Bike Lanes – Safe or Not?

The Washington Post Express ran an article about bicycle safety. This article comes on the heels of a tragic traffic accident that claimed the life of a young woman on a bicycle.

The article makes the case that as more people begin to ride bikes in the wake of the gas crunch, the rules of the road for cyclists will become more critical. It focuses on the use of bike lanes, and interviews the president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, Allen Muchnick.

Bike lanes, says Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, aren’t always the safest place to be. For one thing, a carelessly opened car door can fell even the savviest biker.

Muchnick, who teaches Confident City Cycling classes for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (Waba.org), is not always a fan [of bike lanes] — ride on or close to the outer line if you must use them, he says.

I have to admit that, as an occasional cyclist, I’m not convinced that bike lanes are safe. The best lanes completely separate auto traffic from bikes and pedestrians – the George Washington Parkway for example. Lanes that are integrated into the road have always seemed dangerous to me, and though I use them, it’s always with a degree of caution.

The problem with these lanes is that there’s really no good place to put them. They’re either sandwiched between the traffic and parked cars, which can get the cyclist doored or force them to swerve into traffic to avoid it, or they are on the left which lessens the dooring risk, but places cyclists closest to the fastest moving traffic. Both locations cause problems with turns and lead to the type of accident that claimed the life of Alice Swanson last week.

I have seen proposals to put the lanes on the opposite side of the parking lane – so that the road is structured as car lanes – parking – bike lanes – sidewalk. I haven’t actually ridden on a road like this, but I’m not sure this is a wise choice either because it makes it harder to see the bicyclist.

“There’s this mind-set in this country: If you bicycle in front of a motor vehicle, you’re going to get run over,” says Muchnick. “It’s nonsense. It’s the safest place to be. Especially in the cities, where traffic speeds are fairly comparable — in fact, most bicycles are faster than cars downtown.”

WABA executive director Eric Gilliland agrees but adds that [the bike lanes] still show “drivers that you should expect to see cyclists on this road.”

I actually agree with Mr. Gilliland on this point – visibility (along with the accompanying awareness) is the most certain way to prevent accidents. But I’m not convinced that bike lanes increase that visibility. Mr. Gilliland, advocates for bike lanes, but agrees that bike lanes should be taken with a grain of salt.

The important thing, says Gilliland, is for riders to look at those painted lines as guidelines, not barriers. When approaching intersections, a cyclist in the bike lane could end up in the blind spot of a right-turning vehicle. “We tell people to ride the safest way possible: If it’s out of the bike lane, it’s out of the bike lane.”

All of this makes me ask, why are the lanes necessary?

If the leaders of the local bicycle organizations acknowledge that the lanes don’t necessarily guarantee safety, or encourage safe riding practices, why build them?

If the real lesson for bicyclists is to ride in a defensive way on the road, make yourself visible and observe the normal traffic laws, why invest in bike lanes that may cause accidents?

I have seen studies that seem to show that bicycle lanes reduce accidents. The problem with many of the studies is that they set out to prove that bicycle lanes are safe, and don’t look at the addition of the lanes to the roads holistically. For instance – if lanes reduce the incidence of certain types of accidents, but increase the incidence of others – dooring or right hooks – the overall percentage may fall initially, but you could be making a devils bargain as more people are encouraged to ride by the new lanes.

The people on the roads before the lanes are implemented are typically the most experienced riders, so the lanes decrease the risk of their most common accidents, and the experienced riders have enough savvy to watch out for the other risks now imposed on them. But the newcomers are the ones who most need to have a healthy fear of the road and awareness of their vulnerabilities in order to survive, and they wouldn’t normally take the risks that experienced cyclists would take. Thus the accidents that bike lanes prevent may not be common for most new riders. The risk of accidents could simply be switching to different types that new riders may be more vulnerable to, and as their numbers increase, so could these accidents.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of bike lanes is that they encourage bicyclists to behave in a predictable way on the road. The failure to investigate this fully is a major shortcoming of the existing research into bicycle safety, and a reason that I have advocated for more bicycle safety research on this site.

There is a big difference between a bike lane preventing accidents because it makes cyclists more visible or alerts cars to share space, and preventing accidents because bicyclist behavior changes in a way that makes their actions more predictable.

I will admit, there are significant volumes of research on the subject, and I haven’t been able to digest all of them, but thus far, none of the studies I have found have looked at distinctions like this; they stop at the correlation between bike lanes and decreased accidents without actually arriving at true causation.

Understanding the true causes of accidents, or their avoidance, is important because as more people ride, the chances for new types of accidents that bike lanes may amplify increase. We need to truly assess this risk before encouraging people to ride in the bike lanes, which to an inexperienced rider may imply a false security. We also need to understand that if safety is the main objective, which it should be, then we should focus on the most effective way to ensure it. If that turns out to be bike lanes, build more, if it turns out to be bicyclist education on rules of the road, then we need a paradigm shift in the way we view bicycle safety.

Paul DeMaio, bicycle promotions and car-sharing manager at the Arlington Division of Transportation

is not concerned that the coming surge in cycling will mean more accidents. “With more cyclists on the streets, it will make motorists even more aware of them.” He cites a July 2008 Rutgers University study that showed cities and countries with higher percentages of cyclists on the road had lower fatality rates overall.

I searched but could not find the Rutgers study that Mr. DeMaio discusses. This statement seems to run counter to a recent New York City study that found that the city had a higher rate of accidents than the nation as a whole despite being a bike-friendly city. The study also didn’t show a decline in bike fatalities despite the city doubling its bike lane mileage. It is obvious that different people are arriving at different conclusions, which should be our cue to engage in further research.

When it comes to cycling in traffic, says Muchnick, “If you’ve got a driver’s license, you know how to operate a bicycle properly.”

Exactly. That doesn’t involve bike lanes, and could begin saving lives now.