The Dangers of Cycle Paths

First published in Bicycle fixation August 2008

by Ian Fiddies (August 2008)

Cycle paths are something that have bothered me for many years. Are cycle paths the best way to promote cycling? I’ve lived and cycled in European cities that had almost no cycle infrastructure at all and in cities with a comprehensive network of cycle paths where the cyclist hardly ever needs to cycle on the road. When I moved from London, UK to Gothenburg, Sweden in 1990 I remember feeling extremely frustrated by the cycle paths. I was used to what could be called vehicular cycling. In London I had been the fastest thing on the road but in Gothenburg I wasn’t. And that’s a hard blow for a young man in his early twenties. Although not quite a hard enough blow to stop me cycling. Later the same year 1990 I was visiting London together with my Swedish partner, who was a regular cyclist in Gothenburg. Try as I might I never managed to persuade her to take to the streets of London on a bike a second time. The first time was enough.

Now almost twenty years down the road I’ve learnt to appreciate the cycle paths of Sweden. I enjoy having my own separate lane. Riding in heavy traffic is a stress factor I’m quite happy to do without thank you. I shall now explain why I am against cycle paths. Yes that’s right: I am against cycle paths, and yes, again I prefer cycling on a separated cycle path to riding in heavy traffic. These are not contradictory views although at first sight they might appear to be. I shall explain.

The best place to start is to discuss what a cycle path is. By a cycle path I mean a paved roadway that physically separates cyclists from other motorised road users. When the bicycle was invented there was no need for cycle paths. There is only one reason to build cycle paths, and that is to separate cyclists from fast moving motorised vehicles. This could be seen as a win-win situation: the cyclists get a greater sense of security, and the car drivers don’t have to slow down for cyclists.

Today in most of Northern Europe it is standard praxis to separate cyclists from traffic travelling faster than 30kmh (20mph). Separating cyclists from fast moving traffic in cities is, in my view, a sensible idea. Most people would agree that this is beneficial, and those who disagree are almost all men with an above average level of cycling proficiency. The apparent win-win of the cycle path is why it is politically possible to get funding to build them. A compromise that makes everyone happy…but in reality this compromise leaves the cyclist with by far the short end of the stick. Cycle paths negatively affect the travel time ratio between bikes and cars. In cities without cycle paths the bicycle is almost always the fastest thing on the road. This is far from being the case in a city with a comprehensive cycle network, where a car is often faster than a bike. The exception to this seems to be The Netherlands, but this is mainly due to other measures restricting access for motorised traffic.

Obviously a cyclist can potentiality travel just as fast on a cycle path as on a road; the same laws of physics apply. But this only happens if the cycle path is built to take the shortest way, and cars are forced to take a more roundabout route and to give way to cyclists at junctions. This is unfortunately seldom the case with cycle paths.

By providing cycle paths, a city implies that cyclists should use them. A driver might naturally think along lines of, “I don’t drive on the cycle path, what’s that cyclist doing on my road?” In Sweden it is even stipulated in the traffic codes that cyclists should always use the cycle path when there is one. This has the effect of reducing the amount of paved area a cyclist can choose to cycle on, thus directly increasing the distance to be travelled. Crows do not follow cycle paths. Signal-controlled road junctions also tend to slow down cyclists. It is quite normal for a cyclist waiting to turn right to have to cross two sets of traffic signals, one to go forward and then another to cross over. No other road users except pedestrians ever have to wait for two signals to cross one junction.

As I have previously mentioned, in cities without cycle paths the cyclist usually is the fastest form of transport. Any rational person wishing to make a journey would obviously choose a bicycle as the optimum mode of transport. Not only is the bicycle the most economically-viable mode of transport it is the quickest. Why then are not 99% of all journeys in cities on bikes? One obvious answer is the traffic. The bike might be quicker and cheaper, but one does have to be a bit brave to cycle in a city like New York. By building separate cycle paths you increase the feeling of safety, which means that more people dare to cycle–but segregating the cyclists reduces the amount of space a cyclist has to move on. This increases the actual distance needed to travel and therefor the door-to-door travel time. At the same time this allows the motorised traffic to travel faster by getting the “terrible” cyclists out of the way. Suddenly the time-pressed city dweller finds that the car is the fastest way to get there.

