Thursday, March 10, 2011

Road design with bicycles in mind

Over the last seven or eight months I've seen a fair chunk of Australia on the bicycle and I though I'd share some of the bicycle infrastructure around the place that has made me think "wow, imagine if they implemented this everywhere!"

There is something about a meagre bit of concrete or paint that costs next to nothing in relative terms but makes a huge huge difference to the cycling experience.

Crossing ramps

Crossing ramps can be found on some major highways in Australia. They allow cyclists to safely cross exit ramps. Basically, a cyclist follows the exit for about fifty metres until the 'cross here safely' sign, where you slow down and come to a stop at a 90 degree angle to the exit road so you don't have to crane your neck around. There you look to ensure it is safe to cross (the cars are still likely doing 100 km/hr on the exit ramp) and when it is safe to do so, you cross onto the island and continue on the highway shoulder. 

There will be another crossing ramp on that exit number's corresponding entrance to the highway where you do the same thing but to get back over to the far left shoulder on the entrance ramp.

Crossing ramps are great, even though you might have to lose some momentum, its the best way to cross the ramp safely. They are a great example of design with the bicycle in mind.

Crossing ramp warning sign on street view
The crossing ramp itself on street view
A more acute angle crossing ramp on street view (the white sign)
And a crossing ramp over a freeway entrance on street view

Freeway riding information from the VIC roads website.


Sharrows is a term I've only recently learned about (maybe I've been living under a rock). Basically it is something like a bicycle symbol painted on the road with (sometimes) some simple directional arrows painted on also. They are used where the road isn't suitable for a bike lane (e.g. too narrow) to instruct road users that this is a shared lane. 

The simple sharrow manages to achieve three important things: 1) Make motorists aware that bicycles are about which reduces the 'sorry didn't see you there' accidents and unbelievably dramatically reduces the angry red faced motorist honking and yelling (or wanting to yell) get off the road as the paint tells them to expect some bikes on the road; 2) Puts the bicycle rider at greater ease that they will be seen and reinforces a sense of 'yes you do belong on this road after all, peace love and harmony'; and 3) Point out a 'safe cycling route' to people picking their way through their city or suburb. Getting lost on the back streets is only a fun little adventure when you don't have a tight schedule.

One example of this is the eastern end of Wilson Street, Newtown (Sydney), which also implements the bike lanes on a one way street design in one part.

Avoiding traffic calming

Many roads in urban Australia employ traffic calming devices to try to slow down drivers. For a cyclist however, they often represent dangerous squeeze points. Often you'll have a shoulder or a lane but it'll disappear abruptly and you're forced onto the main thoroughfare. It's almost like it was done on purpose to irritate. Of course it wasn't, but it is an example of road design without that other road user - the humble bicycle rider - in mind. 

But there are a few places where the council has seen the issue and addressed it well. Sometimes the traffic calming has a gap wide enough for a bicycle (not sure if anyone with kid trailer or trike has issues?). 

Sometimes the traffic calming can be avoided altogether by a quick and gentle kerb ramp onto the footpath on one side of the concrete island, and another gentle angle kerb ramp back into the lane once the island is passed. Simple, but effective. No longer does the bicycle rider have to look all the way around to check for traffic and do any negotiations (do I go and hope the car isn't going fast enough to catch up with me at the narrow bit, or brake and wait for the car to pass?). The issue is no longer an issue. A perfect solution.

These kerb or island ramps are also sometimes used to allow a cyclist to avoid a speed bump, or even to avoid a stop sign or traffic light that does not require the bicycle lane to give way (e.g. t-intersections).

What do I mean by a kerb ramp? It's a smooth transition from a on-road bike lane onto an off-road cycle path. An example of a smooth gentle kerb ramp in Parkville from the Bicycle Victoria website

Avoiding roundabouts

Roundabouts, especially on busy or multi-lane roads, are scary on a bicycle. This road feature wasn't designed with bicycles in mind at all. It's all squeeze points and also cars seem to have immense difficulty giving way to vehicles smaller than semi-trailers on roundabouts. People don't indicate properly which leads to frustration when you're trying to safely time your entrance onto the roundabout. People exit unexpectedly sometimes. On roundabouts, you usually need to take the lane to try to eliminate the squeeze, but I for one often feel rushed to get onto and then quickly off the roundabout, and it can be quite a stressful experience. Sometimes you'll get to the middle and someone will pull right out in front of you without looking, so you have to be on the defensive, watching and poised to brake or negotiate around an idiot. It's all a bit dog eat dog. 

One simple solution to this is to put kerb ramps on each arm of the roundabout and have mini-crossings to get across a few metres out from the roundabout where visibility is a little better and you have more time to judge what exactly that motorist without any signals is likely to do. 

For example, if you wanted to go straight ahead, you go up the ramp onto the footpath and turn left down the first exit road until you come to the crossing (they tend to have arm height bars to rest on) and when safe to do so, cross to the middle island, then again when safe, cross to the other side. Then there'll be another gentle kerb ramp to get back into the bike lane or shoulder once you've passed the roundabout. Making a left turn is even easier. Making a right turn means another couple of wait until safe short crossings (kinda like a footpath assisted hook turn for those familiar with Melbourne CBD).

Yes, this takes a bit longer to cross the roundabout. But its a lot more peaceful and certainly something you'd be happier with when riding with kids and as a beginner. When you're cycling with a load, you have slower start up speed and slower braking, so roundabouts can be particularly adrenalin filled without a nicely implemented kerb-ramp alternative.

What Bicycle Victoria says about using a typical roundabout here and here.

Two-way bike path on one side of the road

No money or room for a bicycle path, bike lanes or wide shoulders both sides?  Some councils have solved this problem with a simple lick of paint. On one side of the road they paint a buffer, then a dotted line in the middle of a 1 metre wide bit of bitumen that is essentially part of the road. This makes great use of limited space. Drivers can see they're not meant to drive on that bit because of the hashed buffer painted on the road. Riders and pedestrians on the side of the dotted line closest to the road are riding in the direction against the traffic, which feels very safe compared to a narrow shoulder in the same direction of traffic. Because the lane is just part of the road, this also means it has better quality than most dodgy shoulders and uneven concrete footpaths. Yes, you will occasionally have some jackass parking on it while they answer that urgent mobile call, but on the whole this works well.

An example includes the lovely forested road from Iluka in NSW. There was another place on the coast but I can't for the life of me remember where it was now :(


In summary, there are some excellent examples of simple inexpensive road design with bicycles in mind out there, and if we could have a national strategy to implement them where they are appropriate to make cycling even more fun for everyone it would be super awesome.

I stumbled across this post on Melbourne Cyclist comparing different cities and their cycling infrastructure which make for an interesting 'infographic'.

There is also information out there about the cost benefits of investing in bicycle infrastructure, in case it isn't already totally obvious to you, such as this Pedal Power Canberra PDF.

Check out Bicycle Victoria's page on good design.

If you know of some great road design with bicycles in mind, let me know in the comments!

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