By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
The new highway code advises cyclists to use bike lanes where provided. But cycling organisations say this will make travelling on two wheels more dangerous. How come?
Shattered glass. Strewn rubbish. Parked cars. Deep drains. Jarring potholes. Lanes barely wider than a bike (sans rider). Lanes of a few metres. Or that switch from one side of the road to the other.
Such is the state of many of the cycle routes that criss-cross our towns and countryside. Yet these are the very facilities intended to encourage people onto their bikes.
And now the Driving Standards Agency, part of the Department for Transport, has released a draft highway code advising that cyclists should use bike lanes where provided.
The CTC, the UK's national cyclists' organisation, has collected thousands of signatures in a campaign to try to get the new wording changed. They fear that this advice could actually put cyclists at risk; that drivers' insurance companies will try to avoid paying damages to cyclists injured after riding in the road rather than a nearby cycle path.
But cyclists have told BBC Radio 4's PM that they have good reason to ride in the road, as bike lanes are often badly designed, even dangerous.
- "In Battersea there is a cycle path on the pavement which has a beautiful tree in the middle of it."
- "A cycle facility near me has five gates to negotiate in half a mile (involving slowing down, stopping, opening the gate, going through, shutting the gate, back on the bike etc)... or I could use the road."
- "Our cycle lanes offer poorer visibility than the road, run dangerously near lamp posts and road signs, and are not respected by pedestrians."
- "In 2003 I rode from John O'Groats to Lands End and attempted to use cycle lanes where possible. On too many occasions I found myself in situations which were potentially more dangerous than staying on the road, where cyclists have a legal right."
Among the most controversial is on London's Blackfriars Bridge, which leaves riders exposed in the middle of the road, sandwiched between three lanes of traffic. Near-identical replicas have been rolled out across the country.
Cyclists on Blackfriars Bridge
Within two weeks of the lane opening in 2004, a cyclist died after being hit by a bus. The cycle lane has since been remodelled and a consultation process begun. A further redesign is on the cards which will move cyclists to the side of the road.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman says that the new highway code is open to consultation and cyclists are welcome to make their views known. In addition she says the government is committed to making cycling a safe and attractive option for everyone, and that it is best practice to use cycle lanes and to wear a helmet.
This year local authorities plan to spend more than £35m on dedicated cycling initiatives, she says. Other money is available for cycle training in schools, and schemes to improve local cycling networks.
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Emily Thornberry MP, chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary cycling group, says she herself has come a-cropper in a cycle lane - a cab bumped into her from behind, knocking her off her bike.
One of the complaints about cycle lanes is that motorists no longer notice bikes. Drivers will typically give a cyclist a wide berth, or give way at intersections; where there's a bike lane, the motorist will drive close to the line (as with any road marking), squeezing the cyclist into the gutter.
"Most bikes are a metre wide, yet most cycle lanes are only about that - if not less," says Howard Boyd, the CTC's transport policy adviser.
Another cycling MP, Conservative Andrew Robathan, supports the campaign to change the draft highway code.
"What I'd like to see the highway code say is what it said when I passed my driving test - that every motorist should give a cyclist a six-foot berth, so that if a cyclist falls off, the motorist doesn't hit him."
Lanes that take cyclists away from traffic, whether parallel to roads or dedicated routes, often have the effect of the rider no longer being regarded as traffic, says Mr Boyd.
"At intersections drivers are less likely to give way. Then there are the personal safety issues - is it lit, swept, a risk of people being mugged?"
Rather than put money into expensive cycle lanes, he says there are better ways to encourage more people to cycle, more safely.
"When London introduced its congestion charge, overnight there were more cycle journeys made and few accidents involving cyclists. It's schemes like that we should be supporting."
He adds that cycle lanes only provide comfort to inexperienced riders. "The money would be better spent on cycle training for adults and children so they no longer need this false sense of security."
And therein could lie the rub. If cyclists don't like to use bike lanes, will local authorities question whether it's worth throwing money at facilities few will use. For cycle lanes don't come cheap, costing up to £60,000 a mile.
Here is a selection of your comments.
I am a member of the Essex CTC - here's a pic from Southend-on-Sea, a prime example of ignorance against other traffic participants, let alone the Highway Code, for the van is obviously standing on double yellows. Nor am I impressed by the local planning authority re directions or consistent cycling opportunities alongside normal traffic.
Here's a very short length of bike lane in Coventry. There's a pedestrianised area behind the camera with a proper bike lane running through it. The bit of lane pictured seems to be a continuation of this despite being only a few meters long.
