Which bike lanes are safer for cyclists?
When it comes to riding a bike in an urban area, there are generally two types of cyclists: those who prefer rolling in separate bike lanes, and those who would rather pedal on the city streets.
“I personally prefer to take the street even when there is a bike lane, because they (the bike lanes) are often next to parked cars and I’m worried about somebody opening a door,” said Elisabet Westbye, chairwoman of Bike Friendly Fort Worth, a cycling education and safety organization.
Even so, Westbye is encouraged that North Texas cities are expanding bike lanes and taking other steps to add features to the streets and roadsides that will make it easier for bicycles and automobiles to coexist.
In Fort Worth, for example, the city is expected to begin construction next year on a makeover of West Seventh Street that will include an expanded version of bike lanes separated from automobile traffic by a row of parked cars. Putting a barrier between car and bike traffic — whether it’s a raised curb, landscaping or a row of parked cars — is considered one of the best ways to prevent collisions.
But a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety raises questions about just how safe those separated bike lanes are. The institute, perhaps best known in popular culture for creating the “Crash Test Dummies” safety announcements on television, researched 604 bicycle crashes in three cities and found that a larger share of accidents occurred in separated bike lanes than on the streets themselves.
The study found that separated bike lanes are safer for cyclists than having no bike safety features at all, but not as safe as having well-marked safety features for cyclists mingling with car traffic.
Even so, IIHS isn’t recommending that cities do away with separated bike lanes. Rather, the organization simply wants to encourage cities to look closely at how to minimize conflict points for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
For example, are the bike lanes one-way (preferred, in some instances) or two-way? How many vehicle intersections or driveways must cyclists cross when they’re on the bike lanes? Are pedestrians required to walk across bike lanes as well as automobile lanes, both with two-way traffic?
“A cyclist on a protected lane at street level is likely to encounter vehicles at intersections, driveways and alleys more often than on a protected lane enclosed within a bridge or greenway,” Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research, said in an email. “Pedestrians also sometimes enter street-level bike lanes, which can cause cyclists to swerve and fall.”
Bicyclists account for about 2 percent of road fatalities nationwide, IIHS reports. However, cyclist deaths have increased 25 percent since 2010.
In all, 777 bicyclists were killed nationwide in 2017 in crashes with motor vehicles.
The IIHS worked on its study with George Washington University, Oregon Health and Science University and New York University. Researchers bicyclists who visited emergency rooms in Washington, D.C., New York City and Portland, Oregon.
About half of the bike crashes in the study involved contact with a vehicle. Some incidents involved cyclists who crashed while swerving to avoid cars, pedestrians or other cyclists.
Most of the injuries in the study were minor, and there were no fatalities.
Although crashes were more common on separated bike lanes, the injuries were much less severe than those suffered on roads with no bike improvements, researchers said.
Many of the crashes on the separated bike lanes occurred at intersections, driveways and alleys, according to the study. In those cases, vehicles were typically turning and traveling slowly.
Overall, the study noted that cities that make the effort to accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians on as many roadways as possible had the safest road safety performance. The study mentioned a recent study by the University of Colorado at Denver and the University of New Mexico which found that cities with more feet of protected bike lanes per square mile had fewer fatalities and serious injuries to all road users than other cities.
“There is evidence that protected bike lanes help prevent the worst crashes,” Cicchino says. “What our study shows is that certain locations are better than others for this type of infrastructure.”
Ann Zadeh, a Fort Worth Councilwoman — whose district includes the popular West 7th restaurant, entertainment and shopping area — said she is confident that the planned improvements to West Seventh Street bike lanes will improve safety.
The bike lanes will be one direction, with eastbound traffic separated from car traffic by a row of parked cars. (Westbound bike lanes will be striped, but will not have a physical barrier from adjacent westbound car traffic.)
City officials also are looking closely at how to keep cyclists safe while crossing retail driveways and cross streets such as Currie, Foch and Carroll streets.
“The engineers have reviewed site distances to allow for turning vehicles from driveways and cross streets,” Zadeh said in an email. “There will be opportunities to reduce the number of driveways through Access Management that will help reduce the conflict points along the corridor.”
“There will always be interactions between autos, bikes and pedestrians at intersections no matter if the bike lane is protected or not,” she added. “The protected bike lanes provide a safe space on the roadway to be separated from traffic. Lastly, it is also the bicyclist responsibility to look out for pedestrians and obey traffic laws.”