If you pulled off the freeway and followed the main arterials through town, the city I live in would not appear to be very bike-friendly. It’s a fast growing area with large 4-6 lane parkways designed to quickly move motorists from one end of town to the other. These “mini-freeways” have bike lanes, but riding that close to automobiles traveling at 50 mph is intimidating to many people, something made obvious by the number of bicyclists I see up on the sidewalks.
First impressions can be misleading though, and in reality our home town is a relatively pleasant and perfectly safe place to ride a bicycle. We have a fair number of multi-use paths, a good number of bike lanes, and plenty of quiet back streets that parallel the more intense parkways. The trick is knowing your routes very well, and not concerning yourself so much with taking the shortest path between two points.
We’ve lived in our current location for approximately 7 years, and by now I feel as if I know just about every route across town. I can rattle off information about traffic levels on any route at nearly any time of the day; where to watch for pitfalls such as dead end bike lanes, major potholes, and chasing dogs; and how long it takes to get from one point to another. Some of this comes from riding a lot, but much of it is also a result of a conscious effort to scout out alternate routes.
Scouting can be done on a bike, and I’ve done a fair amount of it by simply heading off in a direction and seeing where a road ends up. This isn’t a very efficient way to explore an area, but it can present interesting surprises and there’s no better way to really get to know your surrounding environs. You can even do this on your commute, but obviously, it’s better to save your exploring for the trip home in the evening when you don’t have to arrive at a predetermined time.
If you’re living car-lite, you can take advantage of the time in your car by being on the lookout for alternate bike routes. Many times I’ve taken our car down side streets and through quiet neighborhoods to determine whether there’s a hidden through-route lurking undiscovered. This first-hand experience is far more valuable than looking at maps, many of which don’t show pedestrian right-of-ways that can be used by bicyclists to connect otherwise unconnected areas.
A conscious effort to build a cache of routes will give you the flexibility to cater your route to suit a particular outing. For example, a direct, but more intense route that follows motor vehicle patterns could be chosen for those times when speed and efficiency is important, but a less direct, and more peaceful and pleasant route that skirts the major flow of traffic could be chosen for those times when you’ve planned ahead and left yourself sufficient time.
Knowing your routes, and taking the time to plan a good route before you set out, can significantly increase your confidence and make your bicycling experience more pleasant and safe.