People who are involved with transport politics are continuously confronted with the issue of safety. Bike lanes are rejected, supposedly because of safety, while others demand them for exactly the same reasons. Cycling on the road is recommended by some as being safer, while others strongly reject such use for exactly the same reasons.
Demonstrating for cycling infrastructure: Danziger Straße, Berlin. Netzwerk Fahrradfreundliches Pankow, 5.7.2017, (Foto: Changing Cities / Norbert Michalke)
In discussions around cycle transportation, so-called „objective safety“ is pitted against a subjective sense of safety and comfort. In the Netherlands “sustainable safety” is recommended, Copenhagen prioritises „subjective safety.“ And now there’s a new version, the “Protected Bike Lane.“ This starts sounding somewhat complicated, so we need to clarify: What is being discussed? Who is saying what about safety, and why?
Is there even such a thing as “objective safety“?
No, there isn’t, and this term should not be used. Instead, it’s important to understand that safety can only exist as relative safety, “as a relative condition of freedom from danger, which can only exist for a certain time period, a certain space, or under certain conditions”. Thus, safety is dependent on place and time, dependent on perception, on data collection, and on one’s overall approach when examining the question.
In transport politics in particular, and especially when discussing cycling, the terms “objective“ and “subjective“ safety are used and are often even pitted against each other. “While objective safety means statistically based safety, grounded in academic studies (for example as it relates to crash data), subjective safety means a „feeling“ of safety.“ Some have attempted to base claims that cycling in mixed traffic is safer on the basis of the concept of objective safety. This attitude then leads to cycle paths being dismantled or not built at all in the first place.
A favourite argument for putting cycle traffic on the road with motor traffic is, astonishingly, even being put forward from the highest authority for transport politics in Bremen, Transport Senator Lohse, who claims „Cyclists are always permitted to ride on the road. Riding with traffic is safer; many people don’t know that. Especially when cars are turning right, many accidents happen with cyclists.” (Interview with Radio Bremen on 12 December 2018)
And what about „subjective safety“?
Because of potential conflicts with automobiles at junctions, the entire cycle path is seen as being less safe than riding on the road in mixed traffic. This is where subjective safety comes into play: most cyclists find cycling in mixed traffic less comfortable and feel subjectively less safe. ”Safety for people does not just mean objective freedom from dangers or risks, in a protected space where all the safety needs of all users are met, but also a subjective experience of safety and security, whether or not this is objectively (statistically) true.”
Accident research carried out by insurance companies in their „Study on Transport Environment 2010“ discovered that “78% of cyclists feel safe or very safe on separate cycle paths. 46% find cycling on common pedestrian/cycle paths as safe or very safe. In contrast to pedestrians, cyclists ranked shared space with pedestrians as being in second place in terms of subjective safety. Cyclists rank riding in mixed traffic, with a painted cycle lane, as being less safe – only 14% of cyclists felt safe or very safe riding in mixed traffic with autos with a painted cycle lane. Only 10% of cyclists felt safe cycling on the road in car traffic without a painted cycle lane. This is clearly the type of infrastructure that is least attractive to cyclists. In this study, there were no differences in response by age or gender.”
In the dense thickets of social media one can easily see that up until very recently, cyclists who do not enjoy riding in mixed road traffic have been characterised as „inexperienced and/or not confident”. In a moment, we’ll take a closer look at how far-fetched this claim is. One interesting discussion (in German) can be found here: http://itstartedwithafight.de/2015/06/10/subjektive-sicherheit/
As a woman I always have to smile to myself when I hear this claim, since it’s inevitably men who put this idea forward . And lo and behold, an ADFC blog article – written by a woman – presented an entirely different opinion: “For approximately twenty years – as long as I’ve been an ADFC member – I’ve heard and read that cycling on the street is safer than on cycle paths on the pavement, and that this has been proven in academic studies. (…) When I finally read the studies in question I was surprised to find absolutely no evidence for the constantly-repeated ADFC mantra that „cycling in mixed traffic is safer“.” Her “conclusion: The removal of the legal requirement that cyclists MUST use the cycle path is perhaps a good idea, but does not actually do anything to help the objective safety of cyclists. And is does nothing for cyclists’ feelings of subjective safety. This feeling is critical to peoples’ decisions whether or not they even cycle at all. If the goal is more people riding bikes, there needs to be a completely different approach to safety: better cycle paths which are wider, smoother, more comfortable; cycle paths where even the most adamant ADFC mantra singers feel comfortable.” And another study carried out by Rachel Aldred, a respected researcher in the academic cycling community, writes similarly.
