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!”