When a road is this big, a lane at the side of the road doesn't cut it
It seems like Heidelberg Rd was having a nap when the Google car came past last time. Most of the time it’s got ADD! When a road is this big a painted bicycle lane at the side of the road doesn’t cut it anymore; it’s a signal something better is required

Cycling is growing rapidly in Madrid, but Next City reports some cyclists vigorously oppose a plan for new bike lanes (see When cyclists oppose bike lanes).

The protesters say bike lanes increase accident risk for cyclists at intersections, pointing to bike lanes located on the right side of the road as especially troublesome with motorists making right turns.

Cycling association En Bici Por Madrid (EBPM) contends bikes lanes by themselves don’t necessarily increase the share of cyclists on the road.

EBPM has challenged the motto of “Build it and they will come” by citing examples on its website like Stevenage, a British city with a large segregated cycle network that few people use… EBPM believes it’s possible to promote cycling without creating segregated bike lanes.

 

I know there are plenty of cycling advocates who bristle at the mere mention of “sharrows”. But in this case the Spanish activists are referring to the mostly narrow and relatively quiet streets shared by cars and bicycles in central Madrid. Instead of bicycle lanes, they’re managed by signage and a 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limit.

Our cities are different; the hegemony of the car is more entrenched here than in European cities. Moreover, the activism of the late 80s and early 90s that resulted in the mandatory helmet law created a lasting perception that cycling on roads is an especially dangerous activity.

I feel safer in a bike lane when I’m cycling on the wide, fast arterial roads common in Australian cities. I can’t see how removing it would improve my sense of subjective safety or, in all likihood, the objective outlook for my prospects of a longer life. But nevertheless I think EBPM’s argument is relevant to how cycling infrastructure is designed and regulated in Australia

Whether segregated or painted, on-road bicycle lanes signal clearly that cars, buses and trucks have priority over bicycles. They might look OK on uninterrupted stretches of road but disappear at intersections where, of course, all the road space is “owned” by motorists. They disappear when motorists park their cars in them too. And then there’s the ever-present risk of getting doored.

The large economic and environmental benefit from increasing cycling justifies something better. I think we need two key things.

First, a core network of fully-segregated cycle routes – complete with special intersection treatments and in some cases grade separations – to give newcomers the confidence to start cycling. These should replace bicycle lanes on arterial roads.

The existing network of recreational bike paths provides the required sense of subjective safety, but it’s mostly not suitable for utility cycling because the network is sparse and paths are circuitous, narrow, and shared with pedestrians. What’s needed is a core network that looks a lot like London’s cycle superhighways (see Shouldn’t all cities have a “cycle superhighway” plan?).

Second, the core network must be supported by a secondary system of routes that, like it or not, uses non-arterial roads shared with motorists. This system is much larger in terms of route-kilometres than the core network because it must give every address access to the rest of the city.

These shared routes – the idea is similar to London’s quietways – shouldn’t have bicycle lanes (like this quiet street does). Both cyclists and motorists should use the same road space so that the intersection problem is obviated and drivers can’t feel they own the street.

The success of quietways (or call them ‘greenways’, or ‘bicycle streets’) depends on making it crystal clear that cyclists – who are far more vulnerable – are the priority mode. Even if they live on the street, motorists must understand they are using it with the implied permission of cyclists.

Speed restrictions, traffic management works, and signage will all help to establish who’s the top-dog on quietways, but the primary change is regulatory. The law must make it clear that cyclists are top of the food chain on designated shared routes. Although often misunderstood, the notion of strict liability as it applies in the Netherlands might be useful here (see Are Dutch motorists strictly liable if the collide with cyclists?).

Painted bike lanes are better than nothing on fast, busy arterial roads “owned” by motorists, but the objective should be to replace them sooner rather than later with something much better.