The Science of ‘Route Marking’

Background Reading


Dan Henry Route Marks

Dan Henry Route Marks

Nothing seems to spoil a perfectly good bicycle route so quickly as poor marking. Bicyclists have been sharing routes for as long as memory serves and the Dan Henry method is as good as any. The symbols used are far less important than the manner in which they are applied to the task of marking a route. I have yet to see a route enhanced by wonderful graphics so much as by the proper placement of them.

This year marked one of the first times I had seen a neon pink route marking (applied in service of the Four Star Bike Tour). This color is supposed to be ‘highly visible‘ when seen against the backdrop of asphalt road surfacing materials. But frankly no matter how bright the color is, if you position the marking under parked automobiles or spend far too much time being ‘cute‘ with the marking of dead rodents rather than paying attention to where you place your markings, all is in vain.

There is a special place in hell for Urban Cyclists who are more than severe when criticizing the route planners of urban thoroughfares and spend literally days griping about this or that city department worker’s efforts that made them late for work, but when they get a chance to map a route for Active Transportation Alliance cannot get the darned thing right.

Team 5 Fauna

Team 5 Fauna

I will never forget the year that Active Transportation Alliance had their route pass under a viaduct where the pavement was so bad that everyone on the route had to get off their bikes and walk for fear of personal injury. The irony is that this organization is all about bicycle safety. When we reached the next rest stop the excuse was made that there should have been signs that:

  • alerted riders to take the sidewalk (which is illegal) to ride under the viaduct
  • but the signs were missing and there were no humans there to serve in place of the signs

And so as usual the Urban Cycling Community is long on the condemnation of everything and everyone in sight when it comes to their personal convenience but cannot get it right when it’s their turn at bat. Go figure!

First Consideration: The Clientele

Your ride route should reflect the kind of riders you hope to attract. If you are expecting lots of roadies in pelotons then a neighborhood route with lots of ‘twists and turns‘ should be avoided. I have ridden probably a few hundred invitational rides over the last 30 years. In those early years it was all new to us. We rode just about every ride that had a great sounding name and/or reputation. But before many years had passed you began to realize that despite the distance from home that you traveled some rides began to look like other rides. Cornfields are cornfields. There is no disguising one cornfield from another, they are interchangeable and utterly boring.

But what does change is the clientele. Roadies recognize the fact that if the ride is along rural routes with few stops signs per mile their overall average will climb and everyone in the peloton will get a better workout. And if you add into the mix a reasonable bit of “gently rolling terrain” then bragging rights ensue. There is a ride each year out of Tyrenena, WI that fits the bill for rides and riders who respond to these conditions.

If you are a club that caters to moms and dads with 3 years old in tow, then you need shorter routes and greater quantities of shade and access to porta-potties. And then again if you cater to early season riders whose main interest is in knocking off the cobwebs accumulated during the winter then something like Bike The Drive or even the Easter Ride should be what you strive to emulate.

Let me say that Bike The Drive is probably the best idea for a mixed skill ride in existence. It has no issues relating to bicycles vs. motor traffic. There are not issues with bikes having to slow down for or obey traffic controls that they routinely disregard when doing rides on streets. In fact the more often that clubs and cities can find these kinds of venues to entertain cyclists the better. We are at a turning point in the life of cycling where the lawlessness of the activity has permeated the consciousness of the lowliest of riders. These are times when parents of children actually teach them the best ways to run red lights and stop signs!

And what I am relating to you is not by way of some urban legend that I am passing on, I have video clips of this happening and took them myself. It has become a source of a great deal of disappointment to know that bicycling advocacy has gone from being all about gaining access to roadways as equal partners to what we have today which is more akin to this sentiment gleaned from the Chicago ChainLink Forum:

Propaganda vs. Reality

Propaganda vs. Reality

For some situation will be remedied when ‘magically‘ bike lanes (especially protected bike lanes) are universally present. Perhaps we will be able to afford that kind of luxury in the immediate future, but nothing about protected bike lanes that I have personally ridden tells me that the issues that plague car vs. bike interactions will cease anytime soon.

In fact it would appear that in the interim these kinds of tragic interactions will actually increase as cyclists feel emboldened to break the law. As I wrote earlier when describing this years North Shore Century 2013 the stop sign has lost all meaning for cyclists. Seriously, everybody from the young to the aged are no longer bothering to even slow down when approaching stop signs.

There is still a bit of obedience left for traffic lights but even these get short shrift. If the peloton is turning right then no one bothers stopping or slowing. Somewhere in their minds these cyclists imagine that the right-turn-on-red is being honored in the breach. While there is no stop before the turn at least they are not plowing through the intersection at full tilt.

But not a single cyclist I saw on Sunday bothered to wait for the green. The slowed and then often proceeded into the intersection or stopped, looked both ways and then proceeded. But none of their behavior if done in a car would fail to result in a traffic citation had they been captaining an automobile.

In fact on heading out of town on the outbound leg of our ride two male 20-somethings ran a stop sign despite the presence of an automobile just beginning to enter the intersection and were nearly involved in a collision. The driver honked and screeched to a stop and the two acted as if their feelings were hurt. This issue will be revisited hundreds of thousands of time daily going forward because cyclists are no longer just another part of the law-abiding transportation landscape they have begun to carve out the same sorts of niches for themselves that lead to the Range Wars of nearly a century ago as city cattle herders and ranchers clashed over the use of the land. That sort of situation is in full cry at this moment and frankly it is troublesome.

With concealed carry laws taking effect here in Illinois all over the land cyclists and motorist both of whom might be armed will have to decide whether an altercation at an intersection in cause for ‘standing your ground‘. Somebody on a bike or in a car is going to be the first to blink and somebody will die because a cyclist favored treating a stop sign as a yield sign and dared the motorist to say otherwise.

