statistics

Serious flaws in Copenhagen study that claims to show bike lanes are unsafe

We build bike lanes to make us safer and more comfortable while riding our bikes. Cities all over the world are building painted bike lanes and separated bike lanes. Knowing whether bike lanes are actually safer is important, to say the least. The science of the safety of bike lanes, however, is a bit behind.

The science doesn't have to be perfect in order for us to take some action, but it needs to be helpful. We need to understand how research was done and how the researcher came to their conclusions. When it comes to a Danish study by Danish researcher S. U. Jensen titled "Bicycle Tracks and Lanes: a Before-After Study" we probably should not trust its conclusions that bike lanes and separated bike lanes are unsafe. Or so argues Dr. Kay Teschke, with whom I corresponded by email last winter. (Photo of woman and girl cycling on Copenhagen street by Ian)

I'm looking at this study in particular because there are competing claims to what it actually proves. There are those who have argued that Jensen's study is proof that separated bike lanes (more commonly known as cycle tracks in Europe) are dangerous. But there are also those who have argued that when read properly the study actually shows that separated bike lanes are safe (see postscript below).

I decided to get to the bottom of this and contacted Dr. Kay Teschke of the University of British Columbia to find what an expert in epidemiological research--who also conducted a large research study on cycling safety--has to say about this study. I'm reaching out to Jensen as well and will post his response if I get one.

Jensen, in his Copenhagen study, came to the controversial conclusion that cycling on cycle tracks* is less safe than cycling on streets without any cycling infrastructure. Jensen concluded:

The safety effects of bicycle tracks in urban areas are an increase of about 10 percent in both crashes and injuries. The safety effects of bicycle lanes in urban areas are an increase of 5 percent in crashes and 15 percent in injuries. Bicyclists’ safety has worsened on roads, where bicycle facilities have been implemented.

Safety is worse with bike lanes? Jensen's conclusions are counter-intuitive and don't fit well with the results of a number of other studies, as was shown in a recent meta study of scientific studies of cycling and injuries. (Doing meta-analysis is common in epidemiology, where researchers compare different studies and look for patterns.) Given that Jensen's study comes to this irregular conclusion it would be easier to trust if we had a clear idea of how he arrived there. That, however, is one of the main problems with Jensen's paper: a lack of transparency.

Black box

The main issue with Jensen's study is that it's a black box; an algorithm that he never reveals. Jensen shows us the initial numbers that he measured, then puts them into his black box and out the other end comes the inverse.

Says Dr. Teschke:

Jensen did a very elaborate analysis with lots of adjustments. It is good to take into account factors that might bias unadjusted results, but usually the first analysis is the simple unadjusted one. Jensen does not present the unadjusted results, so I calculated them based on the data presented in his paper. On page 4, he indicates that the before and after periods studied were equally long. In Table 3 on page 9, he presents the observed before and after data on crashes and injuries. He also presents expected after data, based on all the adjustments. But let’s first look at the observed, before and after. In every row, except two (Crashes Property damage only and Intersections All crashes) the observed injuries or crashes after are lower than the observed before. On page 12, he indicates that there was a 20% increase in bicycle and moped traffic in the after period. So a calculation of crude relative risks (RR) for after vs. before:

  • Bicyclists and moped riders, all injuries total:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (406/1.2)/(574/1) = 0.59
  • Bicyclists and moped riders, intersection injuries:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (285/1.2)/(353/1) = 0.67
  • Bicyclists and moped riders, on links injuries:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (121/1.2)/(221/1) = 0.46

All three of the unadjusted results in the after vs. before comparison for bicyclists and moped riders show a reduction in risk (RR=1 means the same risk after and before, RR < 1 means lower risk after, RR > 1 means higher risk after). It is very strange not to report these results in the paper. They mean that over the period studied, the risk for cyclists and moped riders went down in the period after installation of the cycle tracks.

The question that should be answered with the adjustments is whether this reduction in risk is because of the cycle tracks or whether it is just a time trend - perhaps risk also went down on routes without new cycle tracks. If the comparison streets used for the adjustments were really comparable and if all the adjustment assumptions are unflawed, then the answer to that question would be “the reduction in risk is not from the cycle tracks”. But to take the conclusion further than that and say, after all these adjustments, cycle tracks are less safe (i.e., completely reversing the crude results)? This requires a level of trust in the adjustments that is very hard to justify in my view - especially given the difficult-to-follow description of the methodology and the many assumptions involved.

