The Big Question: Do dedicated lanes make cycling less safe, and should roads be redesigned?

Simon Usborne
Friday 11 September 2009 00:00 BST

Why are we asking this now?

Because research published yesterday suggests that when cyclists ride in dedicated lanes motorists give them less room. Teams at Leeds and Bolton universities, supported by CTC, the national cyclists' organisation, put a camera on the back of a bike being ridden along three roads in the north of England. Analysis of the footage revealed that drivers gave up to 18cm (seven inches) more space to cyclists on stretches without cycle lanes. The findings question the perceived wisdom that slapping down strips of green paint and white lines makes riding safer. And as cycling continues to enjoy a boom, the suggestion that cycle lanes could be endangering rather than protecting users highlights increasingly fraught relationship between riders and drivers.

Why is this a big deal?

Cycling is booming like never before. In the capital alone there has been a 91 per cent increase in the number of cycle journeys since 2000 as commuters ditch gridlock and delay in favour of fresh air and exercise. But not everyone's prepared to take to two wheels. "The main barrier stopping as many as two-thirds of the people who don't cycle regularly is a fear of traffic," says Chris Peck, CTC's policy chief. "While cycle lanes can have a positive effect, bad facilities only make those initial excursions terrifying, putting people off altogether."

Why do drivers behave this way?

It comes down to psychology. "The very existence of cycle lanes can lead to drivers to being lazier when overtaking because they believe the space between the cycle lane and the middle of the road is their territory," Peck says. It's though the presence of a solid white line offers the illusion – to both rider and driver – of a barrier behind which cyclists are protected. When the barrier is not there, drivers take care as they move to overtake cyclists rather than roaring past with inches to spare. Other research suggests drivers react in similar way to cyclists wearing helmets. In 2006, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath found drivers gave him less room when he was wearing head protection than when he rode helmet-free.

How long have cycle lanes been around?

Almost as long as bicycles. And sharing space was a problem long before the car chugged and beeped its way on to the streets. A New York Times report on the early explosion of cycling published in 1896 describes how "riders found no favor on the roads. They were liable to wayside abuse and to legal injustice... If they took their machines on the roads where carriages travelled, they were in some localities liable to arrest." Tension only increased with the arrival of the internal combustion engine and in pre-war Britain the cycling lobby even attempted to confine cars to specially-built "motor roads". Of course they failed and the car would become king.

What have other studies found?

This latest research isn't the first to paint cycle lanes in a bad light. Studies in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Milton Keynes have also shown an increased risk for cyclists using lanes. And in 2007, the Cycle Campaign Network, an umbrella organisation representing 70 local cycling groups, said it "knows of no evidence that cycle facilities and in particular cycle lanes, generally lead to safer conditions for cycling".

Can lanes be effective?

Only when they're properly built and in the right places. Government standards require cycle lanes to be two metres wide, with a minimum width of 1.5 metres. But all the lanes used in the latest research fell short – and CTC believes that the same is true of the "vast majority" of Britain's bike lanes. "You wouldn't see authorities skimping on lane width when it comes to motorways," Peck says. "Even if drivers are being lazy that's not so much of a problem if the cycle lane is wide enough to give the required berth." Other cycle lane failures include stretches that stop suddenly, depositing riders back into traffic.

Are lanes always a good idea?

Not in slower traffic. "It's the difference in speeds on the road that creates danger," Peck says. "Cycle lanes try to alleviate that by creating separate areas but they aren't always successful. But if traffic is limited to 20mph, that's the speed at which road users can mix happily."

Many local authorities have started to introduce 20mph limits in residential and urban areas in recent years. The "shared space" scenario which this allows has become something of a global trend in urban planning. In some places, including parts of Ashford in Kent, kerbs, traffic lights, road markings and signs have been ripped out. In almost all cases, average speeds and accident rates have dropped. CTC believes it's an approach that should be adopted more widely. Peck says: "Even if you only went so far as to allow one-way roads to go two ways for cyclists it would increase the ability to navigate back streets away from dangerous main roads."

What's the story in other countries?

Generally better but for an example of cycling nirvana we must pedal to Denmark, where the capital was last month named the best city in the world for cyclists. Copenhagen boasts more than 200 miles of cycle routes and bikes have priority over cars at many junctions. As a result, a third of people cycle to work, school or university, and accidents are rare.

"It's astonishing how many people cycle there," Peck says. "And they have huge, wide cycle paths. The size and design of British roads would make that difficult but reducing speed and rethinking how we use what we have would make a big difference."

In what other ways can we improve cyclist-driver relations?

Some say that training would be a useful way to make road users see eye to eye. "There should be an element of cycle awareness in the driving test," Peck says. "Ideally learner drivers should also be given the chance to find out what it's like to cycle on our roads." Peck also believes cyclists would be reassured if they were shown how to share the roads safely.

Cycling proficiency tests area traditionally associated with children and schools but Peck says "training shouldn't just be for kids". CTC has established a national standard for cycle training and has contacts with a nationwide network of instructors offering courses in how to ride assertively and with confidence on the roads in your area."

And the ultimate solution?

More cycling! CTC's recent "Safety in Numbers" report records a 91 percent increase in cycling in London since 2000 and a 33 per cent fall in casualties. It's a similar story all over the country. The theory goes that more cyclists means that drivers, increasing numbers of whom also ride, are more aware. And whether you're on a (hopefully intelligently designed) cycle lane or sharing space with road users doing reasonable speeds, that means less fear and fewer accidents. So get on your bike.

So should cycle lanes be got rid of?


* Several studies suggest they encourage drivers to steer too close to cyclists

* All too often they are too narrow, poorly built and in dangerously inappropriate places

* They only serve to increase the rising tensions betweent motorists and cyclists


* Effective cycle lanes reassure riders who would otherwise be put off by a fear of traffic

* Conspicuous bike paths can reinforce the impression that cycling is the way to travel

* As the cycling boom continues, anything that makes roads more organised is positive

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