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April 28, 2008

Cycle Paths

To people who do not do much road cycling, cycle paths may seem like a good idea. Keep cyclists and cars separated and offer some protection to cyclists. It sounds like a good idea in theory. However, in practice, cycle paths are one of the most dangerous hazards to cyclists. Occasionally, one does see a well designed cycle path, but these examples are very rare. The majority of cycle paths are terrible examples of road design.

Of course one is not obligated to use a cycle path, and many, knowing the hazards common to cycle paths, avoid them completely. The problem with this is that some ignorant car drivers and even law enforcement officers take issue with cyclists not making use of the available cycle path facilities. People need to be more aware of the dangers of cycle paths, and that by asking cyclists to use them you are endangering their lives.

I will outline a few of the most dangerous problems with cycle paths here to illustrate some of the problems.

There are three main classifications of cycle paths.

1: Separate but alongside the road.
2: Part of the road
3: A completely different route to the road.

The third kind of cycle path has no particularly dangerous problems, other than frequently being unmaintained and taking longer routes than the road. These paths are also quite rare. The most common are the first two. Let us first consider the kind of cycle path which is alongside a road but separated from the road by a curb. These paths are often shared with pedestrians, even if they are not supposed to be.

The first major problem with this type of cycle path is that the cyclist no longer has priority over side roads and driveways. This means that in an urban environment the cyclist would have to stop, cross, start every few metres. In addition to this the visibility the cyclist has of hazards emerging from side roads is greatly diminished.

When riding on the road the cyclist both has priority and is moving with the traffic. Accidents are most likely to occur when turning or crossing through traffic, something these cycle paths make cyclists do continuously.

Another problem with these cycle paths is that cars will turn left into the side roads, something the cyclist has little visibility of and cannot prevent. While riding on the road the cyclist can be aware of cars wishing to turn left and move out from the curb slightly to discourage drivers from cutting across their path.

Another problem with these cycle paths is that they are often supposed to be bidirectional, but insufficient room is left. Furthermore, pedestrians often use them (sometimes this is encouraged by signs). Mixing pedestrians and cyclists is a bad idea, pedestrians often move into the path of cyclists at the last minute by mistake. Also, in a 30mph limit a cyclist travelling at 20mph is closer to the speed of a car than a 3mph pedestrian, keeping objects of the same speed grouped is safer.

Another common problem is that the cycle paths are simply far too short. I have seen many which are stupidly short, some less than 5 metres, for which I have no explanation of what the designer was thinking. Even the longest cycle paths are rarely longer than a mile or so. When cycling at 20mph there’s really no point leaving the road and dealing with additional hazards only to have to rejoin it very shortly. Rejoining the road is often dangerous, the cyclist must merge with a stream of moving fast traffic. Often the point at which the cycle path rejoins the road comes with no warning and is at a point of road with particularly poor visibility, such as after a bend.

The other common type of cycle path is where a section of the road is marked off as being a cycle path. This is significantly better than the separated cycle paths as it only suffers from some of the above problems. The cyclist has priority over side roads and is moving with the traffic. However, there are other problems with these cycle paths.

The first is that they are often full of static hazards. They are typically located at the sides of roads and not very wide. Sunken drain covers often occupy nearly the entire width, forcing the cyclist to swerve in and out of the cycle path, in and out of the flow of traffic. Car drivers also seem to think that these cycle paths are synonymous with car parks, also forcing cyclists to continuously swerve in and out of the cycle paths.

Of course these hazards would exist whether or not the edge of the road was designated a cycle path. The problem is that the cycle path encourages cyclists to stay at the edge of the road as long as possible and swerve late. Whereas the safest course is to move out as soon as an obstacle becomes visible, making your intention clear to car drivers. Unfortunately in an urban environment this means there’s little opportunity to actually enter the cycle path at all.

Another problem I have observed with these cycle paths is that they encourage car drivers to encroach from side roads. They seem to think that a cycle path is an extension of the side road. Of course this encroaching is often necessary for the driver to get better visibility or get out at all in busy conditions. However, I have observed when a cycle path is present the driver is much more likely to use it when it is not necessary. Even though the cycle path is part of the road the emerging drivers believe they have priority over the cyclists.

Another problem with these cycle paths is that the encourage filtering past static or slow traffic on the left. Car passengers habitually open car doors into this space without checking the mirrors. Cars will also move left into the cycle path space to avoid hazards or to turn left. Drivers are also far less conscientious about checking their left hand mirrors than their right hand mirrors, as other than cyclists there’s unlikely to be anything there. These reasons make it much safer to pass static traffic on the right hand side, down the middle of the road. While this might seem scary it also offers the cyclist a better view of the road, there is usually also more space available in the centre of the road.

There are lots more problems with cycle paths, such as them being unmaintained and covered in glass, These are just the main hazards that mean that using a cycle path greatly increases the risk of a collision.

There are of course some well designed cycle paths that do not suffer from these flaws, but these are so rare that unless you know a cycle path well you’re better off avoiding it in case it’s dangerous.

A better solution than cycle paths everywhere would be to make the roads wider instead of adding poorly designed cycle paths that assume you the designer knows better than the cyclists and drivers who actually know the road and conditions. Wider roads allow drivers to pass cyclists with ease and cyclists to ride safely. As for cyclists who crawl along at 5mph they could just be allowed to use the pavements.

The best tactics for avoiding collisions in an urban environment are to cycle fast and cycle wide. Cycle fast and you’re closer to the speed of the traffic, which gives drivers more time to react and less urgency to pass. Cycle wide and you’re more visible, moving out to avoid potential hazards when passing side roads or rounding tight bends which reduce visibility. It’s important to not stay wide when unnecessary though, and to allow cars to pass whenever safe.

A common car driver complaint is that with the cyclists on the road, often cycling wide it’s difficult to pass them. There seems to be some hostility between car drivers and cyclists, car drivers thinking they have more right to use the roads than cyclists. It’s worth bearing in mind that if all the cyclists were not cycling but in cars they would be harder to pass, and be increasing the congestion and pollution on the roads. So the cyclists are in fact doing you a favour. Most cyclists are probably car drivers as well so also contributing to the upkeep of the roads.

If a cyclist is riding too wide for you to pass he or she will probably let you past at a convenient time. Unobstructed by glass and a big metal cage the cyclist has a much better view of the road surface and overall road conditions than you do.

With a little mutual respect everyone can stay safer. Please stop building cycle paths without consulting cyclists, and please don’t get angry when cyclists prefer to stay alive and do not use them.

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