So can we trust Jensen's numbers? I don't think we can. Dr. Teschke's preliminary calculation of risk based on Jensen's numbers came to a Relative Risk of 0.59 compared to a higher risk of 1 for a street without bicycle facilities. In other words, Jensen's raw numbers support the conclusion that bicycle facilities reduce risk of injury. But it would be quite odd, Dr. Teschke explains, that the final, adjusted result would show the opposite of this. Yet when the final result comes out of Jensen's black box they are just that.

Science needs to be transparent and reproducible and this study falls short of that standard.

No one study can be the final word one way or the other. In the much more studied world of health and medicine, epidemiologists are looking for consensus among studies before coming to conclusions. The Copenhagen study has too many problems to serve as the final word on bike lane safety for policy makers.

Postscript

I wasn't the first blogger to question this study, I had also asked Dr. Teschke other questions about this study and how it related to what another statistician, Dr. Lon Roberts, had said about the study.

Another blogger from Texas, Jason Roberts, was also interested in understanding this controversial study better and had asked Dr. Lon Roberts for his opinion on the study. Jason linked to a simplified version of Jensen's study (called “Road safety and perceived risk of cycle facilities in Copenhagen”) that had even less information about Jensen's methodology and thus may have mislead Dr. Roberts. At least, that's my theory.

Dr. Roberts told Jason that "the Copenhagen study shows that the "likelihood an individual bicyclist will experience an accident goes down as the number of bicycle riders go up".

Furthermore Roberts says:

Using Soren’s percentages, here’s an example starting with the assumption that 10 bicyclists out of 10,000 will experience an accident over a certain period of time if there are no bike tracks:

On an individual basis, there’s a 10 out of 10,000 (or 0.1%) chance that an individual biker will experience an accident if there are no bike tracks
When the bike tracks were added, the accident rate increased by 9%. In other words, if there are 10 accidents without the tracks, the number of accidents increases 10.9 (or approximately 11). On the other hand, the number of bike riders increased by 18%, from 10,000 to 11,800. Therefore, on an individual basis the likelihood of an accident with the tracks added is now 11 out of 11,800, or 0.09%, as opposed to 0.1% without the lanes/tracks.

So Dr. Roberts is basically saying that Jensen had accounted for bicycle traffic volume when reporting the numbers (greater numbers of cyclists will always have some effect on increasing crashes/accidents). But Dr. Teschke seemed to be saying that Jensen had accounted for bike traffic. So I asked for more explanation.

I asked:

In your discussion paper you listed RR = 1.10 versus Jensen's estimates of expected injury rates. Does this mean that Jensen had taken into account bicycle traffic volume when he provides an estimate of injuries +10% (Table 3)? I'm assuming you added .10 to 1?

And if Jensen has already accounted for bicycle traffic in his estimate I'm confused about Roberts' calculation. Is Roberts' accounting for the denominator a second time?

Dr. Teschke responded:

Jensen’s formulas indicate that he did take bicycle and moped traffic into account - in more than one direction. He also took motor vehicle traffic into account. The reasoning for the latter is not clear to me. Perhaps he is saying that if MV traffic volumes went down after cycle tracks were installed, you would expect fewer crashes. But if lower MV traffic is one of the pathways to lower bike and moped crashes on cycle track routes, that is a good thing, not something to be adjusted out of the analysis.

You are right, I added .10 to 1.

Robert’s calculation is not very clear to me. It does seem to assume that Jensen did not take bicycle and moped traffic into account. The formulas in Jensen’s paper suggest he did.

But it is easy to be confused about what Jensen did. It is not clear what alpha and beta are, or how he chose the values for those parameters. He mentions “Danish crash prediction models” but does not provide a citation. Although he laid out the formulas for the traffic adjustments, he did not do the same for either the trend or regression-to-the-mean adjustments. When an adjustment method reverses the unadjusted result, it is important that the method be clear and highly defensible.

I also asked Dr. Teschke why Jensen's study wasn't included in their literature review.

