Are cycle lanes really a good idea?
It is often assumed that cycle lanes make cycling safer. This is understandable as initially the idea of separating cyclists from cars seems like a good one. In addition beginner cyclists can sometimes feel intimidated by cars behind them and think cycle lanes protect them in some way. Unfortunately these assumptions don't seem to be borne out in practice as the risk to cyclists tends to be at road junctions, not so much from the cars behind them.
To understand some of the reasons why cycle lanes frequently place cyclists at greater risk of accidents it is useful first to think a bit about sensible road positioning. This is in no way intended as a 'guide to safer cycling' I am simply attempting to explain why cycle lanes so often conflict with good riding practice.
Very generally then, a good cyclist will not ride glued to the edge of the road, but rather move close to the centre of the traffic lane when approaching junctions, or when there are few cars, or when traffic flow is at the same speed as the cyclist. At junctions positioning near to the centre of the traffic lane is beneficial because you become more easily visible to cars entering the road and you prevent following cars from overtaking in the junction itself.
Aside from junctions there are numerous potential hazards that the cyclist is much better to deal with by riding nearer to the centre of the traffic lane. The most obvious are bus stops, where the bus stops in a lay-by, or cars parked in parking bays. Examples of these are to be seen on the Dyke road and the Lewes road in Brighton. The cycle lanes lead the cyclist right alongside these buses and cars. There are risks of the vehicles themselves suddenly pulling out into the road, of pedestrians walking out between the cars and of the car drivers swinging their doors open blocking the cycle lane.
If I attempted to describe all of the safety issues raised by cycle lanes then this article would spread to a great many editions of Bricycles. On the web I've found that John Franklin, cycling safety consultant and expert witness, has a summary of research into cycle path safety at his web-site which will quickly debunk any notion that cycle lanes offer benefits for safety:
Historically the motorcar and the bicycle are newcomers; the roads are very much older than either. Many car drivers are rather given to believing that the roads were in fact constructed for their exclusive use. I feel cycle lanes reinforce the idea that cyclists are second-class road users duty bound to keep out of the way of cars. Sometimes the cycle lanes take bicycles off the road altogether and onto the pavement such as in the Old Steine area of Brighton. This reduces the space for pedestrians and makes what is left of the pavement unpleasant to walk on. These pavement cycle lanes are designed to reduce the number of cyclists on the road itself and in so doing create more space for cars.
Advocates of cycle lanes might argue that they are not compulsory, that the cyclist can choose not to use them but the reality is very different. At rush hour I find that if I leave the cycle lane to do something as brazen as turning right, there can be much honking of horns and gesticulating, I am being told by car drivers to get back in the cycle lane.
I feel that cycle lanes are very rarely a good idea. It would be much better to use the funds currently being spent on them to provide good free cycle training, ideally liaising with schools and colleges. Cycle lanes will not protect people from accidents with cars but good training will.
First published in Bricycles Newsletter, issue 58, October–December 2003
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Images & text © copyright Alan (Fred) Pipes 2003
who asserts his moral rights as creator