Sep 102011
Google Map
Map 1: Google's suggestion for a route using SE Boulevard to get to the Riverpoint Campus, with bike directions requested. They would put you on Division from 4th Ave. all the way to campus, and currently Riverside Avenue (the future Martin Luther King, Jr. Way), which they tell you to use, is under construction. This route puts a rider into heavy traffic unnecessarily soon and isn't possible right now as mapped. I wouldn't send a beginning commuter through the intersection of 3rd and Division with its ugly merge involving vehicles exiting the freeway, although I can ride through this quite confidently.

One of the most common questions from potential bike commuters reflects nervousness over picking a safe route: How do I figure out where to ride?

Take some reassurance from the results of a question I asked on the Bike Style Facebook page: “What did you used to think was really hard about bike commuting and now don’t have to think about at all? (or not very much)”.

The response: Route selection.

This post provides a few suggestions and tools for you to go with the rest of the starter info in our 30 Days to Bike Commuting series. I have even more questions you can ask yourself about a potential route–watch for those in an upcoming post.

IRL vs. Technology: I have good reason for starting this list with steps that involve trying things in real life and talking to real people–these just work better.

Google Maps can’t show you that a particular route is full of drivers who routinely speed and roll their right turns on a red light. Nor can it give you specific landmarks and instructions that take into account the idiosyncrasies of a particular intersection or a workaround to deal with street construction issues. MapMyRide routes come from real people and can be great, but they may not yet have the route you need. So here’s what you do:

Google map
Map 2: The route I developed as my first alternative to Google's idea of a good bike route. Sprague Ave. has two lanes each direction so I generally have a lane all to myself. The road surface on Sprague leaves something to be desired, and the construction at the corner of Sprague and Division creates a messy right turn where I feel a tad pinched, so I'm not crazy about this one.

Scout the route. Consider a practice ride on the weekend so you can work out the kinks or alter your route if need be. This will also help you determine how much time you need for the ride.

Scout on your bike, not in your car—perceptions are very different! Recognize that side streets are quieter but those uncontrolled intersections present their own issues. However, if you usually drive on major arterials that feel too busy on your bike, try shifting just a block or two.

Scout alternatives: Try using one route to the destination and a different route coming home. With Spokane’s hills that will often be the preferred route anyway: Take advantage of the steep drop on the way down (wheeee!) but avoid it on the way back up if you can. And if you face any one-way streets you’ll definitely be working out two routes.

Alternatives will vary in attractiveness by time of day, among other factors. A street that’s just fine mid-afternoon may feel too busy at 5 p.m. You can vary the route or vary the time you ride through.

Ask an expert. Get in touch with Eileen Hyatt, She provides personalized suggestions for the best route based on years of experience riding Spokane’s streets. She’ll even
meet up with you to check out possible alternatives and make sure you know the rules of the road.

Google map.
Map 3: I've been experimenting with using quieter side streets to reach Division south of the railroad underpass and its intersection with Sprague, which gives me a straight shot through past the construction zone. These streets are nice and quiet but several have blind corners due to the terrain or walls around properties and there's a moving company in the mix to add to the interest.

Ask people you work with. If you work for an organization that participates in Commute Trip Reduction then you have an Employee Trip Coordinator who can help you find bike commuters among your colleagues. If you don’t have an ETC you can ask around.

In reality, you already know who the bike commuter is: It’s that person who shows up with the annoyingly chipper attitude and rosy cheeks every day.

Odds are there’s someone at work whose route matches yours (at least for the last few hundred yards and possibly for much farther). You’ll learn where your fellow bike commuters park their bikes, whether there are showers in your building if that’s important for you, and other insider tips.

Ask a friend. Maybe you’re not planning to try riding to work just yet. You’re venturing forth on a Saturday outing to a coffee shop or one of our fantastic Bikespedition shopping destinations.

That’s great! You and your friend(s) can choose a place to meet up and ride together for moral support.

Attend events with people: Any time you have the
chance to attend an event where you can talk with
people who ride bikes
, do it. You’ll find commuters who
will share routes, secret shortcuts, and tips.
We’re a pretty friendly bunch.

Google map.
Map 4: The winner! The brand-new surface on 2nd Ave. (thank you, Spokane voters, for passing that street bond) is like riding on glass. For a major arterial it's practically empty of traffic when I come through and I generally have a lane to myself. The lanes are very wide (Dear Traffic Engineer: Plenty of room for a bike lane). The benefit of a one-way is that I have fewer vehicle interactions--no oncoming traffic turning left. I turn right onto Division and get set up nicely for the run through the construction zone. To top it off, I generally get to have the traffic lights with me all the way. Note that since 2nd Ave. is a one-way this is a route to work--not a route from work.

Try these techno-tools for bike route selection.

