Bike Lanes As Training Wheels

Ian Sacs's picture

A friend introduced me yesterday to rambunctious bicycling advocate Fred Oswald via a recent article out of Cleveland's press. Much debate swirls around his not-so-uncommon opinions. Mr. Oswald's argument can be boiled down to two points: supporting a critical need for much more bicycling education on sharing public roadways with other vehicles, and fighting an industry-borne fallacy that breaking up streets with allocated spaces, such as bike lanes, is good for the biking community. The former is, of course, not contestable. We all agree that safety and training are absolutely critical to developing a strong and healthy bicycling community. The latter, however, is a serious point of contention in the transportation profession, and deserves discussion. Categorically declaring bike lanes counter-productive is lacking nuance and myopically idealistic; it simply does not reflect where we are as a nation of people on the move. When it comes to the idea of bicycles and automobiles co-existing, that is, equally sharing a common public space, we Americans are but toddlers learning to get our balance; therefore, we still need training wheels. And training wheels in this metaphor take the form of two parallel stripes called bike lanes.

As a fellow engineer, I am compelled to say that I totally empathize with the argument. Indeed, in an ideal world where everyone acknowledges that bicyclists deserve the same access to, and use of, public rights-of-way as motorists, we would not need to reapportion pavement into exclusive modal fragments. But in typical engineer fashion, this narrow focus on ideal conditions fails to consider the current status of bicyclist/driver relations. Drivers are confused, at best, with bicyclists on "their" streets (angry at their interference, at worst), and bicyclists are summarily fearful of drivers. The result is many would-be daily bicyclists overlook that excellent means of commuting for another mode of transport, most often the car.

Status-quo geometric design is not going to get more bikes on the road than there are brave messenger jobs and aggressive enthusiasts. The average person is just not that daring. After decades of our industry designing roadways for the efficient throughput of cars, bicycling has been all but marginalized. Without words, we have sent a message that streets are for cars, fast and plentiful. Efforts to try to communicate something different can not effectively be done with "Share the Road" signage and billboards alone. To overcome the conditioning of decades, we must send a message loud and clear, in the most direct way possible. Rather than creating a safe space on the street for bicyclists – which is not the function of bike lanes and should not be promoted as such – bike lanes vividly transmit a message to both drivers and potential bicyclists that "Hey, this street is for both cars and bikes; bikes have a right to be here just as much as cars do!"

After years of posting "Bike Route" signage throughout New York City boroughs with little to no impact on ridership, look to that city's recent surge in bicycling volumes as bike lanes are striped at an astonishing pace for evidence of the overwhelmingly effective message sent by bike lanes. In my hometown of Hoboken, the recent addition of bike lanes on two streets instantaneously resulted in slower speeds on those streets (full disclosure: this is based on residents' anecdotes, not a speed study). Following the industry's accepted prescription, narrower lanes in the form of an added bike lane increase the so-called "perceived risk" of drivers, along with their awareness of other uses on the street, and therefore vehicle speeds inversely decrease.

Finally, with the installation of bike lanes, it is true as Mr. Oswald says, that "Fools rush in!". But I contend that fools are exactly what we want: people new to biking, choosing that mode over a car, and learning how to share the road as bicyclists rather than drivers. Yes, a strong education and safety program is equally important, but welcoming new bicyclists to the street is most desirable because, as concluded in study after study, the most powerful way to reduce bicycle/vehicle fatalities and increase driver awareness of bicycles is by getting more bikes on the road, commonly referred to as the "Safety in Numbers" effect.

Bike lanes are not a safety device, they are a bullhorn. In a future where the message is implicit, bike lanes may be unnecessary. But for now, despite not being a perfect solution, they are an effective and important tool in the engineer's toolbox, and should be used as such.

P.S. Sorry for no photos this time to break up the babble!

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



Mr. Oswald needs to spread his wings

Well said, Ian.

I think this is a classic example of a debate in our society that is constrained by the curious unwillingness by some to consider examples outside of our own country. If Mr. Oswald or other members of his like-minded ilk were to visit Amsterdam or Copenhagen -- the acknowledged titans amongst cities in the Western world for success in encouraging biking -- they would see dedicated bicycle facilities galore in places where the modal split for cycling exceeds 30%, far higher than Portland's commendable 8%. He would also see that virtually no utility cyclist in those locations wears a helmet, as per-mile injury and fatality rates (real and perceived) have dropped as cycling rates have risen. He would see small children, elderly people, ethnic minorities, even an occasional pregnant woman, using bikes on a day-to-day basis to get around -- all groups that tend to be comparatively absent from the U.S. cycling population, perhaps because of the implicit requirement that a rider here be risk-averse, highly skilled, passionate about cycling, or some combination thereof.

