More bike lanes are not a solution for cyclist safety

Over the last few years the City of Montreal has made a concerted effort to improve the number and quality of its bike lanes, including a couple of bike ‘highways’ that allow for safer cross-town trips.

This effort is in keeping with the interesting research undertaken by Philippe Apparicio and his team: they have measured the number and frequency of dangerous overtakes of cyclists by cars, and conclude that separated bike lanes are the way to make cycling safer.

There is an important proviso to their studies, though: as cyclists shift to dedicated lanes, there are more accidents with other cyclists and with pedestrians.

Furthermore, unless bike lanes are dedicated (as opposed to lines painted on roads), they can lead to more dangerous interactions with vehicles.

So, are more bikes lanes the answer?

Perhaps, but far more also needs to change.

Why ‘perhaps’?

Given the current road culture in Montreal, and the almost non-existent policing and punishment of dangerous driving (even if it leads to cyclist or pedestrian death), then segregated bike lanes are imperative.

If a motorist can perform an illegal U-turn, kill a cyclist, and escape any charges, what legal protection do cyclists have? None. They can only count on physical barriers.

In a culture where motorists know they can mow down cyclists with impunity, the only way for cyclists to be safe is for them to be kept away from cars (and that includes preventing cars and trucks from using segregated cycle lanes. Maybe the police could help).

Powerful road-users lording it over less powerful ones with impunity. Source: Richard Shearmur

Why does far more need to change?

The photo above summarises my argument: but let me elaborate.

A hierarchy of impunity exists which systematically allows more powerful road-users to intimidate (and kill?) less powerful road users, blaming the victim when accidents occur: thus, bike lanes will never be enough to protect cyclists. This impunity dates back to the introduction of the automobile, as Peter Norton describes in his seminal book, Fighting Traffic.

It’s important to note, though, that this hierarchy is not limited to cars.

First, there is a hierarchy amongst cars, with large SUVs and luxury cars lording it over more modest vehicles. All cars obviously lord it over bikes and pedestrians – with motorcycles in an intermediate position (large Harley Davidsons being in a different class than, say, small Honda 250s).

Second, within the realm of non gas-powered vehicles, there exists a plethora of electric ones. Almost all are allowed on bike paths: most shouldn’t be. Vehicles such as those pictured below use ‘bike’ paths – they are wide, heavy, and fast, endangering cyclists and pedestrians alike. They are not bikes.

Scooters allowed on Toronto cycle lanes. Source:

Even electric bicycles are substantially heavier and faster than push bikes. Their drivers speed along bike paths, viewing traditional bikes as annoyances to be brushed past at high speed.

The Juggernaut Ultra Duo 3. Source:

For example, the Juggernaut, pictured above, has a 1000W motor. Top international cyclists can put out 1000W for maybe 30-45 seconds, in a sprint. A top cyclist cruising, alone on a flat road at 45km/h, will be expending about 400W. So the Juggernaut can produce the peak power of a top cyclist indefinitely; only using half this power (500W is more typical for e-bikes), it could maintain more than 40km/h on a flat road. Furthermore, electric motors allow for very fast acceleration.

Segregated bike lanes are now just as unsafe for cyclists as roads, maybe more so because no license is required to drive powerful scooters and e-bikes, and many inexperienced and foolhardy riders have access to them.

The problem with e-bikes

Most e-bikes can easily cruise at 35km/h, and can attain that speed in 4 or 5 seconds. They usually weigh at least twice as much as a push-bike (which typically weighs 12-14kg), with scooters (or e-mopeds) often weighing four times the weight of a push-bike.

They are far wider than push-bikes, especially scooters, but even the e-bikes are wide and cumbersome, with wide handlebars and bulky tires.

A fit rider on a push-bike can maybe attain 20-25km/h between stop signs, and it takes them 5 to 10 seconds to get up to speed. After a while, they may settle for lower speeds as fatigue sets in. Most urban riders probably reach speeds of 15 to 20 km/h, getting up to speed in 10 to 15 seconds.

We are therefore faced with heavy, bulky, vehicles, accelerating rapidly, and going over twice as fast as most cyclists. Cyclists are intimidated, often scarcely avoiding accidents (I speak from the experience of daily encounters with dangerous e-driving, which multiplies during the summer months. Oh! for the serenity of winter cycling on ice and snow…)

This is like having cars going at both 50km/h and 100km/h on a two- lane highway – with Smart cars going at 50 and Hummers going at 100.

It simply doesn’t work.

As the CBC reports today, cyclists are beginning to realise this.

Cycling will only become safer with a change of culture

Cycling will only become safer when our road culture changes, when might is no longer right. The legal impunity (but also implicit cultural impunity) afforded to reckless drivers of more powerful vehicles needs to change.

This impunity, which car-culture has actively promoted – extends beyond cars. This hierarchy of impunity exists between scooters and e-bikes, e-bikes and push-bikes, and push-bikes and pedestrians: whenever a more powerful or bulky vehicles encounters a smaller or less powerful one, popular culture, the laws of the land, as well as the laws of physics side with the powerful and bulky vehicle.

We can’t change the laws of physics.

But unless the laws of the land change – and with it our culture which sides with the more powerful (and usually wealthier?) road user – then no amount of bike lanes will keep cyclists safe.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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