Follow Up on “Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?” Post

Much to my surprise, my article Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes? got quite a bit of traffic in the few days since I posted it. As best as I can tell the article was picked up on Tyler Cowen’s excellent Marginal Revolution blog, Robin Hanson tweeted it, Arnold Kling blogged about it, got re-tweeted a bunch of times, shared on Facebook a lot, and posted to Reddit here in the bicycling subreddit and here in the cyclingculture subreddit.

Being a contrarian opinion, I thought the article would be somewhat controversial but the overwhelming response was very, very positive. The vast majority of responses were very supportive and agreed with pretty much the entire premise. There were even plenty of cycling advocacy groups, who I thought would find something to object to, were pretty much in total agreement.

However, there were several responses that were negative. These responses generally fell into the following categories:

  1. “But I ride my bike to work on a road with a bike lane and I love it!”
  2. “You obviously haven’t seen study X that shows that bike lanes reduce accidents by 90%!”
  3. “You used such a poor example of a bike lane that it’s hard to take your argument seriously.”
  4. “You are obviously one of the ‘fearless’ cyclists and are therefore out of touch with the 8 and 80 year old bikers. Leave your opinion out of this and defer to the real experts.”

I’ll address these objections one by one.

1. But I love my bike lane!

Of course my argument wasn’t that all bike lanes are bad or that your favorite one is bad. My argument was that we end up with too many bike lanes for the reasons I outlined. I suspect that the bike lane that you have in your mind as you read the article is further to the right on the continuum in the graphic I posted. In that case, you most likely agree with my premise! It also might be that there are few if any of the particularly poor bike lanes in your area. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

2. Studies show that bike lanes reduce accidents by 90%, therefore a bike lane can’t be bad!

This could also be referred to as the “You just haven’t read the study I have – the important one that settles it for good” objection. When someone refers to a study that shows overwhelming evidence that bike lanes reduce accidents it shows me that you haven’t thought about the issue deeply enough and you are, in fact, supporting my premise by pointing out a major reason why we end up with too many bike lanes. I believe that many of the studies you reference (like this one) do prove something – they gathered data that they didn’t come up with out of thin air. My objection is not to these studies in and of themselves – my objection is to how they are referenced and cited as if they are quantifiable proof that we should use bike lanes in all circumstances. This is the confirmation bias and social desirability bias on full display.

If you’ve formed a confident opinion based on a study or two and haven’t looked at counter arguments then I think you’re very likely going to have a flawed viewpoint on this complex topic.

3. You used a poor example of a bad bike lane therefore it’s hard to take your argument seriously

The general idea of this response was “Of course that’s an example of a horrible bike lane, but these aren’t the kind of bike lanes that are used now – we’ve learned and do it better now.”  To some extent I think this is true.  In our town if a similar road is built I don’t think this type of design would be chosen.  However, there are many miles of similar bike lanes all over town, some of which were built fairly recently.  The common thinking is that these bike lanes aren’t hurting anybody – people feel safe.  I feel that there is, in fact, more danger by having the lanes there and our continued tacit endorsement of them sends a bad message to the community.

4. You’re a “fearless” cyclist so your opinion actually doesn’t matter

This is probably the most commonly used tactic and one of the main reasons we end up with more bike lanes than is optimal. One group was apparently so threatened by even the suggestion that not every bike lane is good for cycling that they circled the wagons on Twitter. They quickly try to categorize me as one of the “strong and fearless” cyclists on this continuum:

Labeling someone as “strong and fearless” is often used within the cycling community as a subtle ad hominem way of ignoring an inconvenient perspective.  My article was quite tame and I thought very reasonable given the fact that I wasn’t born “fearless” – a very short time ago I was very new to bicycling having it basically forced upon me via a running injury.  I find it strange that in the cycling advocacy community the more experience a cyclist gets, the more others within the community feel they have license to stereotype that person and safely ignore what they have to say precisely because they have more experience.  I’ve seen this on multiple occasions on a local and national level.

It seems to me that there’s some sort of inherent insecurity in some parts of the cycling advocacy community that the overall community of cyclists is more diverse than their united front implies.

Other Minor Points

One comment suggested I use the term “crash” instead of “accident”.  There’s some people in the cycling community that strongly push for this and it’s easy to understand why.  The term accident implies that “well, golly, there’s not much we can do to prevent this – these things just happen!”  This group insists on the term crash since in a lot of cases there is fault and something could have been done to prevent it.  I totally understand this point but I’ve never been convinced that this semantic argument matters as much as the proponents think it does.  Maybe a commenter can convince me that it’s worth it!