In fact, for us in the U.S., I would advocate going beyond just putting in bike lanes, which I think help a great deal but still do not do enough to make most people feel sufficently safe on a bicycle in city streets. Lines of paint don't prevent cars from drifting into bike lanes, or double parking in them. We need more aggressive treatments such as "cycle tracks," where a curb or a row of parked cars or trees or bollards or some other real obstacle keeps cars out of the bike lane. (If cities need to buy narrower street-sweeping machines to keep the cycle tracks free of debris, then so be it.)

That's the next phase of the burgeoning utility cycling movement in America. Portland, New York, and Chicago seem to be at the forefront, but we're just in the very beginning phase, and so there are few built domestic examples (9th Ave in Manhattan being a commendable exception) that we can cite as models for replication. But that will change soon.

Once such facilities appear in larger numbers, and a virtuous "cycle" of increasing bike ridership takes hold (better facilities -> more riders -> more support for more facilities etc), then I think the grumblings of well-intentioned but misguided cyclists who are against bike facilities will dissolve into the ether.

One final thought: if the Low Counties of Western Europe are any indication, the last thing that we will want to do once we increase cycling ridership in the U.S. will be to remove dedicated bike facilities. Incidentally, the Mr. Oswalds of the world will continue to be free to mix in with full-fledged traffic if they so choose.

Jake Wegmann

Removing bicyclists from the road.

There already exists “training wheels” for beginners. They are called low traffic residential streets. Most places have them. Then they move up the road hierarchy as they gain experience. However, where I live in Chapel Hill NC, there are many residential streets with very little and benign traffic, yet there is also very little bicycling on those streets, demonstrating that it isn’t necessarily apprehension in traffic that is suppressing bicycling as is often claimed.

The thinking that narrowing lanes and removing bicyclists from the lane with bike lane stripes will slow motor traffic defies logic and all studies that I have seen. First, bike lanes are merely shoulders with a name, and shoulders are well known to be placed in order to facilitate faster motor traffic on higher order roads. Second, the presence of a bicycle user in a lane induces caution. Remove the bicyclist, remove caution.

Here’s a paper I wrote.

One yardstick that demonstrates the real purpose of bicycle facilities is to examine the bicycling specific laws in places where they exist. If bicycle facilities weren’t for the purpose of enhancing motoring by kicking bicyclists off the road there wouldn’t be laws mandating their use. The greater the degree of segregation the more motoring is enhanced.

The worst offenders in Europe ban bicycles from the roads and prohibit vehicular style left turns. Dan Burden was invited to China to teach them how to corral all their bicyclists in bicycle facilities to make room for their growing car population.

In Davis CA, birthplace of the American bike lane, historical records indicate that there existed huge amounts of bicycling before the introduction of bike lanes. All they did was stripe them on already wide roads, reducing bicyclist space. Mandatory usage laws soon followed.

It’s astoundingly naive or arrogant to think that “Mr. Oswald or other members of his like-minded ilk” are unwilling or haven’t examined other cities and countries. On the contrary, they are very well aware of these places.

For those enamored with the European approach to bicycling, I suggest examining the “shared space” concept.


MIssing link

Somehow a link was not posted with my previous message.

Here it is again:


Ian Sacs's picture

Ian Sacs Responds:

Wayne, thank you for your comments. If you have studies that show bicycling decreases after the introduction of bike lanes, it would be great if you could share them with the Planetizen community. I do agree with you that laws forcing bicyclists into the bike lane exclusively may do more harm than good. However, that is a quirk in some municipalities that skews the benefits of making bicyclists welcome by implementing bike lanes on appropriate roadways.

With respect to your first comment about local residential streets acting as training wheels, I don't disagree. After all, that is where I learned to ride my bicycle as a child. However, most residential neighborhoods in the suburbs have streets with 40-60 mph design speeds (to mimic the winding country road), and are excessively wide, with little if any on-street parking; therefore, driving speeds on these roads are excessively high - ask any parent on any subdivision street - to the point that the only protection afforded is the low traffic volume you mentioned. In urban areas, the low traffic volumes buffer is often lost, which is why bike lanes are so prevelant, and effective, on city streets.


What about the segmentation effect?

