Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Cars And Cycle Lanes - Too Close For Comfort

by Peter Walker

A new study has found that motorists leave less room when passing cyclists in a bike lane. Should we avoid riding in them?

Bike blog : cycle lane and helmet

A cyclist in a bike lane on Blackfriars bridge. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Along with running red lights and wearing helmets, the use of cycle lanes is one of those controversial perennials more or less guaranteed to start a debate – if not an actual argument – among cyclists.

The latest salvo comes from a university study which purports to show that where there is a bike lane, motorists tend to give less room to cyclists when they overtake.

Ciaran Meyers, a postgraduate student at Leeds University's Institute for Transport Studies, hopped on his Marin Mill Valley hybridwith a camera mounted on it to measure passing distances.

On a 50mph section of the A6, north of Preston in Lancashire, the readings found that motorists, on average, gave Ciaran an extra 18.1cm of space where there was no marked cycle lanecompared to when there was. On a 40mph section of the same road the difference was 6.8cm, whereas on the 30mph section it was down to 3.7cm, seen as not statistically significant.

John Parkin from the University of Bolton, who also took part in the study, had the following explanation:

In the presence of a cycle lane, a driver is likely to drive between the cycle lane line and the centre line in a position which is appropriate for the visible highway horizontal geometry ahead of the driver. A cyclist within a cycle lane does not seem to cause a driver to adopt a different position in his or her lane. This has important implications for the width of cycle lanes and implies that their width should never be compromised.

I suppose that one thing to note is that these were painted cycle lanes rather than kerbed ones – I can only presume drivers would have been more cautious otherwise.

It's an interesting study nonetheless, and one that makes me think of a much-reported project from several years ago when another university researcher concluded that cars skimmed closer to cyclists wearing helmets. If you remember, Dr Ian Walker also donned a blonde wig to conclude that cars gave even more room to non helmet-wearing female cyclists, or at the very least to stubbly men wearing unsuitable blonde wigs.

So what is it with bike lanes? I encounter a few on my ride to work, and I have to say I don't really like them. I've never really been able say why, but perhaps it is because I sense unconsciously that when I'm in one drivers somehow see me as safe, or zoned off, and so in less need of attention. Of course, some drivers also clearly believe they're just another place to park.

Luckily, despite the efforts of at least one judge, UK cyclists so far remain able to decide whether to use them. Could the real problem simply be that too many UK bike lanes have clearly been designed by people who last rode a bike several decades ago?

Related posts in the Worldchanging archive:

Bike-frastructure 101: Sharrows, Street Parking, Superhighways and More

Tracking Cyclists, Avid and Otherwise

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Bookmark and Share


Nice point...
Actually, it is ironical that cyclists are more encroached upon in their own lanes.

Posted by: Vishal on 11 Sep 09

Nice point...
Actually, it is ironical that cyclists are more encroached upon in their own lanes

Posted by: Vishal on 11 Sep 09

As both a cyclist and a driver, I am a fan of bike lanes. This study points out some interesting psychological behavior but indicates little, if anything, about biker safety. I find that drivers give bikers far too much room when no bike lane is present, which cause safety issues on the road, by encroaching into other driving lanes.

Posted by: Anthony Barberis on 12 Sep 09


and well...
people suck even more when they are driving their cars

I give a one finger salute to the car culture

a bicycle blog from Washington DC

Posted by: gwadzilla on 14 Sep 09

Bicycle lanes would be nice for the major arterial roads in Cleveland Ohio. Motorists don't believe cyclists should be there and can be extremely hostile. I rode down Buckeye today and was honked at twice. At least put down some sharrows or something. Those of us who don't drive are subject to take these less desirable routes when there is no alternative.

Posted by: ben on 15 Sep 09

There are two sides to this. I saw a similar study that concluded that without the bike lane, drivers give cyclists extra room even when it means swerving into the adjacent car lane - making things less safe overall. Bicycle planning is complex and I have reviewed the arguments for and against bike lanes. Where a bike lane is wide enough and handles intersections properly, the fact that cars stay in their lane and cyclists in theirs without altering behavior should not be a problem. Bike lanes are a key to increasing bicycle ridership, because they make average cyclists (as opposed to gung-ho cyclists) feel safe. But where a bike lane is too narrow, is taken up by parked cars, is too close to high speed traffic, or is poorly designed at intersections, safety problems arise.

Posted by: MC on 22 Sep 09

the only results given are the "average" results. to be truly indicative of cyclist safety we need to know the number of cars that came REALLY close and the number that were REALLY far away. perhaps it is the case that the average passing distance when a bike lane was present was quite a safe, comfortable distance. perhaps the bike lane actually helped some people judge what a safe passing distance was. perhaps more drivers came dangerously close to cyclists without a bike lane. perhaps. unless we have the full story there's no way to conclude anything at all from this post.

Posted by: Peter Rogers on 4 Dec 09

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg