Special lanes for bicyclists can cause problems to the extent that they encourage bicyclists and motorists to violate the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. Specifically, a bike lane continued to an intersection encourages right-turning motorists to stay in the left lane, not the right (bike) lane, in violation of the rule requiring right turns to be made from the lane closest to the curb. Similarly, straight-through, or even left-turning, bicyclists are encouraged to stay right. The photo below shows a bicyclist unlawfully making a left turn from a bike lane.
This bicyclist is turning left into the side street. He is making his turn from the bike lane, in violation of the rule requiring left-turners to merge to the center of the road before turning. He cannot safely yield to traffic ahead and traffic behind at the same time (location: North Beacon Street at Greenough Blvd, Watertown, Massachusetts, USA).
Bike lanes sometimes require bicyclists to violate normal traffic rules. For example, the bike lane pictured below, intended for straight-through bicyclists, is on the left side of a left-turn only lane. It is unsafe to go straight from this lane. However, use of this lane is mandatory in New York.
|Why is this bicyclist stopped at a green light? To avoid a stream of cars turning from the left-turn only lane on the right of the bike lane. The dashed stripes indicate that cyclists are meant to continue straight from the bike lane. The cyclist in the rear is merging out of the bike lane so he can safely continue through the intersection — but this is illegal under New York law (location: Herald Square, New York City, USA).|
Minimizing Bike Lane Confusion
Bike lanes cause less difficulty on roads without on-street parking and with few intersections. In that case they are essentially shoulders, except that they carry the legal or public expectation of mandatory use by bicyclists. Operational problems of bike lanes can be mitigating by insuring that bike lanes:
- serve only one direction of traffic and be located adjacent to general traffic lanes, with no barrier separating the bike lane from the traffic lane;
- are not marked adjacent to on-street parking unless the entire lane is more than 1 m (3 ft) from the edge of the cars;
- are dropped within the last 30 m (100 ft) leading to an intersection, except that a short distance of bike lane to the left of a right-turn-only lane can be used, provided that there is merging space of 30 m (100 ft) with no bike lane stripes;
- are not used inside roundabouts or add non-standard intersections where they lead bicyclists to the right of a right-turning lane.
Shoulders on high-speed, high-volume roads can be beneficial to bicyclists. Calling the shoulder a “bike lane” can make people think that the shoulder is the “bicycle facility,” when in fact the whole road is the bicycle facility. Although this public perception difficulty cannot be avoided when bike lanes are striped, it can be mitigated by:
• removing any legal obligations to use bike lanes;
• informing law enforcement and the public that bicyclists are not required to use bike lanes, just as buses are not required to use bus lanes.
Mandatory Bicycle Lane Use
Bicycle lane use is mandatory in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany (if there is a bike lane sign), France (if required by local authorities), Ireland, the Canadian Province of Quebec and the U.S. States of Alabama, California, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, and Oregon (although Oregon adds, “A person is not required to comply with this section unless the state or local authority with jurisdiction over the roadway finds, after public hearing, that the bicycle lane or bicycle path is suitable for safe bicycle use at reasonable rates of speed”). Further, in jurisdictions that require bicyclists to operate generally as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable, marking a shoulder as a bike lane may create a greater restriction, since the shoulder is generally not part of the legal definition of “roadway,” but a bike lane is (except in Oregon, where a bike lane is not part of the “roadway”).
Studies of the Effects of Bike Lanes
Studies of bike lanes have established that:
• motorists give slightly less clearance when passing a cyclist in a bike lane compared to passing a cyclist in the same lane ;
• bicyclists position themselves on average in the middle of a 5 ft bike lane immediately adjacent to on-street parking, within reach of opening doors of parked cars (Hunter and Stewart 1999);
• bicyclists ride slightly further out from the curb where there is a bike lane or shoulder.
Only the last of these findings suggests a benefit to bike lanes, and that can be accomplished by striping a shoulder on higher speed roads. Many other studies have claimed to find safety benefits of bike lanes, but these compare bike lanes to sidepaths, not to ordinary roads, or look at special treatments to mitigate bike lane hazards, such as colored paint in conflict areas.
A study prepared for the US Federal Highway Administration claims that bike lanes reduce the incidence of sidewalk riding and stop sign violations (Hunter et al. 1999). However, this was not a before and after comparison of the same sites. The sites without bike lanes in the study had higher speeds (33% posted above 30 mph compared to 13%) heavier traffic (2/3 greater than 7,500 vehicles per day compared to 1/3), and less outside lane width (15 ft vs. 17 ft). Without controlling for these significant differences it is impossible to make a judgment about the effect of bike lanes themselves.
No study has shown that bike lanes improve safety. Since few car-bike collisions are the result of improper overtaking by motorists, it is not surprising that this is so. However, if there is increased danger from bike lanes, it is not large enough to show up clearly in the studies performed to date. The increased risk of sidepaths, on the other hand, is large enough to be consistently documented in many studies.
More Information and References
• John Allen on Barrier Bike Lanes.
• William W. Hunter et al. 1999. A Comparative Analysis of Bicycle Lanes vs. Wide Curb Lanes: Final Report (FHWA-RD-99-034). Full Report in PDF.
• William W. Hunter and J. Richard Stewart. 1999 An Evaluation of Bike Lanes Next to Motor Vehicle Parking (pdf)
• Wayne Pein, William W. Hunter, and J. Richard Stewart 1999. Evaluation of the Shared Use Arrow (pdf)
• Wayne Pein on bike lanes.