Catalyst for the On-Road Safety Debate: the Schnüll Survey (1992)
One background aspect of the „cycling on the road“ argument, which Bremen’s transport senator has, unfortunately, also perpetuated, is the so-called “Schnüll Survey“ from 1992. However, almost none of the “on-road-cycling” fraction has read it, since it is out of print, and instead they rely on a press release from the European Cycling Federation and, thus, continue to misinterpret a study they have never read.
On page 236, Schnüll et al. state that at intersections, particularly those without illuminated traffic signals, the „danger of crashes for cyclists riding straight is diminished when they ride on the road as compared to when they ride on cycle paths with marked crossing areas.”
The survey can be read very differently
The authors, however, at the same time also state on page 236, „the conclusion cannot be drawn that cycling on the road or on painted cycle lanes is generally safer than cycling on separated paths.“
It is exactly this deciding sentence that does not get quoted by those arguing for cycling on the road. This is nothing more than selective perception.
The transport researchers from Hannover did not call for the dismantling of cycle paths, but proposed various suggestions to improve existing cycle infrastructure. One suggestion is to raise the cycle path at those intersections where smaller streets cross wider ones: “Through partial humps in intersections over which cycle paths can be routed, crash rates can be reduced as compared to simply striping cycle routes over intersections. “ (p 237)
This selective interpretation of the Schnüll survey had dramatic consequences
At the end of the day, the interpretation of this survey has created a debate with severe consequences, when not leading directly to hostility among cycle activists. And it has led to the idea that it is somehow “modern“ to route cycle traffic onto the road, with cars, rather than onto separated cycle paths or those on shared pavement with sidewalks (“Hochbordradwegen”).
Parkallee in Bremen: Asking Cyclists to leave their Protected Zone, some do, some don’t (Foto: Beatrix Wupperman)
Unfortunately, even Bremen’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan Bremen 2025 (VEP) repeats the information that “the available infrastructure has reached its limits in many places and is not future ready.” (VEP p 41 English version). However, on the other hand, the VEP agrees that Bremers like to ride on separated cycle paths, and there is a “great acceptance of separated cycle paths, even when they are not obligatory. An explanation – according to interviews and discussions with Bremers – is subjective safety and more comfort on separated cycle paths.” (VEP German version, p 68, these two sentences do not appear in the English version of the VEP).
This point seems to continue to be ignored by both transportation authorities and politicians, and this has led to so-called “Bicycle Streets“ being built that are not worthy of the name, and to so-called “protective“ stripes elsewhere that are simply painted on the road. These painted lanes develop to be a favourite parking place for more and more cars, while older separated cycle paths are not repaired or even maintained, but expanded into parking spaces for private automobiles. Meanwhile cyclists are supposed to use the road.
At the end everyone is disappointed when they discover that the modal share of cycle trips is not only not increasing, but has been decreasing since 2008 ( Vertiefende Analyse der SrV 2013 compare with results from 2008, especially from the planing agency of Gertz, Gutsche, Rümenapp for the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen Bremen in Juni 2017, p. 2).
No cars at all: ADFC-Hochstraßentour Bremen (Foto: Beatrix Wupperman)
But basically, Bremen has robbed itself of its opportunity to get more people cycling for daily trips.
Is that the end of the discussion around routing cycle traffic onto roads?