I like this, Ian! The bike lanes vs. no bike lanes debate is one that I've heard often but with little substance behind it. And I much agree with the idea that new cyclists are much more comfortable in bike lanes than in mixed traffic. But I wonder: Does the separation of bike lanes segment bicyclists so much from the rest of the street that it blinds drivers to the cyclists traveling next to them? And if so, would driver education best be geared toward a more mixed-mode environment? Are there any statistics to support cyclist safety in bike lanes vs. mixed traffic and even better, where a sound driver/bicyclist education program has been implemented (yeah, I'm dreaming). Just a bunch of questions and I still do tend to lean towards bike lanes (of course, cycle tracks or some other sort of separation would be ideal!) and I can't ignore the success of so many of the world's bicycle cities.

Ian Sacs's picture

mixed vs. lanes

annie, these are good questions. surely segmentation occurs and is a downside; outreach and education help to address this. i am looking into your other question about safety comparison between streets with lanes versus those without. ~ian

Education for drivers too!

Annie touched on a very important point. Driver education [I know that this may not be mandatory everywhere, but it should be!] should include a component about other road users as well. It is not enough for drivers to understand how to operate their own vehicles - they should also understand how other road users (both bicyclists and pedestrians) perceive the road as well.

The only beef I have with bike lanes

Is that their presence or absence suggests to the ignorant motorist--not all, just the ignorant--that cyclists are allowed where there are lanes and are prohibited where there are none.

Educate, educate, educate. And for the love of Pete, if you see a cyclist on the street where the speed limit is over 25+mi/hr, the street should have a bike lane.

Ian Sacs's picture

mine and yours mentality

i agree with you that drivers, and bikers, tend to view dedicated lanes as modal fiefdoms, which is contradictory to both the objective and the letter of the law. ideally there would be much flux in the system. in hoboken, the city of "restaurants, bars, and double parked cars", the new bike lanes get a lot of double parking (upping enforcement is on the agenda), but i can't help to think that the idea of sharing street space is to accept that there will be bikes in car lanes and cars in bike lanes occasionally. i also can't help thinking back to my years of motorcycling around miami where the overwhelming majority of drivers are from latin american countries with large volumes of motorcycles on the street. compared to the almost total lack of regard for motorcyclists by drivers in nyc (and let's not talk about new jersey), i've concluded that miami was special because those drivers were well educated (albeit passively) in awareness of other users. in fact, i gave up riding my motorcycle in nyc/new jersey because i just couldn't find a safe way to do it. so awareness can be done, it will just take (cue george harrison melody) a whole lot of precious time and money.


But I think you can get around that by continuing to include "share the road" signs and sharrows on all roads that need them even as you work on implementing bike lanes and cycletracks and other solutions where they are most helpful. That way you visually reinforce the message that bikes are welcome everywhere (except maybe for freeways), even as you give them separated facilities.

Interestingly, in the Netherlands motorcycles and scooters seem to be allowed the use of separated bike lanes and cycletracks. I think that's a bad idea, because the differential in acceleration and speed is so great that the potential for a collision seems high.

Jake Wegmann

Education seriously is the key.

Having grown up in a rural community I had little choice other than to ride my bike on the road. While it wasn't a very busy stretch of roadway it could still be quite dangerous. Now being a resent college graduate and starting my career (as a transportation planner nonetheless) I'm rediscovering my childhood joy of bike riding.

I started to walk to work, a little over a mile isn't much to walk but when you're running late the car sure looks like the ideal form of transportation. Now after acquiring a new bike for my birthday, I got my last bike in 1995 (age nine), I decided to start riding my bike around the city and to and from work. In the course of three days I have been yelled at and beeped at for riding my bike in the road. Heaven forbid I use my legal right to ride my bicycle on a public thoroughfare.

Sorry for the ramblings of a frustrated biking "fool" but I seriously think that a lack of driver information is at hand here, and not only when it comes to confronting cyclists. There is a real need for driver education reform in America, something truly has to be done.

"yelled at and beeped at"

I love when they tell me they see me. (But when automobile passengers start speaking rudely to me... that's another matter.)

I am learning that the more consistent I behave (ride in a straight line) the more space I am given.

What accident causes will you prevent? Or increase?


Here's why I disagree with you.

I study bicycle accidents. I've been doing so since 1973. I've studied many hundreds in very granular detail.

Accidents have causes. Accident causes boil down to who was looking where and doing what. Traffic law allows us to travel with a surprisingly low level of risk, and when an accident occurs, it is usually because a fundamental principle of traffic law wasn't followed.

