Should bicycle lanes be abolished?

Over on the Bicycle Victoria Forums there’s a thread on something called “vehicular cycling”. This term is new to me and probably to most readers too.

As I read it, the key premise of vehicular cycling is that cyclists should “claim” the roads. Rather than being segregated in bicycle lanes that too often are narrow and impeded by parked cars – or worse, herded into off-road paths that are too indirect and are shared with unpredictable pedestrians – vehicular cyclists ride well away from the edge of a lane (although not in the middle) in order to be more visible to drivers and hence safer.

Cyclists in Copenhagen

They are concerned that construction of separate cycling infrastructure, such as Copenhagen-style lanes and on-road lanes, will reinforce the idea that cyclists are not legitimate road users.

There’re possibly some nuances here I’ve missed, but that seems to be the general idea. I think there’s a lot of logic to it. Even if a completely segregated network is feasible, it will be a long-term project, so there’s little choice other than to mix it with motorists in the meantime. And the meantime is likely to be a long time. Even in The Netherlands and Denmark, a significant proportion of cycling continues to be done on roads. So it seems sensible to find ways that cyclists and motorists can co-exist safely.

I can see that responsible cyclists, who ride defensively and maximise their visibility, could very well be safer if they adopt a more assertive approach. However I’m much less sanguine about how safe vehicular cycling is for irresponsible riders. Here I’m thinking mainly about children but there are also some adults who do irresponsible things like ride at night in dark clothing or without lights.

There’s always going to be a big difference in the speed and weight of motorised vehicles and bicycles. There’s always going to be a gap in vulnerability that’s even larger than that between mini cars and B-doubles. Some drivers will always be inattentive and unpredictable and so will some cyclists.

Most pertinent is the perception of many people – and especially parents – that it is unsafe to mix bicycles with cars and trucks, particularly on arterial roads. That perception acts as a powerful disincentive to bicycle use. Even in Copenhagen, improving safety for cyclists is still a major objective. It’s probably fair to say that starting young is one of the keys to cycling winning a greater share of travel.

So while I’m relaxed about cars and bicycles sharing properly calmed local streets, I’m not at all relaxed about cycling with cars on arterial roads as a permanent solution.

If we want to increase the level of cycling to reasonably serious levels (it’s less than 1% of all travel in Melbourne but 41% of trips in Assen, The Netherlands; Copenhagen is aiming for 50% of work trips by bicycle by 2015) then our longer term goal has to be either to neuter cars or give bicycles a safe network of arterial cycle routes (not necessarily segregated from cars but certainly safe) complemented by shared but calmed local access streets.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet), I don’t see cars going anywhere – they’re just going to get smaller, lighter and use alternative fuels and power sources, probably electricity. Nor do I see cars being neutered – slower and smaller certainly, but still likely to be too fast and heavy to mix it safely with bicycles on arterial roads.

But is it realistic to think that constructing a safe network of arterial cycle routes is feasible in Melbourne, even in the longer term? I think so, but I’ll look at that issue another day.

3 Comments on “Should bicycle lanes be abolished?”

  1. Andrew(AJH) says:

    I am a cyclist who also tends to spend a significant amount of time on many local streets out of the bike lane. The main reason for this is that the local councils never (well rarely) clean the streets in Melbourne and the bike lanes seem to become the home of every bit of glass, metal and other debris that make cycling in the bike lane very unattractive. On many occasions this results in abuse from drivers who obviously think that I should be in the bike lane. I agree that riding on smaller local roads without bike lanes can be done quite safely, and it is definitely safer to assert yourself a little, rather than “hugging the gutter”.

  2. Michael says:

    It’s hard to know where to stand on this issue. I ride in bicycle lanes for about half my commute. The road system in general isn’t designed with cycling in mind and the road rules aren’t written for commuter cyclists either. I will always stop for red lights and make the best effort to signal, make eye contact with drivers and share the roads, but it’s not possible to really cycle completely within the laws. There are for instance places like the corner of Grattan st. and Exhibition st. where cyclists are forced to use part of the footpath to get to Canning st. Cyclists just fall into a grey area, which is probably for the best. I’m sure if an attempt was made to solve these issues cyclists would come out worse as bikes aren’t really considered as legitimate road users by most motorists. So I don’t expect anything to change unless the numbers of cyclists increases dramatically (unlikely unless petrol increases).

  3. Tallycyclist says:

    Here’s a great article explaining what it means to “share the street” with cars on a bike in the Netherlands:

    Yes, the vast majority of streets in both Denmark and the Netherlands don’t have separated bike lanes or regular on-road bike lanes. This is because those streets don’t need them. I’ve biked in Copenhagen and the streets without any infrastructure had so few cars it wasn’t a big deal. The speed limit was slow and sometimes there were even barriers to make drivers, but not cyclist, slow down. They generally only have separated paths on the major and medium-sized roads. Obviously, small neighborhood roads aren’t going to need them most of the time, yet if you factor these roads into the total road system, it’s going to be a very big percentage of the picture.

    This is hardly the same as large/medium sized roads, or even minor ones easy for rat running, in the US with high speed limits and no amenities for cyclist. It also helps that most people in those two countries are cyclist, so the general attitude is very different. So you are correct with your statement, but it needs more explanation or it can be very misleading.

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