Cycle Lanes: Safety under Scrutiny

Cycle Lanes: Safety under Scrutiny

Oriental Bay, WellingtonOriental Bay, Wellington

Latest research has shed doubt on the benefits of cycle lanes, often thought to be a key incentive for novice cyclists. It would appear that, in the absence of a cycle lane, drivers show more care and consideration when overtaking. If there is a cycle lane, drivers tend to treat it as the only space cyclists need and leave less room when overtaking them.

Many cycle lanes are not even the recommended width (2 metres recommended, 1.5 metres minimum), so they are often too narrow, and may present obstacles such as drain covers, pot holes and rubbish.

Cycling England says: “Cycle lanes can provide benefits for cyclists but they should not be considered to be the default solution for on-road facilities, especially when this results in them being too narrow, badly sited or not continuous.”

DfT Guidelines

CTC Press Release


OK, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If this research is misunderstood (and between the media and politicians reading it, that's *easily* possible) then those against cycling could use this as "ammunition" against providing cycle lanes.

Some points:

- the research finding here is that the measured gap between car and bike gets a bit smaller on average when you put a cycle lane line between them. This is not that earth-shattering; we've found the same thing here in NZ (I've supervised some of this research).

- implying that a smaller average gap between vehicles means that it's less safe is a rather tenuous leap of logic. What you've actually done is provide some certainty to both parties of where they should position themselves. On an unmarked road most cars/bikes will give themselves more space for certainty that they will avoid each other. But any crashes are more likely to have been because one of the parties was wrongly positioned too far in or out. That's less likely if you put in a cycle lane.

- all this assumes that you provide a cycle lane of adequate width. Evidently in the UK they're not that good at doing that in some places (we seem to be a little better in NZ but there are still some dodgy examples). Building a narrow cycle lane and then complaining that it's unsafe because cars get too close is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

- as the researchers themselves say, the best solutions for cycling often have no cycle facilities at all (on-road or off-road). Reduce traffic volumes and speeds and you've probably provided the best option. E.g. do a Google search on "bicycle boulevards" if you want to see what North America has been up to lately. And we've long heard about the 30km/h urban zones from Europe - no cycleways needed. But that's quite different to saying "do nothing at all" on an existing 50km/h arterial street because you heard that cycle lanes were unsafe.