Is this a bike lane? The confusing cycleway saga

New bicycle lanes for Sydney Harbour Bridge

NSW Government commits to building new cycling and accessibility infrastructure for Sydney Harbour Bridge. Vision: NSW Government

The laws governing when cyclists are obliged to ride in a bike lane can be a challenge to understand.

There are all manner of bicycle signs and symbols on our roads, but what actually constitutes an official "bicycle lane", where police can fine cyclists who don't use them?

And how many people think that cyclists are breaking the law by not riding on something that appears to be a bike "lane", but in fact is something with a different designation – such as a bike "path"?

In many jurisdictions, the issue is not so much with the rule that says, in part, that cyclists must use a bike lane if provided, unless impracticable, but with the specific signage involved.

I've written about it before, but the issue has raised its head again.

And cycling advocacy groups are now calling for a law change, with one saying confusion is leading to "decreased harmony on the roads".

Lanes v paths

In January, Robbie Adamiak was cycling to work along Liverpool Street in Sydney's CBD when he chose to stay on the road instead of ride in the adjacent separated cycleway.

"The cycleway had a red light, but the general traffic lane had a green light, and the traffic lane was empty," he said.

At the intersection of Pitt and Liverpool, he was stopped and given a fine of $108 for "not ride in bicycle lane".

Adimiak posted a message on social media asking for advice, and others urged him to contest the fine. "I didn't realise there was such a strong community out there that supports, advises and helps each other," he said.

So are Sydney's cycleways officially designated bicycle lanes?

I asked Transport for NSW, and the Centre for Road Safety's Bernard Carlon explained the differences between a "bicycle lane" and a "bicycle path".

Due to their signage (see photo above), "all bi-directional cycleways in Sydney are bike paths", not bike lanes – and are therefore not compulsory for cyclists, he said.

Enforcement, however, is up to the police, and disputes are ultimately for the courts to decide. 

In response to a range of queries regarding cycling fines, a police spokesperson told me: "As this matter is currently under review, it is not appropriate to comment at this time. We encourage anyone that has an issue with an infringement to contest the matter or bring it up with their local police."

After an unsuccessful appeal to the Office of State Revenue, Adamiak says he will look at the costs involved in taking it further, and whether "principle outweighs financial burden".

A year ago, another cyclist, Rafael Chemke, faced the same decision after riding outside the cycleway in Union Street, Pyrmont, during the morning peak.

"It's a really quiet street with not much motor traffic, but the lights are still much more favourable to motorists than cyclists," Chemke says. He stayed in the road to avoid the red light at the intersection half way along the street, and was stopped by police and fined.

Chemke challenged the fine and went to court for a mention, where a date was set for the matter to be heard. But before the day arrived, the fine was withdrawn.

Why avoid the path?

Make no mistake, Sydney's cycleways have been a boon to cycling traffic, encouraging more people to ride to work, and a completed east-west crossing of the CBD is eagerly awaited.

But the signalling has been a source of frustration, with riders complaining that six-second phases in some places are too short, that the sensors don't detect bikes, and some intersections have until recently only given bikes a turn on every second light cycle.

A Roads and Maritime Services spokesperson told me the detectors had recently been reviewed, and "found they were operating as designed as long as cyclists stopped behind the stop line and remained in the detection zone until the signal turned green".

Improvements included push buttons at some locations and diamond symbols to highlight the detectors, while phase times varied depending on the number of users detected. 

Confusion – and anger

Although comparatively few fines are issued to people for riding outside a bike lane, there is the issue of public perception that cyclists are "breaking the law by not riding in the bike lane".

Often, when I'm able to research such a complaint, I find that the so-called "bike lane" is not something that is compulsory for cyclists, and may have been avoided for sensible reasons.

Speedy riders will often prefer the road over an adjacent shared path, to avoid conflict with pedestrians, and keeping inside white lines painted in the door zone of death can be risky.

But what do you do when someone drives past and shouts, "you're supposed to be in the bike lane"?

Yelling back, "I'm not obliged to because it's not an official bike lane and besides I'm trying to stay out of the car door zone" is difficult if you're breathing hard.

'Decreased harmony'

Bicycle NSW says it is in discussion with NSW Police over enforcement, and has posted an online article on the laws surrounding bike lanes.

A spokesperson said: "The legislation in NSW regarding cycleways, road shoulders, bicycle paths and bicycle lanes is confusing for riders, motorists and authorities. This confusion also leads to decreased harmony on the roads.

"NSW would do better to follow the Queensland lead on this matter, and drop the mandatory use of the very few official bicycle lanes."

Indeed, the Sunshine State removed their version of the law two years ago.

Craig Richards, the CEO of Bicycle Network, says: "In Queensland, they realised the law was unnecessary so they repealed it. We should do the same in other states to see consistency around Australia."

However, Bernard Carlon says NSW's road rules are based on the national model law, and "there are no plans to remove the requirement for cyclists to ride in a bicycle lane in the NSW Road Rules".

Law change?

Bike lanes and paths are a continually controversial topic in Australia, and it can appear churlish when some bike riders avoid infrastructure that has been laid on for them.

But there can be good reasons, which are often only understood by those who are riding bikes in those areas.

Bicycle NSW notes that there are "very few official bike lanes" in NSW. Even then, bike riders must use the lanes "unless it is impracticable to do so" – which can be open to interpretation.

Since Queensland experienced no ill effects from removing the law, it might be worth looking at in other states.

Or, at very least, finding ways to make it more clear when a lane is actually a "lane".

Should NSW follow Queensland and overturn laws on using bike lanes? Leave your comment below. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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