Cyclists to blame for danger on cycle paths

Published on 13 January 2016 by Hilary Staples

Overcrowded cycle paths and an increase in serious injuries among cyclists have raised concerns about the safety on Dutch cycle paths, especially in major cities. To see how bad the situation really is, SWOV institute for Road Safety Research has investigated cyclist and their behaviour on eight busy cycle paths in Amsterdam and The Hague.
Morning rush hour at Utrecht Science Park. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Morning rush hour at Utrecht Science Park. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Over the period 2004-2014 bike use in Holland has grown by 9%, which is good news! Unfortunately, although Holland is one of the safest countries for cycling in the world, there are signs that cycling here is becoming more dangerous. The number of traffic accidents in which just cyclists are involved has also grown over the past ten years. An estimated one thousand cyclists end up in hospital every year.

Heated debate

This has triggered a heated debate about safety on Dutch cycle paths, especially in major cities where the cycle paths are so busy that you may even end up in a bike traffic jam during rush hour. It was claimed that the growing diversity in bikes - both in speed (e-bikes, speed pedelecs and mopeds) and size (cargo bikes) - was leading to conflicts and accidents on the cycle paths. Some went as far as to say that speed pedelecs and mopeds do not belong on the cycle path at all. But are they really the problem?

Holland-Cycling.com already covered this debate back in 2014 in our series High speed on cycle paths (see below for links). At the time, there was no data available on what actually happens on our cycle paths. Now SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research has investigated users of the cycle path and their behaviour by placing video cameras on eight intensely used locations in Amsterdam and The Hague. The images recorded during the morning rush hour in spring 2015 were processed and analysed.

High speed on cycle paths series (2014):

Risky behaviour

Analysis of the images revealed that half of the cycle paths under observation were too narrow for the traffic volume passing through during the morning rush hour. Surprisingly, the fleet of bikes was not as diverse as thought. More than 90% of the morning commuters ride a standard bike. An average of 6% are light-moped riders. The standard bike is clearly still the norm. When it is busy, it is this group of cyclists that determines the speed on the cycle path: other traffic simply has to adapt to their speed because there is no room for overtaking. Thus the standard deviation of the speed on busy locations is lower than on quieter locations.

The researchers found that only 3% of the users of the cycle path overtook other traffic. For obvious reasons it's the faster light-moped riders that did the most overtaking. It is probably this that earns them the repuation of being dangerous.

The study also investigated the behaviour of cycle path users. Some aspects were considered to be especially risky. Only 20% bothered to look over their shoulder when overtaking. Almost a fifth made use of their smartphone while riding - listening to music, making hand free phone calls or even operating the screen. In some locations one in twenty was riding down the cycle path in the wrong direction. Luckily, no cyclists were harmed or injured during this study.

Outcome

In 2014 it was thought that the increasingly diverse fleet of bikes, all riding at different speeds, was making our cycle paths unsafe. However, the study by SWOV concludes that the traditional Dutch bike is still the norm. Half of the cycle paths they investigated were too busy during the morning rush hour. It was not possible to determine whether overfull cycle paths and risky behaviour also affect safety.

Especially when cycle paths are crowded, it is important that the circumstances are optimal. Therefore the frequent risky behaviour of cycle path users is reason for concern: cyclists themselves appear to cause the most danger on the cycle paths.

Conclusion

Holland is one of the safest cycling countries in the world, but there is always room for improvement. If we want to increase cycling safety, we need to know: where, when and why do cycling accidents happen? The SWOV study was limited to urban cycle paths during rush hour. No wonder they do not arrive at very clear conclusions or recommendations: should we make broader cycle paths or be more stringent in enforcing traffic rules?

Cycling is more risky in the dark and in extreme weather. Children and the elderly may be more vulnerable, but they cycle at different times of day. Therefore we need more, or different research.

Source: SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research (in Dutch)

 
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