One of the most common complaints that non-cyclists have about cyclists is that they don’t always use cycle lanes, which is often also used as an argument against building cycle lanes, cycle paths, and other cycling infrastructure.
However just like riding two abreast and riding in the middle of the road, they’re not just doing this to get in your way (honest!) instead choosing to steer clear of some cycle lanes for a number of very legitimate reasons.
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It’s not compulsory
The first thing to say is that there is no legal obligation for cyclists to use cycle lanes. According to rule 63 of the Highway Code, cyclists should use cycle lanes “when practicable” and “the use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills”.
Of course this isn’t a reason in itself for cyclists not to use cycle lanes – and they will use them when it is suitable to do so – but there are plenty of reasons why they still choose not to use them…
Cycle lanes can be unsafe
The main reason that cyclists sometimes choose not to use cycle lanes (and a reason why cyclists do a lot of things) is to improve their safety.
You might think that cycle lanes would always improve cyclists’ safety, but this is not the case. For example if there is a cycle lane running down the left-hand side of traffic waiting to turn left at a junction, then cyclists travelling straight on will choose to move out and travel down the right-hand side of traffic or wait behind the traffic, therefore avoiding having drivers not see them and possibly hit them when turning left.
Cyclists may also choose not to ride in a cycle lane when travelling in slow moving traffic, instead moving into the middle of the lane. This will help improve their safety as they are more visible to motorists, and also discourage motorists from attempting to squeeze pass and attempt unsafe and unnecessary overtaking manoeuvres.
Another issue that can make cyclists unsafe when using cycle lanes is when the cycle lane is too narrow. Sustainable transport charity Sustrans recommends that cycle lanes on the side of roads be a minimum of 1.5 metres wide, extending to two metres at junctions.
Cycle lanes that are too narrow encourage inexperienced cyclists to ride closer to the edge of the road than is safe, and can make drivers think that as long as they are not in the cycle lane then they are giving the cyclist enough space, potentially encouraging unsafe close passes.
Cycle lanes can be littered with obstructions
One of the biggest problems with a lot of cycle lanes in the UK is that they are littered with obstructions that make them impossible to use.
According to the Highway Code motorists should not park in cycle lanes, but there is no option to penalise them for doing so unless the cycle lane is mandatory (i.e. bordered by a solid white line). This means that, particularly around schools and in residential areas, some cycle lanes can be impossible to use due to continuous lines of parked cars.
Aside from vehicles, there can be all sorts of other things left in cycle lanes, such as bins, skips, and even no-parking signs that are presumably designed to keep the cycle lane clear of cars
The other thing to consider is that because cycle lanes are at the sides of roads, they generally collect plenty of road debris swept away from the middle of the road by passing vehicles.
This means that many cycle lanes in urban areas are scattered with grit and broken glass, and often have a very poor road surface, meaning that any cyclist that uses them is at risk of suffering a puncture.
Cycle lanes can be inconvenient and poorly designed
A major issue with a lot of cycle lanes is that they seem to have been designed not to help cyclists by keeping them safer and speeding up their journeys, but to move them out of the way and off the road.
This problem can manifest itself in all sorts of ways. For example many cycle lanes are routed along pavements, which means that cyclists have to ride considerably slower than they would do on the road due to the presence of pedestrians.
This sort of cycle path will often also require cyclists to stop at side junctions where they could carry on unimpeded if they’d have been on the main carriageway, present them with obstacles such as bollards and street signs in the middle of the cycle lane, and often end without warning, leaving the cyclist having to get off their bike, walk back to the road, and try and merge back into traffic.
The routes of cycle lanes can also be poorly designed, sending riders along inconvenient and indirect routes, with cyclists (who have just as much need to quickly get to where they’re going as motorists) understandably choosing instead to follow the quickest and most direct route.
There are so many poorly designed off-road cycle paths in the UK that the default position of many cyclists with years of experience of meeting “cyclists dismount” signs and cycle paths ending without a dropped kerb is not to use the paths and stick to the main carriageway, particularly when riding along roads that they are not familiar with.