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Bicycle Lanes: A no-brainer?
You might think that all cycling advocates would support bicycle
lanes. You'd be wrong. Some cyclists oppose bike
lanes on the grounds that they protect only from rear-end
collisions (which are rare), and increase the likelihood of
collisions at intersections (which are more common). The
research data is a bit conflicting. Here at Bicycle Universe
we generally support bicycle lanes because:
Some of the research into the safety of bike lanes is listed
- They make cycling feel safer. The surveys
always show that #1 reason why people say they don't bike is
because they feel it's too dangerous, and the #1 thing that
would make them feel safer is more bike lanes.
- Even if bike lanes don't help, it's unlikely that they
hurt. Some research shows that streets with and
without bike lanes are about the same risk for cyclists.
In that case, there's no harm in installing the lanes,
especially if they encourage more people to bike.
- Bike lanes mean more cyclists. Cities that
install bike lanes see an increase in the number of
- Bike lanes keep cyclists off sideswalks. Riding
on the sidewalk drops when bike lanes are available.
Riding on the sidewalk is dangerous to pedestrians, and
actually dangerous even to cyclists because they're vulnerable
to getting hit by turning cars when coming off the sidewalk to
cross the street.
- Other countries have them. Other countries with
higher rates of cycling (and lower rates of cyclist injuries)
employ bike lanes.
Bike Lanes: Pros & Cons
Research supporting the
safety of bike lanes
Quarterly. Cites European data which shows that
separated bike lanes (with a physical barrier) cut the
accident risk in half on high-speed roads (45 mph).
Journal of Public Health, 2012. Bike lanes cut
injury risk by 50%, dedicated bike lanes cut it by 90%.
John Forester challenged
its conclusions, saying in part: "In the much more
impressive cycle-track issue, the authors proclaimed enormous
crash reduction without informing the readers [that they
studied only a single installation which] was not along a
typical city street but [was] the only situation in which a
plain cycle track could possibly be safe, a place without
crossing or turning movements by motorists, cyclists, or
pedestrians. The authors refer to the forty-year-old
cycle-track controversy as if they had studied it, but clearly
they don’t understand it." Forrester notes the absence
of on-street parking is correlated with safety for cyclists.
of Texas study, 2006. Study shows improved safety for motorists
when bike lanes exist, because drivers passing cyclists on
roads without bike lanes veer farther left into the next lane
of traffic. It also found that bike lanes promote safety
for cyclists since bikers in bike lanes don't hug the curb as
much as those on unmarked streets.
study gives strong evidence that streets with bike lanes
are safer than those without.
- The community
department of Cambridge, MA has evidence about the
safety of bike lanes.
vs. Wide Outside Curb lanes. Study by the U.S. Dept. of
Transportation. (And here's a critique
that study by John Forrester.)
did a small sampling to see how closely cars passed him
on Shoal Creek Blvd. in Austin, Texas, when there was no bike
lane and then again after the bike lane was striped. He
observed that cars kept a greater distance from him on
average when there was no bike lane, but that without a
bike lane cars would occasionally pass much closer
than when the bike lane was there. His conclusion was that the
bike lane provides a measure of safety, because with the bike
lane cars are more likely to maintain a minimum safe distance
Transportation Instititute, 2000 (PDF). Study
found that the wider the lane, the faster drivers drive.
Coalition of Philadelphia. Sidewalk riding dropped
from 19.8% on streets with no bike lane to 8.6% on streets
with a bike lane to 2.4% on streets with a buffered bike lane.
Opposed to bike lanes
Related resources &
Pros and Cons of Bike Lanes
Dahmus, April 2, 2005
There are no good studies proving that bike lanes or wide curb
lanes are better than the other. ALL theories you hear on which
one is better are resting on somebody's opinion. [Update, Feb.
2007: A few months ago, a
study did come out which claimed to show a non-trivial
safety enhancement for marked bike lanes vs. wide curb lanes.]
I'm one of the people who thinks we overprescribe bike lanes,
but it bugs me that so many Forsterites are so hostile to them
in general. Both bike lanes and wide curb lanes have their
I'm operating under the assumption that we're comparing bike
lanes to wide curb lanes; not narrow curb lanes. The theory that
we can reengineer the 98% of Austin that needs it to a grid
pattern like Hyde Park where we don't need EITHER facility is
My general feeling on when bike lanes are appropriate:
- Where there are lots of inexperienced bicyclists
- Where speed differential is fairly high
- Where volume of bicyclists is very high
My general feeling on when wide curb lanes are appropriate:
- Where speed differential is lower
- Where bicycle volume (all types) is moderate to low
Where not to put bike lanes:
- Low-speed or congested roadways where turning volume is very
- Residential streets (NOTE: DESPITE NEIGHBORHOOD
MISREPRESENTATIONS, "RESIDENTIAL STREET" IS A CATEGORY OF
ROADWAY SEVERAL LEVELS BELOW SHOAL CREEK BOULEVARD).
- Where they can't be swept or otherwise maintained
- Where you can't commit to "no parking".
