What’s the key to bicycle safety?
Question: I thought it was legal to ride my bike on the freeway, but I don’t ever see people doing it. Can I ride on the freeway, and if I can, is there some reason nobody does it?
Answer: Back when I was 15, there was a girl I liked that lived about 15 miles away from me. Not having a driver’s license, I hopped on my bike and rode to her house on a route that included a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5.
A few months later I got my driver’s license, and that was the last time I rode my bike on the freeway.
To properly answer this question, I had to do some research, so I grabbed my bike for a round trip between Blaine and Bellingham on I-5.
How’s that for commitment to your questions?
From the previous paragraph you’ve likely already concluded that it’s legal to ride a bike on the freeway, and it mostly is. There are some limitations.
Washington state law gives cyclists permission to ride on the shoulder of limited access highways, “except where prohibited.”
Prohibitions can be temporary, such as during construction, or permanent, such as stretches of freeway that run through cities.
Locally, cycling on the freeway is prohibited between the Samish Way interchange (exit 252) and the Northwest Road interchange (exit 257). You can find all the restricted areas on the Washington State Department of Transportation website.
But just because something is legal doesn’t mean you should do it.
That’s where the research (read bike ride) comes in. I’ll share my experience, starting with what I liked and wrapping up with what wasn’t so great, and I’ll let you decide if freeway riding is right for you.
My favorite part of riding on the freeway is the shoulders. They’re wide enough to park a truck. Literally.
With shoulders that wide there’s plenty of room between me on my bike and the vehicles zooming by. And the width is consistent (mostly consistent — more on that later).
On non-freeway bike rides you might experience shoulder widths that go from three feet to three inches without warning.
If you ride primarily in the city, this next point may not be true for you, but for cyclists who ride a lot of miles on county roads, you’ll like how comparatively smooth the shoulders are on the freeway. I discovered a few minor rough patches, but I wasn’t riding on chip seal or dodging pot holes.
My other favorite thing about riding on the freeway (you can have more than one favorite, right?) is that it’s fast. I found that my cruising speed increased due to the smoother riding surface, and my overall average was helped by the absence of corners to slow down for or intersections to stop at.
The only places you need to slow down are at on-ramps and off-ramps, and there can be several miles in between them.
But alas, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns on the freeway.
Topping my list of unpleasant moments: crossing the Nooksack River bridge headed north. I first crossed the southbound bridge and was pleasantly surprised by the generous shoulder width.
Not so in the other direction. I felt like I was riding on a tightrope. The shoulder was probably at least two feet wide, which feels spacious on a rural county road, but on the freeway I felt like I was sticking out into traffic. Not all bridges are created equal.
The interchanges also pose a challenge.
With vehicles approaching at 70-plus mph, it’s hard to know how much (or how little) time you have to cross an off-ramp.
I chose to ride a good bit up the off-ramp and then cross nearly perpendicular to it to spend the least amount of time possible in the lane of travel. With this approach, if I never got a break in traffic I could just take the off-ramp all the way off and get back on the freeway again with the corresponding on-ramp.
Crossing the on-ramp is a little trickier, because you’ll eventually run out of shoulder and get stuck in the gore point with nowhere left to go.
One last point that’s not safety-related but still worth considering: We live in a beautiful place for cycling, so consider the views you may give up by riding on the interstate.
Should you ride on the freeway? If you’re a seasoned rider with a well-developed sense of situational awareness and you want to take the shortest, fastest route available, the freeway might be your solution. Just be aware that even though the risks are few and far apart, the stakes are high.
And that girl I liked when I was 15? We’ve been married now for 28 years, and I still like her. For me, biking on the freeway was worth it.