Bikelanes usually make things worse, not better. With rare exceptions, they make it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to apply the principles of traffic law for the benefit of the cyclist.

People who want all bikelanes everywhere are enthused about separating the cyclist from motor traffic. But that is a false promise. As an engineer, you know that most collisions occur at intersections. And if you look at the mechanics of how a bike lane gets used, you'll see that it complicates the interaction between bicyclists and other road users at intersections.

Indeed, I have a huge problem with the prospect of using bikelanes to entice novice cyclists onto the roads, where they must out-think the shortcomings of the bikelane designer. You and I know enough about this that we can do that easily. But people have died in bikelane-implicated collisions in Seattle, Portland, Washington, Minneapolis, Cambridge, and Amsterdam. Copenhagen did a study that shows their bikelanes (they put up a little curb and call them "cycle tracks," which doesn't change the fact that they're a kind of bikelane) have greatly increased intersection accidents.

One myth I often hear is that only the young and the fit can make traffic law work for them. It's simply not true. It doesn't require athletic skills. It is the province of grandparents of both genders.

It's _easy_ to teach people how to ride cooperatively with traffic. And it is far safer than painting a bikelane, knowing the awful history of people obeying bikelanes, only to be crushed under truck tires at intersections.

I've written a short essay that touches on some of these issues at:

I'll add more such essays to the web site as time permits.

In addition, you mention the "safety in numbers" concept. The most prominent study on that concept, the Jacobsen study, has been thoroughly discredited. Jacobsen has a nice curve that appears to show a declining accident rate. But you get the same curve when you plug in random numbers. Researchers have done this with both a computerized random number generator and with numbers plucked from the San Diego phone book! Accordingly, Jacobsen's data tells us nothing. He neither proves nor disproves his thesis. He just shows us a mathematical tautology and overstates its (nonexistent) predictive power.

More to the point, one should ask, "If there is a correlation between numbers and safety, why? Are the numbers themselves the causal factor, or are the numbers correlated with another factor that is the true causal factor?" I am certain that if you dig deeper into this question, you will discover that other factors emerge that will make much more solid candidates as causal factors. These include age, experience riding, risk-taking behavior, knowledge of cycling, social pressure to cycle safely (just try being a hot-dog messenger rider in a German city!), role models from peers, and so on.

If you join a charity ride, you'll find a big emphasis on safety instruction. This comes directly from those rides' accident history. A charity ride is full of novices in large numbers, and the accident history indicates a need for novices to be instructed in safe riding.

I'm all for having more novices discover the joy of cycling. I just want to give them a few well-planned hours of instruction to keep their butts safe. (Some common novices behaviors are huge data outliers for risk of serious injury.) The fact that the road has other novices is about as effective as carrying a rabbit's foot.

John Schubert

Safety In Numbers And In Low Speeds

"If there is a correlation between numbers and safety, why? Are the numbers themselves the causal factor, or are the numbers correlated with another factor that is the true causal factor?"

There are obviously many causal factors, but one is clearly that drivers get into the habit of looking for bicyclists if there are lots of bicyclists on the road.

The same is true of pedestrians. It is dangerous to cross the street in a suburban strip mall where you are the only pedestrian because drivers do not look for pedestrians. It is safer to cross the street in a city with many pedestrians, because drivers will be looking for you.

Thus, policies that shift more people to bicycling will make bicycling safer.

I'm all for having more novices discover the joy of cycling. I just want to give them a few well-planned hours of instruction to keep their butts safe.

Instruction in safe riding is obviously a good idea, but I don't know how practical it is. Eg, where I live, thousands of new college students show up every year and start bicycling because that is the easiest way to get around. Even if we provided free lessons in safe riding, the vast majority would not bother to take them.

So what can we do to reduce accidents? One thing is to provide bike lanes, and another is to slow traffic.

The usual argument is bike lanes vs. riding safely in ordinary fast traffic. In this dispute, I come out in favor of bike lanes.

But one way around this usual dilemma is bike boulevards that slow traffic on a network of little used streets to 15 mph and let bikes share the streets with this slow traffic. This seems to be the safest way to do it - even better than bike lanes.

Charles Siegel

Ian Sacs's picture

Bike lanes are not perfect...

John, thank you for taking the time to post your opinions here. I read them through as well as your essay and some more of Fred's topics on the LAB reform site.

