Traffic engineers are not cyclists

Born Again Cycles recycles bicycles in Melbourne, Australia. BAC blogger Mark Horner rants about a topic that might resonate with many of us, that the people who design our streets are not cyclists.

The problem is that those who research, design and implement solutions for the vulnerability of cyclists within increasingly frenetic ordinary road situations are not themselves cyclists. If they are, their voices are drowned out by those of their colleagues who see road transport as legitimately being of the motorised variety. So instead of a “different but equal” approach to constructing specific road surfaces for bikes, or making spaces that acknowledge bikes are actually going to be in there with the rest of the vehicles, it is a view of “odd, difficult but vociferous (so we’d better do something just to shut them up)”, the “something” often approaching -token/barely adequate (under sufferance)’ in its ability to address the problems that cyclists encounter in what road planners are touting as -normal’ traffic conditions.

There’s much more in Mark’s post, but the gist is that, as cyclists, we really wonder what went through the engineers’ heads when we cycle on the facilities they design.

These issues highlight the importance of early involvement by bicyclists in planning decisions. It’s a pain in the neck to follow all of the agendas for the various government agencies in your community, but it’s best to get changes done before they build the road or bridge or new parking garage.

In my experience, traffic engineers in some parts of the United States are getting a little bit better at these sorts of things as they get feedback from cyclists and as engineering documents become more cycling inclusive.

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0 thoughts on “Traffic engineers are not cyclists”

  1. . . . and even if they are cyclists, the general policies that they have to operate in mean that they generate tokenist solutions as a rule.


  2. Jennifer says:

    Why do they always lump bikes and peds together?

  3. Cafn8 says:


    I have a theory on that. The average non-cyclist simply sees a bicycle/cyclist as non-motorized traffic. Since a bicycle is non-motorized, and operates with the same power (two legs worth) as a pedestrian, the perception seems to be that speeds attainable on a bicycle are in the same neighborhood as pedestrian speeds. This theory is supported by my observation of drivers’ and pedestrians’ actions while passing (drivers only) and while entering/crossing the road near me. Cruising speeds in the neighborhood of 20mph seem quite unexpected. Unless this common perception is disproved we will most likely continue to be non-motorized traffic, and lumped in with pedestrians. Just my observations.

  4. Daniel says:

    Cafn8 is right, cyclists get lumped with peds b/c they are non motorized. And a lot of traffic engineers think ALL cyclists are older people taking it easy riding cruisers around town at <10 MPH.

    By the way, I am a traffic engineer and a cyclist. As well as a bike commuter. But that combination is few and far between.

    Truthfully, bike lanes (obviously) get shoved to the bottom of the priority list frequently, sometimes b/c there isn’t always a hard and fast standard for them. Car lanes are generally at least 9′ wide because cars are that big. Sidewalks have to be a certain width to accomodate pedestrians and especially wheelchairs (the ADA will make sure of that). Bike lanes don’t always have someone sticking up for them, so sometimes the less-bike-educated engineers say “Well, we’ve got 2′ of width left to use, we can put 1′ bike lanes on each side of the road, and they can ride in the gutter and that will give them 2′ of width, that should be plenty.”

    The good news is, although traffic engineers don’t always accomodate bicyclists as much as bicyclists would like, they are moving in that direction. Other good news is, many larger cities (such as Charlotte where I am) are developing or already have some full time bicycle engineers/planners on the city staff to review plans.

  5. Paul Dorn says:

    Fritz: Great post. From my time as a bicycle lobbyist (as executive director for the California Bicycle Coalition) I learned a lot about how state transportation agencies work. Career transportation professionals quickly learn that the real opportunities for rapid and lucrative advancement are in highway development; bicycling and transit are the ghetto positions. Caltrans has some great staff people working on bicycling, but they aren’t very influential within the agency. They rely on advocacy groups to pressure the Caltrans leadership from outside. Cheers, Paul

  6. Scott in Omaha says:

    In speaking with the traffic engineer in my city, I discovered that he’s both a cyclist and a motorcyclist, so he’s very much aware of traffic issues from multiple perspectives.

    He did mention that it’s really all about the budget. If he’s got money for auto traffic, then he will spend all of it on auto traffic. If he gets money for bike lanes and paths, then he’s happy to spend it for bikes.

    Like Paul mentioned above, it’s probably best to influence the city using advocacy groups and help the traffic engineer get money specifically for cyclists rather than expecting them to carve it out of an auto traffic budget.



  7. Peter says:

    Here is the “Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities” put out by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). It provides a good perspective of what the engineers would have to consider when designing bicycle routes. The most recent one I can find was published in 1999. Enjoy!

  8. Siouxgeonz says:

    Our People who Decide were incredibly thrilled at the idea that cyclists weren’t all clamoring for separate paths so, though they are still very befuddled about what cyclists are, they’re willing to fund things more on the line of “complete streets.” However, we still have to be breathing down necks every step of the way lest somebody make “just a little improvemetn” that has nothing to do with what actually works for multimodal transportation.

  9. The reality is that motorised transport is a bigger industry than eco-friendly two wheelers. The motor industry has powerful lobbyists at the highest level.

    The budget in the UK for any cycling bike related spending authority, at best, is measured in millions. The budget for road building, is measured in billions.

    That is why environmentally responsible cyclists receive a token blob of paint here and there, whilst gas guzzlers get road widening and by-passes.

  10. Jennifer says:

    So what happens when electric assist bikes (is that what they’re called) take off? (I’ve seen one or two in the wild, so to speak, this past year.) Those aren’t exactly “nonmotorized,” but they aren’t mopeds, either. And they certainly aren’t pedestrians. And what about electric golf carts, was it ever decided whether those are “car” or “not car”? And what happens if more people decide to commute by horse?

    I’m mostly throwing out hypotheticals now because it’s 4pm on a Friday, but I really do foresee some very confused traffic engineers (and mountains of wasted money) in the future if we don’t change our approach soon.

  11. Fritz says:

    Legally, e-bikes are lumped together with bicycles, though I know of some trails that prohibit them.

    There are Federal regulations in place for Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), which are the souped up golf carts we read about in downstate Illinois. They’re permitted on local streets with a speed limit of less than 35 mph. I see a few of them scooting around in Santa Cruz County and Silicon Valley.

    Equestrians have their advocacy organizations who lobby for trail access. I follow their activities a little, partly out of curiosity, partly to see what the cyclists in the area have missed, and partly to find opportunities for combining our efforts.

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