Just ask GoogleGoogle Maps

  • Type in an address.
  • Zoom in on the maps and select the “More” tab.
  • Check the Bicycling box to see the safest bike routes marked in green on the map. These appear to be bike lanes or signed shared lanes as I look at what pops up for Spokane.
  • Try “Streets View” to see actual conditions.
  • Click “Directions” and add your destination. (You’ll need to choose Bicycling again—default is set to By Car. How odd.).

Google Maps isn’t a perfect tool by any means. The first map in the series here shows you what it suggested, which includes routing me through an intersection I wouldn’t recommend to a beginner; I don’t even like coming through it as a driver. That’s why you still need to scout on the ground.

Warning: Google Maps also may not tell you a street is one-way. Always, always ride your bike with the flow of vehicular traffic, NOT counter-flow the way a pedestrian walks. If you get off and walk the bike then you’re a pedestrian and you should walk counter-flow.

More maps: Spokane’s master bike plan shows current and future designated routes. The Bike/Pedestrian Resources page on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council site links to various area maps.

Map 5: A creative alternative with a scenic twist--longer but quieter and prettier. Use Sprague west to Bernard, which is very lightly traveled. Head north to the Convention Center complex and cut through the breezeway to get to the Centennial Trail, then backtrack along the river. A gorgeous ride, far less traffic, and the only encounter with Division is coming through it westbound on Sprague with the traffic light.

Localized info from real people I: John Speare, a former member of the Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board, collected real bike commuter routes via GPS by riding with people who volunteered and mapped them. This shows you routes already in use by area bike commuters who have had more time to figure things out. Zoom in all the way and you will see street-level detail.

Localized info from real people II: lets you create a user profile and map routes. Once you’re a member (quick creation of a log-in) you can search for routes in Spokane.

These often include notes about the route that can be very useful (traffic volume, what the street or road is like, resources along the way, landmarks/cues for turns) and tags indicating type of road and surface.

You’ll also get a topographical profile so you can see what kind of hill climb lies ahead. If you have any reason to climb the west end of the South Hill you need to know that Adams provides the shallowest climb. (These are the types of insider tips you get by talking with people.)

Some are recreational rides or race routes, others are commuter routes. Some even have video. (Helmet cam, anyone?)

(Security note: You may not want to label a route with “home” in the name—you’re telling people where you live and marking it on a map. Start from a nearby intersection.)

This post addresses only the first cut at identifying routes. Upcoming posts will talk about the characteristics of different streets and some other elements of route selection.

P.S. Yes, that’s a J.R.R. Tolkien salute in the title.


Posts in our 30 Days of Biking Blogging Inspiration & How-to Series for Sept. 2011 30 Days of Biking

  1. 30 Days of Bike Commuting: You Can Do It!
  2. Why We Ride/Resolve to Ride–A Blogspedition
  3. Preparing to Commute by Bike: Get the Worry out of the Way
  4. Buying a Bike for Commuting: Some Questions and a Blogspedition
  5. How to Bike Commute: Getting the Gear Together
  6. Bike Commuting 101: Carrying Stuff
  7. On a Roll with Wilma Flanagan
  8. 30 Days of Biking: Week One Report
  9. Ride with your Community: SpokeFest Rocks!
  10. There and Back Again: How to Pick your Bike Commute Route
  11. Intro to Bike Commuting: Route Selection Part 2
  12. More Bike Commuting Route Selection Tips: Part 3
  13. Thinking Like a Driver vs. Thinking Like a Bicyclist
  14. Biking as Downtime and other Musings on Overproductivity
  15. 30 Days of Biking: Week Two Report
  16. On a Roll with Katherine Widing
  17. I Shouldn’t Assume
  18. Falling Down on Your Bike. It Happens. To Grown-Ups.
  19. Pretty Handy, Gloves. The Blogspedition Assumes You’ll Get ‘Em.
  20. What to Wear for Your Bike Commute? Clothes.
  21. How to Get a Dropped Bike Chain Back On, Grease-Free
  22. 30 Days of Biking: Week Three!
  23. It’s All in the Attitude
  24. Things I Now Do on My Bike Without Having to Think About It
  25. Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Risk and Trust
  26. More Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Friendliness and Openness
  27. Even More Mental Essentials for Bike Commuting: Tolerance, Humor, and Persistence
  28. Bicycling Rites of Passage, Spokane Style
  29. Dear Reader, I Chicked Him
  30. 30 Days of Biking: Final Report!

Your Turn

  • Have you assessed the conditions along a potential route for your ride if you’re new to this? Can we help with some sticky spots by suggesting alternatives?
  • If you’re an experienced commuter, what do you like best about your route? Which parts do you dislike?
Sharing is karma--pass it along!

Reader Comments

  1. Great advice! it took me eight months of bike commuting to settle on my best route to work, and I’m still open to changing it…
    The perception you have of a street from driving or walking it can be very different from how it feels on the bike – my best way is down a road that always seems frenetic in a car, but has a great amount of space for a bike.

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