Bicyclists are drivers of vehicles; every street is a bicycle facility. This makes it possible for bicyclists to reach every destination served by public roads. Bicyclists enjoy this ability to ride to work, on errands, and for recreation. Traffic law in every state assigns bicycle operators all of the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles on roads. Scientific analysis of bicycling practice in the United States shows that bicyclists who behave as drivers of street vehicles and follow the Rules of the Road enjoy travel that is much safer and much more convenient than those who do not.
Unfortunately, common attitudes about bicycle operation are based on taboo and prejudice rather than science and law. As a result, citizens on bicycles have often been treated as inferior road users or as pedestrians-on-wheels and are systematically discouraged from traveling on important roads to important destinations. The effectiveness of lawful bicycle driving for traffic negotiation has been ignored by much of the public. Even worse, many bicyclists have been encouraged by popular culture to operate in a very dangerous manner when in traffic. Bicycles have not been considered as design vehicles by default during the design of important roads, often causing increased friction between bicycle and motor traffic, increased harassment of bicyclists by motorists and police, and inconvenience for cyclists at demand-actuated traffic signals that do not detect bicycles.
Proper accommodation of bicycles on roadways requires attention to the design speed of the roadway and respect for cyclists' rights and responsibilities as drivers of vehicles. Adding width to a roadway (e.g. providing 14' or wider outside lanes for same-lane passing of cyclists) is often helpful. But adding road width does not create a bicycle facility; the bicycle facility is already there. Additional road width provides an improved passing facility. Roads with faster motor vehicle speeds offer the greatest benefits of wide outside lanes; slow roads and roads with little traffic make the ease of same-lane passing less important.
The following are important steps that can be taken to improve accommodation of bicyclists on important roadways:
1. Bicycle driver education based on scientific traffic negotiation principles and the Rules of the Road as they apply to drivers of vehicles. Not only bicyclists but motorists, police, and traffic engineers must be familiar with cyclists' rights and responsibilities.
2. Accommodation of cyclists in travel lanes as equal drivers of vehicles, without segregation, except where there is scientifically valid evidence of safety and operational advantages significant enough to outweigh the disadvantages. Wide (14' or more) outside lanes are the preferred design for roads where it is desirable to facilitate the convenient passing of cyclists by motorists without motorists changing lanes.
3. Design and adjustment of traffic signal sensors to detect bicycles, especially at left-turn lanes and cross streets with infrequent traffic.
In addition to roadways, supplemental pathways can provide short-cuts and alternative routes for some bicyclists. Such routes are especially useful to children and seniors to provide access to parks, shopping centers, and schools in suburban areas where poor street connectivity and busy arterial traffic may make roadway cycling less convenient or more challenging for those with limited perception or judgement. However, such paths cannot be built for significantly long distances in urban areas without crossing streets or driveways. Path/street junctions should be designed much like street/street intersections with stop signs or signals. If an off-road pathway is to be used by child cyclists who are challenged by traffic, street crossings should be grade-separated (in the form of underpasses or overpasses).
Note that since bicyclists are less maneuverable than pedestrians but travel much faster, careful attention must be paid to the design and regulation of paths and junctions in order to protect both cyclists and pedestrians who often share them. Most importantly, paths used by bicyclists should not cross intersections and driveways as pedestrian facilities, because of the increased traffic hazards that exist for higher speed, less maneuverable bicyclists at such junctions. Most car-bike crashes occur at intersections; sidewalk cycling makes bicyclists less visible and less predictable than cycling on the street. As a result, car-bike crashes are two to four times more likely for cyclists riding on sidewalks than cyclists on streets. Injuries caused by falls and collisions with pedestrians, dogs, and other hazards are also much more common when cycling on sidewalk facilities. Sidewalks and other separated paths running parallel to streets should not be signed or treated as bikeways, because such facilities are usually not as safe for cyclists as cycling on the street according to the rules of the road that apply to drivers of vehicles.
In short, bicycle transportation policy should be based on the understanding that streets are the backbone of the bicycle facility network and that cyclists are drivers of vehicles, with essentially the same rights and responsibilities as motorists due to similar operational needs. For more information about safe, lawful, effective bicycle driving, see the following links:
NCCBD Gallery of Bicycle Driving Demonstrations
Road Vogue by Wayne Pein
Street Smarts by John Allen