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Why bike lanes should be the fast lane for cities

Contrary to urban myth, bike lanes actually help relieve traffic congestion. Credit: Shutterstock

You may have noticed more and more bike lanes in town lately. Whether it’s a designated path along a main street, or spray-on white lines and traffic cones delineating part of a side street, these car-free paths for bike enthusiasts are becoming must-haves in street design.

Although cycling for daily transport has been gaining traction for some time now, it can still cause a stir when plans for new cycle paths are announced. But when it comes to the benefits of bike lanes, that’s not a challenge, says Dr. Mike Harris, landscape architect and urban planner at the UNSW School of Built Environment.

“When you look at what cycling infrastructure does for cities, whether it’s for congestion, climate or people’s well-being, it’s clear that it’s hugely beneficial in so many ways,” says Dr. Harris.

Bike lanes relieve congestion and climate

Dr Harris says initial opposition to cycle lanes may stem from misconceptions about their impact on motorists. Perhaps one of the biggest myths circulating is that cycling causes traffic jams.

“Cycling actually reduces congestion,” says Dr. Harris. “You can move more people with bikes than with cars in less space.”

A study by the Greater London Authority shows bike lanes moved five times more people per hour than car lanes. Locally, NSW Routes and Marine Services data indicates that cycle lanes in the City of Sydney carry more people during morning rush hour than adjacent car lanes of the same width.

“A lot of our streets are already dedicated to cars,” says Dr Harris. “Separated cycle lanes, in particular, reduce traffic congestion for those who need to use cars. So if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion for cars in cities, then we need more cycle lanes , Not less.”

Dr Harris says a small shift to modes of transport other than the car can have an impact on congestion during rush hour.

“No one is suggesting that everyone should cycle all the time. It’s about removing some of the general population who want to get out of the car lanes. That, in turn, gives space back to those who need to use their car,” says Dr. Harris.

If 10% of people decide to cycle part of their trips, that’s 10% fewer cars on the road for people who have to drive.

“Everyone talks about improving traffic flow during school holidays. We could achieve this permanently with a network of separate cycle lanes,” says Dr Harris.

The transport system is also one of the biggest sources of emissions in Australia. But when we choose to jump on our bikes instead, we help reduce the impact on the climate.

“It’s pretty clear that swapping car trips for bike trips when we can is also more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and mitigating urban heat. “, says Dr. Harris.

Cycling infrastructure is good for business and road safety

Bike lanes can also boost local businesses. A study from the University of Melbourne shows that bicycle parking generated more business revenue per hour than car parking.

“Research shows that cyclists tend to spend more money locally,” says Dr Harris. “They buy things more frequently because they can easily stop and walk into a store in a heartbeat.”

For individuals, savings, such as vehicle costs and parking fees, can be realized by switching from car to bicycle trips. But cycle paths are also a profitable investment for cities. Some reports show replacing a car trip with a bike trip saves money for the company.

“Cycling infrastructure pays for itself. Every kilometer someone drives costs the economy. But every kilometer cycled is an economic benefit to the community.”

Another underrated benefit of bike lanes is improvement of overall road safetysaid Dr. Harris.

“As the rate of cycling increases, traffic accidents decrease per capita, as more people become aware that cyclists share the road. Having separate cycle lanes also improves safety cyclists and these numbers.”

Create and finance cycling infrastructure

Dr. Harris says that the increase in selling bikes during the pandemic shows that more and more people are interested in cycling as a mode of transport. However, having strong cycling networks are essential to achieve a meaningful change to long-term cycling.

“At least half of the population say they would like to cycle for at least some of their trips. However, they will only do so if there is dedicated infrastructure,” says Dr Harris.

Dr Harris says bike lanes do not prevent people from accessing the city. Instead, they make things easier, especially for those who live in nearby suburbs. For those who live further away, the combination of bike and train can also compensate for the extra distance.

“Instead of being stuck in traffic or trying to find a park, people are enjoying their neighborhood and their commute,” says Dr Harris. “The most effective way to encourage cyclists to move is to build separate infrastructure along major city corridors, connected to a wider network of cycle paths and low-speed streets in the suburbs.”

A question posed by opponents of cycle lanes is how to fund new infrastructure. One suggestion is for annual cycling fees, similar to annual motorist vehicle registration. But Dr Harris argues that the existing measures are already in place.

“Funding for road infrastructure comes from general revenue, so everyone pays whether you use it or not, including cyclists. It would be like asking pedestrians to pay a special trail tax,” says Dr Harris.

“It’s arguably fairer if we allocate more of the road to those who prefer to cycle.”

Benefits for public spaces

It may seem like bike lanes are a clear choice, given the benefits. Indeed, a recent study by Dr. Harris suggests that politics, rather than a lack of evidence, appears to be a major challenge to providing more cycling infrastructure.

The rapid installation of “pop-up” bike lanes in response to COVID-19 shows how governments can work together and implement active transportation policies when opportunities arise, says Dr Harris.

“Many cities have taken the opportunity to move forward with projects and strategies, such as bike lanes, pedestrian streets and outdoor dining areas, and have seen their citizens embrace the changes” , said Dr. Harris.

Dr Harris says it is always essential to consult and work on the implementation of such projects with locals, referring to recent decisions by the City of Melbourne to halt the development of cycle lanes as counterproductive to long term.

“Cities that now have the bicycle as a leading mode of transport have had to plan and provide a network of bicycles very consciously over a few decades. Now the benefits are clear; quieter, healthier and safer cities,” says Dr Harris.

“Thus, cities should work diligently with residents and businesses to discuss their concerns and seek solutions such as design changes if needed, rather than abandoning the whole strategy.”

Ultimately, says Dr. Harris, if we want people to return to inner cities after COVID, public spaces and street quality need to be improved. And that means putting people first.

“Certainly better cycling infrastructure is key to this renaissance.”

Investing more in cycling far outweighs the costs

More information:
Mike Harris et al, Pop-Up Cycleways, Journal of the American Planning Association (2022). DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2022.2061578

Provided by the University of New South Wales

Quote: Why bike lanes should be the fast track for cities (2022, July 27) Retrieved July 27, 2022 from

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