Cyclist numbers in La Trobe Street, Melbourne have tripled in the afternoon peak. Photo: Justin McManus
"Bicycles should only be allowed on bike lanes."
It's a phrase one often hears from people who are opposed to cyclists being on the road.
But when bike lanes are being built, people complain about that, too. It's extremely likely the people who moan include many who think, um, cyclists should only be on bike lanes.
Matching numbers: Cyclists and cars in College Street, Sydney, on an early morning this month. Photo: Peter Rae
Separated bike lanes have been much in the news lately (and I'm talking proper infrastructure, not painted white lines in the door zone of death).
In Adelaide, new lanes on Frome Street have been the cause of much conflict. In Melbourne, installation continues in places such as St Kilda Road, William Street and Clarendon Street, while La Trobe Street now has a cycle way from end to end. Flemington Road is also a site of likely future development.
But the most controversial network has surely been in Sydney. It was spearheaded by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but construction was halted by the incoming Liberal government before a single cross-city route had been completed.
Melbourne has a high proportion of female cyclists. Photo: Justin McManus
After two years, construction has recommenced but controversy still rages, especially regarding the usage rates of the lanes and their possible impact on motor vehicle traffic. A popular perception has been that the lanes are not being used.
This contention was neatly skewered four weeks ago by the Sydney Morning Herald's Transport Reporter, Jacob Saulwick.
A Freedom of Information request turned up a gem of a report by Transport for NSW that showed just how effective the bike lanes are. The information was contained in a longer report – so here are some salient paragraphs, in case you missed it:
Confidential analysis prepared by Transport for NSW shows separated bike lanes installed in central Sydney have doubled the number of cyclists on the road but led to fewer total injuries among them.
"Detailed analysis shows ... the number of reported injuries has been halved on the sections of road where separated cycle ways have been constructed," the analysis says.
The documents also show that the separated bike lanes in central Sydney regularly carry as many people as in cars on adjacent traffic lanes.
The Kent Street cycleway moves 34 per cent of the people using that road in the morning peak, but takes up 25 per cent of the road space. The College Street cycleway, which the government proposes to rip up, moves 20 per cent of the people on 20 per cent of the road space.
Here's a graphic showing some key numbers:
Last week, Sydney's Daily Telegraph reported that they had commissioned their own study of bike lane usage. While the article stressed that cars carry more people into the city than bicycles, the proportional road use was much the same as in the Transport for NSW study.
For example, the oft-maligned Bourke Street lane in Surry Hills carried 338 cyclists during peak commuting time, with 683 cars travelling on two car lanes.
So why does the controversy continue? Here are a few salient points about separated cycle ways:
They are for rush hour: Transport systems are designed for peak time, not down time. Don't worry that bicycle lanes might be sparsely used in the middle of the day – the people who rode on them are already at work.
They reduce congestion: Put four cars in a road lane, and they'll fill its width and stretch for more than 20 metres (and note the percentage of single-occupant vehicles in the graph above). Cyclists take up far less space. So, bike lanes appear sparsely occupied even when they're carrying more people than an adjacent car lane. The good news? Most bike lanes still have capacity to spare.
They have to lead somewhere: Cyclists seeking the safety of a bike lane don't want to run a dangerous gauntlet to get to it. Sydney's cycle ways have facilitated a dramatic increase in cycling numbers, but will only show their true worth when completed. We wouldn't criticise pedestrians for being reluctant to use a half-finished path through bushland.
They are best in high-traffic areas: Lanes create safe conduits for mass cycling movement - but until we have a separated lane leading from everyone's front door to their every destination (probably never), motorists and cyclists will have to co-exist on our roads.
The advantages of separated lanes have also been revealed by a report on Melbourne's La Trobe Street lanes, which found that bicycle numbers in the afternoon peak had tripled. Meanwhile, reprogramming of intersection signals meant travel time for motor vehicles was largely unaffected.
As Bicycle Network spokesman Garry Brennan told me: "We just have to keep building this stuff and eventually people will come to see that everybody benefits."
It's not the first time that Saulwick has uncovered good news about bike lanes through a Freedom of Information request: in 2012, he reported that the College Street lane was having little or no impact on motor vehicle travel times.
Meanwhile, Sydney faces a race against time to get the lanes installed before construction work on the light rail commences next year. And we'll have to wait up to seven years for many key cycling corridors to be built in Sydney's inner suburbs.
In response to a recent spate of collisions between motor vehicles and cyclists, NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay – who has previously described himself as "the biggest bike lane sceptic in the government" – said he was considering a plan to licence cyclists.
Rather than speculate about a program that doesn't exist anywhere in the world, the minister should open his eyes to the compelling evidence that bike lanes do work and protect cyclists. He has the power to ensure that safe lanes are delivered on key routes as quickly as possible.
As a cyclist, do you use bike lanes? Where are lanes needed? Would you be more keen to ride a bike if there were protected routes you could use?
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