Bike Lanes: Are They Useful and Safe?

If you are a road bicyclist, you spend a lot of your rides on roads that are either not in the best condition or busy with traffic.  Sometimes, that depends on the time of day you elect to go out for a ride, early morning or late afternoon being the best.  It’s easy to blame these two disparate situations on a couple of factors: not enough money is invested in infrastructure to include cars and bikes so they can coexist in a safe way, which means road cyclists are subject to drivers who may not be aware enough to pay attention, especially if they are distracted by their phones, tired, or under the influence of some substance.

While it’s exciting to see bike lanes get installed, they are often treated as an afterthought by most cities. What results is that these painted in lanes are sometimes too short, quickly become littered with debris, or cars park in them. When bicyclists do get to ride in bike lanes, cars and other vehicles can still get too close. So, are bike lanes useful and safe or just there to convince bicyclists they are safe while they’re out on the road?

The Problem with Bike Lanes

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful whenever I see new bike lanes created, especially when they pop up on roads I frequently tend to ride. That means, for once, I might feel reasonably safe during a part of my ride, if not during all of it.

At other times, I hope I might at least see a “share the road” sign. But in most cases, these signs are a rarity.  They may be yellow with a black image or blue with white text like the ones shown below. The problem is that these signs either appear on just one side of a road, or if it is a long street or road, may only appear once. So, a driver may not even see one of these signs.

The biggest problem is that most drivers see cyclists as a nuisance and will let their point be known by yelling obscenities, throwing objects, or “buzzing” (the act of not observing the 3 feet rule and getting too close) as we cyclists like to call it. I’ve also experienced motorists who become hostile and say “Go ride on the bike path” or they tailgate. Probably, in a lot of cases, these motorists are not aware that bicyclists have every right to be on the road.

That almost makes “share the road” signs and bike lanes negatives. 

Bicyclists often think that motorists should see us anyway and that signs and lanes are not necessary. If that were the case, an emphasis wouldn’t be placed on wearing reflective gear or mounting lights to one’s bike. When it comes to motorists, road bicyclists must ride defensively and assume there are motorists out there who are uneducated about the law, or who believe that bicyclists are an infringement on their rights to the road. 

That is why the point should be made that if a bicyclist were to have an accident, they could claim in court that the driver ignored the “share the road” sign. How well this would work as part of your overall defense, though, it’s hard to say.

Common Myths About Bike Lanes

Bike lanes and “share the road” signs are meant to function as warnings to drivers that there may be bicyclists on the road, a signal for them to be aware and use caution. Do the signs and bike lanes make for safer bike riding? Maybe or maybe not. The truth is some drivers are inherently cautious and appreciate bike lanes and signs while other drivers are just annoyed by cyclists altogether.  In fact, that group likes to invent reasons why bike lanes and signs aren’t safe. Here are some of those myths invented about bike lanes.

  • Bike lanes cause congestion or more traffic than necessary.
  • Hardly any bicyclists use them – This may be because there aren’t enough bike lanes in a particular city or location. That all comes back, of course, to the lack of investment in infrastructure.
  • Bike lanes aren’t good for businesses.
  • They’re a hazard to pedestrians.
  • Bicyclists don’t think traffic laws apply to them.
  • Bikes are impractical and can’t carry or haul anything.
  • This is the U.S. and not the Netherlands or Denmark.
  • Bikes are expensive.
  • Bikes don’t serve any real purpose.

Some of the points above are practical and sound while some of them are just plain ridiculous. True, there are more bicyclists than ever now, but most bicyclists try to avoid main roads. And if there is a large group of bike riders, I would argue those groups aren’t always large and consistent.

I think businesses appreciate the traffic that bikes create for them and see it as a positive. I could go on and on by attacking each one of these myths. The truth is bicycling is good for the environment and one’s health. The United States could become more like Europe where bicycles are more prominent and the activity is more respected. But again, that all comes down to the investment in the infrastructure.

The Truth about Bike Lanes

No, bike lanes are not a perfect solution for bicyclists or drivers.  They won’t protect a bicyclist if a driver decides to be aggressive. However, symbolically, the primary purpose of bike lanes is to keep motor vehicles separated from bicyclists and to offer safety to both.

The truth is that whether bike lanes are separated by physical barriers or just painted on the road, what most determines a bicyclist’s safety is the condition of the road and how bike lanes are constructed.

Street-level bike lanes are impacted by pedestrians who use them, debris, and encounters with motorists if a bicyclist needs to stop or cross a major road. Bike paths or bikeways made specifically for bike traffic are always best and result in the least fatalities.

Infrastructure Promotes Bike Safety

As road cyclists, we tend to seek out roads with low traffic roads that offer a challenge with hills to climb and that are in good condition. I always consider it a nice gift, when a road I regularly ride that may have been in bad shape, gets repaved. However, as bicyclists, we also encounter busier roads where we might be forced to ride in traffic or alongside it, even if that is for a short period of time.

That is why the investment cities place in bicycling infrastructure is so important. Recent research pulled from 13 years of data about 12 large cities where cycling infrastructure is emphasized noted a 51% increase in bike to work activities. That is the result of bike lanes being built in cities like Denver, Dallas, Portland, Oregon, and Kansas City, MO. If you’ve ever been to Portland, you see bike lanes everywhere, even on streets with a low amount of traffic.

Bike lanes do provide some level of safety for bicyclists. The more bike lanes or paths there, the more bicycling will become an important and accepted part of daily life. As bicyclists, this is what we want instead of cringing at the thought of another ride on roads that pose dangers.

After all, the lack of bike-supported infrastructure only means that bicycling and motorist fatalities increase. In fact, over the past 10 years, bicycle and motorist incidents have increased 37%. And in 2019 alone, 1,089 bicyclists lost their lives to run-ins with cars. In 2020, and during the pandemic, which forced more people to stay at home, 675 cyclists were still killed.

Last Thoughts

Bike lanes are a necessary evil but are a good thing for the most part. They are the only places where cyclists can be assured some measure of safety while partaking in their favorite activity. But there is still a lot of work to be done in addressing this issue.

While some cities are now investing in cycling and installing bike lanes and others are turning old railroad lines into designated bike paths, coverage is still spotty at best. So, do bike lanes and bike paths offer “real” safety to bicyclists.?

For the most part, I would say yes, although getting to wear a bike lane is present sometimes might be a challenge. The best thing we can do as bicyclists is all be aware of the environment, the roads, motorists, and pedestrians while out on the ride so that using them is safe for everyone.

Author: Doug McNamee

Freelance Content Writer, Travel Writer, Editor, and poet.

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