Side Street or Main Street?

Grocery Shopping with Wald Folding Baskets
Cycling in greater Boston, I alternate between routes that take me along busy roads and routes that take me through quiet side streets. Each option leaves something to be desired. The busy roads are, well, busy - lots of car traffic, lots of action, lots of chaos. But they do seem to have enough room for everyone, including the processions of cyclists that now travel along them more than ever. The side streets are much quieter and greener, but are often too narrow to fit both a car and a bike side by side - resulting in its own set of challenges. 

I've mentioned before that when I have close calls or memorably negative encounters with cars, it almost always seems to happen on a side street. But the same is definitely not true for everyone, and a recent post on Let's Go Ride a Bike illustrates why many urban cyclists tend to keep away from busy roads. So I keep wondering what it is that, over time, has made me weary of side streets, whereas others see them as a refuge. 

One possibility is that I tend to overcompensate for the danger factor of main streets by being extra-vigilant, extra-focused and extra-careful as a matter of course - expecting the worst from every vehicle out there, and cycling in a way that anticipates that. On the other hand, side-streets lull me into a state of relaxation, because they seem so tranquil and friendly - so when something bad is about happen, I don't see it coming and am less likely to avoid it.

But this factor aside, I also think that drivers are less likely to keep their aggression in check when there are fewer witnesses. On side streets there aren't many people around, and perhaps the drivers with whom I've had confrontations and close calls were well aware of that. A scary thought, to be sure.

What is your take on main streets versus side streets, and what is your preference?


  1. I tend to prefer main streets because they have better throughput. Stop signs are usually structured to give them priority in right of way, and lights are timed in their favor. I also just recently moved to an apartment in Inman Square, on a side street that feeds into Cambridge, Hampshire, and Broadway, and I've found that visibility in crossing those streets is very poor.

    I don't think drivers (or cyclists for that matter) are cognizant enough to restrain themselves due to the presence of witnesses. I've seen some fairly rude behavior, both in my car and on my bike on places like the McGrath Highway, Mass Ave and Memorial Drive. We're mostly strangers to each other, and I believe that the only factor that may cause a person to restrain their aggression is not just the presence of witnesses, but the presence of witnesses who know them.

    If there is a statistical correlation to close calls/aggression and smaller side streets, my theories would lean more towards:

    a) side streets are narrow and don't have as much capacity for parallel driver/cyclist usage.

    b) drivers are using side streets as shortcuts around congested main streets (and are already thus frustrated by the congestion of their usual route), and find their frustration esclated when a perceived shortcut is impeded by a cyclist.

    c) side streets are usually one way and one lane and it lulls a driver into a sense of complacency as they don't expect to need to monitor for the presence of other road users.

  2. Prefer main streets (preferably with lane, but can deal either way), hands down. Side streets are often residential, so the drivers you're likely to encounter are either on their way out or their way back, and in either direction are less tolerant of cyclists. Side streets usually have much more debris and/or potholes, and there might be kids playing on them (which I think is great, don't get me wrong... but I don't want to hit them). Cars may be double parked. Also, I'm really lousy at directions, so if I'm going to an unfamiliar place I'm much more likely to get lost if I'm taking side streets. Of course, every main street and side street is different, so this is just my take. Chicago is much bigger than Baltimore so I can imagine their main streets are more daunting than ours.

  3. Another factor is that the more we ride on main roads with lots of traffic, the more drivers will get used to the idea of sharing space with us. If we all hide away on side-streets it will take longer for drivers to adapt their habits us.

  4. My experience in Portland has been that on small side streets where I can't be passed by an automobile, *most* people are willing to wait until I can either move over a little, or the road widens, or one of us needs to turn anyway. Occasionally I get a honk or someone yelling at me to get out of the road.

    I don't get that on main streets so much, but on the other hand, I spend the whole time riding on main streets tense and nervous, so to me it's not worth it to avoid the occasional rudeness I encounter on side streets.

    The other thing about Portland, is that many of the main arterial streets aren't actually that wide, they have normal lane widths that are just large enough for a large automobile, and sometimes only have one lane in each direction (plus street parking), it's just that the speed limit is 35 instead of 25, and there's a constant flow of traffic. That makes riding on those roads really stressful, because you can't get out of the way of traffic at all, there's nowhere to go, so you pretty much have to plan to keep up with the flow of traffic if you want to ride on them, unless you're just going a block or two and can just kind of fudge it, or it's non rush-hour and the traffic has lightened up.

    So perhaps part of the reason I haven't had much aggression on main streets is because I pretty much only ride on ones with bike lanes or during non-peak hours when there is hardly any traffic.

