Whenever a city is considering expanding bicycle infrastructure, cycling advocates are met with resistance. The opposition regularly confronts them with arguments that question, and sometimes hinder, the promotion of cycling. These arguments are usually based on common misconceptions that can be easily refuted.
Let’s bust 10 of the most common cycling myths so that you’re ready to combat any ill-sourced argument.
Facts and figures refer to the German federal state Baden Wuerttemberg, based on the handout “Überzeugend Argumentieren – Handreichung für Radverkehrsbeauftragte” (Convincing arguments – handout for cycling officials) by AGFK Baden Wuerttemberg.
1. Cycling is dangerous
Cycling is really no more dangerous than any other mode of transport. Just take a look at the stats. Between 1990 and 1995, between 68 and 105 cyclists died due to fatal accidents in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Between 2010 and 2015, that number was reduced to between 42 and 53 cyclists. Also keep in mind that this decrease is alongside an increase in the number of overall cyclists, as well as the density of traffic.
When looking at children, only 1.6 out of 1000 children are affected by bike accidents on their way to school, compared to 2.4 in 1990. Nationwide, there were 107 fatal child bike riding accidents in 1990. In 2015, there were only 17.
Why is today the safest time to be cycling? Because we have plenty of data to determine the best routes for cyclers and problem areas to address. We also have a culture that encourages cyclists to wear bright clothing and helmets and add lights to their bikes. If you look at it in a holistic sense, cycling might be safer than riding a car due to the exercising of the cardiovascular system. Regular cycling increases life expectancy by three to 14 months.
2. Cyclists don’t obey traffic rules
Since cycling networks are often patchy and not self-explanatory, cyclists feel that they are not taken seriously. This leads to the typical rule violations, such as red-light violations or using the bike lanes in the opposite direction. These deliberate rule violations go hand in hand with ignorance.
Although surveys show that 95% of respondents believe they are well informed about traffic rules, knowledge gaps exist in various areas of regulations for cycling, particularly around the subject of compulsory use of cycling lanes. This perhaps says more about a lack of coherent messaging about bicycle road safety than it does about the blatant recklessness of cyclists.
It also implicates, in many cases, a lack of cycling infrastructure. Many cyclists ride on the sidewalk because crossing aids are missing or because they don’t feel safe riding on the street. This creates a vicious cycle: The fewer cyclists ride on the street, the less the coexistence with motor vehicle traffic is normalized. There are many strategies cities can use to ensure better road safety compliance, including reducing waiting times at red lights and ensuring that traffic space for cyclists is self-explanatory.
3. A 30 km/h speed won’t make roads safer for bikes, it’ll only cause inefficiency
It might sound counterintuitive, but by decreasing speed limits from 50 km/h to 30 km/h, trips end up taking the same amount of time. The difference is, it makes the roads much safer for cyclists.
The difference in speed is entirely relative to the number of intersections and traffic signals. The more often a vehicle must stop at a traffic light, the lower the influence of the speed limit on travel time. Therefore, we can dispense with the idea that high car speeds equals more efficiency and instead recognize the importance of high quality of traffic for all road users.
A key benefit of 30 km/h speed limit is that it levels out the speeds of bicycle and motor vehicle traffic, leading to increased acceptance of the lane guidance by motorized and non-motorized traffic, better traffic continuity and reduced consequences of accidents due to lower speed differences.
4. Protected bike lanes means less parking spaces for cars
Not exactly. Parking spaces can be created by reducing the width of car lanes, making the protected bike lanes part of the roadway. And by having protected bike lanes, cars coming out of parking spots are more likely to pay attention to the presence of cyclists on the road, thus reducing accidents.
5. If a street isn’t being used by cyclists, bike lanes shouldn’t be built.
Since the beginning of cycling promotion in the 1970s and 1980s, the guiding principle has been that cycling promotion is supply planning. The significant increase in cyclists in many cities confirms this strategy. In short, building new cycling connections and reallocating road space for cycling infrastructure leads to an increase in cyclists. A before-and-after study in Karlsruhe demonstrated an increase of 800 cyclists to 1,200 cyclists on a street with a new protective lane. This corresponds to an increase of 50%.