Herb:

  1. Why was this one missed from the lit review? Did it not meet the criteria?

Dr. Teschke:

You are right, we didn’t include the Jensen study in our literature review, because it did not meet our criterion of being published in the peer-reviewed literature. It was published in conference proceedings not a peer-reviewed journal. After the review was published, many people noted that we did not include this study and, when we gave the reason, they argued that the reviews of the Transportation Research Board are more rigorous than those of many conferences, so it should be considered truly peer-reviewed.

We have referenced the Jensen study in subsequent publications, for example in the Discussion of our injury study.

I hope this is useful for some of you interested in connecting the dots between bike lanes, protected bike lanes and safety. It's not easy to dive into the data, but luckily scientists are taking subject matter more seriously.

Two-way cycle tracks are fine, just look to Montreal

Rue Berri cycle tracks

Are two-way (or bidirectional if you prefer) protected bike lanes "dangerous"? Some of the opposition to the Harbord proposal are fomenting fear and doubt by claiming as much. There's even a "No Danger Lanes" facebook page decrying the bidirectional for Harbord.

Let's put this question a different way. Has there been an uproar in Montreal about death and destruction because of their plentiful bidirectional bike lanes? Has there been a bloodbath that we've been ignoring?

I might have missed something but I think not. Montrealers seem to be plenty angry at their corrupt mayors but when it comes to their bidirectional cycle tracks (aka protected bike lanes), the overwhelming majority of people seem to be happy and there's been no outcry of cyclists getting injured on them in great numbers.

And Montreal isn't alone. Cycling nirvanas like Amsterdam also have bidirectional cycle tracks and the people seem to be happy with them, or at the very least accepted them.


A bi-directional path. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen.

So let's use some common sense. Two-way cycle tracks are not dangerous. They are safe and people are comfortable with them.

Is this a bloodbath you were looking for?

You might say, "Well that's all well and good but what about this Montreal blogger who seems to have discovered the dangers of Montreal bidirectional?"

Let's take a look.

This Montreal blogger is David Beitel who made a claim that the cycle tracks in Montreal have an "elevated risk" of cycling accidents. He pointed out that two of the cycle tracks had the second and third highest number of accidents between cyclists and drivers in Montreal out of all streets.

You might exclaim: holy crap, why are all these cyclists getting injured on cycling infrastructure? Let's rip it all out!

But let's not get carried away. Beitel falls for a common error: he provides absolutely no context to the data; no denominator to put his data into proper perspective. The denominator we need here is the number of people cycling on each street.

Without a denominator of the cycling traffic volume, we might as well just conclude that riding on a highway like the Gardiner Expressway is the safest. Highways typically have very few cycling crashes. But they also usually have next to zero cyclists using them. Because it's illegal.

Beitel's approach cannot avoid absurd conclusions.

When we take into account cycling traffic volumes we would find that the cycle tracks in Montreal, such as De Maisonneuve and Berri, are actually not dangerous at all. When cycling traffic increases we will typically see some uptick in the number of car-bike collisions. And we realize that even though a highway may have zero cyclist colliding with drivers, it might be because there were no cyclists there.

So Beitel's conclusions are junk and anyone here in Toronto who references Beitel as "proof" of the danger of bidirectional is plain wrong. If you're curious you can read a bit more about this in the Evidence Training Guide created for cycling educators by the Cycling in Cities group at the University of British Columbia (particularly pages 2, 3 and 43 in the sidebar).

Bidirectional cycle tracks are probably safer

Of the scientific evidence we do have, we could make a safe bet that 1) bidirectional cycle tracks are probably safer than riding on the road and 2) cycle tracks in general are safer than bike lanes.

In a study headed up by Harvard's Dr. Lusk, it found that Montreal's two-way cycle tracks were shown to be "either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions".

Lusk found that Rue Berri (as pictured above) had a lower risk (0.48) than the reference street of Denis. Reference streets are always considered to be 1 for comparison purposes. Being below one means a street is safer than the reference.

Overall, the study found that the cycle tracks they studied (all of which were bidirectional) had a 28% lower injury rate. Lusk concluded that their "results suggest that two-way cycle tracks on one side of the road have either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions. This lowered risk is also in spite of the less-than-ideal design of the Montreal cycle tracks, such as lacking parking setbacks at intersections, a recommended practice."