  5. When it's an option, I tend to stick to a middle ground. Not the major thoroughfares, but something above a narrow path. They aren't the straight-shot you'd take in a car, but they're the fastest ways to cut through the neighborhoods.

    I think it's city-to-city, though, depending on how a city is designed. Boston is such a dense mass that the roads are more black and white - but down here in Dallas, we're an ever-expanding mass of suburbia and point A to point B doesn't give you quite as many options. With a choice, though, I'd take the winding side-streets, if only for the view. Strip malls and liquor stores are something I can do without.

  6. I ride in main streets if they have a bike lane. Otherwise I usually ride in residential or bike only pathways. I live in LA and the main streets just seem really narrow if there is no bike lane. Cars are usually parked on the curb, even if there is a No Parking sign so there isn't a lot of room on the right. I know I can take a lane but I'd rather avoid that kind of hassle because no doubt drivers will honk and get impatient. People really don't care. Also, it seems that the side streets are kept in better shape than the main ones. I can't tell you how many streets make my teeth rattle if I ride them.

  7. I take main streets if they are not too heavily traveled, especially if the lanes are wide. When I have to use a main street with heavy traffic and narrow lanes, I will simply take the lane in order to ensure my safety. Otherwise there's just too much chance someone is going to try to squeeze by me and, whoops, sorry about running you into the curb.
    I've found Google bicycle routing to be somewhat annoying in this regard -- it prefers back alleys etc. to perfectly good main streets that aren't all that busy. Side streets and alleys have their own issues. The surface is not as good, people will open doors and step out in front of you because they are not expecting traffic and don't hear you coming, dogs are more likely, etc.

  8. As you know I'm a advocate of the rider wearing bright colors and a helmet but you are correct that nothing beats strong vigilance of the rider.

  9. When commuting to work in Seattle, I ride a mixed bag of main streets and the Burke-Gilman trail. The main streets I take are well-established bike routes where most drivers are aware of cyclists sharing the road with them, and allow them their space. I say most drivers because, well, you know no one's perfect, including cyclists. I'm pretty comfortable on main streets as my situational awareness is pretty focused; no distractions from earbuds and cell phones.

    I'm fairly comfortable on shared-usage trails, but I find that they sometimes take a little more effort to negotiate because some users (cyclists included) aren't as aware of the environment around them: lots of earbud pedestrians and cyclists not paying attention. But it's not that nerve-wracking, just kind of a nuisance when you're trying to be safe.

    When I ride the side streets in my neighborhood, most all drivers are pretty patient. I think they realize that cyclists are part of the territory, and that they probably ride as well, and thereby are patient enough with fellow riders. Occasionally, you encounter a super A-type driver who thinks he/she owns the road, and that "these people on their bicycles" are just a nuisance and should be run off the road.

    But mostly I feel pretty safe on the streets because the traffic patterns are well-established and regulated for safety. Trails are nice too, especially when all users are well aware of their surroundings.

    I think we're pretty fortunate here because there's a growing compliment of people using their bikes for transportation, not just for recreation, that makes everyone more aware of what's going on in traffic. If you ride a bike you probably have spent some time driving a car where you share the road with cyclists, which I assume would make you a little more sensitive to your surroundings.

    Seattle, WA

  10. Depends on the city and the bike I'm riding.

    The sidewalk is a refuge in the burbs in these United States.

  11. "b) drivers are using side streets as shortcuts around congested main streets (and are already thus frustrated by the congestion of their usual route), and find their frustration esclated when a perceived shortcut is impeded by a cyclist."

    Yes, that too!

  12. I ride on side streets and paths almost exclusively, especially when carrying the kiddo. I have fewer close calls on side streets than on major streets. This is probably because cyclists must take the lane, and thus hooks and swipes are harder for motorists to execute.

    For the same reason the incidence of rude motorists is greater on side streets. But if they are rude to me, then they probably know I'm there and I'm less likely to be hit. In any event, it is just easier to interact with motorists on side streets; I've had many more pleasant interactions than rude ones.

    (Of course there is intentional assault with a motor vehicle, but I'm not too worried about that.)

  13. recently i've been keen on taking side streets. the heavy traffic areas in san francisco are not bicycle friendly, even with bike lanes, drivers aren't as nice as the one's in the side streets. people are always confused and frustrated driving here, such is san francisco driving. even if it's a one lane with more traffic, car and bike shared, drivers don't respect your space at all. in my old route, i used to take a one way street with 3 lanes, no bike lane, i was constantly getting honked at. very frustrating. i tend to get a little nervous and aggressive with high traffic volume, always trying to keep up with traffic. now, i'm over having too many encounters. i want to be that kind biker that says thank you and smiles and let's other pass before me. and i want nothing more than my commute to the thing i look forward to the most after a long day of school and work, so side streets it is now.

