Every weekday I bike along East Henrietta Road, a five-lane expressway posing as a reasonable road. This piece of sprawling asphalt is a major connector between Rochester and the nearby big-box retail haven of Henrietta, New York. It is also a main thoroughfare for commuters who work at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and students commuting to Monroe Community College. The 45-mile-per-hour speed limit along this corridor is somewhat of a joke. Cars and trucks routinely travel along this route at speeds exceeding 55mph. And yet, as a sort of consolation prize for this hostile right of way, there is a painted stripe and an occasional cyclist stencil denoting a bike lane in either direction. But the truth is, there isn’t enough street paint in the world that would ever make me want to ride my usual 12-14mph alongside traffic traveling at speeds that would mean instant death if I was so much as clipped by a distracted driver. Furthermore, the fear of being clipped every time I hear the fast moving wheels of a car against a strip of asphalt is overwhelming. My heart rate goes up, and I automatically bike faster in an effort to get through the experience quicker. I would compare it to walking down a dark alley at night… you’ll likely move a little faster than you normally would. There’s nothing enjoyable about the experience, you simply want to get through it as quickly as possible.
As a result of all this, I arrive at work stressed, agitated (because inevitably a couple cars or trucks passed within 2 feet of me at 50mph) and a sweaty mess. Not exactly the way to start the day.
Meanwhile, there is a perfectly pristine, rarely traveled sidewalk that parallels the road along this stretch. On a busy day, I might pass 4 people in over a mile along this pedestrian right of way. Most days it’s none. A simple slow down and “ride-around” on the grass is usually all it takes to alleviate any pedestrian conflict. In the years of biking along this sidewalk, I’ve never encountered an angry pedestrian… most regular pedestrians simply see me as another person trying to get to where they are going… they smile and say good morning.
Then there are a couple of off-ramps and three entrances to Monroe Community College. While not ideal, crossing these on bike is no different than crossing like a pedestrian… even if you have the right of way, you really have to constantly look back and look forward to see if a car has the potential to turn into you. This is where I lose those who believe bikes belong exclusively in the road.
Because bikes travel faster than pedestrians, the argument against sidewalk cycling is that cars turning left or right are less likely to see a bike approaching a crosswalk than someone on foot. But from my experience, there are simply places where drivers, especially ones making left turns across 2 lanes of traffic, don’t see either… whether you are on foot or on two wheels, you have to constantly look back to see if a driver is distracted trying to “beat” oncoming traffic without paying attention to whomever might be in the crosswalk. A simple “look back, look forward and look back again” practice is enough to alleviate a potential crash. Does this mean I have to slow down when I approach a crosswalk? Sure. Does it mean that I have to take responsibility for myself because a driver often won’t? Yes. But the fact is, this simple inconvenience, for me anyway, is a small price to pay for an otherwise stress free sidewalk cycling experience.
Finally, here is the photo that inspired this article. There is nothing special about this picture, but it does show the ridiculousness of “bike in the road at all cost” argument.
This is a man working hard to climb a hill on East Henrietta Road. I am riding on the sidewalk, somewhat protected from the 50mph traffic. The sidewalk is wide here and provides plenty of space for me and… well… the other non-existent pedestrians. Meanwhile, the guy in front of me is in the road as vehicles that weigh 2,500 pounds or more pass at high speeds. One distracted driver, and this rider is toast, helmet or not. Furthermore, the cyclist has to ride closer to the white line (putting him even more at risk) to avoid the sunken sewer grates that can quickly puncture a tire or cause a wipeout. The car in the image above was good enough to switch lanes, but about 10 seconds after I took this, a large truck came within 3 feet of the cyclist at a very high speed. All the while, an empty sidewalk, protected from traffic by a curb, welcomes him on the right.
This is what I have talked about for years when I speak of “context-based” bike riding. The dedicated cyclist will often claim that cycling exclusively in the road reminds drivers that they don’t own the asphalt. But the truth is, on some roads like the one above, drivers will never see cyclists as a reason to slow down or use caution. Many advocates cite the fact that riding in the road is safer than riding on the sidewalk, but a simple “look back, forward and back again” technique can quickly negate these statistics by putting you, the cyclist, in control of your own fate while allowing you a perfectly comfortable biking experience away from the stress of traffic.
That being said, I DO NOT condone sidewalk cycling in areas where there are street-forward businesses, and where there are a decent number of pedestrians. This article is directed specifically at areas where 4 or more lanes of fast moving traffic on the outskirts of cities or in our suburban communities make for a horrific road cycling experience. Use common sense, feel the environment and the risk posed to you as opposed to the potential risk to pedestrians if you ride on the sidewalk.
I am always going to be a fan of the lowest stress cycling experience possible. I believe in this because it’s something I appreciate, and because I believe drivers will rarely if ever honor pedestrians and cyclists with their full attention. But if we take simple steps to protect ourselves, we can ride stress free in high-traffic areas without issue.