Second Consideration: Beauty

Riders of all levels want something nice to look at. But this is most important if you are attempting to attract riders whose basic response to questionnaires involves wanting to experience ‘Bicycle Comfort’. Fundraising via bicycle has become a major industry. Groups like Active Transportation Alliance have found out that with such a large influx of cash they can rely less on membership dues fees and still pay their workers. But things have changed a bit with regards to how such rides are conducted. Cops used to man the intersections and direct traffic. That has given way to a few tired and lazy workers or perhaps volunteers who sit down not at intersections but at spots where they seem useless (especially when compared to others where their presence was sorely needed). I lay the blame for this at the feet of the hosting organization.

Not only are their overall organizational skills lacking but this is often reflected in the kinds of routes they craft. This years Four Star Bike Tour did not stand up well in comparison with the North Shore Century. Both rides share some landscape but the use of the landscape by the Four Star Bike Tour was dismal (at least on the route we rode).

There are some issues for truly urban routes that organizations need to consider:

  • Is the route ‘safe‘. We are faced with the fact that some neighborhoods have high crime rates. And despite the relative safety of riding through these areas the ride participants will either have to see much more of a police presence than usual or the route will have to skirt those areas altogether.
  • Is the route ‘comfortable‘. Supposedly there is a new euphemism for how inviting a route is to female riders. We now have a new metric called ‘bike comfort‘. This largely refers to whether or not the degree of bicycle vs. car interaction is relatively low. The more pretty green paint and PVC bollards in evidence the more comfortable folks are said to feel.

For some urban cyclists the sight of green paint has a calming effect. They are suddenly emboldened to ride on 4 lane boulevards when there are protected bike lanes despite the fact that the lane is not really protected. PVC bollard will not keep errant cars out of the bike lane and neither will green paint. But today’s cycling landscape is all about perception. If it looks safer then that helps people get over the lack of actual safety.

People Always Work Better As Route Markers Than Do ‘Painted Symbols’

Adam Rose On His Hand Cycle ©

Adam Rose On His Hand Cycle

Organizations have differing ways of trying to reduce the costs of their fundraising rides. If you cannot do a superb job or painting route markings then get volunteers to direct traffic. In some cases they rely on a single individual to do virtually all of the route marking alone. Then in exchange for them saving time and human capital they hand her a plaque as a lifetime achiever and expect that to be enough. But frankly it is not enough. Anyone taking the time to mark a metric or even English century route deserves at least to have the gasoline costs reimbursed (assuming the decided to drive the route while doing the marking) or if they ride the route a new bicycle is in order from their favorite bike shop.

I will discuss at length the protocol I would adopt in doing route markings later in this document. But first and foremost the route should be planned using an electronic or paper mapping system. Afterwards the route should be driven or ridden (I am unconcerned with whether you use a gasoline engine or your own leg power) but someone who is not the route marker should be testing out the effectiveness of the route as it was laid out.

Large organizations (like Active Transportation Alliance) seem content to sit on their duffs waiting for the funds to roll in rather than developing some in-house expertise for an event they plan to offer on an annual basis. I doubt quite seriously whether even the Ride Marshals are getting any kind of training in what is expected for them while performing their duties. I say this because of all the folks doing the ride these are the ambassadors. I could feast on their behavior in a Cyclists Behaving Badly Video were I so inclined. That is how very poorly their behavior generally reflects on the organizations they often hope to serve.

Bike clubs around the Chicagoland Area should be chomping at the bit to provide members as volunteers in lieu of cash each fiscal year. Most of these clubs have people who are very familiar with route marking (since they are often the hosts of their own invitationals) and thus should have plenty of expertise.

Pay More Attention To Marker Placement Than Fancy Colors!

Few of the markings I have seen improve upon a well-painted set of Dan Henry symbols. I noticed during the North Shore Century that the arrows for what I will call a ‘lazy turn‘ simply did not read well. The Dan Henry symbols are the most effective and least ambiguous when dealing with just about any situation that is out of the ordinary. Clubs can personalize their Dan Henry symbols by filling the center with their letter or logo.

Placement Rules vary but here are a few that I feel are worth sharing:

  • Symbols like ‘sharrows‘ should keep riders out of the Door Zone. That means that they should be at least the width of a car plus 4 feet away from the curb. I use 4-feet as a guestimate because that ensures the riders are beyond the door as it swings open and yet not too far into the traffic lane should be need to move even further to the left.
  • Take into account your sighting of the symbols used from different heights. On yesterday’s North Shore Century I had the distinct pleasure of battling the terrain alongside a fellow riding a hand cycling as we traversed portions of the near north suburbs in fairly steep terrain. At one point he stopped and was looking about for the next route marker. Because he sits as low to the pavement as he does he could not easily see the markings. On my Easy Racers Gold Rush Replica recumbent I sit a foot or more higher and could easily spot the next symbol. Clearly no one had bothered to consider that moving the markers away from the curb or placing them somewhere different was going to cause problems for the handicapped. Had we been hooked up to the ChainLink Forum we could have enjoyed the whining coming from this ‘entitled‘ group of riders about whatever inconvenienced them on the ride while paying little or no attention to the fact that the truly handicapped riders were far worse off then they.
  • Route Markings Should Come At Least In ‘Triplets’. As you approach an intersection where a turn is required the symbols should move away from the righthand curb in a gradual arc to indicate that you should be taking the left-turn lane for example. And preferably there is enough money available to have more than one symbol painted on the pavement as your approach an intersection. There should be at least one confirming symbol that the riders see when they execute the turn as expected. But there should also be a ‘Wrong Way‘ symbol showing that you arrived at the wrong spot. An anti-confirmation symbol if you will.