  14. It depends on the road layout, rather than the street. In the UK, main roads often have big roundabouts (lethal to cyclists) or junctions where you have to pull across two lanes of traffic to turn, whereas side streets don't. And in town the main roads are often one way and tend to sweep you towards ever larger roads avoiding the town centre, whereas the smaller streets go where I want to go. That may not be such an issue in the US with a grid layout.

  15. I pretty much own the all roads be they arterial, feeder or neighborhood at 5 a.m. I take care of a lot of business in the late wee hours of the night: road training on weekends (arterial), daily commute in on workdays, errands and shopping (feeder and neighborhood streets, crossing arterials which is graciously guided by HAWKS and TOUCANS)

  16. I like to differentiate between high vs. low speed roads. In some cases the low speed road is the Main Street ; but usually it's the residential road. They are wide enough around here that they make it an obvious choice for me.

    Lower speeds are the thing that will give you a better chance to make it out alive in case of a crash.

  17. I've been much happier since about a year ago I switched my commute from a main street without a bike lane (Broadway in Camb) to Green Street. It is too narrow for both a bike and a car, and there is parking on both sides, so I take the lane for 5 or so long blocks. I have had fewer conflicts than when taking the lane on Broadway, even though people can't actually pass me as they could have on Broadway.
    I justify it as being a residential street with lots of potential obstacles (cars parking, kids running out etc) and people shouldn't take it if they're really in a hurry.
    I get more abuse per mile in the two blocks I have to take on Putnam, which has parking, is super narrow, and where the pavement is awful, limiting my speed.

  18. Townmouse -- in Boston it's usually the other way around; main streets go both ways and side streets go one way. I prefer side streets, but often they don't go where I'm trying to go. But then, Boston isn't a very "US" city.

  19. "I also think that drivers are less likely to keep their aggression in check when there are fewer witnesses"

    Anecdotally, that has been the complete opposite of my experience. I get harassed on busy main routes as a matter of course, so much so that it is to be expected. I suspect pack mentality contributes to the harassment, where the driver is subconsciously showing off for the other motorists. [mind you, I'm not targeting motorists for that particular idiocy, but rather humanity as a whole]. My one-on-one experiences on side street are overwhelmingly positive - sometimes even jovial. It can takes weeks to for me to be harassed on them; but if I ride on arterials and main roads I'm almost guaranteed harassment at least once daily.

  20. Erica S., for the debris and omnipresent potholes on Baltimore streets I highly recommend the fattest tires that will fit. Our streets are like off-roading sometimes. I use 2" (50mm) slicks, which some might think are overkill, but even when I'm riding down a steep hill at a fast clip I don't even bother to avoid potholes - I just roll right over them along with the debris and exposed abandoned streetcar tracks. Fatties really make a bike more stable and safer on these streets. :)

  21. My commute logs indicate it is more or less six of one and a half dozen of the other. I do seem to see more peculiar motorist behavior per car on side streets - like the wrong-way lady I encountered recently.

  22. when i first started biking again 4 years ago in austin, tx, i always used side streets. mainly because biking there was more of a sport and you did not see as many people on the street in regular (non-spandex) clothes. from what i understand it biking in austin has changed a lot in the past few years, hurray! biking here in boston the past three years, i prefer main streets. i feel like on main streets there is so much more happening but i know the rules and i know my place within those rules. i feel much more comfortable even with the buses, trucks, cabs, cars and texting pedestrians. my daily ride to work is half southwest corridor half main city streets. the southwest corridor is the part that i like least. i always feel better when i make it to the streets with out with-out bike lanes. the only thing i really like about side streets is that is when i practice riding with no hands like when i was a kid!

  23. I take both residential and arterial routes, depending on how fast I need to get somewhere and which bike I'm riding. On my road bikes, I don't like the starts and stops that mean clipping and unclipping into my pedals, so I take the arterial streets. On my Dutch bike and errand bike, I cruise the neighborhoods.

    I don't see any significant behavioral differences between the routes. A-holes are a-holes no matter what, and polite people are polite everywhere. Both groups drive both kinds of streets.

    The biggest difference I notice is that the neighborhood streets are q-u-i-e-t compared to the LOUD arterials. Which is why I love the neighborhoods.

