Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Barely there Cycle Lanes

Everytime I cycle to work, I have to use the Histon Road cycle lanes in Cambridge.

Histon Road, Cambridge with 1m cycle lanes.

You would have thought most cyclists would agree that cycle lanes one metre or less are dangerous, but that is not the case.  Everybody has an opinion, but when you hear or see anecdotal comments about cycle lane safety, it always leaves me wondering what type of cyclists they are and how much experience they have?

So, cards on the table before I give my opinion.  I am a cycle enthusiast, I have read Cycle Craft and know of and practice defensive cycle techniques.  I estimate I have used Histon Road at least 600 times.  That's getting to be a decent sample size on which to reflect.

What is obvious to most, is that barely-there cycle lanes bring you close to overtaking traffic regardless of your fear level.  In my experience, there are other hidden dangers that are never discussed and are not obvious to casual users.

Here is my list of observed thin-cycle-lane dangers:

Increase of Tunnel-Vision overtakes.  Some drivers only consider danger and obstacles within their own lane.  If there is a white line, and a bicycle is on the other side of it, they will not move over.  They are assisted in ignoring Highway Code rule 163.

No room to swerve around obstacles such as:  
  • pot holes, glass, drain covers.
  • other cyclists pulling out into path from left or right
  • other cyclists just stopping in the lane to get off
  • pedestrians stepping off the pavement into the road. 

Unable to choose road positioning.  With the lane in place, irate drivers will intimidate you to use the cycle lane, even if it compromises your safety.  When restricted to the lane, you are unable to move away from the gutter and into safer Secondary and Primary positions.  Most cyclists have never heard of those terms but when you know them they increase your safety significantly.

Difficult to look over your shoulder.  When you look behind on a bicycle, you wobble.  A thin lane gives you no wobble room to look behind, which makes many manoeuvres more difficult - e.g. overtaking, turning right, leaving the lane to avoid obstacles, slowing safely.

Difficulty indicating.  A lot of newer cyclists have trouble cycling perfectly straight whilst indicating.

Standing Water, Ice and Snow.  Gutters are designed to catch water and consequently are full of puddles which hide potholes and debris, collect ice and snow.  (And yes I have had words with a driver who was angry about me using the clear road, and not the snow filled cycle lane)

Unable to ride two abreast. When I cycle with my youngsters, I like to act as a barrier between them and the traffic and be the fall guy should a driver get too close.  Even the recent Gilbert Road lanes at 1.7m are not wide enough for two abreast.  Cycling is more fun when you can come alongside and chat to your friends, just like in cars.

Off camber induced wobble.  On Histon Road, there is quite a steep camber at the edge of the road.  This adversely affects your bicycles steering.

Four abreast is unsafe.  This is specific to Histon Road.  Typically, the full width of the road is filled with: cycle-car-car-cycle with a small buffer of space between each.  When a larger vehicle arrives on the scene and mis-times an overtake the small buffer gets reduced to virtually nothing. I have many times seen near misses e.g. cycle-TRUCK-carcycle.

The Fear.  Lets not forget that most normal people cite fear of traffic as a major influence on why they do not cycle. Jostling with cars, trucks and buses is going to feel unsafe and a white painted line does nothing to reduce fear.

I would be in favour of removing the cycle lanes - they increase risk to cyclists. There is a small benefit of being able to filter more easily for about 30-60 minutes of the rush hour in the city bound direction. At other times, they allow traffic to pass closely without considering an overtake.

Thankfully there is growing support for removing the lanes.  October 2011's Area Joint Committee minutes briefly question if they should be removed as part of a review of the ring roads.  Also, the Cambridge Cycle Campaign's Cycling Vision 2016 call for a removal of all under sized (<2.0m, sometimes <1.5m).

For me, removal of that paint cannot happen soon enough.

What's the ideal city cycle lane ?

I've noticed that when I cycle on the pavement with my youngsters, I feel a lot safer and more relaxed if there is a row of parked cars acting as a physical barrier between us and on-road motor traffic.

This idea is in use in New York.  See this film on StreetFilms on NYC's Physically Separated Bike Lane.


