For some time I've been a pretty ambivalent about bike lanes—being able to see sound arguments both for and agin them. At the moment I have a bookmark in a small volume called Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic by David Engwicht, inventor of the Walking School Bus and Traffic Tamers. I'm sure I'll have more to say about this interesting and thought-provoking book, but for the moment I want to borrow a passage that helps clarify my thoughts about bike lanes.
In a chapter entitled "Beyond Fundamentalism – The Design Paradox", Engwicht uses bike lanes to demonstrate the shortcomings of "fundamentalist planning", and in so doing declares himself a 'bike lane agnostic':
At first glance it seems self-evident that bike lanes automatically make streets safer for cyclists. It is common knowledge that the wider the traffic lane, the faster a motorist will tend to go…The narrower a passage way the slower we tend to go because there is not the same margin for error…
But there is a contradictory psychological impact of bike lanes. They deliver greater certainty to the driver. The driver knows exactly which is the cyclists' space and which is their space. This increased certainty about where the cyclist will be in the roadway encourages the motorist to speed up…
But there is another interesting set of contradictory factors when it comes to bike lanes. Bike lanes change the perceptions of the cyclist. Cyclists feel safer because they no longer have to share a space with motorists. But…this is to some extent a false sense of security…when bike lanes are present, motorists impose greater risks on the cyclists, for example, driving closer to the cyclist when passing. Does this mean that accident rates go up after the bike lane goes in? Not necessarily. Because the cyclists feel safer, more of them cycle on that street.
And when cyclist numbers go up, the safety in numbers effect kicks in.
So you can see from this cursory exploration of bike lanes that there is at least four paradoxical factors at work – and maybe many more than this. Understanding this complexity has caused me to declare myself a 'bike lane agnostic'. Whether the negatives outweigh the positives, or vice versa, is completely dependent on the context – traffic volumes, bike volumes, current design of the street, and the social and cultural context.
What are the implications of recasting thinking about bike lanes in this way? For one thing, you can't just tot up the miles of bike lane that a city's got and use that to give it a bike-friendliness score. And you can't just jump at bike lanes as a solution to improving cyclists' safety. Unfortunately, bike lanes seem to be the beginning and end of road safety options for cyclists.
I reckon I'll know we've reached a new level of maturity in cycling advocacy when a body like Bicycle Victoria has the cojones to call for the removal of bike lanes that have proven to be ineffective (my first choice would be the bike lanes in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne's CBD).
But then I wonder if much analysis of the true effectiveness of bike lanes is carried out? Presumably, VicRoads must record some before and after numbers when then install a bike lane, but does that tell the whole story?
The implications of bicycle lanes on roads are far reaching and sadly produce outcomes not favourable to bicyclists.
To encourage new riders cities and organisations like Bicycle Victoria promote on road bicycle lanes and separation from motorised traffic. To appease motoring lobbies they do the same. The losers are the riders themselves who suffer drivers believing riders have no place as legitmate traffic whilst they have on road bike lanes or "facilities" built for them at great and unnecessary expense.
Research from learned researchers and commentators like Forrester (et al), show bicycle riders fair best when bicycles are "driven" in a vehicular manner on the roadway.
Cities could do better by adopting signage that positively directs drivers attention to bicycles having full lane useage and drivers should change lanes to pass etc. (Such as these mentioned here.. ). These more positive approaches redirect drivers and riders attention away from the bicycle being a vulnerable unwanted road user to becoming a valid and legitmate "vehicle" in every sense of the word.
I share your agnostic view whilst cities and organisations that should know better continue to place bicycle riders at risk by introducing more and more so called "separation" facillities.
I understand where groups like BV are coming from—it's a question of producing usable sound bites. If you've only got a few seconds to get a message out, there is no room for ifs and maybes—you've got to be brief and unequivocal. Harry Barber is a master of this approach.
However as the insightful comments above show, the issues surrounding bike lanes are many and complex, and aren't adequately covered by snatches like this:
Barber says more dedicated cycling lanes for commuters on key arterial routes into the city are needed, and "separation" from cars is crucial: 78 per cent of accidents involve cyclists crashing into car doors as they are being carelessly opened.
This ignores that "separation" simply is not going to happen everywhere—somewhere, sometime just about every rider will have to deal with other forms of traffic.
And let's not forget, as jimmay notes, that bike lanes often bring cyclists into the door zone.
But those signs that Rob pointed to could be very helpful (although I'd skip the time designations).