This post is part of a series reviewing the effectiveness of bicycle facilities in Princeton. In this post, we discuss paved shoulders on roads. The previous entries in this series discussed regular roads and sharrows.
What looks like a bike lane but isn't one? The answer is a paved shoulder, as seen in the photograph above, taken at Elm Road in Princeton near the intersection with Hodge Road. On a busy road like this, with fast-moving traffic, a shoulder lane is a tempting place for a cyclist to ride. State DOT publications even describe paved shoulders as places for people to cycle. In many ways, a shoulder lane appears equivalent to a proper designated bicycle lane (which we will discuss in the next post). But shoulders differ in a couple of fundamental ways that make them much less useful for cyclists.
First, a shoulder is not considered a travel lane, and does not have to be maintained to the same standard. That means that rubble, broken glass and excessive potholes may be tolerated in a shoulder, which would not be acceptable in a travel lane. All of these represent obstacles to cyclists, which are at best a nuisance, and potentially hazardous. In the Polzo vs County of Essex case (2012), the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that a cyclist could not hold a public entity liable for accidents caused by failure to maintain a shoulder lane. In that case, a cyclist died because of injuries sustained after hitting a large pothole in a shoulder lane near Milburn Township. The Supreme Court further ruled that the 'roadway' does not include the shoulder lane. Cyclists should therefore use extreme caution while cycling in shoulder lanes.
Second, because a shoulder is not a travel lane, a cyclist in a shoulder lane is likely to be found liable for an accident in which a turning vehicle is in collision with the cyclist, because the driver of the motor vehicle can legitimately argue that the cyclist was operating outside a normal roadway position. Cyclists are also breaking the law if they pass slow-moving or standing traffic by cycling in a shoulder. This is not an intuitive rule, and cyclists commuting to work might think it is reasonable to use a wide shoulder lane like the one above to cycle past a line of traffic. We aim to provide facilities that are safe and helpful, and although they look like cycle lanes, paved shoulders are not nearly as good because they are fundamentally not legitimate cycle facilities.
Another issue with shoulder lanes is that they tend to become seasonal dumping grounds for brush or snow. This is an issue that they share with on-street cycle lanes, which we will discuss next.
Question: on a road with a paved shoulder, where should a cyclist ride- on the shoulder or in the travel lane? Why?