Everyone favors safe cycling, but bike lanes are not safe. This was demonstrated once again with the tragic death of U.S. State Department foreign service officer Sarah Langenkamp on August 25.
Langenkamp, who had recently returned from serving in Ukraine, was biking during daylight, in a bike lane on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, returning from a meeting at her child’s school, when a Volvo flat-bed truck turned right from the road into a parking lot and hit her. Her injuries were fatal.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 938 cyclists were killed on the roads in 2020, the latest available data. That’s up by 9 percent from 2019 and the highest number since 1987. Injuries were estimated at 10,171, down 21 percent from the previous year.
It’s time to rethink the concept of bike lanes as a safe space for cyclists. Why? Because it’s impossible to structure bike lanes without vehicles turning into these lanes to get to underground garages, above-ground parking lots, and to make right or left turns at intersections.
In the case of Langenkamp, the truck driver was turning to go to a commercial strip area and did not see her. The bike lane at that location, where I have ridden many times, is narrow and without protection from car lanes. However, even when bike lanes are protected from car lanes with a line of parked cars or a physical barrier, it is still necessary to have entryways so that cars can get to businesses or make turns.
The problem was originally described by industrial engineer John Forester in his 800-page book Effective Cycling, which boasted seven editions ( MIT Press, 2012).
Forester estimated that accidents on bike lanes are 2.6 times higher than on roadways, because bike paths are more dangerous. He forecast more car-bike collisions, because it is difficult to make intersections between cycle lanes and roads as safe as normal roads. Almost 90 percent of urban accidents were caused by crossing or turning—either by the cyclist failing to obey the rules of the road or the motorist turning into the cyclist, as happened in the case of Langenkamp.
Writing about California plans for bike lanes, Forester stated, “Nobody with traffic-engineering training could believe that [bikeway] designs that so contradicted normal traffic-engineering knowledge would produce safe traffic movements.... If these designs had been proposed for some class of motorized traffic—say, trucks or motorcycles—the designers would have been considered crazy.”
Jan Heine, editor-in-chief of Bicycle Quarterly, wrote, “Any barrier that separates the cyclist visually from other traffic effectively hides the cyclist. This is counterproductive to safety. Moving cyclists out of the roadway altogether, on separate bike paths, is even more dangerous, because drivers don’t look for (or cannot see) cyclists off to the side.” He continued, “On streets with frequent intersections, separate paths only make cycling less safe. I wish those who advocate for them would look at the data and stop asking for facilities that will cause more accidents.”
Although the U.S. Department of Transportation recommends bike lanes, other studies have reached similar conclusions to Forester and Heine, such as a 2019 analysis of bike lanes and crashes in Colorado (which includes a literature review). The author concluded that separated bike lanes raise the number of crashes by 117 percent compared with shared roadway. Separated bike tracks, which are separated from cars by a median strip, parking lane, or row of plantings, increased crashes 400 percent more than a bike lane.
In many urban settings the safest place for a bike is in the middle of a car lane, with bike lights and a helmet lamp for the rider, cycling behind vehicles rather than beside them. Naturally, cyclists have no place on urban or interstate highways. Cyclists should operate with the same rules as motor vehicles, stopping at STOP signs and traffic lights, and signaling when they turn.
All states need to educate drivers, as part of driving tests, to treat cyclists respectfully, just as they treat other vehicles respectfully. For example, as part of the driving and licensing curriculum, states could require a technique used in the Netherlands, called the Dutch Reach. Drivers are taught to open car doors with their right hand, to force them to check for approaching cyclists.
Despite their dangers, bike lanes are proliferating. One example: the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation is planning multiple more bike lanes, including one on each side of Connecticut Avenue. This particular bike lane would reroute 7,020 vehicles each day onto local streets, according to the DC Department of Transportation.
District residents have pointed out that the plan does not account for how people would cross the bike lanes to board buses; where rideshare vehicles, taxis, and delivery drivers would pick up and drop off people and goods; how people who use wheelchairs and walkers would cross the bike lanes; and where trucks would unload. All these functions pose dangers to cyclists because potential obstacles require them to stop suddenly or to swerve out of the bike lane and into traffic.
Cities are spending millions of dollars on bike lanes. That money could be better used for other purposes, such as app-based intelligent transportation systems that would connect drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, and alert them to potential crashes.
Bike lanes give cyclists and drivers a false sense of security, leading to increased accidents. Cyclists should be aware that the term Protected Bike Lane is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It’s time to change.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianafurchtgott-roth/2022/09/08/bike-lanes-dont-make-cycling-safe/?sh=21e17bc64ca8