Everyone favors bike safety, but bike paths are not safe. This was demonstrated once again with the tragic death of US State Department Foreign Service Officer Sarah Langenkamp on August 25.
Langenkamp, who had recently returned from duty in Ukraine, was biking during the day, in a bike path on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, returning from a meeting at her child’s school, when a Volvo flatbed truck veered right off the road into a parking lot and hit her. His injuries were fatal.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 938 cyclists were killed on the roads in 2020, according to the latest available data. That’s a 9% increase from 2019 and the highest number since 1987. Injuries were estimated at 10,171, down 21% from the previous year.
It’s time to rethink the concept of cycle paths as a safe space for cyclists. Why? Because it is impossible to build bike lanes without vehicles entering these lanes to access underground garages, surface parking lots and to make right or left turns at intersections.
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In Langenkamp’s case, the truck driver was turning into a shopping area and did not see her. The bike path at this location, where I have ridden several times, is narrow and unprotected from the car lanes. However, even when bike lanes are protected from car lanes by a line of parked cars or a physical barrier, there is still a need for entrances for cars to get to businesses or make turns.
The problem was originally described by industrial engineer John Forester in his 800-page book Efficient Cycling, which had seven editions (MIT Press, 2012).
Forester estimated that crashes on bike lanes are 2.6 times higher than on roads because bike lanes are more dangerous. It predicted more car-bike collisions, as it is difficult to make intersections between cycle paths and roads as safe as normal roads. Nearly 90% of urban accidents were caused by crossings or bends, either by the cyclist not respecting the rules of the road, or by the motorist turning into a cyclist, as happened in the case of Langencamp.
Writing about California’s plans for bike lanes, Forester said, “Nobody with a background in traffic engineering could believe that [bikeway] designs so contrary to normal knowledge of traffic engineering would produce safe traffic movements… If these designs had been proposed for a certain class of motorized traffic – for example, trucks or motorcycles – the designers would have were considered crazy.
Jan Heine, editor-in-chief of Quarterly Bike, wrote: “Any barrier that visually separates the cyclist from other traffic effectively hides the cyclist. This is counterproductive for security. Moving cyclists off the roadway, onto separate bike lanes, is even more dangerous, as drivers don’t look for (or can’t see) cyclists to the side. He continued: “On streets with frequent intersections, separate paths only make cycling less safe. I wish those who defend them 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 accidents in Colorado. (which includes a review of the literature). The author concluded that separate bike lanes increase the number of accidents by 117% compared to shared carriageway. Separate cycle lanes, which are separated from cars by a median strip, parking lane or row of plantings, increased accidents by 400% more than a cycle lane.
In many urban settings, the safest place for a bicycle is in the middle of a car lane, with bicycle lights and a helmet lamp for the cyclist, who is riding behind vehicles rather than next to them. Naturally, cyclists have no place on urban or interstate highways. Cyclists must ride with the same rules as motor vehicles, stop at STOP signs and traffic lights, and signal when they are turning.
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All states must educate drivers through road tests to treat cyclists with respect, just as they treat other vehicles with respect. For example, as part of the driving and licensing program, states could require a technique used in the Netherlands, called Dutch Reach. Drivers are taught to open car doors with their right hand, to force them to check for approaching cyclists.
Despite their dangers, cycle paths are multiplying. An example: the Washington, DC Department of Transportation is planning several more bike lanes, including one on each side of Connecticut Avenue. This particular bike lane would redirect 7,020 vehicles each day to local streets, according to the DC Department of Transportation.
District residents noted that the plan does not consider how people would cross bike lanes to board buses; where ride-sharing vehicles, taxis and delivery drivers would pick up and drop off people and goods; how people using wheelchairs and walkers would cross cycle paths; and where the trucks would unload. All of these features pose hazards to cyclists as potential obstacles force them to stop suddenly or pull out of the bike path and into traffic.
Cities spend millions of dollars on bike lanes. That money could be better spent on other purposes, such as app-based intelligent transport systems that would connect drivers, pedestrians and cyclists and warn them of potential accidents.
Bike lanes give cyclists and drivers a false sense of security, leading to an increase in accidents. Cyclists should be aware that the term protected cycleway 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