I was riding on the multi-use pathway (MUP) the other day after riding a bit of river bottoms and then trying to get in some single track and realizing that the light dusting of snow over glare ice wasn’t conducive to much other than cracking elbows and busting knees.
As I was riding on these really great, smooth pathways, I started to think about MUPs, and some questions started to pop up. Are MUPs really that great of a thing? Cyclists tend to really like them because it gets us out of the flow of traffic and separates us from the metal monstrosities that seem to want nothing more than to run us down.
In many ways, though, the creation of MUPs may very well have created new dangers to cyclists that folks may not have thought of.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Having cyclists off the street and on a separated pathway, for most drivers, is a dream come true. They don’t have to watch for those ‘”unpredictable” cyclists, nor are they slowed down in their ceaseless racing from there to here, caused by slower moving traffic — in the form of the self-powered vehicle.
And therein, lies the rub. Drivers, who are notorious for not watching for cyclists to begin with (myself included when I am driving) now feel even less need to watch for cyclists because the cyclists are segregated and “protected” from cars by the MUP.
And on the MUP there is a wealth of intersections where car and cycle can meet. Granted, the MUP does not really have any intersections that the roadway itself doesn’t. But the danger comes from how these intersections are used by drivers.
Drivers on the roadway aren’t necessarily looking for cycle traffic, as they prepare to make their turn from the flow of traffic, across the MUP. I’ve found this to particularly be the case when I am moving in the same path as oncoming traffic. The car waiting to make the turn across traffic will wait for the oncoming traffic and then, when there is a gap, will gun it across the intersection and across the MUP — either not seeing me as a cyclist coming towards him/her, not accurately gauging my speed, or figuring that I will wait for him/her.
This particular issue isn’t completely unique to the MUP, but cyclists tend to feel that the MUP gives them a bit more protection from cars, so may also not be paying as close of attention as they should be, compounding the issues.
The bigger problem is that, the way that the MUP is placed in relation to the roadway, for a vehicle to be able to see into the flow of traffic, he or she often must pull into the MUP, fully or partially, to be able to see the flow of traffic. Doing this creates a number of dangerous situations. First, a car blocking the MUP creates the real possibility for the unaware cyclist to run into a really heavy, unmoving object. Moreover, it creates a situation where the cyclist is forced into the driver’s blind spot.
Drivers who are turning with traffic often never even look against traffic as they sit in the MUP. That means that cyclists, riding against traffic on the MUP, are often never even seen by the driver. This creates the perfect situation for the cyclist to think that the driver is yielding the right of way (as they legally should). But, in reality, the driver is completely unaware that a cyclist is even there. If the rider is going with traffic, he or she might also not be seen by the driver due to the natural blind spots in the vehicle itself, or even from the driver’s attention being focused on the flow of traffic and not recognizing the slower cyclist in the overall scene.
Drivers pulling onto the MUP also cause a situation where a cyclist, when given the right of way by the driver, has to navigate around the front of the vehicle. Sometimes that means coming dangerously close to the overall flow of traffic, moving into the MUP lane of oncoming traffic, and being obscured from the flow of auto traffic in some instances, setting up a hook accident situation.
Many of these same situations can occur when riding in the normal flow of traffic and not on the MUP. I’ve found, though, that it at least seems that I am more often seen and acknowledged by drivers when riding on the roadway. A big reason for this is that on a roadway, with a posted speed limit under 35, I take the lane (and I have a lot of red blinky lights on my ass to help folks see me). Taking the lane tends to require that drivers see you. If they don’t, though….
Riding a bike is always going to have some level of risk associated with it. I really like MUPs. They generally have nicer surfaces to ride on and often have slightly better gradients on hills than the roadway does. I think that it’s important to note, though, that the MUP does not ensure safety for riders and, in fact, might create some additional risks that aren’t present when riding in the roadway, often from engendering complacency both in the rider and the driver.
I just wonder if it makes more sense to use the money that would go towards installing new MUPs to better educate drivers and cyclists and focus the infrastructure more on share-rows, adjacent bike lanes, and enforcement efforts.
Read more from Phil B. on his blog, Multimodal Alaska Adventures.