  24. I live in London put it franky...both side and main roads here are rubbish for cycling.

    It's generally a more direct/qucker route to take the main road. But then you have the problem of more cars, buses and trucks.
    Ah...most of our roads are also rather narrow with cars parked on either side or buses stopping everywhere.

    My view is that you need to be quite assertive and take a primary position (i.e. claim the lane). Ignore the aggressive and abuseive drivers and continue along at your own speed.

    So basically, whether I take the side roads or main roads depends on (a)mood; (b)weather; (c)time constraints...oh and (d)time of day/night (you don't want to be going down some side roads at 1am!

  25. Interesting topic! I treat every area I ride in differently, depending on the hazards and safe riding places that exist in that area. Sometimes I ride on the footpaths as they are empty while the road is full of speeding and/or parked cars. Other times I travel along side streets because they have less traffic and are quite wide and safe. There is one local street near where I live which is very busy but because there are lots of pedestrians and quite a few cyclists and some traffic lights on it, the traffic travels very slowly along it so I am easily able to keep up with the traffic. I like riding along this street, I find it challenging without being dangerous. The type of aggression I have encountered from drivers lately is them telling me or signalling to me that I should be walking when crossing the road! This amazes me as it has never occurred at a place where there is a "cyclists dismount" sign - though there is one of these at a local railway crossing.

  26. I mainly stick to main streets in Seattle since side streets are incredibly narrow here and lined with parked cars. There is little visibility at intersections, and a lot of intersections are not controlled at all (no stop signs, no traffic circle, etc). Portland, by contrast has nice wide side streets that look like they would be a joy to cycle on. Also, geography in Seattle dictates taking main roads to get across water and around huge hills.

    The multi-use trail here that is used like a freeway for bicycles is a horrible place to ride during "rush hour". People are downright clueless and rude (walkers, joggers, and cyclists alike-- though the cyclists are the worst and the most dangerous offenders from my point of view)-- I know of two people who have been involved in fairly serious bicycle on bicycle accidents on said trail, and one of these people ended up with a broken neck. Crazy.

  27. Steve A said...
    "My commute logs indicate..."


  28. I've always chosen routes that avoid main streets whenever possible. Tucson has a good number of designated bike routes (maps are published by the county government and available at most libraries and bike shops).

    Tucson and the county (Pima) have done a good job with designating bike lanes, even on major roads. Tucson has also received a Gold Star rating by the League of American Bicyclists as a "Bicycle Friendly Community".

    Just listening to the accident reports, my impression is that most car bicycle accidents in Tucson occur on main thoroughfares.

  29. I tend to prefer main streets - better quality roads and I don't surprise as many vehicles as on side streets. However, there are instances where I'm forced to use side streets due to difficulties in turning right during heavy traffic (I'm in a left-hand-drive part of the world).

  30. Interesting obeservations! Overall, I find that drivers on main streets have more of a need for speed (gotta get to work NOW!!) and are not expecting to see a bike in this environment. WHen I'm on side streets, I find that there are fewer variables to consider, which is a huge help when biking with my dudes.

    However, I do see your point. I think there are fewer eyes watching on side streets, so drivers think they can bully or rage without impunity.

    Great stuff to consider!

  31. I find it depends heavily on the area and time of day. Philadelphia is congested as Boston; in central Philadelphia I find the difference between major and minor streets is not that pronounced. Since the major streets may be the one 4 lane road compared to nine other 2 lane roads, I use what ever road goes to my destination or has a bridge.

    In Chester county, PA, the major Route 30 is extremely contested at rush hour (many secondary roads are busy too), so I use a secondary road with less traffic to go to work (driving or bicycling, Route 30 can be that slow). In the evening, I'm more likely to use Route 30 (bicycling or driving) since that's where the grocery stores, libraries, stores are etc.

    Years ago I was in Kansas - it seemed like major roads were 20mph faster than Boston. Major suburban roads were 4-6 lanes at 50+mph (actual, not legal speed), spaced about a mile apart. On the 1/2 mile were secondary roads with very little traffic. In this case I used the 1/2 mile secondary roads since they were both continuous and pleasant, rather than fighting hostile drivers at high speeds.

    My recollection of Boston/Cambridge in the 80's is that main roads were usually had better right of way and simpler routes, and narrower roads and congestion kept drivers from getting too stupid.


  32. Could it simply be a matter of city to city cultural differences?
    The urbanism in Chicago and Boston are probably not the same which might be part of the explanation.

