Are painted cycle lanes dangerous?

The planned Major Cycleways for Christchurch will comprise a mixture of treatments: separated bikeways, shared paths, and quiet streets (“neighbourhood greenways”). These are designed to attract a lot of new “interested but concerned” people to cycling (or cycling more) who are a bit threatened when faced with too much motor traffic nearby. What’s not expected to be a major part of these main routes are conventional on-road painted cycle lanes.

A typical painted cycle lane in Christchurch

Christchurch has developed a significant network of such cycle lanes over the decades, on more than 100km of roads. Along with the network of off-road pathways, they have probably contributed to holding cycling use in Christchurch reasonably static when most of the country’s cycling use was declining. But along the way, cycle lanes have received a bit of a bad rap. They even contributed to a moratorium on cycleway construction here in Christchurch back in 2005, with then City Councillors calling many of them “unsafe”.

So do cycle lanes deserve this reputation? Perhaps surprisingly there has been relatively little research internationally about the safety of cycle lanes (although that is starting to be redressed). A common problem is the lack of good cycle crash data, and an even harder problem is a lack of good cycle count data. The latter is important because cycle count numbers might change when a cycle lane is built. If, say, a new cycle lane attracts double the previous number of riders but crash numbers go up by only 50% then the crash rate per cyclist has actually fallen by 25%.

Fortunately, Christchurch has relatively good crash data and cycle count data going back since before 2000. So a recent study took advantage of that to investigate the effect of constructing twelve new cycle lane routes around the city in the mid-2000s. These were a fairly standard collection of on-road cycle lanes, some next to the kerbside and some next to parking. The results were presented at last year’s IPENZ Transportation Conference in Dunedin (see conference paper – PDF).

The cycle lane sections studied in Christchurch

Cycle crash and count data for each site were collected for about five years each side of construction. This enabled a comparison of “crash rates” (per cycle-km travelled) before and after the cycle lane treatments. To check that the results weren’t being affected by other external factors, three other cycle lane sections constructed before 2000 were used as “control” sites over the same period. The small crash numbers (often less than 1 per year per site) mean that the results for each individual site can vary a bit. But collectively, there was a very impressive 23% reduction in cycle crash rates after the installation of cycle lanes.

Overall cycle lane safety findings

The results suggest that well-designed cycle lanes help improve the safety of those using them. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including:

  • A visible reminder to motorists of the possible presence of people cycling
  • Providing a more consistent line for those cycling and driving
  • Shifting riders a bit further away from the problematic door zone
  • For some sites, removal of car parking on one side to fit the cycle lanes in

Note that I said “well designed” – fortunately most of Christchurch’s cycle lanes have been provided with industry best-practice widths and layouts (although we can all think of a few pinchpoints…). Unfortunately the same can’t be said for some narrow, stop-start cycle lanes around the country and that can make the cure worse than the disease; poor maintenance also doesn’t help their usefulness.

It is for this reason that Christchurch is likely to continue to provide on-road painted cycle lanes where they are warranted on busier routes that are not part of the Major Cycleway network. They are a very cost-effective way to provide some safer space for cycling. But it is also accepted that they won’t be the way to get more people cycling – and that’s where the Major Cycleways Programme comes in…

What do you think of painted cycle lanes?

9 thoughts on “Are painted cycle lanes dangerous?”

  1. I think it depends whether they are safe or unsafe. I feel safe on most cycle lanes in town but there is no way I will have our six year old biking on them. Most people who cycle frequently will might feel reasonable safe on them because they are aware of the risks (opening car doors, encroaching traffic etc.) However for a quite few people cycle lanes might not offer the protection they need which means they will not consider cycling as a serious means of transport. It would be great we could offer infrastructure that also would accommodate people who are not confident riders: kids, people with slight disabilities, older people or just more risk adverse people. Cycling lanes might be still adequate when used in low volume traffic environments.

  2. The painted lines on Manchester St heading north toward Bealey Avenue feel safe enough , traffic is often light and there aren’t many areas where cars continually pull in and out of parks . By continuing them through to Edgeware Road T intersection would improve the whole journey, city to Edgewqare. Of course following through to treat Edgeware Road in the same manner may have a traffic calming effect that residents and shoppers have been hoping for the 29 years that I have been living in the area

  3. I don’t see how painted cycle lanes can hurt. They definitely will never be as good as a proper separated cycleway, but they must be better than nothing. As a car driver, you tend to position your car around the middle of the painted lane. If the cars are naturally half a metre to a metre further to the right than they’d otherwise be, that has to help. Plus it just creates the impression in the mind of the driver that this is a space for cyclists. The main danger is if painted lanes start being called and thought of as cycleways or cycle infrastructure, but based on what this article says, that isn’t the case.

  4. It’s a no-brainer that cycle lanes are safer than merging cyclists into vehicle (truck / bus / car) lanes. As Rich says, painting a cycle lane requires vehicles to move toward the center of the road leaving more space and safety margin for vulnerable cyclists. CCC has Infrastructure Design Standards (IDS2010) that requires precisely this but CCC staff are refusing to implement it as was revealed at the new Yaldhurst Living G zone subdivision. The safety audit has now revealed these serious dangers.

    Staff not only eliminated the required cycle lanes but they reduced the carriageway width such that cyclists can not be safely passed at all (3.2m is the width to be shared by cyclists, public transport, trucks and cars on this busy commercial & residential collector road.

    Thank you “Cycling in Christchurch/LennyBoy” for keeping us informed.

      1. So one place painted lanes aren’t working well is Moorehouse, especially the bit between Deans Ave and Lincoln Rd where drivers are going really quite fast. Too narrow, and scary.

        On Papanui Road I regularly notice delivery vehicles parked on the cycle lane, despite the yellow lines on their left. Quite annoying to have to swing out into car traffic to avoid them. I’m going to start photographing them and complaining to the council, I think.

  5. I generally agree with the provision of painted cycle lanes. My objection is that there has been little driver education on their use. Speaking with a number of reasonably sensible motorists brings a number of unexpected responses. 1. 1 person lauded cycle lanes as a means of corralling cyclists so that she could go faster and not have to think about cyclists 2. 2 drivers thought that the white lines on open roads were cycle lanes and were appalled that cyclists were riding outside thm (they denote the edge of the roadway). 3. 1 driver thought you could park in them e.g to take a cell phone call

  6. Cycle lanes by themselves are ok provided they are in the proper location and properly designed. Not on a high volume road, high speed road, a road with a lot of heavy vehicles like busses or trucks. (the 3 reasons for separating cycles from traffic in The Netherlands) or heavily used on road parking.
    The more traffic, the higher the change of an accident. Heavy traffic, more chance of fatalities, etc.
    The aim with decent cycle infrastructure is to create a safe environment (objective and subjective).
    So you want to minimise the conflicts. But it is the art of finding the balance with the constraints. My opinion: do it right, not half-hearted.
    Something else:
    Everybody knows that most of the accidents happen at intersections. So the question is more how are we dealing with a cycle lane approaching an intersection. (but that is another chapter).

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