Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?

I’ve been a cyclist for several years now.  Although my wife has a car, my primary mode of transportation is a bike for most trips.  I accidentally came into cycling in my thirties when a knee injury as a runner forced me to look for an alternate mode of exercise.  I very reluctantly started cycling.  I hated it!  Riding a bike on the road with cars?  That’s too dangerous!  As a new cyclist, my natural instinct was to push for more segregation from cars through bike lanes.

Over time and riding experience I’ve become convinced that a lot of well-intentioned bike lanes create MORE danger for cyclists and in the long run are detrimental to cycling.

First let me say that I believe there are roads where a segregated bike lane is the best solution.  On the spectrum of types of roads, the more a road looks like a highway the more likely it is that a segregation (bike lane) will be a good solution.

However, what we typically end up with is excessive implementation of bike lanes on roads that look more like quiet neighborhood streets.  These are at best totally unnecessary and at worst create dangerous situations where none existed before.  Here’s a graphical representation:

OK, I see it’s unnecessary but it can’t be worse!

It actually is worse to put bike lanes on streets with low car volume and/or low speeds.

  • They segregate cyclists lowering their status and making them “second class” citizens on the road
  • Ensure that cyclists ride in the least visible and most dangerous part of the road – often quite literally “in the shadows”
  • A line on the edge of the road makes motorists feel more comfortable and end up causing increased vehicle speeds than they otherwise would
  • A bike lane on neighborhood streets with driveways and intersections introduces more conflict points (as cars back out of driveways they tend to look in the middle of the road where cars would be – a bike lane purposefully takes bikes out of that high visibility area!)
  • Bike lanes are routinely dotted with obstacles (3 times a week where I live): trash day, recycling day, and yard waste day
  • The existence of a bike lane causes buildup of road debris that would otherwise be naturally pushed to the side of the road by car traffic – you end up with a worse riding surface for bikes

Here’s a particularly poor situation that is not uncommon.  The bike lanes are almost completely in the shadows and a yard waste bin in the bike lane.  This is a very quiet neighborhood street that motorists can’t use as a cut through.  The number of vehicles per day on this street is tiny yet even on this road we have a bike lane.

Why do we end up with more bike lanes?  Inherent biases and Incentives

There are reasons we end up with too many bike lanes.  Across the board there are incentives and biases that cause us to prefer more bike lanes even when it ends up being worse for cyclists.

  • Beginning cyclists (I was one not long ago!) naively push for a bike lane because they are scared of being hit by a car from the rear.  Although this is a natural fear, this type of accident is by far the rarest type.  Bike lanes INCREASE the chance of the most common types of accidents involving bikes: the left cross and right cross (a car travelling the opposite direction turning left and car travelling same direction turning right)
  • Town officials want to signal progressiveness by putting in bike lanes (imagine an alderman saying “I’m pro-bicycling which is why I’m not putting a bike lane on your street.”  Often that’s a correct argument but it’s hard to make.  Much easier to just paint a line on the road and signal “I care about bike safety”.
  • Cycling advocates push for more cycling infrastructure and are susceptible to the social desirability bias: “Just think about all the kids who will bike to school!”
  • As a cyclist I routinely encounter anti-cycling motorists who yell things like “Roads are for cars!” and “See that sign – it says Share the Road so move over!”  These anti-cyclists are ironically mostly FOR more cycling infrastructure which allows them to signal “bike safety” when their real motivation is motorist convenience.

What about study X or Y – it shows that bike lanes are safer!

I have looked at a lot of these studies and they are notoriously flawed for one reason or another.  Bike safety is a difficult thing to measure in part because accidents are so rare.  Most studies will study roads that are more towards the right side of the continuum in the image above where you would expect bike lanes to be safer.  A lot of the danger from bike lanes won’t appear on crash statistics.

Here is one study that DID look at speed limits of the roads.  This is from Belgium and the numbers represent accident risk (higher = more risk).

This shows that in general the more similar a road is to a highway the more safety benefit you get from separation.  It confirms, though, what I’ve learned from experience – bike lanes on roads with low speed limits are in general way worse than no infrastructure at all.

What cycling advocates tend to end up with is the “safety in numbers” argument which says: “OK, these bike lanes might not be needed for advanced cyclists, but that’s not who they’re for. We’re trying to get the 8 year old and 80 year old cyclists out there and we know that they need more infrastructure before they’ll FEEL safe. Once we get more out there they’ll be more numbers and motorists will see more and more cyclists and be aware of them.  See – everybody wins.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that we’re going out of our way to lure the most vulnerable new riders by creating a bike lane that although feels safe, in actuality is MORE dangerous.  That is not an argument that I’m comfortable making!

