An earnest post about cycle lanes

Every time a cyclist gets killed or injured in a road accident in London, people raise the issue of the lack of safe cycle lanes in the city. Or rather, they don’t just raise it – it is indeed a shame that they don’t exist – but a significant minority demand that this be rectified for the safety of the 550,000 journeys made by bike every day in the capital.

The problem is, of course, that there’s nowhere to put them. Almost nowhere in central London is there room for cycle lanes that:

  1. are guaranteed to be free of other road users
  2. wouldn’t impact negatively on either pavement or road space
  3. are not crossed by side roads, driveways and other turnoffs
  4. are rideable at a decent speed over a decent length on a decent surface

The most nebulous of the above, and yet the most important to faster (ahem) riders like me, is number 4. By and large I don’t hold up traffic for more than a small part of my daily commute – I can regularly travel at ambient speed, and indeed I can often go faster than traffic, so in principle I fit *with* traffic, which means I can use the roads as best suit me with minimal inconvenience to big angry metal boxes.

However, if I were ghettoised into a cycle lane which suffered from points 3 or 4, I’d be constantly stopping and starting, just as at risk from motorists turning across me (more so, I suspect, since as soon as you cordon off cyclists they become “not my problem” to drivers), undulating over driveways, chicaning round road furniture, and dodging the inevitable debris that ends up at the side of the road.

Most riders aren’t trying to commute quickly, on silly racing bikes, so these issues are less of a problem for them. But truly safe bike lanes – the holy grail – would work for everyone. And London’s just too tightly packed.

If you think this is too negative or one-sided, or you have other suggestions, I’d welcome comments!

    • Jesse
    • April 13th, 2011


    • Jesse
    • April 13th, 2011

    Seriously though I did want to say something. I live in New York City which I think has similar cycling conditions to those in London, and in my personal experience many of the bike lanes in New York are essentially useless to fast cyclists. In some instances I think they expose the cyclist to more danger.

    First, I absolutely agree with your observation that isolating the cyclist in a bike lane gives the motorist the impression that they’re “not my problem.” I would say in some instances it’s even worse: the motorist believes that the bike lane is there to keep the bike out of his way and if the bike is ever in the car lane, then the cyclist is somehow infringing on the rights of legitimate road users. Since bike lanes are always on the side of the road, I am constantly weaving in and out of the lane to avoid: double-parked cars including cabs and delivery trucks (these are extremely common in New York), garbage, potholes, snow and ice (plows tend to miss the bike lanes), pedestrians who treat the bike lane like an extra sidewalk, and cars turning. The last of these menaces is by far the most dangerous in my experience. Motorists either don’t realize or don’t care that they are legally required to yield to the cyclist going straight and a cyclist in the bike lane deals with the constant threat of being “hooked.” For this reason, I always ride as close to the center of the road as possible while remaining in the bike lane, and usually when I approach a cross-street I will pull into the car lane. Of course the motorist behind me, who feels even more entitled to every inch of road because I already have a bike lane, then honks his horn furiously.

    Second, in New York it is not cyclists who slow down traffic, it’s the lights and the other cars. Sometimes I am riding slower than cars go but usually I am keeping up with and often speeding past the traffic because I can fit into places that gridlocked cars can’t.

  1. Now I have similar feelings regarding cycle lanes. I tend not to use them unless they are actually going to be helpful. Most of the time I’m more then happy/capable of mixing with traffic. After all I’m a road user on my bike so I’ll use the road. Another problem is they are invariably on the left side of the road which gives beginners riders the wrong idea about road positioning. Just because your in a cycle lane your not in the safest place, especially around larger vehicles and lorries.

    I had a rather long discussion/argument with a friend regarding my road positioning in this video: He was saying I was too blame as I was “holding up the cars as I didn’t use the cycle lane” and my response was “I can use whatever part of the road I wish and in this case I wasn’t holding them up and riding to defend my road position”.

    As you say one of the “problems” with cycle lanes is that drivers think we MUST use them otherwise we are taking away their precious road space and holding them up. Maybe if the car drivers took a look around slightly further then their bonnets they may realise that it isn’t the cyclist who are nimbly (or not so nimbly in some cases) zipping through the queues of traffic that are holding them up…..

  2. Indeed, I find that drivers often tend to get pissed if you use the road when a bike lane is available. Bus drivers are the worst.

    In Sweden the problem is that you are required by law to use a bike lane if one exists, which is ridiculous in most cases as the bike lanes are tiny, surrounded by curbs and fences, and often containing debris that will give you flats. And all that stuff mentioned above.
    So you naturally have drivers being all “the law is on my side” and thus taking out their legally mandated frustrations on you, the rider.

    The worst part is that sometimes you actually can’t use the bike lane, because there is actual debris or water or a car is blocking the ‘on ramp’…

    I wish they would just stop with the bike lane nonsense in the city.
    Most bike lanes are just the reduction of the main roadway by paining of lines or the use of existing side walk, so why not just NOT paint the bike lanes, instead have a larger roadway but not large enough to fit two cars… thus slow bikers keep right, and fast bikers can flow with the rest of traffic, being on the right when it is needed.

    I wish someone would listen.
    These days it’s all “bike lanes bike lanes”, but who’s gonna clean them in the winter?

    I just read yesterday that in a town near Stockholm, they actually set up speed reduction devices for bikers (like gates forcing you to swerve etc)… WTF?!

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