Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Safety and biking infrastructure - segregated vs marked bike lanes

Hopefully I will be back to a more or less regular blog posting schedule now that I am back from my trip overseas. I went to Dublin (Ireland) and Edinburgh (Scotland) for a few weeks of vacation and a couple days of conferencing.  I was lucky enough to get to do some biking both inside and outside of the city (the city being Edinburgh). Today’s post is more of a reflection on biking culture and infrastructure in Ireland and Scotland versus here in Canada. I was only there for a short while so I am sure locals will have much more insight than I; don’t be afraid to let me know if I’ve got something wrong.

Both Dublin and Edinburgh appear to make extensive use of on-street bike lanes. These are generally shared with bus lanes and are often painted red, which makes them impossible to miss by motorists. I noticed continuity of markings and signage (i.e. I as a cyclist knew where I was supposed to be at most times) and priority for cyclists (e.g. areas allocated for cyclists in front of motorists at intersections – see picture below).  Bike lanes also continued on more rural roads, along with pedestrian islands to slow traffic, which you don’t see here in Canada. Even though streets were busy and I had to ride on the opposite side of the road I did not feel scared to be on the road, perhaps because motorists are more cyclist-savvy and no one yells or honks at you.   

On-street marked bike lanes in Dublin, Ireland

The infrastructure in these cities has made me wonder if on-street marked bike lanes are the way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against segregated lanes, but on-street marked lanes would likely be cheaper, more direct, and make fewer people angry (e.g. merchants who lose parking spaces).  Changing our cycling culture requires, at the very least, making friends not enemies (I'll talk about this in an upcoming post). 

I’m just not sure if on-street marked lanes are safer for the average person and I doubt that parents would be more willing to let their children commute anywhere on them versus segregated lanes or a sidewalk.  At the same time, some segregated bike lanes can be dangerous because motorists can’t see you. For example, in Hull, there is a National Capital Commission off-road pathway that crosses three roundabouts; it is blocked to traffic by a wall until you have to cross each roundabout.  Motorists coming into and out of the roundabout are looking for other cars and often nothing else. Cyclists are quicker than pedestrians and may appear out of nowhere to motorists. I have had a few close calls. Being on the street makes you seen and forces motorists to more or less treat you like a car. This is why I cycle on the road in this area, even with motorists motioning to me in some sort of code that I think means I should be using the ‘perfectly good bike lane’ beside me.

I think therefore that a comparison of segregated and on-street marked bike lane safety is beside the point (the evidence shows that both may be beneficial compared to unmodified road ways, and that the sidewalk is the worst). I guess the appeal of segregated lanes is that they may induce feelings of safety, whether real or imagined which could motivate people to actively commute. My point is that we may want to investigate more wide-spread use of on-street marked bike lanes that are highly visible as in Dublin and Edinburgh, and/or with buffer zones as in New York City (see picture below), as these could improve both real and imagined safety in the same way, improve route directness, be more cost-effective, and piss fewer people off.    


Reynolds, C., Harris, M., Teschke, K., Cripton, P., & Winters, M. (2009). The impact of transportation infrastructure on bicycling injuries and crashes: a review of the literature Environmental Health, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1476-069X-8-47


  1. Do you think we need to have a critical mass of people cycling/actively transporting in order to get the 1) political will and 2) mutual respect required to make a system like this effective?

    I look at Montreal as an example - the Bixi system means anyone can bike, but then they also have a great infrastructure so between the Bixi and Metro, you can get everywhere. As a result, there appears to be a better system in place (from my limited experience).

    What are your thoughts? Do you think we should build more cycle friendly roads first, or do you think we need more cyclists to force them to happen? Or do you think they could occur in tandem?

  2. I think this is a complicated phenomenon and am really not well-versed enough in sociology to adequately answer this question. To me it's both, but I think political will comes first (pushed by public advocacy), then comes critical mass, then a change in the social norms (public acceptance)..In reality these three things probably happen in complex feedback loops (maybe we should ask Penny how this could arise!?). I think it is a good question, something that we as researchers don't do enough of...examining the intricacies, uptake, and outcomes (not only health) of upstream population health interventions

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  4. NewMe - apologize for deleting your post - meant only to remove a reference to a swear word.

    Here it is: "This week, on three separate occasions, cyclists raced past me on the sidewalk. Had I decided to move ever so slightly and ended up in the path of of these cyclists (who moved both quickly and silently), I would have been toast. I suffer from both arthritis and degenerative disc problems. Getting hit by a cyclist on the sidewalk would probably mean hospitalization for me and quite possibly permanent and severe damage to my body. I am unbelievably angry and quite frankly terrified. BTW, here in Toronto a man was recently killed by a cyclist who ran him over."

    In reply:

    This is definitely a problem with cycling, as with drivers we have both good and bad cyclists. The sidewalk should only be used by children under the age of (I believe) 12 y.

    It is very tragic that someone was struck and killed by a cyclist. But the reality is that you are much more likely to be hit by a car than a cyclist and the car will do significantly more damage to you as a pedestrian.

    As cycling becomes more popular, interactions between pedestrians will become more common. I'm not sure how to solve this problem, whether it be education in schools and community centers, changing laws. I think though, that New York City's experiences with this (wrt changing the biking/pedestrian/automobile culture) will be invaluable for Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal. Given the benefits of both cycling AND walking over taking the car, I think it's a challenge worth taking up.

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