Bikeway Activists in the Wrong Lane
by Avery Burdett
Across Ontario, from London to Ottawa and urban parts in between,
activists are prominent in lobbying local governments to build special
bicycle facilities, such as bike paths and bike lanes. These facilities,
it is claimed, make for safer cycliing. Unfortunately, for cyclists
as well as taxpayers, the claim fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny.
The effect of bicycle facilities turns out to be the opposite of what is
The earliest study showed the accident rate on bike paths to be
2.6 times higher than that on streets. A 1994 study found the risk
of colliding with a motor vehicle to be 1.8 times greater for cyclists
riding on paths and sidewalks than for cyclists riding on adjacent
roadways. In 1996 studies of Ottawa and Toronto, the highest rates of
cyclist falls and injuries were on bike paths, trails and sidewalks.
Injuries on sidewalks were four to six times more frequent than on
How are these findings explained? First, bike paths are little more
than sidewalks serving pedestrians, joggers, in-line skaters, dog
owners, and others, all of whose lateral motion is incompatible with
the forward momentum of a bicycle. Collisions are inevitable. Second,
there is no escaping interaction with motor vehicles by cycling on paths.
Paths must intersect with roadways. These intersections are usually
adjacent to standard intersections, and that's where most traffic
accidents occur. Navigation of bike path intersections is more complex
and difficult thereby compounding the risk, particularly for inexperienced
cyclists. Third, risk increases when behaviour is unpredictable. On
roads, survival depends upon adherence to the rules of the road. Not
so on bike paths. A false sense of security makes cyclists feel safer,
consequently, following no particular rules, they behave unpredictably.
Bike lanes - striped facilities on the roadway for use by cyclists -
are close relatives of bike paths. Allegedly, such lanes address cyclists'
fear of being hit from behind. Curiously, that is one of the least
frequent cause of cycling accidents. The majority of accidents involve
no cars at all. When cars are involved, most occur to the front or side
of cyclists, and result from turning manoeuvres at intersections and
driveways. Cyclists are largely at fault. The presence of bike lanes
exacerbates these problems, undermining well-proven driving protocols
and highway traffic laws.
Although there are few credible scientific data on the effect of bike
lane usage, bike lanes have fundamental engineering design faults
similar to bike paths. They produce similar results. Observational
studies show that cyclists and motorists are more confused and make
more errors where bike lanes exist. Bike lanes encourage practices
which leave cyclists vulnerable. For example, they invite cyclists
to overtake on the right, and to make left turns from the right side
of the road. At intersections, right-turning motorists have to traverse
the path of cyclists travelling straight in the bike lane.
Bike lanes can be expensive, inefficient, and physically hazardous.
The additional costs of bike lanes on new roadways is approximately
$100,000 per kilometre. Removal of regular traffic lanes on existing
roads to make way for bike lanes reduces vehicle capacity and parking,
and moves congestion to parallel streets. Across Ontario, bike lanes
are characterized by broken pavement, potholes, sewer grates, hydro
poles, gravel, accumulated garbage, and other impediments to safe travel.
A cheaper and more efficient way of addressing cyclists' needs,
wider curb lanes, is virtually ignored because of the noise generated
by bike lane advocates. Add a half a metre to standard width curb
lanes and motorists can pass in the same lanes without causing
discomfort to cyclists. Wider curb lanes can be painted on most existing
roads simply by narrowing adjacent lanes. They do not reduce overall
passenger throughput and, from a safety point of view, do not complicate
existing vehicular operating procedures.
In highway traffic law, cyclists are accorded the rights and duties
as drivers of vehicles. These rights and duties are the basis of current
safe cycling education. The axiom in the cycling world that cyclists
fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles is
well-founded. Research shows that vehicular cycling reduces the chance
of accident by 80%. Segregated bike lanes and bike paths convey the false
notion that vehicular cycling among other traffic is unsafe. Segregation
finds support among motorists who view cyclists as an inconvenience.
Broad acceptance of the principle of segregation has, elsewhere, led to
enactment of laws which force cyclists into bike lanes, onto shoulders,
paths and sidewalks, and to the occasional banning of cyclists from the
highway right-of-way altogether. When authorities by-pass their legal
and moral responsibility to treat cyclist as legitimate road users, the
public embraces inaccurate perceptions about cycling.
The results are disturbing: cycling advocates whose demands have no
basis in science or engineering; a proliferation of dangerous
cycling facilities; waste of tax dollars; illegal (albeit unsuccessful)
attempts to ban cyclists from highways (Calgary and Ottawa); motorist
hostility aimed at responsible cyclists who exercise their legal right
to use roadways; and the current tragi-comedy in Toronto, where
anti-car activists alternate between campaigning for bike lanes
and holding vigils to commemorate the deaths of inexperienced and
unsuspecting cyclists who, perhaps having been enticed by bike lanes,
fall under the wheels of motor vehicles.
When it comes to cycling, perception rarely coincides with reality.
[Versions of this article were originally published in the
Ottawa Citizen, October 20, 1998, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record,
November 25, 1998]