Newspaper Article

      Bikeway Activists in the Wrong Lane

      by Avery Burdett

      Across Ontario, from London to Ottawa and urban parts in between, activists are prominent in lobbying local governments to build special bicycle facilities, such as bike paths and bike lanes. These facilities, it is claimed, make for safer cycliing. Unfortunately, for cyclists as well as taxpayers, the claim fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny. The effect of bicycle facilities turns out to be the opposite of what is intended.

      The earliest study showed the accident rate on bike paths to be 2.6 times higher than that on streets. A 1994 study found the risk of colliding with a motor vehicle to be 1.8 times greater for cyclists riding on paths and sidewalks than for cyclists riding on adjacent roadways. In 1996 studies of Ottawa and Toronto, the highest rates of cyclist falls and injuries were on bike paths, trails and sidewalks. Injuries on sidewalks were four to six times more frequent than on roads.

      How are these findings explained? First, bike paths are little more than sidewalks serving pedestrians, joggers, in-line skaters, dog owners, and others, all of whose lateral motion is incompatible with the forward momentum of a bicycle. Collisions are inevitable. Second, there is no escaping interaction with motor vehicles by cycling on paths. Paths must intersect with roadways. These intersections are usually adjacent to standard intersections, and that's where most traffic accidents occur. Navigation of bike path intersections is more complex and difficult thereby compounding the risk, particularly for inexperienced cyclists. Third, risk increases when behaviour is unpredictable. On roads, survival depends upon adherence to the rules of the road. Not so on bike paths. A false sense of security makes cyclists feel safer, consequently, following no particular rules, they behave unpredictably.

      Bike lanes - striped facilities on the roadway for use by cyclists - are close relatives of bike paths. Allegedly, such lanes address cyclists' fear of being hit from behind. Curiously, that is one of the least frequent cause of cycling accidents. The majority of accidents involve no cars at all. When cars are involved, most occur to the front or side of cyclists, and result from turning manoeuvres at intersections and driveways. Cyclists are largely at fault. The presence of bike lanes exacerbates these problems, undermining well-proven driving protocols and highway traffic laws.

      Although there are few credible scientific data on the effect of bike lane usage, bike lanes have fundamental engineering design faults similar to bike paths. They produce similar results. Observational studies show that cyclists and motorists are more confused and make more errors where bike lanes exist. Bike lanes encourage practices which leave cyclists vulnerable. For example, they invite cyclists to overtake on the right, and to make left turns from the right side of the road. At intersections, right-turning motorists have to traverse the path of cyclists travelling straight in the bike lane.

      Bike lanes can be expensive, inefficient, and physically hazardous. The additional costs of bike lanes on new roadways is approximately $100,000 per kilometre. Removal of regular traffic lanes on existing roads to make way for bike lanes reduces vehicle capacity and parking, and moves congestion to parallel streets. Across Ontario, bike lanes are characterized by broken pavement, potholes, sewer grates, hydro poles, gravel, accumulated garbage, and other impediments to safe travel.

      A cheaper and more efficient way of addressing cyclists' needs, wider curb lanes, is virtually ignored because of the noise generated by bike lane advocates. Add a half a metre to standard width curb lanes and motorists can pass in the same lanes without causing discomfort to cyclists. Wider curb lanes can be painted on most existing roads simply by narrowing adjacent lanes. They do not reduce overall passenger throughput and, from a safety point of view, do not complicate existing vehicular operating procedures.

      In highway traffic law, cyclists are accorded the rights and duties as drivers of vehicles. These rights and duties are the basis of current safe cycling education. The axiom in the cycling world that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles is well-founded. Research shows that vehicular cycling reduces the chance of accident by 80%. Segregated bike lanes and bike paths convey the false notion that vehicular cycling among other traffic is unsafe. Segregation finds support among motorists who view cyclists as an inconvenience. Broad acceptance of the principle of segregation has, elsewhere, led to enactment of laws which force cyclists into bike lanes, onto shoulders, paths and sidewalks, and to the occasional banning of cyclists from the highway right-of-way altogether. When authorities by-pass their legal and moral responsibility to treat cyclist as legitimate road users, the public embraces inaccurate perceptions about cycling.

      The results are disturbing: cycling advocates whose demands have no basis in science or engineering; a proliferation of dangerous cycling facilities; waste of tax dollars; illegal (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to ban cyclists from highways (Calgary and Ottawa); motorist hostility aimed at responsible cyclists who exercise their legal right to use roadways; and the current tragi-comedy in Toronto, where anti-car activists alternate between campaigning for bike lanes and holding vigils to commemorate the deaths of inexperienced and unsuspecting cyclists who, perhaps having been enticed by bike lanes, fall under the wheels of motor vehicles.

      When it comes to cycling, perception rarely coincides with reality.

      [Versions of this article were originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 20, 1998, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, November 25, 1998]

December 1998
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