Why Bicyclists Don’t Always Use the Pathways

By Steve Clark, Bicycling and Walking Program Manager

There was a time, not so long ago, when most states had what was called a "mandatory side path" law. Bicyclists were banned from using a road if there was a pathway designated for bicyclists next to the road. Today, only seven states still have such laws, and all use the qualifier "usable" when subjecting bicyclists to such a situation. How was it that the other states removed these laws?

Change happened mostly through the work of cycling advocates. They argued that it was not good policy to force cyclists to ride on poorly maintained paths. . The victims of serious bike crashes filed lawsuits -and showed that they would have fared better on the road than the path. The lawsuits and persistent advocacy led states to start repealing the side path law. 

Of course, changing the law doesn't mean that everyone accepts the idea that it's okay for cyclists to ride on the road when there is an adjacent sidepath. I know, because when I choose to ride on the road rather than a nearby path, I prepare myself for the occasional honk or verbal outburst from a passing motorist. This past spring, there were efforts to introduce a "side path law" into the federal transportation bill. Advocates successfully fought off this effort.

Here are 5 reasons why a person riding a bike may choose the roadway over a path:

1)      Speed of travel. Most of the paths in Minneapolis have a 10 mph speed limit. If I'm running late for a meeting I could be biking at 20 miles per hour. The path is not where I want to be, nor do I belong there. Setting aside the question of whether such speed limits can be enforced (bicyclists aren't required to have a speedometer), sharp corners, loose gravel, and other trail conditions mean pedaling  beyond the trail speed limit can be quite dangerous-not only for the fast-moving cyclist but also for other trail users. 

Congested paths can be hazardous for both bicyclists and pedestrians.. 


2)      Pavement condition.  Some paths are in such poor condition that unless you're training for a cyclo-cross race, or have a mountain bike, they're best to avoid. Even paths in great condition may have difficult dips at each crossing of a driveway or roadway, which brings us to the next concern . . . .

3)      Driveways and intersections. Most crashes happen at intersections. Most are caused by motorists looking for cars, but not looking for bikes, especially when the bikes are moving at fast speeds from an area without cars. Nearly every city has side paths that are inherently more dangerous than adjacent roadways simply because of poor sight lines (caused by trees, bushes, parked cars, etc.) at many of the crossings. One study showed that for this reason, sidewalk riding tends to be 5 times more dangerous than riding on a road.


Even when a path is available, the road may be the best choice for fast-moving cyclists.

4)      Group riding and congestion. That's right, group riding. Generally off-street facilities are not designed to accommodate more than one person riding single file, with plenty of distance between other riders. If you want to ride two abreast you should really be in the roadway. Yes, cycling is a great social activity, but there's so much socializing already happening on narrow paths that it's best not to add to the bustle.  I guess it's a sign of a successful path, and a nice problem to have, but with all the walkers, joggers, strollers, in-line skaters, Segway users, and other bicyclists, a path at certain times can be dangerously congested. Even cyclists riding alone may find it difficult to safely navigate a busy pathway. The roadway, especially parkways with 25 mph speed limits, and nice smooth pavement, can actually be the more pleasant choice.

5)      Access to destinations. To enter and exit a side path requires a curb cut and sometimes an actual ramp. Curb cuts aren't always where you might need them in order to reach your destination safely or conveniently. Or, in the case of the one-way trails around the lakes in Minneapolis, the road is desirable because the trail would actually lead you away from where you need to go. Roads typically provide a higher level of flexibility and access for cyclists. This may not be so important for the recreational cyclist, but is often extremely important when using your bike for transportation.

Here the curb cut on the trail brings cyclists to a sidewalk. Not recommended!


In summary, it is good policy that you are given the right to choose what is best for you when riding a bike at any given time. Often, using the roadway is the best choice.





Photo captions

Just like many River Road commuters I'm intimately familiar with the issues in this article. I think the photo captions are swapped around though. Just fyi. Cheers.

Good catch! Corrected.

Good catch! Corrected. Thanks!


Lyndale ave! the "loring

Lyndale ave! the "loring greenway" trail begins north of I 94, it's great if your actual destination is loring park, but if you are trying to take lyndale ave towards the basicallia(which you have to do if your headed to north minneapolis) you are suddenly dumped into a very congested intersection at oak grove st.

Road Rider

My sentiments, exactly. I chose the road over the path years ago. Much faster, smoother and safer. I can't understand why any adults choose to ride on the sidewalk.
A few years ago, while driving, I almost hit someone who came speeding from the sidewalk into the intersection. I'm very conscientious about checking for pedestrians, but this guy came from way farther back on the sidewalk and was behind a hill when I looked.

This site has great info and keeps getting better. Keep up the good work.