Accommodating Bicyclists and Pedestrians on Rural Roads

In the Spring 2013 issue of Nuggets & Nibbles, we reproduced a historic article - Highway Shoulder Design, Construction and Maintenance. One area not discussed was how bicycles and pedestrians interact with the shoulder of the road, especially in the many rural areas around the state.

With the increased attention being paid to providing access for pedestrians and bicyclists on our roadways, when and how to safely accommodate their needs is not always easy to determine. However, it can be critical in many areas.

Cyclist riding along a road shoulder

When feasible, road shoulders provide the space for motorists and cyclists to share the road

What are treatment options that are bicycle and pedestrian friendly?

Road shoulders are often a preferred treatment to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians on rural roads. Sidewalks and bike lanes are treatment alternatives in more urban and suburban environments where there is typically more traffic.

Bike lane

What is the purpose of road shoulders?

Some low-volume roads were built with little or no shoulders. In some situations, lack of space or certain soil conditions do not allow for a road shoulder. As traffic volumes and speeds increase, however, their value becomes greater.

We commonly list the following as the benefits of shoulders for all road users:

In many cases, a paved shoulder can add one more critical benefit:

Here are some answers to some commonly asked questions about accommodating bicycles and pedestrians along highways.

What are shoulders made of and how wide should they be?

W11-15 combined bicycle/pedestrian sign
Combined Bicycle/Pedestrian sign

If a shoulder is intended to be used by pedestrians or bicyclists, it should be paved and a minimum of four feet wide. This improves the safety for those users by helping provide separation between the fast moving motorized traffic and the slower bikes and pedestrians. Faster confident bicyclists may tend to travel in the main lanes, but this is not true for younger or less confident bike riders.

A chip sealed surface with a relatively thin gravel base may be adequate for many pedestrian and bicycle applications. The structural strength provided in the base should be adequate for the anticipated traffic. Where truck traffic may be expected to drive on or park on the shoulder, the strength should be comparable to the traveled way, with an asphalt concrete surface.

Can you mark road shoulders as bike lanes?

The Vehicle and Traffic law definition of a bike lane is:
A portion of the roadway, which has been designated by striping, signing and pavement markings for the preferential or exclusive use of bicycles. If rural road shoulders are to be used by bicyclists and pedestrians, it is advisable to not mark it as a bike lane. Doing so would pose a safety hazard, implying that bikes and pedestrians would be required (illegally) to share a bike lane. A better choice is to place a sign advising folks to share the road. (Sign can be yellow or fluorescent yellow-green.)

Does it help to apply a color treatment to road shoulders to make the corridor appear narrower?

The added cost of the special color treatment will have to be taken into consideration when weighing benefits to cost. Whether or not such a visual appearance will actually slow traffic any more than the design treatments will is questionable. Treatments that bring the possible presence of cyclists and pedestrians along a roadway to drivers’ attention is a safety enhancement. However, good signage and well maintained shoulders are a must in any case.

Can’t you just put a separate path along the way and tell bicyclists and pedestrians to go there?

Bicyclists (and in-line skaters) have the legal right to share the road on most public roadways. (They are prohibited on interstate highways, expressways, and some other limited access highways.) Consequently, bicyclists cannot be required to use separate facilities such as a separate pathway. They may choose to use a separate path, if provided. If properly designed and placed in a good location, many bicyclists will use the trail, but if inconvenient, they will just stay on the highway.

How about designating certain roads as safe bicycling roads?

You don’t want to try to label roads as good or bad for bicycling. Describing something as ‘safe’ may lead to a false sense of security in many cases. There are many factors that play into a road’s suitability for bicycling. This can include posted speed limits, shoulder characteristics, longitudinal grade of the highway, pavement quality and amount of traffic. Cyclists may choose different roads at different times depending upon such factors as their skill level and goals for any given trip.

Producing a map of the area for bicycling is a pretty big project, but worthy of consideration. Tying into an already existing network can be valuable. There are many good examples of bicycle suitability maps to give you ideas. Here are a couple to get you started.

Binghamton Metropolitan Transportation Study online:

For your own maps, begin by making a roadway inventory taking into account possible use by bicyclists and pedestrians.

NYSDOT links:

For more help, the Cornell Bicycle and Pedestrian Website has links to other organizations such as the New York Bicycling Coalition and Parks & Trails New York.

Fall 2013

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.