For the most part, where there are cars, there’s also the potential for bicycle traffic. Having dedicated bike lanes also makes cyclists more visible to all road users. Outside of towns, the vast majority of cyclists avoid roads without bike lanes. Cyclists who ride on these stretches of road despite all the adversities are hardly noticed, because they are relatively few. But it is precisely these few cyclists who need special protection and therefore an adequate infrastructure.
6. It’s too hilly for cycling
E-bikes with pedal-assist are on the rise, making cycling in mountainous regions and hilly cities a breeze. As this new technology becomes more mainstream, we’ll need to build special protection for cyclists. Localities should, for example, consider providing more space for cyclists on inclines when cycling is more unsteady than on flat roads.
Still, there are ways to plan for this. When planning a cycling network, topography can be taken into account. For example, longer routes with lower gradients should be planned and signposted with alternative routes and gradient information. If conditions are tight, single-sided uphill bicycle infrastructure or asymmetrical guidance with a wider lane in mixed traffic routing are also possible.
7. The legal framework does not allow it
According to the German Road Traffic Regulations (StVO), protective lanes, cycle lanes, as well as bicycle streets, do not require an extraordinary hazard situation in order to restrict motorized traffic. Since 2009, the opening of one-way streets for bicycle traffic in the opposite direction has been an obligatory measure. The opening can only be waived if there are special dangers. However, this is only very rarely the case, as recent research has once again proven the safety of this form of guidance. Zones with a 30 km/h speed limit enjoy the same privileges as protective lanes and bicycle lanes. However, they are not applicable outside residential areas, on classified roads and main roads and the reduction of maximum speed cannot be justified on the grounds of securing cycling traffic alone.
In order to establish new traffic regulations, traffic trials – ideally supplemented by accompanying studies – are necessary. Typical examples of model trials include:
8. Cyclists endanger pedestrians
Pedestrians feel unsafe and disturbed when cyclists come too close to them when overtaking, especially if the cyclists are moving fast. But these are mostly conflicts rather than actual accidents. In reality, only a few routes are really conflict-prone, and with a bit of planning and policy, those areas can be addressed and mitigated.
Planners should ask the following questions:
And here are some possible approaches to preventing conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians:
9. Cyclists impede buses
Of course, there are conflicts between bus and bicycle traffic. Both are moving at different speeds and sharing the same narrow bus lanes is not always easy. But there are solutions to these problems.
For example, in front of traffic signals on priority lanes, bus traffic should be separated from bicycle traffic. Additionally, to avoid conflict between cyclists and passengers getting on and off the bus, bus stops should be built in a way to allow bicycle traffic to pass behind the bus shelter rather than on the street in front of it.
It is also worth taking a look at the synergy effects of the bus and the bike for last-mile commuting. City officials should think of ways that bicycles can complement buses in rural areas in the future, rather than competing with them.
10. Getting a majority vote in municipal council is impossible
Promoting cycling is sometimes an irritating topic. The elimination of parking spaces for motor vehicles, speed reductions for motor vehicle traffic or the establishment of bicycle lanes lead to disgruntlement in the municipal council. That’s why cycling advocates need a clear commitment and the most important arguments, such as:
These should all be incentives for politicians to give cycling a higher priority despite possible resistance in the city or local council. After all, quality of life is a voter issue, bicycle-friendly cities are livable cities, and that is also an argument for companies and businesses, who use them to recruit skilled workers. But of course, getting through the municipal council requires a solutions-focused approach. Here are some suggestions bike advocates can make:
This article is based on the handout “Überzeugend Argumentieren – Handreichung für Radverkehrsbeauftragte” (Convincing arguments – handout for cycling officials) by AGFK Baden Wuerttemberg.