Cycle tracks (one and two-way) are safer than the road

Cycle tracks in general are safer than both riding on the road or even riding in a painted bike lane. The following diagram from UBC's study of injuries and bike infrastructure describes it well:

Cycle tracks beat all the other options for on-road infrastructure by a mile.

Where possible, build unidirectional otherwise bidirectional works

This all being said, the cycling infrastructure guides are now usually recommending unidirectional over bidirectional. Vélo Québec's Planning and Design for Pedestrians and Cyclists, for instance, says (p. 80):

"On-road bike paths should preferably be unidirectional. Bi-directional paths offer effective safety between intersections but complicate traffic at intersections. In fact, they increase the number of conflict points between bicycles and turning vehicles."

"Preferable" but not always possible.

This is fine in an ideal world. But we live in a world with physical and political constraints. We don't have the political sway to force politicians to ignore merchants and take out all the parking on any of our major arterials. Bidirectional is seen as a compromise: cyclists get something safer, more comfortable and merchants get to keep some on-street parking. For instance, Councillor Vaughan has publicly stated that on Harbord it is bidirectional or nothing:

“The bi-directional protects the parking that is needed,” says Vaughan. When asked for specific numbers his assistant helps out: “Right now there are 48 parkings spots – and with the bi-directional plan, we are trying to salvage 95 to 98 per cent of parking.” The unidirectional plan would take out all of the on-street parking.

“If the choice is bi-directional or nothing then bi-directional is safer,” says Vaughan.

So we are fighting for bidirectional on Harbord and possibly on more streets in the future with similar constraints. And we will work with traffic planners and the community to make them as safe as possible. There are number of tools at the planners' disposal: separate light phases, improved sightlines, markings through the intersections, signage, bump-outs and so on.

References

Motorist impunity and the fear of cycling

Memorial banner

As the Toronto Star reports, Initial reports of the crash that killed Tom Samson indicated that he had run a red light. The police and prosecutors have now stated they do not believe Samson ran a red light; instead, they believe he had stopped, properly, to make a left turn when a van hit him from behind. The Star reports, quote, "It’s unclear what prompted the change."

Infographic: how cyclists will go out of their way to travel on comfortable bike lanes

Thanks to Iain Campbell for this great infographic "Two Wheeled Traffic, or why bike lanes work"! It shows the bike traffic volume relative to the size of the road. Thus a street like St. George has only two car lanes but carries many more cyclists than nearby Queen's Park/University with its 8 lanes. Iain's data came from the City's 2010 Bike Cordon Count, which counted bike traffic into and out of downtown over 24 hours.

Iain's infographic provides a strong visual of how bike lanes are a much stronger magnet for cyclists than the importance of a road for car traffic. It strongly suggests that people will go out of their way to travel on a more comfortable, less stressful street with bike lanes. This is why I believe that separated bike lanes on Richmond and/or Adelaide will be a big draw for people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

More evidence that Helmet Laws don't make us safer

Today we learned that U of T researcher Jessica Dennis found helmet laws do nothing to reduce rates of hospitalization for head injury. We can add this to the other studies that have successfully questioned the usefulness of helmet legislation.

There has been a lot of confusion between statistics that show that helmets reduce head injuries and helmet laws which are designed to force everyone on a bike to wear a helmet. While helmets arguably reduce head injuries (although even here there is some contra-evidence), the fallout of helmet laws have been unclear at best and negative at worst. Dennis' study focused on rates of hospitalization across Canadian provinces and compared provinces that implemented helmet laws to those that didn't with their relative hospitalization rates for head injuries. They found little evidence that helmet laws did much to reduce injuries across a population.

Rates of hospitalizations for any cycling-related injury decreased by 28% (95% CI 22.8-33.2) among individuals younger than 18 in provinces with helmet laws and by 22.3% (95% CI 15-29.6) in areas without the laws, "suggesting fewer young cyclists, improvements to cycling safety, or a change in hospital admission policies," according to the researchers.

Hospitalizations for any cycling injury among adults hovered around 10 per 100,000 person-years in provinces with and without the helmet laws, with no significant differences seen.

Despite these decreases, the segmented regression analysis found no "meaningful changes" on hospitalization for head injury.