Safety: I should start by apologizing for not emphasizing safety/training enough in my original post. Since it's so fundamental, and not the point of my post, I didn't go into details. But I agree completely with you and Fred on this; safety instruction is sorely lacking in America. You say you just want to give each would-be bicyclist a few hours of training, well that's fantastic! I also think the work Transportation Alternatives has been doing lately on emphasizing good behavior for bikers, such as the "bike rules" project, is an excellent example of the next step our cities need to take to accompany bike lanes with safety training.

Bike Lanes: Neither of us has the data to make the case whether bike lanes or no bike lanes is the better, safer option. I was careful to state in my original post that bike lanes are NOT meant to protect bikers and should not be promoted as such. While I appreciate the many anecdotes you provide where bicyclists using bike lanes have suffered terrible injuries or death (and there is no doubt that some of those bikers surely felt protected because they were in a bike lane), I don't know whether these can all be attributable to the presence of bike lanes, or because more people are on bikes than if there were no bike lanes, or because drivers are more frustrated by bikers in larger numbers and make "road rage" decisions, etc. What I do know is that as bicycling volumes grow, more injuries/fatalities are going to undoubtedly occur; that is reality of having more people on the street. Minimizing those numbers is a critical goal, but can you prove this can be done by eliminating bike lanes?

Intersections: Here too, I agree that adding bikes to the mix complicates things, but it's the additional vehicles (bikes), not the lanes that are adding complexity. For the condition you call "coffin corners", I would ask, if there were no bike lane and a car desires to turn right across a bicyclist's path, is the absense of a bike lane going to better protect or prepare a bicyclist? I don't think either one of us has the data to say so. The turning movement is the same whether you are in a bike lane or not; are you suggesting that bikers should shift to the far left of the travel lane at each intersection to prevent cars from cutting them off?

Safety in Numbers: It's not my intent to argue the statistical details here of any study. I don't doubt that studies can be flawed. If that is the case with a particular "safety-in-numbers" study, then fair enough. But are you suggesting that all of these studies are flawed statistically, or in some other way? Moreover, I don't actually need a study to say it's common sense that the more bikes on the road, the more aware drivers are of bikes. Is it illogical to then conclude that more awareness of bikes can lead to improved safety?

Again, I want to stress that I am in no way suggesting that bike lanes make bikers safer, or that they should be used for that purpose. Safety for bicyclists is a shared responsibility between driver and biker; I whole-heartedly agree with you that each needs much more training/education than is currently provided. My argument was that bike lanes communicate a message of inclusion to would-be riders. They are an invitation to ride a bike in a place that would otherwise appear hostile, and getting more people on the road is critical to changing the outdated myth that streets are only for cars.

"Coffin corners" and the "right-hook"

Ian, you stated that "... if there were no bike lane and a car desires to turn right across a bicyclist's path ... The turning movement is the same whether you are in a bike lane or not; are you suggesting that bikers should shift to the far left of the travel lane at each intersection to prevent cars from cutting them off?"

This is not quite accurate:

When riding in the roadway, a bicyclist should be 'appropriating' the necessary road space in order to ride safely. It should not be necessary to shift to the left of the lane at intersections, but the cyclist should not be hugging the shoulder either. A car wanting to turn right should clearly see the cyclist. It is illegal for a car to speed up and turn right in front of another vehicle, and the same applies to cars passing bicycles and turning right. In theory at least. In practice this probably varies by location and the speed of the respective cars/bicycles.

The problem with bike-lanes is that the bicyclists may be outside of the drivers immediate field of vision, depending on the way that the lane is designed. Both the car and the bicyclist have unobstructed lanes. The driver may not notice that there is a bicyclist in their blind spot to the right, and the bicyclist may also have the impression that they are 'protected' while going straight through the intersection. But this "separation" becomes illusory at intersections.

Here are some pictures of a well-designed bike lane which has significantly increased the risk of this exact kind of accident:

Bike lanes safer

I just saw a talk in Boston (at Livable Streets) by Noah Budnick of TA; I can't remember precise numbers, but he referenced two sets of data in his slides that should be added to the conversation here, about bike lanes and about biker #'s and safety:

1. In a recent 10-year historical study of bike crash stats in NYC, among the 100's of crashes resulting in serious injury or death for the biker, only 1 was in a bike lane. The study included the past few years, in which bike lanes have become more prevalent.

2. As more bikers have been added to the streets (as measured by NYC transportation dept. counts), the number (that's number, not rate) of reported accidents has declined.

Ian, since you're a transportation engineer in NYC, perhaps you could verify/quantify these claims.

Ian Sacs's picture

Ian Sacs Replies

steve, transportation alternatives watned to wait on releasing the data you asked about, but it's here finally:

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