Cycling on the motorway (or freeway)

Motorway British round-the-world cyclist Ken Roberts has been cycling on the motorway, at least along the hard shoulder. This is legal, but not in the UK. It's legal in Bulgaria, which Ken has been crossing this November on his way to Turkey. The alternative was a detour that would cost him a day or more.

Allowing bicycles on motorways seems a daft idea. Even in the inside lane, it would be suicidal. But the hard shoulder is usually empty. There are now about 2,200 miles of motorway in the UK – 3,219 kilometres – and the hard shoulder is 3.3 metres wide. So it occupies 10,622,700 square metres, which equates to 2,625 acres, or a square piece of land with sides of over three and a quarter kilometres. That's more than the size of a small town. It's a big space doing nothing most of the time, and it's surfaced with tarmac that people could cycle on to get from A to B. Why not use it to create an extra 2,200 miles of cycle lanes in the UK, at a cost of almost nothing?

Motorways first appeared in the UK in the late 1950s when cars were much less reliable than they are today. The hard shoulder was a safe place to stop when your engine boiled over, or a footpath to get to the emergency telephone. Sixty years on, you still see the occasional clapped out family saloon parked with it's bonnet up and it's occupants sitting up on the grass at the side of the motorway on holiday weekends, but for most of the time on most of the motorways in the UK the hard shoulder is redundant. A few minor alterations could make it safe for cyclists.

Of course this is never going to happen, not just because motorists hate cyclists. Motoring and cycling are too fundamentally different. The vast majority of cyclists would never want to cycle on the motorway even if it was legal and safe. Cycling from A to B is essentially a filtering process, travelling comparatively slowly, taking side streets and lanes, going along bridleways, over footbridges, through parks or along the side of rivers and canals – that sort of thing.

In a car, you just want it over with: an unthinking journey at the fastest speed possible, with nothing in your way and the minimum stopping. It's why motorists take to the motorway whenever they can.

Danish cycle path

Cycling heaven in Denmark – no-one there

Cycling along a motorway would be far too boring, and would hardly ever be the most direct route on the short journeys cyclists tend to make. Denmark has the nearest thing there is to cycling motorways: dedicated two-lane cycle paths that run for miles along the side of major roads between towns. They're used by hardly anyone, even in this nation of natural-born cyclists.

Cycling on freeways

Like in Bulgaria, you can cycle on freeways in parts of Australia. The State of Victoria allows cycling on rural freeways because they "usually provide the most practical route for cyclists" and they "carry relatively low volumes of traffic on entry and exit ramps that cyclists need to cross." Cycling is not permitted on urban freeways because "there are other routes that cyclists can take." On the rural freeways cyclists are expected to ride in single file and as near as practical to the side of the hard shoulder. One such rural freeway is the Calder Highway from Melbourne to Bendigo. I drove it on my way to Hanging Rock in 2005.

Danish cycle path

The Calder Highway, Victoria, Australia (taken through my windscreen)

Read more about cycling motorway madness on Ken Robert's round-the-world cycling blog »

12 comments on “Cycling on the motorway (or freeway)”

  1. Garry wrote:

    I've cycled on bits of motorways in Spain in a few areas where there's no other road. E.g from Madrid Airport into town. It is a bit frightening. We get off at every junction, stop and run across the road when the coast is clear. I would not recommend it. People who stop on hard shoulders are often hit on motorways.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    People who stop on hard shoulders are often hit on motorways.

    I wonder why that is. It happens at night, especially. Does someone lose their concentration and somehow deceive themselves into thinking the lights on the vehicle on the hard shoulder are the lights they should be following?

  3. Garry wrote:

    I imagine that that's the problem

  4. Ken Roberts wrote:

    Rest assured the section of motorway I rode back in Bulgaria – on the hard shoulder – was the least worst option, and by a good margin. Looking back, bit of a picnic in comparison to the last 50 km or so of the D-100 dual carriageway into Istanbul. Much of it without any hard shoulder. Steep climbs. Torrential rain. Fast moving traffic. How I smile about it – and the tyre blow out 7km from the centre of Istanbul......!

  5. Keepleft, MotAdvNSW wrote:

    Cycles, tractors and tractor trailer combinations, pedestrians, scooters (unless treated as motocycles) are PROHIBITED from "motorway class roads" worldwide, including the road shoulder, by virtue of Article 25 1(b) of the "United Nations Convention on Road Traffic" and all amendments to date.

    And that is absolutely appropriate, such groups have absolutely no place on these high-speed roads. To allow such use anywhere on modern developed Earth, if that is so, is to my mind criminal, and utter negligence.