This study had a narrow focus on just hospitalization and didn't take into account whether people were discouraged from cycling because of helmet legislation. The Ontario Coroner's report on cycling deaths, however, also noted that before implementing a helmet law that the negative effects on cycling need to be also taken into consideration. One problem they found in their review of deaths due to head injuries was that the rate of helmet wearing for young cyclists was much lower than for adults even though helmets are mandatory for under 18 cyclists!

Some research exists which suggest that the health benefits of helmets may be outweighed by the detrimental effects on overall health in the population through the decrease in cycling activity in jurisdictions where helmets have been made mandatory.

The Coroner stressed that because of the possible negative health effects of a helmet law that the Province undertake an evaluation that begins "with a critical appraisal of the existing literature from jurisdictions in which mandatory helmet legislation has been implemented, and the collection of high-quality baseline data on cycling activity in Ontario."

I'm a pragmatic person that thinks that helmet promoters and helmet pro-choicers can co-exist here. I'll happily not bug you for choosing to wear a helmet (or for not wearing one while driving) while taking for myself the freedom to choose when and where I'll wear a helmet. A helmet is like a talisman. It may provide some protection in a limited fashion to a small part of your body, but it has little to no usefulness when forced on a whole population.

Jarvis Bike Lane Usage Continues to Increase in 2012

Bike traffic on Jarvis Street has nearly quadrupled since Spring 2010

Cycling traffic continues to increase on Jarvis Street despite the decision to remove the bike lanes. John Taranu and the Ward 27 Cycle Toronto group, which includes Jarvis Street, conducted a bike count this month from morning to dusk and found a doubling of a previous doubling of cyclists:

As you probably know, the City of Toronto undertook cyclist counts on Jarvis St in 2010 and 2011, before and after the installation of the Jarvis bike lanes. However, no cyclist counts have been done since then. We decided to do our own counts by videotaping the street for an entire day in October 2012 from a location overlooking Jarvis (at Isabella) and then counting the number of cyclists per hour. The results were surprising.

Cycling use has continued to increase steadily since 2010, the last year counts were made. From spring to fall 2010, after the bike lanes were installed, the number of cyclists nearly doubled. Since then, from fall 2010 to fall 2012, the number of cyclists has nearly doubled again. Even two years after the installation of the lanes, more and more cyclists are using the lanes.

In morning rush hour, from 8AM to 9AM, there are around 1000 southbound cars using this section of Jarvis, and over 100 southbound bicycles (according to the City count). The bicycle mode share is 10%. By installing bike lanes, the overall capacity of Jarvis has been increased by 10% in just two years!

These counts were taken at Jarvis south of Isabella, a section that sees somewhat less bicycle and automobile traffic than further south at College and Gerrard. It is likely the same trend holds further south.

A few notes are needed to explain the methodology. The videos were taken on October 2nd and October 3rd 2012, from 8AM to 7PM when there is sufficient daylight. The early morning and evenings are too dark to be able to see the traffic. The video was sped up 4x to make counting easier. Only southbound cyclists were counted; the videotaping location meant that some northbound cyclists obscured by cars. The video for Tuesday October 2nd is available online here: youtu.be/NJl_tZMxsGM.

Where will the people go once the lanes are removed?

Bike lanes and quiet streets make cycling safer, but the safest of all are cycle tracks: study finds

The Cycling in Cities program at the University of British Columbia has published the results of their ambitious study and revealed that bike lanes and quiet streets make cycling safer, but that separated bike lanes (cycle tracks) provide the most safety. In their study of 690 injured cyclists in Toronto and Vancouver who ended up in emergency rooms, they've found that bicycle infrastructure had a positive effect on cycling safety. Not surprisingly people prefer bike lanes, bike paths and quiet streets to just regular roads (as discovered their earlier study).

The researchers also found that major streets with on-street parking were the riskiest streets for cyclists, and particularly for Toronto cyclists, major streets with on-street parking and streetcar tracks.