This person suggested that my continuum was possibly the “worst infographic ever”.  I guess that’s possible but I thought it was pretty good – in fact, one planner asked if he could use it for social media/presentation purposes.

Any comments?  Leave them below.

  1. I appreciate your posts on the subject and largely agree with your conclusions that bad bike lanes do harm. However, I have to agree that the graphic is not intuitive for the simple fact that it looks like a schematic of a two lane road. Only after I read your arguments did I grasp the continuum. Great posts!

    1. I can see what you mean about the graphic, Adam. I’m sure there’s a better graphic I could come up with. Thanks!

  2. Here if Fairfax VA the just released a bike friendly probability map. Its interesting to view in the light of your argument. The map gets most of it right.

    I’m sure we have bike lanes in places where we don’t need them, but more places should publish maps like this so that people can understand how much biking can be done. Its also helpful to identify where we need the lanes to start connecting things.

    1. That looks like an excellent map and would be well worth implementing in our area I think. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. The purpose of, and need for, a bike lane is not to make streets more bike-friendly. It is to enforce bicyclists’ moral obligation to keep to the side so that drivers can pass them. “Share the Road” is a duty that goes both ways. Bicyclists who hog the road rightly forfeit all sympathy.

    1. Bikes are vehicles and are as entitled as cars are to the lanes. I agree good people on bikes will get over to accommodate faster vehicles just as people driving tractors on the roads do, when they safely can. NYC actively encourages cyclists to hog the lane if it is unsafe to go to the side and you risk getting recklessly passed by motorists. A lot of motorists don’t seem to be fans of this method.

    2. Hmm. Can’t tell if you’re serious or not. I assume you are though – and therefore you continue to make my point by demonstrating one of the big reasons we end up with too many bike lanes – anti-cycling motorists are big supporters of them too!

  4. What are your thoughts on Davis, CA? I can’t think of another US city that has more cyclists – and they invested a lot into bike lanes, paths, etc. starting in the 1960s.

    To be fair, Davis is mostly flat and has good weather – ideal for biking – but that also describes Los Angeles which took a more car-centric path.

    I agree painting a bike lane on a quiet street isn’t very effective. It seems to be a bad but common compromise that lets politicians avoid funding more expensive (but more effective) bike infrastructure but still showing the bike community they did something.

    Do you think are there smarter bicycle investments that can get us closer to cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen? After all, no city began with a bike culture, they were all built by people.

    Bike shares seem to be succesful at creating millions of new bike riders, who will presumably have less anti-cycling sentiment than regular Americans and more interested in seeing good investments made in cycling infrastructure.

    1. Hi Stuart. I’ve never been to Davis, CA so I can’t comment on that specifically. You bring up a good point though – there are huge differences in climate, topography, and density which make some cities very bike-able and others incredibly non bike-able even prior to implementing any cycling specific infrastructure.

      I’d be interested to look at bike shares and where they’re successful and why. Similar to bike lanes, I think they make sense in some places but would not work in others.

  5. Crash vs. accident isn’t just a bike thing. It’s a traffic safety thing. I think leaving the question of culpability open is the right way to go unless it’s been determined otherwise.

    I also don’t know where we’ve got too many bike lanes. Like, where has that happened? Certainly not in the cities I’ve lived in.

    But your basic point that you don’t need a bike lane on a quiet residential street is, of course, correct. Again, I’ve never really seen much advocacy for bike lanes there in the city (although I’ve certainly seen people argue against bike facilities on busier streets by suggesting we bike on the quiet streets only), but maybe it happens in the suburbs?

    Anyway, I’ve seen people talk about Dutch bike facility standards and they basically agree with your (sorry, kinda bad but I see where you’re going) infographic. Nothing where cars are slow/infrequent. Full segregation where cars are fast/common.

    Most American facilities fall somewhere on a continuum in between.

    Oh, but I disagree that a line makes people not pay attention. Or at least I don’t think that’s the most important effect. A narrower driving lane, achievable most cheaply with a line, slows drivers.

  6. I was reading through the original article and was worried about one point. You said that putting white lines down on the edges of roads increases drivers speeding tendencies. I had heard the opposite of this. Wider roads in my town have put down white lines for this reason. Can you show me some evidence for your conclusion. Definitely an interesting read in either case!

    1. @g3 – I agree that narrowing a road to the point where motorists feel tight will make them slow down. The lines for the very narrow bike lanes on these very wide roads don’t make motorists feel squeezed at all – these roads are still very roomy even with the two foot bike lane.

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