Long term effects of bike lane-itis

I think the excess bike lanes are bad in the short term due to the immediate danger but the long term effects are not good either.  When we paint bike lanes on quiet neighborhood streets what does it say to the community?  It says that the town has looked at this quiet street with hardly any traffic and 20mph speed limits and concluded that it is SO dangerous that we need bike infrastructure on it.  Beware!  And when you see other streets without bike lanes the message is: you shouldn’t even ride on them at all!

Of course a large number of streets in towns all across the country are reasonably safe with no bike lanes or facilities at all.

As more bike lanes go into place I think hostility towards cyclists has and will continue to increase.  Many motorists and even cyclists mistakenly assume that if there is a bike lane that cyclist must ride in it by law.  If a cyclist doesn’t ride in the bike lane (for as simple a reason as making a left turn!) a lot of drivers view this as law breaking or just arrogance.

Imagine anti-cycling motorists (trust me – as a lot of cyclists know first hand – they are out there!) coming upon cyclists on roads without bike lanes.  What will go through his mind?  “Why did we put in all those bike lanes on roads throughout town – these jerk cyclists aren’t even using them!”

40 Replies to “Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?”

    1. I think you’re misreading the chart. The graphic is in KM, not MPH. 30 KM is about 18 MPH and well below the speed limit for most residential neighborhoods as far as I know. 30-40 KM suggested painted lines, which is exactly what is going on here.

      I’d also note having been to Copenhagen that they have curb separated bike lanes almost throughout the city–almost regardless of speed limiit. However, in central Copenhagen I don’t see how you could ever drive much more the 35-40 MPH anyway.

  1. Safest of all: buy a mountain bike and enjoy nature instead. That’s what I did when run off a quiet scenic road by a fat guy in a Calillac. (guess i’m showing my prejudices)

    1. @blades – perhaps although as I mountain bike it seems like I almost always end up on the ground multiple times. 🙂

    2. It’s no doubt a pleasant form of exercise, but safer? My friends who MountainBike regularly seem to have FAR more accidents than do I, and not just cuts and bruises. It’s been at least 20 years of daily riding since I’ve touched down on a street.

    3. Mountain biking in nature is perfect when one is biking for recreation and exercise. But most off road trails don’t take me to work, or the grocery store or library.

  2. Here in Portland OR we have certain ‘Neighborhood Greenway’ streets designated, which have lower speed limits, a combination of speed bumps and cross-traffic stop signs, and do not have bike lanes. While sometimes these routes are a little less direct, they are pretty friendly for biking where you can usually take the lane.

    1. @Curt – funny you mention Neighborhood Greenways, I’m writing a post on them now. I think they send a much better signal to the community than painting a line on the side of a quiet neighborhood street. From what I’ve seen so far it seems like a good solution.

      1. @Curt failed to mention that there are no residential/neighborhood streets @25MPH or lowers in Portland that have bike lanes.
        Sharrows are more prevalent on those. The Neighborhood Greenways are most often designed for and used by bicycle commuters.

    2. That’s also the way it’s done in Berlin, Germany with many bike routes: Normal smaller streets without bike paths are designated as bike routes where cars are only allowed to go 30 km/h or are only allowed for residents. They feel safe, let you breath fresher air and are almost as fast as the bike path on- and off-road along the main streets.

  3. I knew it! A longstanding observation (complaint?) of mine had been that, on the street where I work, which has parking and lots of intersections with smaller streets there tend to be a lot of risk from cars trying to pull out into the main Blvd and not seeing cyclists, who tend to be pushed up against a row of SUVs by the bike lane.

  4. I’m not convinced, but I feel your pain. It really depends on what you mean by “bike lane”. If all the town is doing is slapping some paint onto an existing road then that isn’t too helpful and, yes, can be dangerous. The better solution is to build more space for a bike lane. That’s not too expensive when you are building a new road, but very expensive when retro-fitting an existing road. So you tend to get bike lanes where they are cheap to install rather than where they are needed. That’s the problem.

    1. @Brad – more width doesn’t solve the main problems though. It only does more to make new riders “feel” safe but extra width might actually make the left and right crosses worse. It’s the so yearned for segregation that causes problems.

  5. Safety is not the only value of bike lines. In heavy traffic, I like that I can skip to the front of the line at a red light and more easily pass vehicles on the inside.

  6. I read this article with some interest. I am a daily commuter of about 10 miles one way to my job in Chicago. Bike lanes are a godsend on rather busy streets. they re Haven from parked cars and although only about 1/10 of my route is on a bike lane, the lanes are on Roosevelt Road which is a quite busy street. the bike lane really helps

  7. I feel every drawback you describe multiple times every day.

    In Manhattan, the roads with separated bike lanes are a huge pain. They are the spot where pedestrians know they can walk without any chance of being hit by cars. I slam on the breaks every few blocks because someone jumps out without looking. They also make for more dangerous left turns on streets that don’t have left arrows. They also slow me down due to the dangerous turns, the pedestrians, and the shortened lights for the streets with left turn arrows. I ride down ninth avenue (down hill) at about six or seven streets per red light cycle and ride up tenth (slightly uphill) at about 12 streets per red light cycle. Ninth avenue has a separated bike lane. Tenth has me among the cars.