We found that route infrastructure does affect the risk of cycling injuries. The most commonly observed route type was major streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure. It had the highest risk. In comparison, the following route types had lower risks (starting with the safest route type):

  • cycle tracks (bike lanes physically separated from motor vehicle traffic) alongside major streets (about 1/10 the risk)
  • residential street bike routes (about 1/2 the risk)
  • major streets with bike lanes and no parked cars (about 1/2 the risk)
  • off-street bike paths (about 6/10 the risk)

The following infrastructure features had increased risk:

  • streetcar or train tracks (about 3 times higher than no tracks)
  • downhill grades (about 2 times higher than flat routes)
  • construction (about 2 times higher than no construction)

The Toronto Star's story focused exclusively on the danger of streetcar tracks, but they missed the bigger story that it's not just the streetcar tracks but parked cars that make things particularly dangerous for cycling. Not only does Toronto have few alternatives to streetcar streets downtown, almost all of them allow car parking for most of the day, thus providing only a very narrow comfortable space between parked cars and streetcar tracks. Even though streetcar tracks are involved in a third of cycling injuries, half of those injuries were the result of parked cars:

Motor vehicles were involved in many injury events beyond direct crashes. For example, nearly half of crashes involving streetcar tracks involved maneuvers to avoid double-parked cars or cars moving in or out of parking spots.

It's highly possible that the danger of streetcar tracks can be mitigated in Toronto by removing on-street parking and providing bike lanes (or at the least sharrows). The researchers may have found much different results if that were the case.

The same researchers are applying their research to improving cycling education. For instance, no cycling courses currently cover route selection even though studies have shown that bicycle infrastructure make people safer. They also recommend that cycling education begin to cover the circumstances when motor vehicles are likely to pass closely. Their recommendations were to:

Include information about the relative safety of route types and route characteristics to help cyclists plan their routes, in particular:

  • decreased risk associated with bike-specific route types, including cycle tracks, bike lanes, and bike paths,
  • decreased risk associated with routes with low traffic volumes, including residential street bike routes,
  • increased risk associated with roundabouts or traffic circles at intersections, and
  • increased risk after dark on routes without streetlights.

Include information about motor vehicle passing distances, so cyclists understand circumstances when motor vehicles are likely to pass closer to them, in particular:

  • where motor vehicle speeds and traffic are high,
  • where there is motor vehicle traffic in the opposing direction, and
  • when the passing vehicle is a heavy vehicle such as a truck or bus

Taking the lane: when simplistic advice can make things worse

Taking the lane in theory

Take the Lane!

You may have been advised that the best way to be safe is to take the lane. Everyone from public space advocates to CAN-BIKE instructors to the League of American Bicyclists and CyclingSavvy promote taking the lane when a cyclist can't safely share the lane with a car. While taking the lane can be an effective strategy as a cyclist, it should not be taken as helpful in all situations. In fact, in many cases it may cause more problems than it supposedly solves.

Lane Position on a Wide Road

All the main North American cycling courses discuss lane position and largely agree that when lanes are wide enough the cyclist can easily share the lane with a motorist, so long as the cyclist rides far enough from the curb (about 1 metre out). The League of American Bicyclists states that a cyclist should:

  • Ride in the right third of the right-most lane that goes in the direction you are going
  • Take the entire lane if traveling the same speed as traffic or in a narrow lane

According to my CAN-BIKE handbook, the general rule is to "maintain one metre from the curb or from parked cars". But that rule only applies when there is enough room for the car and bike side by side. "If the lane is too narrow or there is an obstruction that narrows the lane then take the whole lane."

CyclingSavvy is more dogmatic in insisting that the lane be at least 14 feet wide in order to safely share. Very few lanes in Toronto meet this criteria. By any of the courses criteria, a cyclist would find themselves on a road that the courses would advise them to take the lane. But there's a problem with that simplistic prescription.

When taking the lane won't work

In the top diagram (I used the icons from the Toronto Cycling Map) we see how taking the lane is supposed to work. The lane is too narrow to share so the cyclist takes the lane. This, according to the courses, sends a message to the traffic behind that they should safely pass in the next lane instead of squeezing the cyclist into the curb. When practised in a large city like Toronto, results will be mixed. There will be drivers who willingly wait behind until it is safe to pass. In my experience, however, it is just as likely that the driver is impatient or annoyed. And, once in a while, we will even encounter an enraged driver.

The cyclist, particularly if they are young or elderly, will feel intimidated or be threatened by drivers behind them. Most of the drivers will keep calm and even if they are annoyed are willing to wait. But it's a crap shoot if we'll meet a driver who openly threatens by driving closely, swearing at the cyclist, revving their engine or honking, or even passing as closely as possible to "teach the cyclist a lesson". It's those situations that can leave even seasoned cyclists shaking, stressed or even injured if the driver manages to sideswipe. In those cases, any safety benefit of taking the lane is lost.

