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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bike to Work 3: Separate or Equal? | Jan Heine

In recent years, there has been a worrisome trend in the U.S. to advocate for separate bike paths (“cycle tracks”), or at least some visual barrier between bike and car lanes. An organization called “Bikes Belong” advocates for “protected bike lanes.” Recently in Seattle,guerilla cyclists installed pylons to separate a bike lane from the car lanes. Why do I call this worrisome?
At first sight, separate bike paths seem appealing. You are away from cars, riding by yourself. (The photo above shows that some riders still don’t feel safe on blacktop and prefer the sidewalk.)
Unfortunately, this idyllic view hides some very real dangers.
To understand bicycle safety, it is important to look at the actual, rather than perceived, dangers. The danger of being hit from behind or being “clipped” by a car passing too close is very small. It accounts for less than 5% of car-bike accidents.
Most accidents involving bikes and cars occur at intersections. Leaving aside accidents that are the cyclist’s fault (and thus more easily avoidable), there are three common scenarios:
  1. A car pulls out of a side street and doesn’t notice the approaching cyclist who has the right of way.
  2. A car is about to turn right and doesn’t realize that there is a cyclist traveling in the same direction in their blind spot on the right. The car cuts off the cyclist, often with fatal consequences.
  3. A car turns left and doesn’t notice an oncoming cyclist. The car turns into the cyclist’s path.
In all cases, the driver did not notice the cyclist. This is the greatest danger for cyclists: being overlooked in traffic. Since drivers usually scan the road for cars, cyclists are safest if they ride where drivers look for cars. To be safe, cyclists must be an equal part of traffic.
Look at this view from a car windshield. You plan to turn right at this intersection. You see a car far ahead, but otherwise, everything appears clear. Will you realize there is a separate lane coming toward you, on the far right? Even though the cyclist is wearing a yellow vest, he is not in your immediate field of vision. A few moments earlier, the cyclist was completely hidden behind the parked cars. (At least the city doesn’t allow parking close to the intersection here.)
This photo also shows how misleading the term “protected bike lane” is. The protection ends right where you face the greatest danger: at the intersection.
Any barrier that separates the cyclist visually from other traffic effectively hides the cyclist. This is counterproductive to safety. Moving cyclists out of the roadway altogether, on separate bike paths, is even more dangerous, because drivers don’t look for (or cannot see) cyclists off to the side.
Imagine planning a right turn in the image above. You approach the intersection, the light turns green, you go. If you are vigilant, you can barely see the cyclist behind the parked car. Now imagine if the cyclist was still a bit further back. She’d be invisible. You’d turn right into her path. Let’s hope she has good brakes!
These are not hypothetical concerns. The police department in Berlin, Germany, found that on streets where “protected bike paths” were installed, the frequency of cycling accidents greatly increased. (The results are significant even when corrected for various factors, such as an increased number of cyclists traveling on these routes.)


Mike H said...

I had been biking in NYC for the last couple of years and had an hour bike commute mostly on protected bike lanes. It was much more relaxing to be in the protected lane. Some of the intersection examples in the article are dangerous spots but it looks like some are due to two way bike lanes resulting in one bike lane going counter to auto traffic

Bill said...

Thanks for your comments, Mike.

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