenty of good reasons for drivers to use an Interstate highway rather than a parkway, just as there are plenty of good reasons for cyclists to use a road rather than a multi-use path. But many motorists (including, it seems, at least one Senate staffer) would prefer to keep cyclists out of their way for convenience’ sake, just as many semi drivers would, no doubt, prefer to have roads that were free of passenger cars.

    * I don’t really mean this, of course. That would make US highways worse for us cyclists!

  • 3 Danoh1

    Are these bike paths going to be plowed for cyclists in the winter time?  Are they going to be restricted to bikes only?  The one time I rode on a bike path in Shaker Heights I got bit by a dog on a leash.  I avoid bike paths especially when they are utilized by children. 

  • Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

  • jsallen

    I’ve also written about the issue, here, and with some specific examples and photos: http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?p=4181

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