These drivers are not evil people out to get cyclists. Rather, annoyance builds up to such an extent from frustrating downtown traffic that they are more likely to get road rage and take it out on someone on a bike. Particularly if they've been conditioned to see cyclists as not having a "right" to the road and see them as blocking their path. Road rage can cause people to take risks that they wouldn't normally take when they are calm. It's not a medical condition per se, but Wikipedia mentions there is a link to "Intermittent explosive disorder", which is listed as a medical condition under impulse control disorder.

You can create your own experiment on the stretch of Shaw Street from Dundas to Queen. The lane is too narrow between the parked cars and the central meridian to share. According to the theory the best thing the cyclist can do is take the lane. Having ridden this stretch many times I have come to dread the sound of an approaching car behind me. Mostly the driver will wait, but a high number of them will start honking or even find any gap in the parking to try to make a quick pass.

Very few people would never get stressed or have some fear building up. Can we read the mind of the motorist? The only evidence of their intentions is by their actions. If they start honking or revving their engines they might be trying to just intimidate but who knows. It's a crap shoot.

In this situation we would best deal with it by pulling over and quickly getting out of the way of the driver, hoping that they'll just move on instead of also stopping to harass us.

Toronto's not exceptional in having frustrated drivers. As Easy as Riding a Bike notes that "[n]o-one seems to have told U.K. drivers about it. Putting yourself out in the middle [of the] road can, in my experience, appear to some drivers as an act of deliberate provocation. They don’t have a clue what you are doing." And Volespeed goes even further, stating that Taking the Lane, or "primary position", embodies a dishonesty.

The phrase, I believe, originally came from motorcycle training. But as applied to cycling, it doesn't make the same sense as it does in motorcycling. The "primary position" cannot be the primary position for cyclists on roads where the speeds are almost always far in excess of most people's top cycling speed. Some fit, young cyclists can cycle at 20 mph on the flat, but few of our roads have a 20mph limit, and in the more normal 30-limit urban areas, typical speeds are up to 45, in reality, where the roads can take it. So even fast cyclists stand little chance of maintaining the primary position most of the time. A more normal cycling speed, even with the current cadre of cyclists, would be 10–15mph. For them, in being sold this "primary position" theory, they are clearly being sold a lie. And this is to say nothing of the currently largely-excluded groups that we want to get on bikes: children, the unfit and the elderly, who are not going to do more than about 8 mph.

Fast suburban but narrow lanes
In Toronto's suburbs most arterial streets have high average speeds of greater than 60 km/h. Many of these suburban arterial lanes are narrow. It rarely make sense to take the lane on these streets. The high speeds and the fact that no driver is expecting to see a slow cyclist means that taking the lane can be inviting danger. In fact, CAN-BIKE teaches that on fast arterial streets that cyclists should actually ride close to the curb - 1/3 metre instead of the typical 1 metre.

Crowded downtown streets
In downtown Toronto the situation is different. We have arterial roads with on-street parking, narrow lanes, lots of traffic and often streetcar tracks. Streets like King, Queen, Dundas, Ossington, Dovercourt, College and Bloor. It would be quite hard for the typical Toronto cyclist to avoid these streets completely. What cycling courses don't teach is how the average cyclist can best deal with these streets. In theory, it would seem that taking the lane is the best and only option. The sanest approach to riding such streets is often to ride somewhere between the parked cars and the middle travel lane.

The above diagram is a typical streetcar street outside of rush hour: parking on both sides of the street and the middle travel lane is busy. Using the Take the Lane principle the best and only correct position would be A. This would be the best way to both avoid opening car doors and overtaking cars. In theory. In reality very few cyclists can ride fast enough to keep up with the peak speeds of cars. Cyclists may be able to easily keep up with motorists because cars often get stuck behind other cars, but when there is open road in front, all too often a cyclist who is taking the lane is seen by motorists as trying to deliberately anger them by blocking their path. These drivers will soon be itching to pass and will often pass quickly and unsafely. Riding out in the middle in front of a line of frustrated drivers is emotionally stressful. The average person can only handle so much intimidation from drivers.