For cyclists it is natural to demand infrastructure that allows cyclists to move around without having to fight for space with often quite aggressive drivers. But my question is quite simply this: shouldn’t the bicycle be the quickest way of travelling even in cities that profess to cater for cyclists? As a cyclist, I am the only road user that has a positive economical effect for the city. I don’t pollute, I hardy make any noise, and I require a minimum of space. Why shouldn’t cyclists be fastest? After all its not the bikes that cause problems, it’s the cars.

My second problem with cycle paths is the safety aspect. I have discussed this in depth in my article “The safety paradox” last year. Cycle paths increase cyclist safety, but only because they encourage more people to cycle. The greatest factor affecting the safety of cyclists is the number of cyclists on the road. Safety in numbers. The problem is that I have seen no evidence that cycle paths are actually safer. If anything the accident rate on cycle paths appears to be higher than for road cycling. This causes me a problem. As an advocate of cycling, should I really be lobbying for infrastructure that I am personally convinced is less safe? Aren’t we cyclists worth more than that?

It is possible that cycle paths are a necessary stage in development of sustainable urban transport planning. But I suggest that they are a transitory stage and do nothing to solve the actual problem, which is the number and speed of private cars on the road. What cycle paths do is to encourage more people to cycle, and the greater the number of cyclists in a city the better the chance of getting real progressive traffic planning decisions.

What I want and expect to see is a gradual dismantling of a great many cycle paths in Northern Europe over the next decade or so. With the introduction of traffic calming measures, we should remove the dangers that make cycle paths seem like a good idea. It appears to me that in Europe this is slowly happening. It is not for me to say whether the cycle path is the way forward in North America–it might be the only option–but cycle paths are not the ultimate solution.

The problem is the mix of cyclists and motorised traffic travelling faster than 30kmh (20mph). There are only three possible solutions. Getting rid of the cyclists would solve the problem–we tried that one first. The second approach was to separate the bikes from the cars–and I hope I’ve explained that this is less than satisfactory. That leaves only one possible solution left to try: target the cars!

My suggestion for cycling advocates is to view cycle paths as a last resort. Something to ask for when no other solution is to be found. If you are going to look to Europe for good examples of cycle planning, then surely it is best to draw attention to the absolute best examples. The world leaders in cycling, rather than the average or even the above average (see further reading). The private car is the problem; therefore it is hardly surprising that the cities that have been most successful in promoting cycling have actively focused on reducing car usage.

Methods that reduce the use of private cars in a city are not so politically unpalatable as they might seem at first sight. I have yet to see an urban area with reduced car access that has not been a financial success. It pays to be cycle friendly in more ways than one.

I urge you to think beyond cycle paths as much as possible. Any city that implemented the following measures would need very few cycle paths.

  • Slow down the other traffic with a blanket speed limit of 30kmh (20mph) in all urban areas. Other speeds can be allowed but as an exception. If there’s no sign, it’s 30kmh, simple as that.
  • The 30kmh rule has the side effect of reducing overall journey time by car, so it is important to actively focus on the travel time ratio for bikes over cars by reducing car access to places. It is enough to be able to reach every part of a city by car; it doesn’t have to be easy or fast.
  • Remove on-street parking for cars; this is an incredible waste of urban space, and those car door are sharp.
  • Get rid of all the junk. Pavements, traffic signs, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights and everything else that has the function of regulating the interactions between road users. This forces people to look, think, and communicate with each other in traffic.

If that doesn’t work then a cycle path will do at a pinch but please remember cycle paths are second best and fail to address the real problem, too much motorised traffic. I’m sure you all agree with me that cyclists deserve the best. We’re worth it!

Further reading (all PDF files):

World Transport Policy & Practice. Volume 13, Number 3 (The introduction by John Whitelegg highlights some of the problems that have hindered cycle promotion in the UK)Fietsberaad, publication 7 (Fietsberaad have produced a lot of relevant material in English and are well worth a regular Google)

Get on That Bicycle and Ride! (by Ian Fiddies and Liv Markström)


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