Things I believe that are PROs for bike lanes:
- Bike lanes attract new cyclists; wide curb lanes do not. I
think this is self-evident. Patrick agreed, and so do most
people who actually work in the field (not the people who
commute and criticize; but the people who are paid to try to
increase cycling in their particular city).
- No amount of education so far has been able to match up
against the bike lane stripe as a way to get people out on
their bikes. Of course, this may be a good thing if you think
we don't need more uneducated cyclists out there.
- You can't attract new cyclists to a road like Jollyville
without a bike lane stripe. Period. The automobile traffic
moves too fast. A wide curb lane simply doesn't provide the
space that new cyclists think they need in a way which makes
sense to them, coming from the world of the automobile. (We
don't make the right-hand lane up a hill twice as wide so
trucks can pull to the side; we stripe another lane).
- If you accept riding on shoulders on 360, you should accept
riding in bike lanes on Jollyville. The argumentative
convulsions some Forsterites go through to defend shoulders
from the same logic they use against bike lanes are
breathtaking. (They do this, I think, because they know that
even most Forsterites don't want to share a lane at 65; the
same anti-bike-lane reasoning with a few exceptions would
logically apply to shoulder-riding).
- Most cyclists for whom bike facilities are built are not the
expert cyclists that you and I might be. They are instead the
novice cyclist that I used to be (and presumably you used to
- Even on low-speed roadways, utility for the population AS A
WHOLE sometimes demands the channelization of low-speed
traffic. For instance, Speedway and Duval north of UT - car
speeds are 25-30; bike speeds are 10; this isn't normally
enough speed differential to justify separation, but the
volumes of cars and bikes are both high, and the corridor's
thoroughput for both cars AND bikes is thus improved by
partial separation of the modes.
- (this is from the link I gave a few days ago) - it is
possible to have a better average passing distance on a
roadway with a wide curb lane, but still have a better overall
level of safety in passing distance with a bike lane. Whether
this happens in practice is debatable - but it is a fact that
you shouldn't use "average passing distance" to compare the
- The idea (stolen from a semi-Forsterite) that we can easily
get roads restriped with wide curb lanes is in reality not
true. If you want space for bikes to be taken from car lanes,
it generally has to be a bike lane. (I don't know why this is,
but it seems to be true, although Austin has an exception or
CONS for bike lanes
- Car drivers do tend to think you need to stay in the bike
lane (even when obstructed, unsafe, whatever - they usually
can't see the obstruction). Also, car drivers often think you
should only ride on roads that have bike lanes. This problem
exists with wide curb lanes too, by the way.
- Bike lanes are theoretically more obstructed than wide curb
lanes. I don't believe this to be true, but most people do, so
I'm listing it here. For instance, Bull Creek doesn't seem any
less obstructed north of 45th where there are wide curb lanes.
In Austin, at least, BOTH facilities need vast amounts of
sweeping which they're just not getting.
- Sometimes cyclists will stay in a bike lane when they need
to leave it due to an obstruction or intersection approach.
This is a sign of bad bike lane design in most cases and can
be overcome, but is hard to get right, judging from how often
it's done wrong.
- Sometimes cyclists will stay in a bike lane when they should
be leaving it to turn (the "turn left out of the far right
lane" phenomenon). The problem here is that I see this happen
on wide curb lanes fairly often as well. The only solution
here is heavy enforcement.
- Bike lanes supposedly encourage wrong-way cycling. (Whatever
happened to painting arrows, by the way? Jollyville didn't get
them...) - again, I see this often with wide curb lanes too.
Heavy enforcement and more arrows.
Questioning the safety of bicycle
by Fred Meredith, May 1, 2003
You may FEEL safer, but it may be a false sense of security.
The only thing that is going to actually make you safer on those
streets is how you and the other road users behave....
If the bike lane is painted to the intersection, are you going
to stay in it if you go straight across the intersection?
What should the car turning at that intersection do? Should
he/she come over into the bike lane to make the turn? Do they
Are you going to stay in the bike lane if it is right next to
parked cars [any one of which could open its door in your path]?
If cars are parked on the left side of a one-way street and
there is a bike lane on the left side, are there special
considerations you should keep in mind?
Why is the bike lane any safer than being out in the middle of
the traffic lane? There are lots of other lanes for the rest of
the road users, why shouldn't you have one? If you feel unsafe
in a traffic lane, then maybe you need more
experience/practice/or something. Maybe less paranoia.
by Jeffrey Thorne, Jan. 4, 2005
I have to question some of the statements supporting bike lanes
from the research above.
"encourage bicyclists to ride in the correct
direction of travel"
That doesn't match my observations here in Austin. Judging by
the number of riders I see riding the bike lanes against traffic
flow, I'd say they encourage that behavior instead. I
don't see much riding against traffic except in bike lanes. I
have to wonder about the "national study" concluding otherwise.
According to Jeffrey Hiles' Listening to Bike Lanes (see
below), more cyclists ride the wrong way on streets with bike
lanes than on those without.
"signal motorists that cyclists have a right to the
That is, they signal that bikes belong in bike lanes, which
some would take to mean ONLY in bike lanes, which is a false
message for motorists and cyclists alike.