    Australia, rather a couple of Australian States such as Victoria, do permit so, because road agency staffers have 'forgotten' where the international freeway/motorway entry prohibitions signs derived, and more astonishingly 'why', and so removed them from on-ramps, effectively opening each road to all and sunder.

    I can see change, so that such places will again come to commonsense and in balance with the rest of the world team.

    Modern motorway development, will often see separate cycleways built alongside – but away from motorway traffic lanes and its emergency shoulders, and that is appropriate and encouraged, and is the way the world should proceed.

  6. Patrick wrote:

    Keepleft, MotAdvNSW wrote: ... Modern motorway development, will often see separate cycleways built alongside ...

    Nice idea, but not much sign of that in the UK yet, or even in Denmark. Incidentally, when I was in Australia the hard shoulder was called the emergency stopping lane. I wonder if it still is.

  7. Keepleft, MotAdvNSW wrote:

    It is Patrick, yes. State road authorities here post signs showing such, RULE 95 of the 2008 Australian Road Rules. I've included the NSW weblink, one can cut and paste if needed.

    You will see under this rule, one is permitted to cycle in such, but we have other rules that can override this in relation to cycling:-

    Road Rules 2008 – Current version for 1 March 2010

  8. Patrick wrote:

    That's interesting, thanks. Rule 130: 'Keeping to the left on a multi-lane road' seems to contradict what I experienced when driving on freeways in Victoria. The centre lane on a three-lane freeway is/was quite clearly the slow lane (unlike the UK where the slow lane is the left lane). You can overtake on the left – on the inside as we call it – and sometimes you actually exit the freeway from the right lane, unheard of here. There's more freedom to make U-turns as well.

    It works because everybody is moving at a similar speed, due to Australia's zero tolerance of speeding or driving below the speed limit, plus the slowness of the speed limits. You can be in the company of the same cars for half an hour. Contrast that with Germany where you can drive at 150+ mph on the autobahns – a huge speed difference between lanes. A German friend of mine reckons this inalienable "right to speed" (a bit like the "right to carry arms" in the USA) is partly why their car manufacturing industry remains so successful.

  9. Peter wrote:

    I have been cycing across Europe from Ireland to Istanbul. I am currently in Bulgaria. I have to say that I think cycling along the hard shoulder of a motorway is far, far safer for both cyclists and drivers. I have been on loads of roads, main and minor, where the speeds of cars can easily exceed the regulation 110 or so kph, maybe up to 160kph. This with oncoming traffic. I have now three times had to leave the road because of cars and trucks overtaking coming towards me. I have had trucks and cars braking heavily behind me because there isn't room to overtake.
    I am sure Keepleft has never ridden a bike on some of the dead straight fast roman roads in Europe.
    In Germany, I found myself on a country road that had been turned into a time trial road by German motorcyclists, quite illegally. I reckon one guy passed me doing maybe 200kph. Soon after I came across a bike policeman and told him. Yes, they knew and had real problems stopping it. At least on a motorway, everyone is going the same direction and approximately the same speed.
    By far the safest roads I have been on have been roads with a reasonable sized asphalt verge dual carriageways. Indeed, entering Czek I found myself on a motorway, pulled into the services, had a meal, and went on to the next exit. No comment from any traffic and extremely safe.

  10. PatrickP wrote:

    In the UK it is illegal to cycle on the hard shoulder, where a cyclist would have about 10ft between them and the slow lane, in which traffic is travelling at around 60mph. The visibility is wide open. It is legal to cycle on A roads which can twist and bend all over the place and cyclists have no space between them and traffic travelling at 60mph.

  11. Sam Hughes wrote:

    In the Highway code in the UK it states that any road classed as a motorway e.g M25 or A1(M) is cycle probitive, most or nearly all other sorts of roads are legal, exceptions can be resurfacing and construction works on certain roads like fast speed dual carriageways like the A30 into cornwall if stated and cycling was extremely unsafe. Otherwise anywhere besides motorways are legal.

    In the US otherwise many states allow cycles on motorways Ive been to USA travelling for a couple of months and in California in places on the 101 between oxnard and santa barbara and LA and San diego I have ridden on the freeways there and its legal. Downtown LA, well that is illegal there are signs posted at freeway entrances prohiting bicycles.

  12. BikingBrian wrote:

    In the western states of the USA, bicycling on rural freeways/interstate highways (our term for motorways) is generally allowed when there is no alternate route, as is often the case in the west. There are even a few cases in urban areas where it is allowed for small sections where there is no alternate route. But in the midwest and eastern states, it is almost always not allowed.

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