Cycle Lanes are not Cyclist Territory

When I am cycling home up Iffley Road in Oxford I am annoyed by the dozen or so cars parked in the cycle lane. I shouldn’t be though: cycle lanes are not cyclists’ territory; they aren’t really there for cyclists at all.

To be clear: I am talking about cycle lanes, meaning a dashed line about 50–90 cm from the kerb on an otherwise unmodified road, not cycle tracks with a physical barrier between the motor and cycle areas, or cycle paths entirely separate from the highway.

Not Territory?

Cycle lanes are not territory for the same reason that all the other markings on roads do not delineate territory. It is perfectly normal and safe for cars to cross lane boundaries (when not marked by solid white lines) when overtaking or steering around obstacles. People travelling east on Iffley road do not fly in to a rage at the thought that someone travelling west might intrude on their side of the road when passing a parked car.

The problem is that there is an tribal instinct that causes motorists to see cycle lanes as a diminution of their territory and for cyclists to see motors entering cycle lanes as incursions. This exacerbates the tendency for cyclists and motorists to see themselves as antagonists. Given that the biggest risk to cyclists apart from motor vehicles’ blind spots is road rage, anything that makes bicycles seem more ‘other’ is a bad thing.

Not for Cyclists?

Cycle lanes do not reserve a route for cycles to zip through cities at speed. Cars can legally park in most cycle lanes, and even without parked cars lanes can be blocked by broken glass, horse manure, thorn-hedge clippings, and other rubbish. Pedestrians can wander on to the road at any time (there is no law against jay-walking in Britain), so we have to look out for them, too.

Cycle lanes do not do much if anything to mitigate the immediate risk of collision between motors and bikes. Motorists steer around people on bikes, but otherwise typically will drive up to and often over the lane boundary so that they can leave more space between themselves and oncoming traffic. Even a solid line is not a guarantee that cars will not cross in to the lane.

There is a UWE experiment that suggested in some cases cycle lanes encourage motorists to leave less of a gap when passing bicycles, though this was on a major road with a 140-cm cycle lane, not in urban conditions—and leaving less space might not actually be unsafe if the lanes also have the effect of keeping everyone more predictably spaced out. What is definitely known to be unsafe is cycle lanes at intersections, where they steer cyclists in to the blind spots of cars turning left (or right in countries that drive on the right), and in to the the wrong position to make right-hand turns. This is one case where a supposed safety feature is actually deadly dangerous. It is partially mitigated by advance stop lines, but they present their own problems.

What are Cycle Lanes for?

If cycle lanes present to immediate benefit to cyclists, what are they for?

The main function of non-segregated cycle lanes in cities is to remind non- cyclists of the possibility of bicycles. This is often the official rationale for cycle lanes: by making people think they are safer they will encourage them to take up cycling. The calculation is that the lie will bring greater number of cyclists and this in turn will make cycling safer because the more used motorists are to seeing cycles the safer they will be. This goes some whay to explain the illogical and downright absurd cycle lanes perpetrated by local authorities across the land.

The is is the territory issue described above, and also that some people get the impression that you can’t cycle if there isn’t a cycle lane.

The other function is to make it easier for motors to overtake cycles by discouraging the use of the primary or even secondary cycling positions. This would lead to lower congestion, at the expense of a hopefully insignificant reduction in cyclist safety. The calculation is that reducing road rage saves more lives than encouraging people to cycle in the gutter risks.

Going Forwards

I would like to see a more rational attitude to cycle lanes. I think it is necessary if we are to defuse the us-versus-them attitude that prevents real progress on converting motor journeys in to bike journeys.

It might be a good idea to try selling motorists the idea that cycle lanes benefit them by keeping traffic organized and reducing congestion so as to make them seem less like an intrusion in to their territory. I feel that consciously letting go of the idea that cycle lanes belong to cyclists is good for my own blood pressure so it might help other cyclist feel better too.

Instead we need to see lane markings as what they are: an indication that the local authority asserts that when otherwise unobstructed, motor vehicles should have room safely to pass their cycling colleagues. When cars are parked they necessarily block the lane so its message is made void in the same way the centre line is ignored on side streets with parked cars.