"remind motorists to look for cyclists when
In my experience and in the conclusions of several studies,
bike lanes may actually increase the incidence of motorists
hitting cyclists while turning in front of them. This seems to
be because the motorist who normally would turn right from the
right edge of the road, not cutting off the cyclist's path (the
cyclist would be behind or in front of the turning car), is
encouraged by the bike lane stripe to make the turn from a
farther left position, cutting off the cyclist's path.
I do support bike lanes as a tool for solving traffic problems
where problems are occurring. Usually, I see bike lanes being
established where riding was safe and enjoyable already, and in
those places they are at best a waste of paint and at worst
creating dangers that weren't present before.
from Jeffrey Hiles' Listening
Studies of bicyclists' behavior point to one overriding rule:
The more options cyclists have, the more options they take. This
is true whether or not those options are officially sanctioned.
The side of the street on which bicyclists ride, for example,
is influenced by the kind of space they have in which to ride.
Thom and Clayton (1992a) observed bicyclists riding at mostly
busy intersections with standard 12-foot lanes and speed limits
mostly either 50 or 60 kph (31 or 37 mph). A full 97.6 percent
of the cyclists rode on the side of the street with the flow of
traffic (p. 97). On most of the streets at the seven
intersections studied, bicyclists would have had to ride close
to on-coming traffic if they had chosen the other side of the
The picture changes where bicyclists have more room. A study of
bicyclists on nine streets with striped bike lanes (Cycecki,
Perry, & Frangos, 1993) found that 22 percent of the
cyclists who rode on the streets chose to ride facing the motor
traffic on their side of the street. On one street the bike lane
was marked with four arrows per mile "to show clearly that
bicyclists must ride with traffic." Apparently the arrows did
not deter wrong-way riding as much as the extra space encouraged
it; 23 percent still rode facing traffic. On another bike-laned
street, 39 percent cycled against the flow
(pp. 29, 31).
from Tom Wald, Feb. 12, 2007
If you've biked on west 29th St between Rio Grande and Shoal
Crest (between Guadalupe St and Lamar Blvd), you probably
recognize a case where the painting of bike lanes is highly
On this stretch of road, from the center line to the curb is
about 14 feet. (Not so incidentally, 14 feet is the maximum lane
width for which Texas State Law *explicitly* allows a bicyclist
to use the entire lane). However, there are currently bike lanes
marked on this stretch of road. These bike lanes measure about
two to four feet wide, if my spatial memory is correct.
My impression is that some motorists get fairly frustrated when
I ride outside of the marked bike lane on this road, as is
evidenced by their aggressive driving, creating unsafe
situations for all involved, and horn signals. I don't really
fit inside the bike lane -- in some places, I think any of my
bikes are too wide for the lane.
Of the three choices -- bike lane, sharrows, and no markings --
having marked bike lanes easily takes last place. If sharrows
were used, I'd like to see them centered somewhere between
40-50% from the center line so that motorists don't get any
impression that it's reasonable to pass. Perhaps though, in
2007, no markings is the best choice.
Supporting Bike Lanes
Dahmus, Mar. 30,
Most of the people who argue that bike lanes are almost always
bad tend to be in one of these groups (or combinations thereof):
1. focused with laser-sharp precision on the needs of current
(experienced) transportational cyclists (i.e. don't think or
care about kids, novices, elderly) - tend to be people who live
in areas where cycling just tends to happen by itself and
doesn't need promotion or encouragement.
2. inexperienced with suburban cycling conditions (i.e. why
would you ever need a bike lane or marked shoulder if roads are
laid out in a grid pattern with design speeds of 30 mph) - tend
to be disproportionately European, some Amercan adherents among
Forsterites mainly in the northeast or midwest United States -
areas which haven't seen much growth since the 1960s or so. IE -
these are people who never have to ride on roads like Jollyville
to get where they want to go.
3. careless about the needs of the city to ensure good traffic
flow for all users of a corridor - i.e. sometimes the bike lane
exists to increase the likelihood that motorists can maintain
some reasonable level of speed, and this isn't necessarily a bad
thing. IE, these are people who think the city shouldn't care
that automobile traffic would often and suddenly be restricted
to 10 mph or so on any given street since some motorists don't
effectively know how to pass cyclists without the help of a
They also tend to neglect statistical thinking in their
arguments - focusing, for instance, on the average passing
distance they get from motorists in wide curb lanes vs bike
lanes, rather than looking deeper to the 10th percentile case. (more
Those of us in the real world note that many Shoal Creek
corridor users are very young or very old, and that it tends to
attract novice cyclists of all ages (me, for instance). It,
while theoretically a low-speed corridor, has an apparent design
speed of 40 mph or so, and serves as a transportation spine
which can be an alternate for Burnet Road and Mopac for cyclists
(improving conditions for cyclists and drivers if it succeeds in
attracting most cyclists away from those two corridors). It also
functions as a minor arterial itself (even though bogusly
reclassified as a collector) and thus needs to worry about flow
of cars in addition to bikes.
Last update: June 2013
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