Do Bike Lanes Make Cyclists Less Safe? No, They Don’t.

sharrow!Bike lanes continue to be a divisive topic in Edmonton. Both sides are dug in, with some people thinking they’re great and others thinking they’re terrible. There might still be a couple of people on the fence but they are few and far between at this point. It’s essentially become the city planning equivalent of the fighting in hockey debate. Everyone has picked a side and nobody is moving an inch.

Admittedly I’m on the pro bike lane side of this debate. I’ve written about this before, and even though I don’t bike, or own a bike for that matter, I believe there is a lot of value in providing people with choices for how they want to make their trips. I know that the car is (and always will be) king when it comes to travel choices in Edmonton, but I think there is a balance that can be struck between vehicle traffic and cyclists. If you want to drive feel free, but if someone wants another option it should be available to them. At least that’s what I think.

Not everyone agrees with me though. Enter Lorne Gunter who recently wrote a piece for the Edmonton sun titled “Edmontonians don’t want or need bike lanes.” With a title like that I knew going in that this was an article I would likely take issue with, and I was not disappointed. Mr. Gunter starts off by hinting that Ward 10 councillor Michael Walters has something of a pro bike lane agenda, which perhaps he does I don’t know, but coming from a person who has time and time and time again trashed the very concept of bike lanes it’s equally likely that he was just hearing what he wanted to hear.

I have a number of other issues with the article but what really caught my eye  was the mention of a poll of some the residents of Ward 10 that found “over half think the bike lanes have made cyclists less safe.” I haven’t seen this poll and Google was of no help, but this really surprised me because regardless of where you stand in this debate I have trouble understanding how you reach this conclusion.

In the City’s growing collection of bike infrastructure it’s dedicated lanes and shared-use lanes that have gotten the most attention. The dedicated lanes provide a separate space for cyclists, whereas the shared-use lanes are marked with a “sharrow” reminding drivers that the road is likely to be used by cyclists as well as vehicles. So back to the idea of bike lanes making cyclists less safe my only question would be, how? It can’t be that people think the dedicated lanes are unsafe, that would be akin to saying pedestrians don’t need their own space and that they’re safer walking on the road as opposed to a sidewalk. No, it has to be the shared-use lanes.

And if I had to guess, I would think that the reason people might think that a shared-use lane makes a cyclist less safe is that they assume that the cyclist wouldn’t be there without it. Unfortunately this viewpoint doesn’t really reflect reality. For starters, cyclists have always been allowed to be on the roadway, this does nothing to change that. And secondly by identifying a route for cyclists and providing a lane for them – remember, those sharrows are meant to serve as a reminder that cyclists use that road – then cyclists start to become expected on the roadway, and by providing a consistent and predictable driving environment is typically good way to limit collisions. This is a step towards that, even if initially it might not seem that way.

Admittedly I don’t cycle or drive along a route with a shared-use bike lane but I don’t see how the presence of a bike lane could possibly make cyclists less safe. Perhaps a better question to ask is do they make cyclists safer. That’s obviously a different question altogether from do they make cyclists safer but it might shed some light on the public’s impression when it comes to the safety of cycling facilities.

When looked at from this perspective shared-use lanes don’t fare as well. In a recent study at UBC researchers found that the only bike infrastructure that significantly reduces the risk of injury is a separate (or dedicated) bike lane. Of course, not significantly reducing the risk of injury isn’t the same as saying that they make cyclists less safe, the worst thing you could say is that they provide no additional benefit. I think it goes without saying that a separate lane is safer – similar to my pedestrian/sidewalk example from earlier. The issue though is space. Or, more accurately, the lack of space. The bike routes being developed in Edmonton are located in retrofit situations and have to be made to fit within the existing right-of-way. Small changes can be made, the removal of on-street parking for example, but wholesale changes are not typically possible.

We know that people in this city ride bikes for a variety of reasons; 54% of Edmontonians cycle during the summer and fall months and that 57% want to cycle more than they do now. I think it’s completely reasonable to accommodate/encourage people to cycle; how to best go about that is the biggest issue. In trying to strike a balance between all roadway users the sharrow is a reasonable compromise. They may not be the ideal solution but they serve a purpose. And they certainly don’t make cyclists less safe.

3 thoughts on “Do Bike Lanes Make Cyclists Less Safe? No, They Don’t.

  1. Thomas

    “It can’t be that people think the dedicated lanes are unsafe, that would be akin to saying pedestrians don’t need their own space and that they’re safer walking on the road as opposed to a sidewalk.”

    I have to disagree with you on this. Many of the lanes installed in ward 10 feel unsafe and arent being used. Cycling on a narrow strip of road between parked cars and moving traffic does not feel safe, hence why many continue to ride on the sidewalk.

    You also leave out the fact that bike lanes are absolutely useless ~50% of the year due to snow. I don’t know a single person that uses their bike at all during the winter.

    I’m not against bike infrastructure, but the lanes put in in Blue Quill/Duggan/Ermineskin/Bearspaw/Skyrattler are very poorly conceived.

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