Bike lanes might be more dangerous than no lanes at all

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Keeping cyclists safe on the road is going to take more than painted bike lanes. That’s the main finding from new research out of Melbourne’s Monash University this week, and a finding that aligns with what many cyclists have experienced out on the road.

The paper, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, looks at how road infrastructure affects the amount of space cyclists are given by overtaking motorists. Using a custom-built device to measure overtaking distances, the researchers showed that 1 in every 17 (6%) of overtaking events was a “close pass” — when cyclists were given less than a metre on roads with speed limits up to and including 60kph, and less than 1.5m on roads with higher speed limits.

These definitions of a “close pass” reflect minimum distance passing laws (MDPL) in effect around Australia, albeit not in Victoria where the research was conducted.

The researchers found that on roads with a painted bike lane, overtaking motorists gave cyclists an average of 27cm less space compared to on roads without a bike lane. The researchers also showed that on roads with parked cars, the average overtaking distance was 30cm less than without. And on roads with a painted bike lane and parked cars, the average overtaking distance was 40cm less than without either.

The average 4WD driver gave 15cm less space compared to sedan drivers while bus drivers gave an average of 28cm less. Worryingly, as much as a third of passing events on higher speed limit roads (>60kph) were close passes.

CyclingTips caught up with the paper’s lead researcher, Dr Ben Beck, to discuss the study and put its findings into context. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that discussion.

CyclingTips: How did this study come about?

Dr Ben Beck: We wanted to gain an understanding of rider experiences of close passing events on our roads and to understand the impact that infrastructure has on passing distance.

The way in which we did this was that we developed a custom device called the MetreBox that was installed under the bicycle seat to measure the distance of all passing motor vehicles and we had data collected by 60 people in Melbourne who rode around as per their normal riding and collected data on more than 18,500 passing events from 422 trips.

That’s a lot of data to go through! It must have taken a long time …

Yeah, it really did and that was a manual process where we reviewed every single passing event and there were far more than those 18,000 because the device also picked up any object in its range (including trees and fences if riding on a bicycle path), such as situations in which a cyclist undertook a motor vehicle. We excluded those events — we wanted to focus on events in which a motor vehicle passed a cyclist. I’m grateful to our team for all of their efforts!

Can you tell me more about the MetreBox and how that came to be?

We collaborated with the Amy Gillett Foundation to develop the device and there were engineers involved as part of the development. Essentially the device is a piece of equipment that has an ultrasound sensor that can measure the lateral passing distance of a motor vehicle.

And what we did as well was mount a GoPro camera on the front handlebars and this enabled us to quantify the infrastructure, such as an on-road bicycle lane, where the cyclist was riding, the presence of parked cars on the kerbside, and also the vehicle type of the passing vehicle.

You found that about 6% of all passing events involved less than a metre of space. Can you put that into context?

It seems like a small number but when you contextualise that … one in every 17 passing events is less than a metre, and that it is nearly two close passing events for every 10 kilometres cycled. So for an average person commuting to and from work that’s potentially four times per day that a motor vehicle comes in close proximity to you as a cyclist and that is a scary statistic.

One of your main findings is that on roads where there are bike lanes, drivers seem to give less space. Why do you think that is?

There’s a couple of potential explanations for that. When a cyclist and a driver share a lane the driver’s required to perform an overtaking maneuver. This is in contrast to roads with a marked bicycle lane where the driver is not required to overtake and so this suggests to us that there is less of a conscious requirement for drivers to provide additional passing distance.

There’s also the thought around car-doorings and where a cyclist is riding in an on-road bicycle lane. I think the fear of striking an opening car door is a concern for many people who ride bikes and so there’s the potential that a bike rider might be positioning themselves away from parked cars when riding in an on-road bicycle lane.

Could it be that roads that have painted bike lanes have narrow lanes? Is there any correlation there?

We weren’t able to look at vehicle lane widths. It is a potential explanation that the lane width basically doesn’t permit adequate passing distance. And what we know from some of the work that has been done in Melbourne, reviewing some of the roads, is that a number of them don’t actually meet recommended guidelines in terms of either bicycle lane width or on-road vehicle lane width, and so that’s particularly concerning.

But nonetheless, the key message here is really that these on-road bicycle lanes are not adequate in providing a safe space for people who ride bikes and I think as cyclists we all know that paint really isn’t cycling infrastructure.

Are you hopeful that this research will prompt change or at least get the authorities to consider cycling infrastructure in more detail?

Definitely. We need far greater investment and action from government to provide infrastructure that provides physical separation between bicycles and motor vehicles.

We know that the number of seriously injured cyclists in Victoria has more than doubled over the last 10 years and we also know that how safe people feel on our roads when riding bikes is a key enabler of getting more people on bikes. So if we’re really going to change cycling in Melbourne and in Victoria then we need far greater investment in separated and protected infrastructure.

You found that overtaking distance didn’t change according to the speed zone. As a cyclist that’s a pretty concerning thing to read.

Definitely. I think that’s hugely concerning, the fact that we didn’t observe any difference across speed zones. I expected that we would have seen greater passing distance on roads with higher speed zones but that was not the case and I think that’s clearly a big problem that needs to be tackled.

The fact that we saw that nearly one third of passing events in speed zones greater than 60kph were a close-passing event — so less than 150 centimetres — is hugely concerning.

How do you think the findings of this study would have changed if this was done in a rural area, outside of Melbourne?

It’s a good question. I can’t answer that. It’s a limitation of the study in that we don’t know how these findings would reflect the situation in rural Victoria.

You say that in the paper that the average overtaking distance you found (173cm) is less than was found in studies looking at Queensland (186cm) and Wisconsin (195cm). Do you think that’s down to the lack of a passing distance law in Victoria, compared to those jurisdictions which have one? Or are there other factors at play?

I think that’s worthy of further research. We can’t explain those differences at this stage but we need to understand what are the key drivers of close passing events to really be able to enact change.

One thing I was thinking as I read the paper was that if we do introduce an MDPL in Victoria, we’ve now got some great baseline data. Presumably we’ll be able to get great data afterwards which will allow us to compare what effect an MDPL has had?

Yeah that’s exactly right and that’s one of the big benefits of collecting these data is being then able to have a baseline data set such that, should a legislation change occur in Victoria, we have this robust data that will enable detailed evaluation of any change.

Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that you think is worth adding?

Given roads are becoming more and more choked we need to be smarter about the way we use public space for travel and the answer to this must include more public and active transport options. And so while we’ve seen the [Victorian] government is investing $38 billion in city-shaping transport projects, less than a $100 million — or 0.3% — is allocated to the combined Safer Cyclists and Pedestrians fund. And this is simply not acceptable in terms of sufficient funding for cyclists and pedestrians.

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