    I have been yelled at twice this week to use the bike lane, in one case, from a car that was trying to push me off the road on Tenth Avenue (where again, there is no bike lane) and once going across town by a car that was stopped, but didn’t like that I was riding on the right side of the street pass cars when there is a painted line on the left side (that had a cab sitting in it).

  8. Excellent points. Bike lanes are worse than a placebo. They placate fears of being hit by same-direction traffic, to some degree, but arguably actually increase risk to such crashes, and they encourage edge riding which leaves the cyclist vulnerable to the more common crashes involving crossing traffic (right hooks, pullouts, left crosses).

    Real safety and comfort in riding anywhere comes from using the full lane by default. Thankfully, Bikes May Use Full Lane signs and sharrows are guiding cyclists to do this, and more and more are learning and reaping the benefits not only on roads so treated, but on all other roads too. The norm of edge riding is shifting to the norm of full lane use. Hallelujah!

  9. Another Copenhagen study, Jensen S., “Bicycle Tracks and Lanes: A Before-After Study” found these things increased crash rates. But Jensen still favors them because he thinks the pollution reduction and public health benefits are worth putting cyclists at more risk!

    Ride onward, brave soldiers! Sacrifice yourselves for the greater good! vehicularcyclist.com/copenhagen2.pdf

  10. Good post. And it doesn’t even address the cost. If in many instances there is only a little benefit, or no benefit, how much are we paying for that benefit?

    Bike lanes cost from $5,000 to $535,000 per mile, with the average being $130,000 according to this pedestrian and biking research group (funded by the Federal Highway Associate and housed within a UNC research center): http://www.pedbikeinfo.org/planning/facilities_bike_bikelanes.cfm

  11. In Kenosha, WI, we have all of the above except protected bike lanes. Where am I most comfortable riding? On the roads without bike lanes and with traffic signs that say “Bike rider may use full lane”. When I’m forced into a bike lane (I have a difficult time being a scofflaw), I tend to be more timid in my riding.

    By the way, I’m a 64 year old grandmother who came back to cycling in 2013 and uses a bicycle almost exclusively from May 1 to Sept 30.

  12. The only reason I don’t disagree with every word of this is because it sounds like you’re talking primarily about bike lanes on suburban streets. Those you may be describing correctly.

    But bike facilities on urban streets with businesses and destinations on them absolutely need bike facilities, both for bike safety and as traffic calming. Ideally, we’d narrow the street substantially and add segregated cycle tracks, but that’s super expensive and can’t really happen unless the street is being completely rebuilt. In the meantime, buffered, or even better protected, bike lanes are part of making the streets safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians in the city.

    1. So, Adam, it sounds like we mostly agree as difficult as it might be for you to admit that. It sounds like the area where we might have disagreement is where on the continuum is the optimal point or what situations warrant what type of solution. Thanks for commenting!

  13. As a Dutch person your last two paragraphs horrify me.

    You should really visit Europe or specifically the Netherlands, because we got this stuff figured out ages ago.

    Good luck.

    1. @Jean-Francouis – I took that photo on 5/8/2017 – about 19 days ago with my phone (Nexus 5x). This is one of 10-12 streets in my town where a bike lane is needlessly installed. You’re probably right that this facility might not be installed on a NEW street. I fear, though, that it might be something even worse for cyclists! Thanks for your comment.

  14. Dave, your comments are spot on. Here in Atlanta we are seeing all of these unintended consequences of bike lane-itis. Our Mayor has stated his goal of achieving the League of American Bicyclists’ top designation as a “Bicycle Friendly Community.” And thus they are on a quantity-over-quality approach to bike lanes. The more miles of bike lane, the easier it is to get certified “Platinum.” Meanwhile the condition of the streets–with or without bike lanes–continues to deteriorate. Broken pavement, glass, trash, kudzu. Interestingly I discussed this with a board member of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, and he said that they don’t want to make an issue out of the subject of road maintenance. Once the bike lanes produce all these new bicyclists, then we can ask the City to repair and sweep the streets. And that is why I no longer am a member of their group.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tom. I agree there seems like there might be some perverse incentives with respect to how some towns fill out their application for the Bicycle Friendly Community. I’ve actually reached out to the org responsible for BFC to clarify this. I’ll write a post about their response.

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