Bicycle commuting notes – Sidewalks

In May 2007, I started occasional commuting from my home in Wayland, MA to the offices of SiCortex in Maynard. This is just about nine miles each way.  In 2007 I ran up about 1000 miles on my 30 year old Nishiki Olympic. I think I am on pace to do a bit better in 2008.

I’m not very fast.  When I started it took almost an hour to get to work.  On the way home the read derailleur cable broke, leaving me stuck in 9th gear (of 10), so it also took a long time to get home.  My colleague David shook his head at the condition of my bike, with its steel rims and puncture proof (heavy) tires, and talked me into some upgrades.  With new alloy rims and new tires (and getting in better shape) I can now get to work in a little under 40 minutes and home in about 35.  The elevation gain is near zero, since I am on the Sudbury river in Wayland, and the office is on the Assabet river in Maynard.  The Sudbury and Assabet merge in Maynard.  If anything, Maynard must be at a lower elevation, but something about the topography makes it seem like more uphill going in, and more downhill coming back.  There is definitely a high point in the middle, at Sudbury Center.

It was really this commuting that pushed me into starting this blog.  I would spend the trip composing elaborate letters to the editor of the local paper, often about the poor conditions for cycling.  This week I finally took a bunch of photos along my route, and I am ready to start ranting.

Mostly roads are not built or maintained for the benefit of bicycles.  I think the worst of the safety problems could be fixed easily, while others would require better standards for shoulders and sidewalks.

This post is about the sidewalks.

You might think that roads with sidewalks are perfect for bicycles, but it just isn’t so.

Sidewalks are not built to the standards of roads, and in New England, that means that very quickly, frost and roots heave and break up the sidewalks.  Unless the sidewalk is brand new, it is too bumpy to ride on faster than about 10 miles per hour.  On the road, 20 mph is pretty easy on the level stretches, and I’ve hit 35 on the big downhill from Sudbury into Wayland on Route 27.  Consequently, I ride on the sidewalk only when the road is too terrifying to contemplate.  Of course, at those spots there usually are no sidewalks.  It is hard to show the flatness of a sidewalk with a photo, but here’s an extreme case – the drain is in the middle of the sidewalk, with a steep dip to put it at road level.img_0051.JPG

Sidewalks are also narrow and festooned with trouble.  In Sudbury, fireplugs are marked with these nice metal whips so you can find them in the snow.  The unprotected pointy top is exactly at my eye level.  It would be a nice idea to stick a day-glow tennis ball on top.  In Maynard, the whips are unpainted, but there’s a big metal reflector on the top. It’s probably safer for bicyclists that way, but sidewalks are less frequent than in Sudbury. img_0037.JPG

Sidewalks are often dangerously narrow.  This is usually fine for pedestrians, but difficult for bikes. The stretch of sidewalk on Route 20 west from Landham Road to Concord Road is the worst.  Here’s a section with a high stone wall on one side, with overhanging brush at eye level.  The brush here also completely blocks you from view by cars pulling out of the side street.  I’ll talk about that in my post about cars.img_0040.JPG

Here’s my favorite narrow spot, which requires weaving around the signs and ducking under the bottom of a sawed-off but still suspended utility pole. img_0045.JPG

Here’s another utility pole, this one has a guy wire stretching acrosss the sidewalk.  It is possible to get past, if you see it.

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Even when sidewalks are perfectly usable, you still have to dodge into the street to pass obstacles like this:

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So sidewalks often don’t exist, and when they do, they are more dangerous to ride on than the street, or impassable.  Even when they are wide and clear, they are often too bumpy to use at any reasonable speed.

So usually I ride in the street.  I’ll have more to say about that later.

What needs to be done about the sidewalks?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Clear the brush and debris off the sidewalks. Pay particular attention to overhanging branches, and thornbushes.
  • Don’t put utility poles and signs in the sidewalk
  • Make sure that obstructions like signs and guy wires are at least 7 feet off the ground across the entire width of the sidewalk.
  • Keep sand and mud off the sidewalks.
  • Ask homeowners not to park their trash cans so that they block riders.
  • When new sidewalks are built, build them to road standards, so the frost and roots will take longer to destroy them.

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