  1. Yes, Histon Road is horrible to cycle along, and amazingly the situation hasn't changed there in many years. The cycle-lanes are much too narrow to do anything but give drivers an excuse to pass cyclists too close. Drivers heading North also regularly use the cycle-lane + pavement to pass other cars waiting to turn right into Roseford Road. The design of the road has made all this possible.

    However, for cyclists to propose removing all cycle provision is hardly an aspirational aim. Surely what is needed is to improve things.

    Yes, a physical barrier makes an awful lot of difference. However, I don't understand why New York is used as an example so frequently by cyclists in the UK. I know that city makes a lot of noise, and advocates there make nice videos, about what they claim to have achieved, but the facts are that they still have just 0.6% of commutes by bike. This is a fantastically low rate of cycling. Figures published by the authorities in New York suggest that there may well be fewer commuting cyclists amongst the twenty two million people who live in the Metropolitan area of New York than amongst the much smaller population of Cambridge.

    Junction design also remains a terrible problem in New York, and the people living there don't seem to have much idea about what to do about it. Really, it's really not the best place to try to copy.

    There are far better examples much closer to hand. Indeed, I've shown people from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign a far better design of street which serves a similar function in the Netherlands. This also offers a good example of how to make junctions safe.

    Surely this actually is aspirational. While American children continue to be ferried about by car, and British children increasingly do the same, children in the Netherlands have a totally different experience.

    1. When I have to ride in places like that I do one of two things: 1) take the lane or 2) put my bike in the car and just drive that part. Of course, I have a folding bike, so that makes skipping over narrow/dangerous places for bikes easier, but I'd rather be able to ride from A to B without taking the car. Separated lanes are the way to go...IMHO

  2. David, you're right that simply removing the lanes is not very aspirational. We would definitely prefer a segregated cycle route here. I merely believe that by wiping the slate clean and returning to pre-cycle-facility (paint), it would increase safety on that route for existing cyclists - and that is a carrot being dangled right now.

    Re the video. I wasn't attempting to hold New York up as a place of perfection, merely the use of parked cars as a physical safety barrier. I've also noticed that strategically parked cars act very nicely as traffic calmers. Guerilla parking anyone? Of course, I'd much rather see barriers formed of cheery planting than a car park.

    1. wider advisory lanes would be the best bet I think.

      Mike Davies
      Daily user of route and Council bloke

  3. It appears the road has verges next to the pavements that could be used for additional width. Of course, in the UK it would probably cost as much for piffling consultancy fees as it would be to shift the pavements over and have wider cycle lanes...

  4. I avoided trying to redesign the road layout in my post because it is a minefield, and I would be terrible at it and can only point out issues. Eg:

    It's a tricky one to redesign. This is an arterial road into Cambridge with regular buses in each direction. At the thinnest part, the vehicle lanes (excluding cycle lane width) are exactly the width of a bus. Reducing the width of the road will be a non starter for a highway engineer (I guess).

    What do you do? Have on-pavement cycling for the thin section and segregated lanes for the rest? Actually the on-pavement idea is a bad one due to the number of pedestrians.

    It seems pointless to put in a half solution, which leads me to think that wider advisory lanes all the way through is a reasonable choice. It's going to help cycle commuters, but I doubt I'll be cycling down there with my children.

    Just out of interest, I'd love to see a comparison of the costs for (1) moving the paint, and (2) moving the kerb and reworking the surfaces.

  5. I wonder how the world will look if motorists had to personally point out every dangerous spot on the road, and then be asked to personally redesign that part of road. Then when their design is done, they have to go to countless meetings where cyclists and pedestrians would berate them for the "war on non-motorized transportation."

    The point is that there are trained engineers for making the roads safer. The area was safe _before_ the original raod was put in.

    Thus, cyclists are not the problem that must be mitigated for.

    The dangerous automobile traffic is the threat to human life.

    Thus, the auto traffic must be mitigated, and it's on traffic engineers to solve this problem.

    I find the whole attitude of the community especially the cycling community as we are all victims of the Stockholm effect.

    Roads that are unsafe and irresponsibly designed no matter how many standards they fit and the only honest solution is a total redesign NOT a sad retrofit.