No, things are changing, have a look:
A new paradigm: “protected bike lanes“
Luckily the discussion around sensible and safe cycle infrastructure has changed: surprisingly, it’s come from the United States, where different groups of cycling advocates fought for it: „A Cycle track, also called separated bike lane or protected bike lane, is a physically marked and separated lane dedicated for cycling that is on or directly adjacent to the roadway but typically excludes all motorised traffic with some sort of vertical barrier.“
The German ADFC, at the federal level, is now also pushing for this kind of infrastructure – Point 8 of its new guidelines for infrastructure mentions these tools of infrastructure, and in March 2018 the nationwide ADFC published a well-researched position paper which clearly delineates that even well-practiced daily cycle commuters feel less safe in mixed traffic. In their membership survey from 2016, 72% of all members said that it was “important or very important to be able to cycle separated from automobile traffic” (ADFC-Fahrradklima-Test 2016, Ergebnisse der Zusatzbefragung). Thus, ADFC has collected clear and convincing evidence for the creation of separated cycle paths. The ADFC also gives us a clear definition (see below) and even researched properly the legal requirements for the installation of protected bike lanes.
In Berlin, the first protected bike lanes were constructed last year. On June 28th 2018 Berlin’s Parliament signed a new Mobility Act into effect. This was the final point of a more than two and a half-year long campaign by the Initiative Citizens Referendum for Cycling in Berlin and their umbrella organization Changing Cities together with ADFC Berlin, and Friends of the Earth (BUND) Berlin.
On major roads this law calls for bike paths of sufficient width, constructed so that they cannot be driven or parked on by motor vehicles. One example for a new planning is Siegfriedstraße in Berlin:
Situation in Siegfriedstraße:
Plans for Siegfriedstraße:
Siegfriedstraße in the future (Foto/Animation: Changing Cities)
This formulation indicates that protected bike lanes should be the rule and not the exception to the rule in Berlin. But even protected bike lanes are not helpful for subjective safety, when – as in a first version in Berlin – a bike lane is painted through intersections without any protection.
What is a “protected bike lane”, anyway?
The ADFC offers a clear definition on page 8: „Protected bike lanes are defined that in the optimal case they take the width of an entire traffic lane and that they are clearly separated from both moving and parked automobile traffic by vertical elements (e.g. bollards, poles, flower pots) as well as marked protective zones (wide empty areas). These protected bike lanes are at the same level as other traffic lanes. (…) Physical separators prevent motor vehicles from driving, stopping, and parking on these cycle lanes.”
Like a wealth tax with immediately effective and transparent redistribution
What is new and revolutionary about this idea? Public space should be distributed differently! For a protected bike lane, automobile traffic, whether parked or in motion, has to surrender some public space. Four-lane roads become two lane roads, two lane roads become one- way streets, parking spaces disappear. This is comparable to a wealth tax with immediate, clearly visible redistribution of resources.
Role model Amsterdam (Foto: Gudrun Eickelberg)
Such a redistribution of public space will lead to less road traffic and more sustainable transport, i.e. more people cycling. If we want a transport transition, if we want fewer automobiles in cities, then such a redistribution is unavoidable. Because giving public space over to the driving and parking of private cars leads to more car traffic. Even in cities like Bremen there are too many people using cars because it is so convenient, they may be called “lazy drivers”. Many people don’t have to use a car; they could cycle or take the tram just as quickly, but it’s been made convenient for them to climb into their cars and drive from door to door. This is only possible because parking costs almost nothing everywhere, and it’s made easier for them to get from place to place with a car.
Protected Bike Lanes might bring peace to the cycling world
This explains Bremen’s strong campaign for fair parking management and good alternatives to individual car ownership. And when good cycle infrastructure is also available, potential cyclists will give up the steering wheel and get onto their bike saddles.
As Reinhard Loske, the predecessor of Bremen’s Transport Minister who was cited above said in 2009 into our camera: “We need to make clear and unmistakeable advantages of cycling over car use.” This is still valid ten years later, and protected bike lanes are a huge opportunity to do so. They are also an opportunity to bring peace to the world of cycling advocates.