How to find stress-free bicycle routes through the city

I hear this question every now and then: “How do you find all those nice routes to avoid major roads?” Quite often people add that they would cycle more, if they would know how to find better ways around. That’s a good incentive to summarize my knowledge in a blog post :)

First of all a disclaimer is needed. What we have in most of the cities on Earth is not adequate. Walking and cycling should be top priorities for a multitude of reasons. Some cities even declare this as a priority and even do some small steps here and there. Still, way too many places stopped at this point:

While it has to be like this, of course:

You think it’s an exaggeration? Think twice. Here’s how you get by bike from, let’s say, airport to the city center in Copenhagen:

Straight and easy. There is no need for a fancy navigation, you just take a glance at Google Maps and then follow one major street or another. All of them will provide some bicycle infrastructure, which will not disappear halfway. The road along the green arrows on the previous screenshot looks like this:

And the road along the blue arrows looks like this:

Now let’s get back to the topic. If you read this article, perhaps you don’t live in a city like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. In your city there are some scattered pieces of bike infrastructure here and there, mostly of not very good quality. By following easy and straight main roads you don’t have problems in navigating, but there is always some stress – cars getting too close and passing by too fast, unclear intersections designed for motor traffic only and so on.

I will bring an example from Zurich, where I live. Imagine you need to get from Oerlikon district to the main railway station. Open Google Maps and there will be some obvious-looking ways:

Zurich is not Copenhagen, unfortunately. When you start pedaling, you’ll end up in a very unpleasant places, e.g.:

The problem is that just looking at the map you will not see any difference between the streets. They all look more or less similar in Google Maps. And there is no information about the presence or absence of any bicycle infrastructure on any given street.

The solution for this is of course building ubiquitous high-quality bicycle infrastructure and considerably reducing the amount of cars which can move through the city. If will take years, decades or forever though, depending on where you live.

The workaround is to find some alternative ways right now. For that you need to ditch Google Maps and use OpenStreetMap with bicycle layer. That’s how it looks on Europe level (notice the selector on the right side):

Those red lines between the cities are a story in themselves. This time let’s just zoom to a city and we’ll perhaps notice some violet lines. They are a combination of the signposted bike routes made by the cities and rural communes and the “best routes” by OpenStreetMap editors (it’s an open project, like Wikipedia, where everyone can contribute). They try to reflect the optimal ways for cycling between districts – less cars, less complex intersections, less hills, more green areas, more places with clean air and so on. Every city/country tends to have own twists regarding what’s considered “best”, but usually these lines are better than nothing.

The itinerary from Oerlikon to Zurich Main Station looks in OpenStreetMap way different than on Google Maps, following mostly quiet(er) roads and even some car-free areas like the island just before you reach the destination:

(I skipped here the stretch around Milchbuck, as it will be the same as Google Maps would suggest)

OpenStreetMap with cycling layer is valuable however also in places where those violet lines don’t exist. There are few features which are visible only here and not present in a general-purpose service like Google Maps.

First, blue dashed line means a segregated bicycle road. It can be completely detached (not following any street), like here, providing a stress-free alternative to Hagenholzstrasse:

Most of the time such segregated bicycle road would be two-way. In suburbs in can link two villages, for example, providing a safe way to get around by bike:

Same road in reality (bike road is on the right side, separated by a stretch of grass):

Sometimes the bike road goes just along some road, like here, on both sides of Pfingstweidstrasse (yellow arrow):

Blue continuous lines on the previous screenshot mean bike lanes (pinkish arrows along Hardturmstrasse and over Düttweilerbrücke). They are on the same level with the road and one-way only.

On-street bike lanes in Zurich (and Switzerland in general) are usually sub-standard or outright dangerous, so don’t rely on them too much. This is from Hardturmstrasse:

Bike lanes like this should never be built, in the first place. But that’s a longer story. If there is another way, avoid them and follow quiet 30 km/h streets instead.

Bike roads and bike lanes can be placed on one side of the road only and sometimes combined in different ways, like around Bürkliplatz. Here you have one-way bike lane on the city side and two-way bike road on the lake side (which, while confusing, kind of makes sense):

Another great feature of OpenStreetMap is showing one-way roads, which are two-way for cyclists (you have seen this or similar traffic sign before, right?)

They are marked on the map with double-headed arrows, where gray is the direction of any traffic, green – bikes only:

While planning every route in advance might be too much overhead, taking a look at the map to adjust your daily or frequent routes might be very useful. Replacing one street with another might remove some unpleasant stretches, dangerous intersections and so on, making you safer and more relaxed.

If you already know the city well enough, you might just take a look at the map at home and remember to try another street when you go cycling next time. In most cases you would need a map in the mobile phone however. Some good apps which use OpenStreetMap are OsmAnd, MAPS.ME, Locus, OruxMaps. There are also online tools and apps to create a route at home and then just save it to your mobile device. This is another huge topic however, which I will not attempt to cover now. (There is plenty of useful information in Internet already on this matter, so there should be no problem to find it).

Bonus: some less-obvious tricks

Don’t be afraid to go to the forest :) Usually forests/parks look like a uniform green spot on Google Maps and alike, but in reality there are numerous roads inside them. Sometimes they look more like a mountain bike track, but some forest roads are actually well-surfaced and provide pleasant alternative ways between districts. It took me time to find this one, for example, which I then started using daily during my life in Zollikerberg:

Violet arrows depict the forest road. In combination with the one-way street, which is two-way for cyclists (orange arrow), this allowed me to avoid Forchstrasse (with high speeds and considerable amount of cars day and night).

Another example of small things having big impact are the roads which are dead ends for cars, but pass-through for bikes. Here OpenStreetMap helps as well. For example, while the bike route designed by the city itself follows Zentralstrasse, I find Weststrasse more pleasant as it’s cut in two parts for cars:

To summarize: have the right tools (Google Maps is not one of them!), take some time to study the map, go cycling and try several options on different days, then combine them to make the most pleasant route out of it. As a nice side effect you’ll find some new places in the city, you’ll feel more confident in orienteering and have some exercise for the brain & memory. Oh yes, and you will soon notice that OpenStreetMap is great for planning hiking trips too, just in case you like them as well :)

Have fun!

Image credits: Copenhagenize Design Co., Google Maps, OpenStreetMap.

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