27 October 2016

A Wrong Path To Bike Safety

I am generally not a fan of bike lanes.  While data from Antwerp, Belgium indicate that they cut the accident rate in half on high-speed (75KPH/45MPH or more) roads, that same study shows that a cyclist riding in either a separated or painted lane along a medium-speed (50KPH, or 30 MPH) has roughly the same accident risk as one riding on the road itself.  

The same research shows, most tellingly, that along low-speed roads (30KPH/20MPH)--meaning most urban streets--a cyclist in a painted lane is nearly five times as likely to get in an accident.  And, if he or she is riding in a separated lane, the risk increases to more than six times what it would be if the road had no lane.

Studies from other locales corroborate the main lesson of Antwerp's experience:  that bike lanes make cyclists safer only in comparison to riding on a highway.  On most suburban streets, the safety level is about the same as it is for lanes.  And on city streets, using bike lanes actually puts cyclists at greater risk for accidents than if they rode on sidewalks, which have long been considered--by planners and everyday cyclists alike--to be the most dangerous places to ride.

Yet transportation planners and "experts" insist that the best way to make urban cycling safer is to paint or install more lanes.  When confronted with findings like the ones I've mentioned, their response usually goes along the lines of "Well, bike lanes make people feel safer.  And if people feel cycling is safer, more of them will do it."

Some people feel safer if they sleep with a gun under their pillow. I wonder how well that logic works.

Anyway, it seems that in transportation planning--especially as it pertains to bicycles--there isn't an idea that's so bad that nobody can come up with something worse.  And, sadly, those worse ideas are just as likely to come from "bike friendly" burgs as they are to emanate from those places where one is not considered fully human without an internal combustion engine.

For the past decade or so, Montreal has been done as much as any city to encourage cycling.  Like other municipalities with "bike friendly" reputations, it established a bike-share program (Bixi) and turned disused byways like the path along the Lachine Canal into bike lanes.  To be sure, it made some mistakes, but on the whole, Montreal has probably done more than most cities (at least in the Americas) to consider cyclists in its transportation planning.

From CBC News

But now it seems that Denis Corderre, the Mayor the City of a Hundred Steeples, plans to take one of the most unsafe practices of contemporary urban planning and make it even more hazardous for cyclists--and just about everyone else.

La Rue St. Denis and Le Boulevard St. Laurent are the two main north-south thoroughfares on the island of Montreal, while Sherbrooke Street is one of its major east-west conduits.  Monsieur Corderrre wants to paint lanes on them that will be shared by bikes and buses.

Let that one sink in.  Bikes and buses in the same lane.  I don't see how anyone can feel, let alone be, safer.  Buses have a lot of blind spots, so it's easier for a bus driver to simply not see a cyclist in the lane.  Also, buses pulling over to pick up and discharge passengers, and pulling away from those bus stops are at least as much of a hazard as motorists making turns into intersections into which bike lanes feed.  

Oh, but it gets worse.  You see, Corderre's plan also calls for turning Avenues Papineau and de Lorimier--two other important north-south routes--into one-way streets simply to accomodate the bus/bike lanes.  

When I visited the City of Saints last year, I spent a fair amount of time riding all of those streets.  They are heavily trafficked, but one can ride them by exercising the same sort of caution one would employ on a major street in almost any western city.  Even a separate bike-only lanes would probably do nothing to make cycling safer.  In fact, they would most likely make riding more dangerous for the same reasons they put pedalers in greater peril in other cities.  On those streets, as well as on streets in other cities in which I've cycled, it's easier and safer to negotiate with buses when they, and cyclists, are part of the regular traffic flow.  I know:  I do it nearly every day!

Denis Corderre, reconsiderez s'il vous plait!


  1. Do any of these officials or traffic engineers even ride? It's frightening how many believe that "protected" lanes are actually safe. In my neck of the woods- the greater Chicago area-there are more and more of these separated lanes that force one to ride between the parked cars and the curb/sidewalk.
    One now has to dodge passenger side cardoors, clueless pedestrians, and the occasional shop sign. Also no one seems to even consider how these lanes will be cleared of snow or any other general urban rubbish. On top of this, many of these new lanes are intended for two-way bike traffic, even though they are hardly wide enough for one-way travel.
    These new lanes offer only the illusion of safety. i wish the traffic planners would look at the statistics such as you cited before they go about adding to the hazards city cyclists already deal with.

    1. Theee "protected" lanes you speak of seem to be rather badly designed. They are the norm up here (in Finland). Parking of cars is not allowed on the side of the street with the lane, and a painted line separates the bike lane and the sidewalk and both are clearly marked. These lanes are legally a part of the street and all traffic laws apply to them, so that at intersections with no lights whoever is approaching from the right has the right of way, be it a car or a bike. Thus a car driver is always at fault in a right hook. And I really can't remember one in recent years around here.

      One thing not noticed in this debate is perhaps the effect of local traffic culture, or lack of it. It is legal to ride a bike in the street here. But drivers expect to meet bikes in the context of the protected path, so actually riding in the street can be a bit of a harrowing experience. I spent a summer cycling in Portland a couple of years ago and encountered nothing but painted bike lanes. I mainly rode in the street off the lanes, with the cars. There, it seems, drivers are used to encountering cyclists on the street in lanes with car traffic. It felt luxurious to me because I came as no surprise to car drivers and executed dozens of left turns in traffic in the downtown area and cars always let me in and even lined up behind as I signaled a left. I would not try that in this country.


  2. I find I can keep up with city buses since they periodically stop to pick up and discharge passengers. As long as I also control the lane, I confess I'm confused about where the danger lies. The only way it differs from riding in a "buses only" lane is that one does not risk getting ticketed. Otherwise, I concur with your bike lane observations.

  3. Per Mike W, I suspect many if not most of the dim bulb facilities are driven by local politics rather than trained traffic professional engineers. At least a PE risks getting his/her license yanked for signing off on dangerous facilities.

  4. Jacksonville, FL recently added some of these bus/bike lanes. I haven't had the need to try them out as they are not along my regular commute and I rarely have time for other riding at this point in my life.

  5. Mike--You make some very good points about lanes. Here in New York, we have all of the problems you've described. It's bad enough that so many lanes are poorly conceived and constructed; to make things worse, there are no considerations made for things like car doors, or cleaning or maintenance.

    Leo--It sounds like lanes are built, and policies made, in Finland by folks who ride, or at least understand cycling. It's ironic that in an American city, you could do something that you couldn't do in Finland.

    Steve--I can keep up with the buses, too. But I can recall times when I was next to the driver's window and he couldn't see me. I can only imagine how poor visibility would be if I were near any other part of the bus, or lane.

    Maybe my perceptions are colored by my experiences with NYC bus drivers.

    You make a great point, though, about local politics driving bad decisions about bicycle policy.

    David--Interesting. I've ridden in Jacksonville a couple of times. The pleasures and perils I've experienced while riding in Florida seemed magnified in Jax. I'm curious as to what your experience, as a regular rider there, is like.