We know cycling is greener, but do bike lanes make cycling safer?

Image Credit: Adam Coppola, for PeopleForBikes

With an increase in the number of Bike lanes in Dublin over 2020, Nathan Young investigates what this means of cyclist safety.

Bicycle safety is a major concern for many people. Between 2005 and 2016, Dublin county saw 12 fatal collisions involving bicycles, 239 serious collisions, and 1725 minor collisions, according to official statistics from the RSA. The RSA told The University Observer that more recent data had not been verified. Countless studies into the impact of cycle lanes on safety have been conducted and there is no reason to presume Dublin would see different results.

The primary reason for bike lanes is to encourage cycling and decrease the number of cars on the road for environmental reasons. This article will simply take it as read that, from a carbon emissions point of view, cycling is good for the environment, and pollution is bad. It is also beyond the remit of this article to examine if bike lanes are ugly, or any of the other non-safety-related issues around opposition to bicycle lanes. Valid as some of these concerns may be, this is not an attempt to re-hash neighbourhood WhatsApp discourse.

There are several arguments around bicycle lanes and safety which have evidence to back them up. Bicycle lanes appear safer because cyclists are kept separate from both cars and pedestrians, preventing them from having to swerve in between fast-moving cars and buses picking up passengers, or posing a hazard to the footpath users. However, This illusion of safety may well pose a threat, as cyclists may be lulled into a false sense of security. This is especially true of inexperienced cyclists, who may mistake the bike lane for a bicycle-only safe space, devoid of dangers posed by other road users. 

Fig. A shows 2013 data from Antwerp, where “1” is the average risk of collision for a cyclist. No infrastructure turned out to be the safest option in all except the 45 MPH roads. This is counterintuitive for most, but the reasoning is simple: the most dangerous part of cycling is crossing any kind of junction. If a cyclist is on an entirely separate lane and moving forward through a crossroad, a driver turning left may well not see them, leading to a very risky situation. This is why the roads at traffic lights in Dublin tend to have a large space for bicycles only to stop in after the line where cars must stop. Having the cyclists in front and heading their way first helps - even if anecdotal evidence shows Dublin drivers ignore this safety measure.

Other safety concerns also vary based on the nature of the bike lane. Dublin Cycling Campaign, who are: “an independent, voluntary group lobbying local and national government to bring about improved conditions for cyclists and greater recognition of the benefits of cycling”, published an article earlier this month detailing concerns raised on both of Fingal County Council’s area committee meetings. The concerns were around the kerb-protected bike lanes that had been installed since September. Councillors claimed that the kerbs made the driving of buses and heavy goods vehicles more dangerous, and that the kerb should be painted either yellow or with reflective paint. There have been four official complaints regarding incidents involving pedestrians also. 

Andrew Nolan, a Senior Executive Engineer for Fingal County council, has stated that the painting of the kerbs would not help, as “surfacing is to be installed which is a buff coloured coating” on the bike lanes themselves. This is due to happen at some stage when the weather is warmer and there is less rain. Nolan also addressed the issue of Heavy Goods Vehicles and buses, stating that there were no issues raised by Dublin Bus about busses being able to pass the kerb protected lanes, and “safety reviews of the roads prior to the projects starting factored in passing distances for buses and other vehicles like cars and HGV’s”. He also stated that the bollards were being increased from every 20 meters to every 10.

Without clear outlines that factor in the total number of collisions, the number percentage of cyclists as road users, and the reduction in motor vehicle usage due to the bike lanes, it’s near impossible to declare the bike lanes a success or failure from a safety point of view. What is clear, however, is that a mixed range of bike lane options should be taken, as when traffic is slower it is safer to put the bikes with the rest of the traffic, but with faster roads, this stops being true.