    Here in Montreal, cyclists prefer side streets when they take you somewhere. They are quieter, and usually wide enough. Some neigbourhoods have clearly marked those streets (with signs etc.) cyclable so cars cannot ignore and know what to expect. This is provided such side streets are not part of a rat-run scheme/routine in which case you still can have speeding in these streets.
    Plus we have a long tradition of living outside, i.e. sitting out on balconies, hanging out on porches, children playing in the streets, as a lot of Montreal central was, and still is blue-collar and poor. Which means, apart from rat-running, those in the streets, playing, biking and usually your children or your neigbhours.
    Transit traffic is a major problem (if not THE major problem) to ped/cyclist safety in town is the subject of big controversies.

    People do cycle on major arteries when they need to get somewhere fast, they have a long route, get somewhere specific, or are daredevils. When you have enough lanes (i.e. René-Lévesque), it is actually safe enough even if still nerve-wracking.
    Those bi-directional arteries with two lanes only ARE dangerous as cars cannot change lane to pass you so they squeeze, bully you etc.

  33. I'm def a side street rider. I will log lots of extra milage to avoid some streets. I find that people give clearance ok on a side street and I like being able to amble. I don't like white knuckling my handlebars on main streets. but I ride in the burbs anyway so it's never too crazy.

  34. When I am cycling with my child in his seat or trailer, I try to stay on the wider residential side streets as much as possible. It just feels safer. It gives people the opportunity to register that there is a "baby on board" since they are moving a little slower and are in "the neighborhood" and are looking out for their neighbors' pets/kids any way (since it is bad form to run over either). When I am alone I prefer wide, winding country roads. However, these rarely go any where "productive" so it's main streets for utility cycling.

  35. Last point I forgot to mention: Whenever I am elsewhere in North America, I notice how cyclists hug the curb or stay close to the line of parked cars. I am not sure whether they realise it but from my perspective they always are too close. I guess people are nervous about being honked or hit from behind. However, in side streets, this is very dangerous.

    Here, whenever on a side street, I purposefully take not just the lane but the street, i.e. I position myself so nobody can pass me. This is only on narrow streets of course. This garantees me that nobody can brush be, hit my mirror, squeeze me etc. It is legal to do that. Most people do that as well in the neighbourhoods I cycle in. I don't care about honking, they can honk until the end of the world, they usually get tired before me. I do that to slow cars down so they don't attempt passing, first of all, and also so they don't pass me at full speed. As well, when I am cycling uphill I always do that regardless, as I sometimes wobble a lot.
    It works. When it becomes safer FOR ME, I give space and they can pass.
    When you do not do that, then it can become very dangerous to cycle in secondary streets.
    Most car drivers in those places I cycle are used to that, behave in a very civil manner, slow down in advance, and pass carefully.
    The worst that ever happen to me was some honking, usually some bleached 40 something bourgeoise in a upper-end car with big rocks at her fingers.
    And Bixi folks cycle so randomly that they will be two or three abreast, cycle in groups, forcing cars to wait behind. This has benefited everyone.

  36. Here in Garland TX there isn't much choice, for most starting points and most destinations you have to ride on an arterial highway/street, for at least a major part of the trip if not the entire trip except for a short segment. That's what you get with Superblocks and arterials with no grid of secondary streets...

  37. It's fun to find convoluted routes via side or residential streets. I don't mind the extra time and it's more relaxing. But then I don't live in a super urban area. Many opportunities for staying off high traffic areas.

  38. I like side streets, because that bring a slow time and new discovery for my daily life.
    And, side streets are very photogenic for me.

  39. I try to take side streets and paths when possible. In my home town we have recently had a guy hit by a cement mixer (fatality) and a girl hit by a SUV (fatality). That was enough for me. The side streets here are old brick that is rough as a cob which keeps the cars moving slowly down them. I find that I am usually moving as fast or faster than they are. I hope the city allows more streets to become rough so traffic is forced to slow down. Given the budget crunch many cities are facing that may become a reality.

  40. "Could it simply be a matter of city to city cultural differences? "

    Definitely, even when it comes to factors such as the narrowness of side streets and the design of intersections. Boston's side streets tend to be very narrow, and I think this contributes to the problem.

  41. I agree that there are many differences. In Philly as in Boston, some of our main streets are narrower than the side streets in younger US cities.

    I never feel comfortable on our widest arterials, which have the speed and volume of cities like New York and Chicago. When our side streets have room for passing, motorists compulsively overtake with inches to spare.

    I prefer our "main streets," as these are usually one or two lanes. Many of them now have bike infrastructure. If they were wider, I don't think I'd feel as confident.

    I think narrow streets are an asset to cycling, but only when cyclists have priority. Otherwise, reckless driving makes it a difficult situation.


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