Bike lanes: safe cycling haven or 'door zone of death'?

"Get in the bike lane!"

The shout came through the open passenger window of a car as it passed me on my right – thankfully, not too closely.

In my defence, I had been in the bike lane – by about a centimetre. That's because it was one of my least favourite bits of road amenity – a single stripe of white paint running less than a metre away from a line of parked cars.

A fine line

A feature on many council roads, these paths can be a challenge for a cyclist. Ride inside the lane, and you risk being "doored" if a car occupant flings open a door without due care, injuring you or even killing you by knocking you under the wheels of a following vehicle.

But if you ride on the edge of the lane, or outside it, you risk incurring the wrath of drivers who don't understand why you simply won't "get in the bike lane!"

In a previous blog I labelled painted lines in the "door zone of death" as the first of half a dozen classic bike lane failures.

Then I got an interesting email from a bloke who works as a cycling infrastructure expert for a Melbourne local council, who wrote: "I believe you are taking a very narrow view … yes, some of them should not have been built, but many facilities provide the best feasible option."

This week, he told me: "A bad bicycle lane is better than no bicycle lane."

Starting somewhere

Even basic infrastructure concentrates and encourages cycling activity, he said. And if you can demonstrate that the route is being used, you can then motivate for better lanes, to bring a wider group of users.

"It's not that we put in a bicycle lane and then say, 'yup, we're done, we'll never visit this street again'. We're putting in a facility and saying, 'this is a starting point – it's cheap and it's quick and we'll improve it in the future."

And while painted lanes in busy areas with a high turnover in parking can be hazardous, a similar lane in a quiet suburban street is safer, he said.

Garry Brennan of Bicycle Network agrees that "any bike lane gets you more riders – we know that from the counting of cyclists that we've done over the years".

"But we also know that the better the bike lane, the more riders it gets you. And the more riders you get, the more expense can be justified for further improvements."

Not all painted lanes have to be bad, Brennan adds. "Some of them are quite wide, so you can ride comfortably and be nowhere near the door – and they will attract more riders than the narrow ones."

Nevertheless, he understands that on many lanes, some riders prefer to stay on the line, or even outside the lane: "St Kilda Road [in Melbourne] being a classic example," he says, adding that the high volume of cyclists has brought safety through numbers. 

"You always must ride outside the door zone – that's a basic principle. But novice riders have a fear of the traffic behind them - even though statistically the biggest risk for riders is ahead of them – and so they squeeze in too close to the cars."

Gender blender

Brennan says that in Melbourne, a simple painted lane will result in some 20 per cent of riders being women; improve the lane to hard separation, and the proportion of women climbs to 45 per cent. "It's an important equity issue."

Sophie Bartho of Bicycle NSW also has a mixed view of such lanes. "I think they can be seen as a stepping stone but they're far from the ideal long-term solution: separated, protected bike lanes.

"We can't expect that to be delivered on every road, but it certainly should be the ambition for major thoroughfares."

Speak to the people who campaign for such facilities – or read the news reports – and it's clear that it can take years to generate the necessary political will and budget to complete a project that might involve extensive remodelling of a street, or the removal of parking spaces.

But that's not to say incremental changes can't make a difference. A place I regularly ride – Bradleys Head Road, in the Sydney suburb of Mosman – used to have a skinny "door zone" bike lane on each side.

The route goes over a steepish hill, meaning you can descend at speed, more easily keeping pace with cars - but climb it more slowly.

Innovative solutions

Mosman Council's director of environment, Craig Covich, explained to me how the centre line was shifted, the downhill lane was removed and the uphill lane widened to accommodate ascending riders. Hopefully, in the future, there will be better lanes in both directions – but one wider lane on the slower side strikes me as being an improvement on having two lanes of lesser benefit.

As for the lane where I had that incident, it's been there for many years and improvement is slated for the area, with a focus on separated cycleways, says North Sydney Council's Duncan Mitchell.

In the meantime, "it all comes down to education," he says. "Drivers have got to be aware that cyclists can't just hug the side of parked cars" without putting themselves at risk.

It's true. While it may appear cyclists are being ungrateful, chances are they're just trying to keep themselves safe. Better bike lanes are what we want, but nothing trumps courtesy and consideration.  

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

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