Bicycle Shortest Routes

A certain 2003 suburban transportation plan says the following:

“Bicyclists will rarely deviate from the most direct, shortest path just to use a bike trail.”

Hmm… According to Mapquest, the shortest route from my home to my office is 7.26 miles. But instead, I choose to ride 7.73 miles because it allows me to use a route consisting almost entirely of trails. Of course, 7.26 miles vs. 7.73 miles on a bicycle is sort of a tossup, and given the attributes of both routes (the shorter of which would route me through downtown) it is not surprising at all that I choose to ride the extra distance. But I suspect that even if the route utilizing trails was somewhat longer, I would continue to use it.

I still think it is true, however, that trails don’t always provide an attractive enough alternative to surface streets that cyclists are willing to travel extra distance to use it. There is a growing body of academic literature that suggests this is true, including this article, most of which I wrote. Yet most of this literature was not yet published in 2003. Those involved in bicycle research have long believed this to be the case, but it has yet to be effectively demonstrated. Even the paper I worked on heavily suggests this is the case, but its conclusions are hampered because the evidence is largely anecdotal. In 2003, many cities were still planning bicycle facilities using an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, so it’s surprising to see a 2003 transportation plan state it so matter-of-factly.

1 comment to Bicycle Shortest Routes

  • Agreed. The few times that I have ridden my bike to work, I went out of my way to stay on the trail for as long as possible. This meant an extra mile or so of biking, but helped me avoid riding down the side of a pretty busy road that has no bike lane or sidewalks. I guess one reason to bike is enjoyment and if you are so stressed about being hit by cars its not worth it. On the other hand if you are on a pleasant, safe trail you won't mind spending the extra time or energy to stay on it.