Mike Downey Coventry
A cycle lane contributed to my only serious accident to date - Thames Water had left a sizeable and deep hole slap-bang in the middle of a downhill stretch of cycle lane on Ladbroke Grove. I suffered a broken collarbone, and only a miracle meant that I was not also hit by a vehicle. I'm a fan of anything that will improve the cycling experience, but this type of compulsion when current levels of provision are so variable is a nonsense.
Lucy Bevan, UK
One cycle path in Newcastle has a flight of steps in it and crosses a dual carriage way - it's not for the faint-hearted.
Andy, Newcastle upon Tyne
You should link to the Warrington Cycle Campaign's Facility of the Month site. Hilarious examples of terrible bike lanes.
Simon Rumble, London, UK
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In the 1930s cycle lanes were constructed in part of Middlesbrough to allow cyclists to get to their place of work, the steelyards etc. I used to cycle that way in the 50s. The bike-only lanes were full of debris - broken bottles, shards of steel, wire and other industrial rubbish. They were NEVER swept, so I never used them. They are STILL like that today.
B W Moore, Stockton on Tees
My daughter used to cycle to school with me along shared use (pedestrian and cyclist) paths. One morning a Lycra-clad cyclist coming toward us saw me, swerved, hit my daughter (aged 9), she fell into the road in the path of oncoming traffic, and the other cyclist crashed into a lamppost. My daughter had a badly broken arm, and the cyclist had concussion. I later found that none of these cycle paths fulfilled DfT recommendations. They should be 1.5m wide with a 50cm verge between cyclists and the road. Where my daughter was knocked off, it was 80cm to 1m wide, with a tree in it nearby. Now my daughter is too frightened to cycle except on cycle paths well away from road traffic.
Irene Stratton, Oxford
We have some wonderful off-road paved cycle paths that run through most of the city, but when it comes to trying to use the cycle lanes on the roads, it's a nightmare. They randomly start and stop, drivers ignore them, pedestrians run in front of cyclists. I still cycle to work whenever we aren't inundated with snow, since I can manage it mostly off-road.
Arianna, Ottawa, Canada
It already is a £30 non-endorsable offence to drive in a cycle lane, but not in 'advisory' cycle lanes. If it is being made mandatory to cycle in these, then it only seems fair that driving in advisory lanes becomes an offence.
They have the insidious effect of making drivers feel cyclists should never be on the road. Driver skills in relation to cyclists decline, cyclists feel like second-class road users, and some cyclists behave like that - this revision of the Highway Code will only accelerate that process.
Rod MacFadyen, Reading
One of the reasons that more people use cycles on the Continent is the attitude of the law to drivers who knock down cyclists. In the UK it is considered the cyclists' fault and driver penalties are very low - I know of an incident where an uninsured driver knocked down a cyclist and was not prosecuted for either offence.
Al, Twells, UK
As a motorcyclist I am required by law to wear a crash helmet, have insurance, pass a competency test and respect the laws of the road. Cycling does not require the first three and rarely encompasses the fourth. While motorcyclists are far from blame-free in London traffic, they are at least more visible and better protected than cyclists.
Here in Oxford, many of our cycle lanes start and stop at random intervals, divert onto the path and back and switch sides of the road. Many sections are in such poor repair or full of rubbish that it is safer to avoid them. With the new road system planned for Headington, the cycle lanes will be removed in favour of - *sigh* - busses.
Dermot Dobson, Oxford
I appreciate being able to cycle on a traffic-free route rather than a busy road with traffic whizzing past at 60mph. But most local authorities do on the cheap and are more interested in drawing a green line on a map than producing something that's practical to cycle on. Let's press for local authorities to stop penny-pinching and do a proper job.
Chris Neville-Smith, Durham
Dedicated cycle lanes are not inherently a bad idea - they work in Holland, Denmark and other European countries. Cycle lanes in England, however, are often badly maintained, pedestrians do not acknowledge them, cars use them as convenient parking space, they are narrow, suddenly stop, or take you through the most dodgy areas.
J Andresen, L'boro, UK
I rarely feel safe on the roads - in a cycle lane or not - but this is partly the fault of other cyclists. Motorists (particularly bus drivers) see cyclists as an annoyance, as they rarely obey the rules of the road. This morning I was the only 'mug' who stopped at a main set of traffic lights, when about ten cyclists went through. Their excuse? "It's safer to go then, then set off with the motorists." Catch 22!
In Surrey and south-west London they are running a long-term experiment with cycle lanes - here they are called "pavements". It's very successful , as all cyclists use them .
Andrew Ruddle, Surrey, UK