Even if you're one of the very rare persons with an exceptionally thick skin that can take all matter of verbal abuse and threatening behaviour, you'll soon feel like a schmuck as you get stuck behind backed up car traffic while the rest of the cyclists filter up in the right lane.

99% (give or take) of all downtown cyclists ride in position B most of the time. It is a position that makes the best of a bad situation. I find that the best position is on the left edge of the right lane, as far as possible from opening car doors with enough room on the left for cars to pass in the left lane. It's not ideal but such is life living in a car-centric town.

Which position is safer?

Some educators claim that taking the lane is safer than staying to the side. The claim is that a cyclist is more likely to be side swiped than struck from behind. There are two issues with this conclusion: one, the statistics don't back this up, and two, even if there was evidence of this, the studies don't report what position the cyclist had taken on the roadway prior to their crash. From the available evidence we can't conclude that cyclists out in the middle of the lane are less likely to be struck than those on the side.

One of the best-known and comprehensive cycling safety studies was done in 1994 by Alan Wachtel and Diana Lewiston. They noted that being struck from behind accounted for only 5 of the 314 (1.6%) bicycle-motor vehicle collisions they studied. But side swipes were also only at 8 out of 314 (2.5%). It's not clear if either number is statistically significant., though given that most cyclists I've observed tend to stick to the curb, it doesn't seem to be a high number at all.

There is a further problem with trying to using Wachtel-Lewiston study to support taking the lane. The study doesn't report the position in the lane of the cyclist before they struck, only if they were on the roadway or sidewalk. Thus it's unclear if taking the lane will make any difference in either being struck from behind or in being side swiped.

I have had close calls being close to the curb as well as while trying to take the lane, for different reasons. The cyclist does not have complete control over the reaction of the driver. By being close to the curb a driver may see it as an opening and squeeze the cyclist to the edge. But by taking the lane a frustrated/enraged driver may find the first opportunity to pass and then pass as closely as possible so as to teach the cyclist a lesson. I've experienced both.

Two other studies are not much help either. The Toronto car-bike collision study 2003 and the major 1977 Kenneth Cross study (clearly getting a bit dated) only reported on collisions where the motorists were overtaking, and did not differentiating between "side swipes" and struck from behind. We can't draw a conclusion from either study that we're better off taking the lane. In the Toronto study the top three collisions downtown in terms of severity of injury were 'Motorists Overtaking', ‘Dooring,’ and 'Motorist Left-Turn Facing Cyclist'. Being more visible can likely decrease the risk of any of these, though it's unclear how far out a cyclist should ride. In the case of dooring, riding far enough out to be able to quickly avoid opening car doors is a good idea.

Holding to the dogma

Cycling education in North America still doggedly sticks to the take the lane philosophy with varying degrees of exceptions. These courses are mostly based on a cookie-cutter "vehicular cycling" philosophy that was developed in the 1970s by mostly fit, young people (the "father" of this movement was John Forester). Courses like CAN-BIKE or Cycling Savvy owe their roots to this movement, and continue to mostly stick to a worldview that is not always based on the best evidence. Instead there is a lot of the anecdotal evidence of a sub-group of people who were at the top of their faculties and fitness (obviously they're all elderly now). That these courses continue to hold whole-heartedly to this worldview does a large disservice to all the people who don't fit into that sub-group, particularly to those who are not in the prime of their life or fitness, or are too young.

There aren't hard and fast rules to cycling safely; there are many Toronto streets downtown and in the suburbs that defy the simple lessons taught in the cycling courses. Cycling educators have also tended to ignore or dismiss cycling infrastructure that makes it easier for different traffic modes to coexist. I have found a course like CAN-BIKE useful, and in fact, I had taught CAN-BIKE for a number of years. But I think it's time for CAN-BIKE to be rebuilt taking into account the wealth of knowledge coming out of Europe and increasingly in North America as young and old, able and disabled start cycling in our cities.

Cycling education shouldn't be about going fast, and safety should be available to the slow and fast, young and old. Education is also an alternative to improved cycling infrastructure. Really, we want both.

I hope to be looking at other cycling education themes in future posts and look at how we can think beyond a pure "vehicular cycling", one that acknowledges the inadequate infrastructure and that cyclists need to find a way to make good of a bad situation until things improve in our cities.

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