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Why don't cyclists use the Cycle Paths

A mostly personal view by: Sean Houlihane (Profile)

Email: cambridgeshire @ abd.org.uk

It wouldn't be entirely true to say that I never use cycle paths, it really depends on what is meant by a 'cycle path'. If there is an alternative to cycling on a road that is more direct, faster and safer then I'll use it.

There seem to be quite a few drivers (hopefully not ABD members though!) who strongly believe that as a cyclist, I am not supposed to be cycling on the road, and ought to avoid getting in their way. Just because I'm a cyclist doesn't mean that I'm responsible for part of the road being reserved for the occasional bus or bike, so don't take it out on me!

Although there are some cyclists who feel that no-one other than themselves should be allowed to use personal transport, there are quite a few of us who support people's right to choose their mode of transport. To improve the non-cycling motorist's opinion of cyclists, I've tried to explain here some of the things that might not be too obvious... Even if it looks like it, I'm not trying to excuse everything that a cyclist might do - just trying to show what they might be thinking, if they are!

Cycle Lanes

Some confusion arises from the many different incarnations of the 'cycle lane'. These may be off-road tracks, shared-use pavements, dedicated tarmaced routes, sections of the road marked off for cyclists only, or shared with bus lanes.

The only one of these that is really of any great benefit (speaking as a cyclist) would be a dedicated cycle-way, mostly free of pedestrians, well surfaced and at least wide enough for 2 pairs of cyclists to pass (i.e. 4 'lanes'). This sometimes occurs where a road is re-routed and the original road retained, but it's rather expensive!

On-road cycle lanes are a mixed blessing. They can have some benefit on a road which frequently has queuing traffic by keeping a lane free for cyclists to pass to the left of a line of vehicles - although this in itself is not without risk. On a free-flowing stretch of road, all the on-road cycle lane does is imply that cyclists will always stay within the marked area, and drivers need not check that there is space to pass. Where the lane is also shared with buses, it can be particularly terrifying to be passed by a bus traveling at 30-40 mph with the kerb on one side and a line of queuing cars on the other.

Putting little blue signs with pictures of bikes on the pavement does not make it safe to cycle there! Cycling on a shared use pavement means that a cyclist surrenders right-of-way at every side street and driveway, and is also in a much less visible location when crossing these. There are also pedestrians who have a firm belief that on the pavement they should be safe from fast-moving vehicles and may not expect a bike travelling at 20mph to pass them. I sometimes do cycle on the pavement (blue signs or not), but I do take care to give pedestrians priority. Doing half of my commute at walking pace would however add about an hour a day, which I don't view as practical.

Frequently, using a cycle lane will increase the number of junctions that need to be passed (and most accidents are caused by junctions, not speed!). Frequently, a series of cycle paths will not allow easy access from directions, maybe introducing the need to cross a road, or creating an incentive to cycle contra-flow for a stretch of a route.

Worst of all are the sections of on-road cycle path that dodge on and off the pavement, and behind bollards. Not withstanding the ability of these structures to trap wet leaves, and present a slightly raised kerb stone at just the right angle for a skid, the narrow gaps can be tricky to fit through at speed! A cycle lane that's only safe at 10mph is no use to anyone...

Riding in the middle of the road

All road users are supposed to keep to the left, so assisting anyone who wishes to overtake, so why do some cyclists insist on cycling 2-3 feet from the kerb all the time? Actually, these will tend to be the more experienced cyclists, and they will be the ones who don't have so many problems with cars almost knocking them off their bikes.

There are two main reasons for not hugging the kerb. One is that the edge of the road is frequently less well made, or more cluttered. The main reason is that it allows a cyclist to demonstrate that there is not space to be passed (or conversely, suggest that the gap may be small, but there is space to squeeze past.) It also makes a change of direction necessary to pass a cyclist, which improves a driver's judgement of the amount of space required. It is unlikely that by cycling in the middle of a lane, a cyclist will prevent a car from passing when it would be safe to do so. Maybe the cyclist is planning to turn right, or has seen something that you've not noticed.


I'm not really sure if drivers find this a problem or not, but for a cyclist, indicating requires that they are not able to control their vehicle as well as they would with two hands on the wheel. Add to that the lack of stability of an almost stationary cycle, and it should be clear that there will be many occasions when an explicit hand signal is not practical. Ideally, road positioning should make up for this omission.

There is certainly no excuse for acting without warning, or checking first that it is safe (mirror, signal, manoeuveur?). Sometimes, the act of making an explicit hand signal might be too difficult. Maybe through bad planning, or maybe because e.g. cycling down a steep hill and stopping at the bottom really needs two hands to control the bike.

Indicating a left turn may seem rather un-necessary (and I can't balance as well using just my right hand), but it can be of benefit to cars waiting to pull out.

Red Lights

A tricky one... Cyclists are frequently accused of ignoring red traffic lights. This is of course, liable to be very dangerous as anyone else could reasonably assume that they will take notice of the lights. However, in addition to some lights being unable to detect bikes, many lights only exist just to cause delays so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that they might be ignored, especially in situations where it is safe. When I'm driving, I find myself increaslingly tempted to accelerate towards a light before it changes, or start moving early!

This is not, however, a practice to be recommended! This is probably an area where some cyclists could be better educated, to understand the potential risks, and to know that they are required by convention to stop.

One Way Streets

Why is it a one-way street in the first place? There are plenty of examples of roads that can't easily allow 2 vehicles to pass, but where a car can pass a bike with virtually no impediment. A contra-flow cycle lane might be a possibility to legalise the action, but this might be more dangerous as it gives the cyclist a false confidence that motorists may expect them to be going the 'wrong way'. If it's a choice between wheeling my bike down a one-way street, and cycling, then cycling takes up less space, and gives as much or more control. If it's done to save 30sec. of journey time, then it's not so much of a good idea.

Traffic Calming

The subject of my original road safety page, back in 1998 (I think). Anything that encourages a cyclist into the path of vehicles, or vehicles into the path of a cyclist, or disrupts the predictability of traffic flow is likely to be a hazard for cyclists. Some example photos of this on the A10 and in Cherry Hinton to follow.

The ABD has a significant number of members who regard themselves as cyclists. Helping to improve driver's understanding of what cyclists are likely to do, and also helping cyclists understand how best to demonstrate their intentions is in all of our interests, in the quest of improved road safety. Unlike some organisations, we welcome fair weather cyclists, 'drive and ride' leisure cyclists, all-year-round lycra wearers, cyclists with more cars than bikes, and cyclists without cars - we're all road users after all!

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