As cycling continues to grow more popular around the world, many cities are racing to add bicycle infrastructure. Yet, not all bike paths are created equal. Some lanes are clearly marked and protected from vehicle traffic with trees or other barriers. Others cycle-ways are merely the shoulder of a high-speed highway and offer no protection from moving cars. Just because the sign says “bike lane” does not mean it’s safe for travel.
Increasingly, communities are striving to create cycle tracks that meet “Go Dutch” standards and prioritize safety for multiple forms of transit, not just cars. In the meantime, cyclists – particularly novice cyclists – should stay mindful of the safety of the roads they travel. Here are some things to look out for:
A safe bike lane looks different than a vehicle lane. This helps avoid any confusion about who should travel where. To create the distinction, bike lanes are frequently painted an off-color like green, blue or burgundy (yellow, however, is a less safe choice because it is so common drivers no longer notice it). The lanes might also have bicycle graphics stenciled on to their surface or be surrounded by a designated “buffer” space marked with diagonal lines.
Physically “protected” bike lanes are the safest. Bike lanes can be separated from vehicle lanes using concrete strips, planters, trees, or reflective posts. Many European cities including Barcelona and London – and recently Washington D.C. in the United States – have been adding Zebra Lane Blockers to existing bike lanes. The simple invention creates both a physical and visual barrier without much investment.
Drivers on slower-paced, residential roads are already on the lookout for pedestrian crossings, children at play, and other interruptions. They are much more aware of their surroundings. Try to stay on roads marked 32 kilometers per hour (or 25 miles per hour in the United States) or under. Never attempt roads with speed limits above 35mph/58kph unless you are an advanced cyclist and the lane is clearly segregated from cars.
A significant number of bicycle crashes are caused by people inside parked cars, who carelessly open the door on a cyclist. This type of accident, called “dooring,” is all too common on roads where the bike lane is pushed right up against parallel parking (known as “door zones”). Bikers should look out for roads where they can avoid parallel parking or where they can ride contraflow without interfering with vehicle traffic. By traveling in the opposite direction, bikers are more visible to people inside parked cars. Some of the safest bike paths are placed between parallel parking and the sidewalk, allowing parked cars to serve as a buffer against vehicle traffic.
Vehicle turns are another major source of bike accidents. Too often drivers will assume that if there’s no vehicle traffic, it must be safe to turn. This can be particularly problematic on two-way bike tracks – a driver might check for bikes traveling in one direction, but forget about the other. A truly safe bike path has mindful intersections. Safe infrastructure may include the bike lanes that extend through the intersection with dashed lines, “shared” turning lanes accessible to both cars and cyclists, and separate traffic signals for cycle traffic.