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Listening to Bike Lanes: Moving Beyond the Feud

by Jeffrey A. Hiles, 1996


One group of bicycle advocates insists that cities need special facilities to separate bicyclists from motor traffic and make cycling less intimidating. Another group argues that such an approach compromises bicyclists’ safety by putting riders at odds with traffic, and that the best way to help cyclists ride safely and confidently is through cyclist training. In recent years, many in the first group have embraced bike lanes as their preferred type of facility. The second group rallies around a League of American Bicyclists’ training program called Effective Cycling.

This paper critically reviews the claims of advocates on each side of this controversy and finds that what passes for hard fact is often conjecture and exaggeration, including assertions about car-bike crashes, and the potential of both bike lanes and education to affect bicyclist safety and behavior. In an effort to find a less one-sided viewpoint, the author employs concepts from the fields of cognitive psychology and environmental design to explore alternative ways of describing and explaining how bicyclists and motorists are influenced by the environments through which they move.

The author recommends steps that bicycle transportation advocates can take to help them move beyond simplistic beliefs that heat arguments over bike lanes: Move away from theories that equate bicyclists’ skill and experience with their comfort in traffic, and toward a philosophy that respects as normal and natural a range of traffic tolerance. Realize that this “folk transportation” is guided by many intuitive factors and that advocacy philosophies that rely heavily on getting bicyclists to behave ideally are not in tune with this reality. Also, where bike lanes are employed, advocate the use of “hybrid” lanes and broken lines to encourage more fitting mental models of car-bike dynamics. Know that no single bike facility or program is a miracle cure. And finally, take a problem-solving approach to bicycle transportation planning and strive to enhance bicyclists’ sense of competence in getting where they want to go.


This text is presented as I wrote it in 1996. I don’t intend to update it.

The opinions expressed here are mine and have no official connection to Wright State University.

-Jeff Hiles, February, 2002


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